Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

The Interview: Mark Dorber, Manager, The White Horse

Published:  23 July, 2008

What do you think of your pub's alternative title, The Sloaney Pony'?
I have a beef with Time Out and certain other lazy journalists about that. Round here was certainly the yuppie capital of
the world in 1986, but that particular crowd has long moved on.

And, apparently, before the Sloanes it was even worse.

I started at The White Horse in summer 1981, around the time of Charles and Di's wedding. We had the TV on, the pub was full of people and the atmosphere was friendly and trouble-free - that was unusual. I went to work there completely by accident, because a friend of the family, Sally Cruickshank, had taken over. One Friday evening, Sally called down to me in the cellar: Mark, we have a problem.'

I came up to see five burly Scottish lads facing Sally and two of our bar staff. It was an issue about drinking up, which probably hadn't been brilliantly handled by Sally, who wasn't known for her tact. I quickly went for the biggest guy, got his arms behind his back and frogmarched him to the door, which was a signal for the bar staff to do the same. When they were outside, our customers broke their noses. Fulham was known for its organised crime, and somebody came by after that to extort money from Sally on a protection racket. She didn't understand what he was saying, and he just left, fortunately. But then we refurbished and we were away into the upwardly mobile world of Sloaney Fulham.

It looks like a restaurant more than a pub now.

Well, people treat it like a pub. The 1999 Saintsbury Pinot Noir from California moves really well at 27.50, but we can't for the life of us sell expensive Burgundy, however much we try. I could cover the place in signage and smart modern graphics, but we shouldn't be a sales pitch every square metre; we ought to allow people the freedom to eat, drink and indulge in conversation. It's all about standards. If people insist on drinking by the neck, I ask them to leave. They think I'm being unpleasant, but I see it as juvenile behaviour: they're not respecting the beer in the glass. I say to them: Would you do this with a bottle of wine? So why do it with beer?' I've never had a satisfactory answer.

It's pretty harsh of you, nonetheless.

Well, swigging beer is vulgar and disgusting, and I don't want it going on in my pub. The next stage of behaviour is lobbing that bottle around. If I serve John Willie Lees Late-Harvest Ale or Gales Jubilee barley wine, I expect to see them settling nicely in a glass, not being downed.

Punters don't see beer as being aspirational, like wine.

It's true that a lot of beer has been plain dull, and part of that is down to CAMRA's obsession with cask ale, rather than bottled beer. But the unravelling of the 1990 Beer Orders has at least caused more pub companies to place interesting products alongside the cash cows they need to crank out profits. There's a lot of catching up to do in terms of the contribution to aroma and flavour that yeast makes to beer.

Wine producers would say that their flavours come from the growing, whereas beer is all in the making.

Yes, but that's bollocks, isn't it? Because if you go down to the southern Rhne and say to a winemaker, Tell me about your yeast', he or she will say, Yes, I use my favourite one from Burgundy'. So how much of it is bloody terroir? Why aren't they using natural yeast? There's a lot more manipulation in wine than people let on.

You've also made some big changes to your own life.

Yes, my wife and I have bought the lease on a pub in Suffolk called The Anchor, so we're in great shape for having a very enjoyable country life. The pub is a 1920s Arts and Crafts building with a big bar and an Adnams lease. When the wind is right, you can smell the brewing from Southwold, across the Blythe. I have a biodynamically cultivated allotment - not because I'm persuaded by the theory, but because winemakers worldwide are having great results with grapes grown this way. John Atkinson MW used to be with Adnams but is now at Billecart and he comes down to create vortices with buckets. Clement Freud lives in the village with his horses, so we've got architectural mounds of his horse shit.

You must be seen as the village weirdos.

Well, there's a prominent theatre group, so the village gets a big influx of interesting people. The competition for strange characters is pretty overwhelming.

The White Horse, 1-3 Parson's Green, London SW6 4UL, Tel: 020 7736 2115

Mark grew up in Manchester, where two of his great-aunts ran pubs in the 1950s and '60s; during the summer holidays he would deliver beer in the town. He studied politics at Leicester University and international relations at the University of Wales and began working at The White Horse in 1981 to supplement his income while writing a PhD. Mark then became a proofreader at Linklaters, quickly graduating to business adviser. He gave this up in 1996 to focus on The White Horse and the pub's annual Old Ale Festival - 2005 saw the 23rd staging of the event. In summer 2006, Mark will move to Suffolk with his wife to run The Anchor, a pub in Walberswick. The White Horse, meanwhile, will remain under the ownership of Mitchells & Butlers. Wine suppliers to The White Horse are Adnams and Bibendum.