Ode on a Former Titty Bar: John Keats, Negative Capability, and the New Oxford Tavern

“This isn’t a faux-dive. This is a dive!” – The Simpsons

One does not often think of English Romantic poets in the context of refurbished titty bars. But when it comes to John Keats and the new-look Oxford Tavern in Petersham, the two might just have more in common than one would first imagine.

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Dive right in — ironically, of course

Keats, because while the poet may be best known for his various odes (hands up if you had to memorise “Grecian Urn” in school) his most important contribution to the life of the mind may be his notion of “negative capability.” Keats described this phenomenon in a letter as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.

Or as writer Maria Popova succinctly interprets it, negative capability means a “willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity.”

What does this have to do with the Oxford? Well, because while there is a great deal about the place which – as we shall see – the Pricks should find ridiculous, silly, inauthentic, ersatz, or simply just-not-our-scene, we have also all but declared it our new local.

For us, it may as well be called the Negative Capability Arms.

The Oxford, old and new, sits at the corner of Petersham’s New Canterbury Road and Crystal Street, a neglected, unsalubrious pocket of the inner-west dominated by no-hoper junkie rooming houses and the Supreme Politburo of Marrickville Council; in the bar’s previous incarnation employees of the latter would juice away their lunch hours ogling topless residents of the former over schooners of Resch’s and Carlton.

Or so the Prick is given to understand.

In its renaissance the Oxford has become a creature of the hipster nightlife impresarios at Drink’n’Dine Group who spent several months and what one imagines was a fair amount of money on cladding and kitsch and untreated timber turning a real Australian dive into a fake American one. The Prick has always wondered how Irishmen feel seeking cookie-cutter pubs promising the craic in every corner of the globe from Ushuaia to Ulaanbaatar. Now, just a ten minute stagger up the hill, is a joint which owes a lot to the deliberately dowdy post-collegiate bars of Upper East Side Manhattan – specifically those which sprung up along Second Avenue in the mid-1990s. The Prick’s cultural capital is being exploited by capitalists!

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Your day’s recommended intake of fruit in one convenient $25 jug of cocktails

But seriously even if not deliberate it is a little eerie, frankly, to see the misspent Friday evenings of early adulthood reproduced with such a vengeance 10,000 miles and nearly twenty years away. All that’s missing is the pints of Coors Light and former frat boys spending their first pay packets from the banks. Instead the Oxford is lousy with off-the-rack hipsters, all beards and body art and craft beers and cocktails and American-style bar food, which seems to be the Next Big Thing for 2014. (Drink’n’Dine is also installing what look to be some fairly impressive smokers out the back which promises at least a decent simulacrum of American barbeque, though confusingly they seem want to keep a foot in 2013 with a big mural promising “salsas” and “comidas” and other Mexican fare along with the ribs and so on. It will be interesting to see how their pulled pork stacks up to what is turned out at Stately Prick Manor.)

And yet, despite the fake redneck routine and the poseur crowds (it threatens to become the Grounds of Alexandria with more booze and fewer children, which, come to think of it might make the Grounds that much more tolerable as well) and the queues for drinks (though kudos to the bespectacled young lady in the front bar who always tests her product with a straw and then makes adjustments as required, showing an admirable commitment to craft over, like too many other barkeeps, just slowly getting pissed on the job) and the food which can range from the brilliant (nachos as well as anything little and fried, but could we have some proper Buffalo wings with lots of heat and blue cheese dressing, please?) to the bizarre (a Mexican schnitzel is not a good idea) to the overwhelming (the “double dawg” is a helluva thing), all served in those universal plastic burrito baskets or in aluminum foil rather than on anything as daggy as plates, we like it.

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“I see you’ve played knifey-hot dog before!”

Because it is close, and our only other locals are either too well-meaning and suburban or too legitimately dive-dive to let us feel at home, and because they put on a good feed and make a good drink (though if we’re going down this road could we get some Pabst Blue Ribbon in, and not at $9 a can either?) and are starting to get to know us, and because America is an idea as much as a place and as such her culinary spirit can live anywhere, even in a mini-chain’s refurbished titty bar, we will keep holding up the bar whenever we are feeling too lazy to cook and have a night off from the Three Little Pricks.

While we’re on the subject of refurbishment, it is worth noting that the management has not beaten the old sword completely into a ploughshare and that there are still reminders of the original inhabitants, so to speak, all over the place. It is not quite Pope Sixtus hauling up an obelisk in St Peter’s to remind the faithful of what came before, but from the old neon signs to the menu art to the lubricious paintings leading to the front bar toilets which make “Dogs Playing Poker” look like a Dutch master, management is still keen to trade on the bar’s seedier past. There’s even a dessert that’s an ode to jelly wrestling (no, we haven’t, nor will we).

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We will proudly be first through the picket line at the inevitable “Take Misogyny Off the Menu” protest

Which is fine, and we Pricks get the joke, but we also wonder just how long the Oxford’s motif will survive in the current climate of hair-trigger offense. After all, this is an age when a restaurant can get in trouble for “sexist” urinals – despite their having been designed by a woman – or a burger joint can find a bad visual pun of an ad censored by the Advertising Standards Board on similar grounds. The owners and investors behind the Oxford surely have to deal with plenty of unsavoury characters in their time in the bar and nightclub business, but here’s hoping they don’t ever have to endure a Van Badham-led Twitter-storm, or even worse, a drive-by cheese-sandwiching.

Though come to think of it, that could be a pretty tasty menu item …

The Oxford Tavern on Urbanspoon

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2 Responses to Ode on a Former Titty Bar: John Keats, Negative Capability, and the New Oxford Tavern

  1. Ramen Raff says:

    You gotta try the cheeseburger!

  2. DMS says:

    Decent web site (Oxford Tavern, I mean – although your blog is good too obviously)

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