Meet the publican of one of Liverpool's best pubs
'The pub is your life — you don’t run it, it runs you'
By Robin Brown
Rita Smith is not having a good day. It’s 4 o’clock on a Friday in late November and the 83-year-old landlady of Peter Kavanagh’s can’t find anyone to do the Saturday afternoon shift.
“I have never been so stressed since I’ve opened this pub,” she admits, as her phone springs into life again.
Conversations unfold around me. The ailments that affect middle-aged men is a frequent topic. A man at the bar asks what spiced rum is actually spiced with, an enthusiastic discussion follows; one of the regulars at the bar explains how people actually ate pig heads in the olden days to another appalled local.
There’s a bike leant against a jukebox. Rita isn’t having that. The owner of the bike is politely but firmly told where it has to go. Another young lad has his feet up on a stool. Rita wanders over and while the conversation is inaudible, the gist is unmistakable. No one messes with Rita. She might be the only person in some of the regulars’ lives who can tell them what to do, without a murmur of complaint.
“The regulars are great,” Rita laughs. “But if they piss me off they’ll know about it.”
At that moment it becomes apparent The Guinness Gang — frequenters of the front snug — want the fire on. Rita’s not keen. “It’s five degrees outside,” the barman points out. “They’re inside,” she protests, her voice rising in incredulity.
It’s almost 30 years since Rita took the pub on (on 9th March 1992 — “that’s one date I’ll never fucking forget!”). Since then she’s become the formidable, ‘potty-mouthed’ matriarch of the pub — a firm favourite of real ale drinkers (it was Liverpool CAMRA Pub of the Year 2019); the city’s bohemian community, and Toxtethians. Her name and character now adorn the pub, as Peter Kavanagh’s does.
Serving beer since 1854, the pub is now named after the well-known landlord from 1897 to 1950. The titular Kavanagh (not simply a publican, but an inventor and benefactor too) oversaw the development of the pub visitors know today. Trinkets and curios — a crocodile skin being one of the more outlandish examples — cover the walls and ceiling. Old radiograms jostle with light bulbs, suspended from the ceiling. The two snugs are adorned with murals from Dickens and Hogarth, rendered by Scottish artist Eric Robertson, reputedly as payment-in-kind for an unpaid bar bill. Historic England, hardly known for their effusiveness, describe the pub as a “tour-de-force of eccentricity and quirkiness that references both gentlemen's clubs and ships’ cabins… [the] unique legacy of one man’s vision, capturing the eccentricities, inventiveness and character of Peter Kavanagh”. In its own way, Peter Kavanagh’s functions as a museum of Liverpool.
Rita first drank in PK’s in the late ‘50s (then a single frontage, before the neighbouring houses were purchased and knocked through), when she was 18 and had joined the army to escape her warring parents. She would go to the Rialto (later destroyed in the 1981 protests) for the dance, then pop over to the pub for drinks during the intervals.
“I’d always make sure I was wearing my army uniform so I didn’t have to buy a drink!” she says.
Rita sighs — and then chuckles — when she’s asked about her feelings on running Peter Kavanagh’s.
“It's a love-hate relationship. It’s like when you’re a nun and you go into a convent; it's a vocation. The pub is your life — you don’t run it, it runs you.”
Rita says when she recoups the money she spent buying the lease all those years ago (from Jake Abraham, star of Lock, Stock..., Red Dwarf and Liverpool’s stages) she’ll be off. But listening to her discussing her first impressions, it’s hard to imagine her leaving PK’s. Then again, it wouldn't be the first time Rita has pulled the rug out from under everyone.
“I was working three jobs to pay for our house on Hope Street and I thought ‘what’s the point?’” she recalls, thinking back to when she bought the lease. “I was just rattling around in a bloody big house on my own. So I put it on the market. Even on the day I was moving, I didn't know where I was moving to. I ended up living with two gay lads who were friends, around the corner from here. And then this came up.
“I wanted something — I didn’t know what it was. I just knew I wanted something. A challenge. A goal. We came and had a look and I just got this feeling — it was meant to be. I told my daughter and she said ‘you haven't, have you? You’re off your head!’”
So why does she do it?
“I’m weird! I’ve just got this drive to do things. Even at my age I look at places and wonder if I could take them on. I could have taken on another pub a few years ago. Can you imagine?”
It would be foolish to bet against Rita pulling it off, but she seems to be so embedded in PK’s it is hard to imagine her behind the bar anywhere else. And what would the regulars make of it? Rita isn’t simply the licensee here: she’s a problem-solver, a confessor, a policeman...
Rita picks up the thread: “...mother, psychologist! A licensee is there for the people, not for the beer.”
That much is clear from the way people greet Rita, the bar staff and one another. PK’s is a pub where people chat to one another; a pub where the regulars will still make sure you get home safe.
“We have a beautiful mix of people,” says Rita. “Your creed, your colour, your gender are all immaterial when you come through that door. There are only two kinds of people: good people and bad people — the good people can stay.
“There are people who don’t want to go to town but they can still go to the pub and enjoy themselves — that’s what this is all about. I just stand and watch, just see the joy on their faces when they’re enjoying themselves. That’s what I love about the pub.”
Rita puts her head in her hands, laughs and shakes her head in disbelief when recalling some of the more unlikely moments in the pub over the years. The time she came downstairs (Rita lives upstairs) to find a morris dance underway in the pub. Or the spoof wedding they held, where Rita’s barmaid and a regular got married. The bride wore a kimono; the groom suspenders. They had salmon paste butties and a Victoria Sponge for the wedding breakfast.
“When it came to everyone asking whether anyone had any objection the whole pub stood up and said ‘we do!’”
Then there was the time a pair of mannequins became regulars.
“It would get to the point where someone would come in pissed and start talking to them — ‘you alright there mate, you don’t say much do you?’ We had to find a fiancé for him, so we found a female dummy, dressed her up and put them together. You’d come down and she’d have her hand in his flies. Oh, we’d laugh!”
She gestures around the mostly full pub, where small groups and couples are drinking quietly.
“It can be like this and then someone’s on the piano — half an hour later everyone is gathered around singing!”
Any famous drinkers here?
“I’ve had Tintin.”
“Quentin Tarantino. I said ‘I don’t mean to offend you but I don’t like your movies, they’re not very nice’. He didn’t say an awful lot,” she giggles.
She leans forward conspiratorially. “He’s not that big, you know. Only a bit bigger than me.”
She may have been landlady here for almost 30 years, but apart from being billeted to Moreton, Blackpool and Kent during the war, Rita lived in the Georgian Quarter all her life. She has memories of hiding under a table in the cellar of a house in Roscoe Lane during an air raid, her docker grandfather shucking oysters to feed the hungry, infant Rita as bombs fell outside.
She’s not blind to the hardships of the past, but she paints a nostalgic picture of the area stretching back decades.
“In the ’60s there were all sorts around here: knocking shops, shebeens, nightclubs. The Quarter on Faulkner Street was a chippie, we used to hang around and see if we could get some crispy bits — or the sweet shop where we could get a loosey for tuppence ha’penny that would be shared out between four or five of us.”
She explains that people didn’t have a lot back then, but that they shared a lot and cared for each other. “When I was growing up I’d take cakes over the road to a different family,” she says. “If someone died on the streets my Mum would take the sheets over and wash the body. It’s what you did, that’s what life was about. If someone had less than you, you’d give it to them.”
Rita may not be a fan of “Tintin,” but she loves old films. Alan Ladd, Audie Murphy. She would buy firewood from St John's Market to sell around the Georgian Quarter, hoping to scrape together enough money to get into the Hope Hall Cinema, which stood on the site of the Everyman Theatre.
“I was an ice-cream girl in the Tatler News Theatre (the first news and cartoon cinema in the city, situated on Church Street in the building that now houses Clarks), but the Liverpool News Theatre was the posh one. You could watch cartoons on repeat all day…”
Rita can paint the sort of picture of the city that evokes an image frequently circulated on social media: a shot of Lime Street from 1961, showing it looking impossibly glamorous.
“In the wintertime, when we lived off Hope Place and the first snow would fall I’d be lying in bed with my Mum. She’d ask if I was awake and say: ‘We’ve had snow — do you fancy a walk and a hot pie?’ I’d say: ‘Yeah, we could take the dog for a walk’. This would be 2 o'clock in the morning.
“We’d walk down Bold Street and look in the windows for the next day’s displays, round the back of the old St John's Market to Lime Street, where we’d get two hot meat pies — you could get pies any time of the night there — and we’d walk back up Renshaw Street and eat them back home.
“So many memories and I often lie in bed and think about it,” she says, a little wistfully. “It would be nice to have those days back, but you can only go forwards.”
It’s a brief, lovely moment of reverie in the busy pub, with the sky beginning to bruise and cold winter wind snapping against the windows.
But it doesn’t last — the life of a publican is never calm for long. One of the Guinness Gang comes over to ask about the fire in the Dickens room again. Rita throws up her hands in exasperation and curses.
“See what I mean!”