Root Menu

Rowland Johnson

In conversation with Beth Cullen

The Grapes is ideal, I’ve been here five years this coming March. I built it up, and I reckon it’s one of the best pubs in Oxford. I run it like an Irish pub, or as close to an Irish pub as I can, because of my Irish background. I was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland a long, long time ago! I had a very strict upbringing, with church two or three times on a Sunday. You worked for what you got, you didn’t steal and if you didn’t have the money you didn’t buy on credit and you saved up for it. I went to Rainey Grammar School and the only thing that mattered there was rugby; the most important thing in my life for years was rugby. I had to work in my parents business every Saturday because I was the allotted son in the family to take over the business. My father was a master tailor; he worked hard. We always told him that he charged too little for his suits because he put so much work into them, he was a perfectionist when it came to that. I suppose tailoring and his gardening were the two biggest things in his life. He put me off gardening for life, I absolutely loathed it, as most young people would do, but I don’t mind it now. I suppose it stuck with me, that you work and toil for what you get. You don’t cheat people and you don’t con people. I think I’m favoured by my background in some ways because it taught me about being honest and now people can’t point fingers at me. It limited me I suppose because I should maybe see chances quicker than what I do. I regret that I didn’t have a bit of sense at school and worked a bit harder. I should have become a lawyer. I think I would have been good at that, especially in the courtroom where sometimes they bend the truth a little bit, I’m quite convincing at that.

My parents didn’t encourage me at all, well they made sure that I did my homework and all that, but they didn’t push and they didn’t suggest. I was supposed to go into the drapery business, like my father, so I went off to Manchester to learn the trade. They offered me a reps job, I wasn’t even nineteen. I was making good money, I got my car and of course I thought I was the bees knees, until I wrecked it one night outside the warehouse. Then I proceeded to go off to Dublin to play rugby over the Easter weekend. I came back on the Tuesday morning and I had to face the music, loud music! They’d even phoned round the hospitals, that was how bad the car was. I didn’t really want to go into the trade; I just sort of grew out of it. So I got a part time job in a café, restaurant and then I got a part time job in a pub and that’s probably where it all began as a publican.

I went to Germany for two years in between 1969 and 70 with my late brother and I sold crystal glassware to the American forces all over the south of Germany from Frankfurt down as far as Munchen and Nuremberg. That was a good life because you earned plenty of money, but if you didn’t sell you didn’t get paid; you had no salary just commission. I became team leader very soon and held the division for six months or so. Then I went back to Manchester where I had a small shop. I used to live above it and let out a few rooms, plenty of money in those days, I drove a big flashy car, I was the boy around town, you know. Then I went back to Northern Ireland in ’74, I’d gone out to Cyprus, I was working for an importing company. I left Cyprus in May ’74 a week before the invasion of the Turks. I came home shortly afterwards and decided to pack it in and go back to Belfast. I was back there by July ’74. I met my wife in ‘76; we were married for a couple of years before I opened a shop in the seaside resort of PortRush on the North Antrim Coast. Her mother owned the shop, which wasn’t in use, so I rented that and then I bought the premises. The tourism was dwindling because of the “Troubles” so I thought right I’ll open up a restaurant and have a twelve-month business. I’d never run a restaurant before and neither had she but we spent a bit of money doing it up. She was a good cook so I put her in the kitchen and I went out front. I was Basil and Mary was Sybil (Fawlty Towers). We had a good laugh and it was very successful for nine years.

In 1988 we decided to sell it and move to South Africa. I’d had enough of politics, I was tired of listening to it, I believe in living and let live. Religion is causing the biggest wars at present, or the fanatics within that religion. It’s the fanatics within the two religions in Northern Ireland, that are causing all the trouble, the same as the fanatics in different religions or sects who are causing world wide trouble.  I judge a person on what they are and not what church they go to, which I think you must do. I’m middle of the road; I don’t like far right or far left, go down the middle. Politicians aren’t the most honest anyway.

In South Africa I opened another Irish pub called Finnegan’s on the beach front. It was very successful and I was offered a big deal on it, so I sold it. Shortly afterwards my wife and I got divorced. I was still in the trade in and around Durban and I diddled around in South Africa until ’98, when I thought it was time to come home. I think I’ve wasted lots of my life. I probably messed around in South Africa for four years, messed around in Manchester for about six, probably messed around completely for about ten years. Otherwise I could have been much happier now. I regret that big time, I regret even going, even though I love South Africa. When I came back I met a couple of friends in London who I used to know in Durban and they put me in touch with the trainee manager of the local Morrell’s brewery. I came up and saw him and he offered me the job there and then. My first job with him was being a relief in Birmingham; I worked in thirty-four pubs within the next six months. I never knew where I was; I couldn’t answer the phone by the name of the pub never mind the phone number! I said to them that’s enough I want a pub, they offered me three or four which I refused and I told them I’d leave if they didn’t find me a decent pub, so they found me The Grapes.

I used to enjoy the work more than what I do now, but that’s only because I’m getting older. A pub is fine to run when you’ve got some decent staff around, but that’s not always the case, sometimes you will have, sometimes you won’t have. It’s when you don’t have is the times I don’t like, when I have staff then it’s no problem. I’m experienced to know when to draw the line with certain customers and throw the unruly ones out. I run a tight ship, there’s certainly no fighting goes on in here or arguing and there’s no swearing. This is part of my house and it’s by my invitation that anyone is in here anyway so it’s by my rules that they’ll stay and if they don’t want to play by my rules then they can go to another pub, and that’s the way I run it. The atmosphere is important, it’s a proper pub, I know it doesn’t suit all young people because they want the music pushed down their ears but I prefer a pub like this. I want people to be able to come in here, sit down, have a conversation in peace, especially females and not be harassed or bothered by some smart ass.

I have built up most of the regulars now, and I’ve thrown all the rubbish out. I know my regular customers very well and I know them as well as I want to know them. You’ve always got to have an arms length between you and the customers because you can’t be friends, or good friends with everybody. You can respect them and have time for them but you have got to draw a halt at the depth of friendship. I don’t think anybody has that many good friends, if you can count good friends on more than one hand you’re lucky. I’ve got plenty of friends, plenty of acquaintances, but a good friend is different.

I feel sad sometimes when I see people just going down a slippery slope with the drink, they get on to it and they just slide to the bottom you know when they could have got off half way down and been better off for it in the morning. Ok we all go off the rails now and again but I see some people doing it all the time, it’s sad. They must be lonely people to do it, otherwise they would sit at home with someone or they would go out to dinner with someone and have a much more enjoyable evening. I can’t be responsible for everybody. Now and again I do feel as if I shouldn’t serve them any more drink and I don’t serve them any more drink, for example I don’t serve snakebite because it just blows peoples minds and they want two or three of those and they’re not even responsible for themselves, so I’m not going to serve them and the staff know not to serve them. But you see students from the university and people from town who go out on a Friday or Saturday night, well every night, and just binge drink and binge drinking is just one of the most dangerous things you can do. I look at the continentals and I see by the way they drink in here that they’re not English, or British, because of their attitude towards drink. They’ll still drink two or three pints but they’ll just sit there and talk and enjoy themselves, not just slam it into them and then see what trouble they can cause down the street.

I like Oxford but there are too many dickheads. The eccentric people, anywhere else in England they would call them mad, but here they call them eccentric but that’s only because it’s Oxford. Some of the people from the University, you get them talking about something other than their own subject which they might teach or study and they’re completely ignorant about the rest of the world, about real life. They can’t all appreciate that not everybody is academically inclined.

I’m glad to see that the police are finally taking the beggars off the street, what image does that portray to tourists? Completely wrong, plus the fact that these people are healthy, fit and healthy, and yet they’re too bloody lazy to get a job and that’s what it adds up to. And don’t tell me they couldn’t get a job; if they really wanted to get a job they could get a job. They find it easier to sit on their arses all day begging, and they’re earning good money, fifty, sixty quid a day, thank-you very much. And they’ve got a lot of the drunks off the street, which is good it’s about time. Oxford’s a beautiful town, the architecture in Oxford is unparalleled, I mean I haven’t seen half of it yet, and I’ve been here five years now, but you end up spending most of your time in the pub. Oxford has got some of the most beautiful cluster of architecture in the world but Oxford City Council go and ruin the whole thing by allowing horrendous buildings to be built in Cornmarket street, the main street. All you’ve got to do is walk up and you see HMV and Burger King and McDonalds and all those buildings around there and they are horrendous, a child of six could design a better building. They are horrible; even if they had to put a stone face brick on them at least it would have kept them within some context of all the buildings around them. You see these beautiful colleges all over Oxford and them you walk down the two main streets, Queen Street and Cornmarket, and the buildings there should all be ripped down because they are terrible. The Council should put some trees up and put some seats so that people can sit underneath them in the summer time. Cheltenham has beautiful tree line avenues, and yet Oxford City Council can’t put up thirty or forty trees in the main drag.

I feel at home anywhere, it doesn’t make any difference. Within a couple of months I was at home in Durban, within a couple of months I was at home in Frankfurt, Dublin, Belfast, Manchester, Oxford. I love travelling, I love going different places, I’ve been to every country in Europe, I’ve been to the Ukraine, to Latvia. Latvia is beautiful, of course I found an Irish pub to go to and watch the Irish play football, it was during the world cup. I’ve been to America, South Africa and all the countries around it, Zimbabwe and what have you. I do miss Ireland though; I go over a couple of times a year. I miss the craic, the humour is different, the pubs are different. It’s a beautiful country, there doesn’t seem to be the rat race that there is here. It’s good to see other cultures, sometimes I envy them and sometimes I just thank God that I’m not there. I envy Portuguese and Italian and Spanish families, Greek, for their devotion to one another and just the closeness of the whole family, and you don’t get that in England, you get it now and again but you don’t get it very often. I admire those cultures. I think everybody should travel, especially young people, if they did travel then it would broaden their minds a bit and show them how other people live. They could learn how to live life to a better extent, they could see how young people can go out and not get absolutely blotto out of their mind and knock bins over and break windows and scrape cars and do stupid things that are just completely senseless. There is not half enough respect and discipline around, I wish parents in this country would discipline their children more, but sometimes they’re not even allowed to because of the government. You can’t even slap a child any more, a child can legally take you to court for slapping them, which is absolute nonsense. I was hammered and it didn’t do me any harm and it taught me respect, young people don’t respect anybody, you walk up the street and they’ll knock you down whereas if I was walking up the street a long time ago and saw an older person I’d walk off the pavement and let them…Chivalry is gone.

I think I was a good parent. I was strict with my son; he had to help in the restaurant in Ireland when I was short of staff. He also got his rewards, I took him on good holidays right from when he was four and a half and he never wanted for anything really. I taught him the values that I was taught basically, honesty and respect. He qualified as a dentist and got tired of pulling teeth. He decided to do medicine so he’s a qualified doctor as well; he’s done very well. We’re very, very close, when he comes down to see me it’s not just a shake of hands it’s arms around each other, there’s proper love there. Love is about sharing and giving, giving and not waiting to receive. If you give that freely then it always comes back two fold, well ninety-nine per cent of the time. Its just consideration it shouldn’t be all take. It would break his heart if anything happened to me, or vice versa.

I can get lonely at times but that’ll change next month, I’m getting married in January. I met Theresa on one of these friendship things on the Internet and we just started chatting and things developed from there. I went over to the States in July and spent a lovely two weeks there. She trains horses; and has three Arabians, plus others, about eight or nine. We took a trailer, a live-in trailer, into the forest for five days and camped outside every night. We walked through the trails with the horses the weather was beautiful. She taught me to ride. She came over here in August and stayed for a month, I went back in October for ten days and then she’s coming over next month for good and we get married on the twenty-first of January. In the future I hope to get a tenancy somewhere in England, do that for about eighteen months, two years and then hopefully I’ll open up a bar or restaurant in Spain or Portugal. We’ll take the horses down then maybe Theresa can get another few horses and do horse riding and teach, make a business out of it with the tourists. What would make my life complete? Getting married in January and winning a million quid in the premium bonds or the lottery, then I would move to the Algarve.