Photos are of Chatham Street, not the original Horse itself.
This place was a fantasy. An old-world harbor-side saloon on Chatham Street that just made it to the 21st century. I remember my first visit - circa 1998 I think - and the tuk tuk ride into the forbidden city: a 90's Fort, ringed with barbed wire checkpoints.
It was like something out of a movie; this lonely row of abandoned colonial buildings at the end of which stood a wild west saloon - a prancing horse, smoke pouring out of the opened windows, the reek of alcohol winding through the street and a band of real desperadoes holed up within.
In the middle of this cinematic but motley arrangement every Friday and Saturday night was a misplaced gaggle of largely expat kids from a school in Battaramulla. The Overseas School of Colombo had its faults, but in their selection of watering hole these kids were always ahead of the curve, packing out White Horse and Hikkaduwa long before they entered the Colombo mainstream.
My memories arent the clearest - I'm going back to my early teens, and the place wasn't really conducive to the clearest recollections, but what I remember was pretty glorious.
The place was dark, but with the correct levels of low yellow lighting. There was an ancient dark wood bar at the back and some prime haansi puttu (I think) in the front section, with a view out onto what is even now a frayed but perfectly preserved 19th century street. The crowd, Ukrainian mercenary pilots who used to fly our air force jets a the time, off duty foreign prostitutes, and the usual brigade of bundied men was surreal. On a good night, and these were many, the place was fortified with a real dose of Wild West agro and edge. I remember a younger Malaka Silva dishing out a half hearted (by his standards) beating to a Japanese friend - should have got an autograph. And the incredibly regular decimation of nearly all the establishment's furniture...
In the midst of the virtual free flow of drinks and occasional melee, the white saronged waiters were actually pretty attentive and often knew you by face or name. If you came early enough or were eccentric enough to turn up in the afternoon they'd even play the CD's you extracted from those fat CD cases that were fashionable at the time.
I recall, though maybe the alcohol clouded my mind, that the food was good - plates of prawns and a pork dish that was either black pork curry or vindalloo. I distinctly remember calculating the arrack at Rs. 1 a milliliter - so Rs. 100 for 100ml. But then this was the time, or maybe we were of an age, where tequila shots with lime and salt were all the rage - though even at the time I remember thinking that anything you had to take with lime and salt couldn't be much of a drink.
Tequila shots, smokey haze, cheese toast and pork in a bar that had stood on the same spot since at least the 20's and seemed to be channeling the spirit of the American West in the 80's - 1880's that is. That was more or less how it went - every Friday night.
It was another world where nothing was forbidden and even today's hollow threat of ID checks was inconceivable. In the midst of major brawls I remember the armed soldiers posted along the street standing stock still mumbling that their job was to stop terrorist bombs and not intervene in drunken brawls.
At that time in a 90s Colombo rent by the odd suicide bomb and governed by a weak and, above all, careless government, anything went. More so even than today and the inside of the White Horse on a weekend at 1 am was really the bottled spirit of that era. A time where regulation was non-existant and the party crowd was small but utterly committed - undiluted by mass participation.
It was wild but I was very young, and after a few shows of bottle swigging teenage bravado and more than a couple of vomit stained shirts I decided it to put an end to my very short drinking career and went to London to finish my A levels. On one retrun voyage, however, I remember being crushed to find the Horse had decamped to Navam Mawatha
. I dont think I've ever really drunk heavily since. I may have been a tiddler who caught only the final blaze of the horses' several decades of glory, but I think putting up my shot glass was the least I could do to mourn the passsing of another, better or maybe it was a much worse age.
Still, these are only half recollections by a drunk and overqualified (maybe I went a dozen times? maybe two dozen?) 14 year old self. Even in that era there were kids far more committed than I..... so I'll leave it to the older and wiser Mr. Blacker
to complete our White Horse triptych - for the era before 1998, its over to you David.
Images are of Chatham Street and not the old White Horse premises