the Six Bells, St Albans

the Six Bells, St Albans

Going into night shifts is a brutal process but a staple of my life. It starts with enforced narcolepsy as you bludgeon your circadian rhythm into submission. Only four shifts in a row means you don’t fully adapt before wrenching yourself back into day mode. It’s like having the bends, hypoxia, being on the edge of sleep and feeling vibrations from caffeine in your veins all at once – something I drink plenty of in the middle of the night to stay awake. I worry about the cumulative effect this is having on me. Coming off the last night shift always feels like ending a tour of duty.

Is going to the pub for a pint a good idea? I don’t know but the desire for a bit of bleary-eyed people-watching on a Sunday afternoon out of the four walls of my home is vital.

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Previous posts have been about social intercourse. This one’s more about another pub potential: a bit of solitude when you need it.

This afternoon is my zombie time and people who know me are starting to recognise it – it’s the worst possible time to expect witty repartee from me. You might as well expect somebody on a drip waking from surgery to get up and start boxing. Not going to happen.

The gods measure us humans by set square and plumb to determine that exactly two pints of session strength cask ale is the right amount for a weekend afternoon. I take my time with them during the lull after the Sunday roast crowds have trickled away. Any more than two pints risks summoning Morpheus and slumber – the compulsion I’m trying to resist.

On the surface, I’m brittle, unable and even unwilling to socialise. Underwater, I watch the surroundings around me with detachment like I’m drifting around a fish tank. But something to do with body and mind trying to re-align makes me privy to nebulous thoughts played out across time. It’s not something I try and do but something that lies in wait for me.

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The Six Bells is a good pub to have these reflections in. On this occasion, it turns out to be more busy than I’d anticipated. I stand for a while before a small table becomes free under a TV screen. I have ordered a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring – it’s refreshing like a blend of mineral water and honeysuckle. I land on the chair with gravity.

When I entered, there was a large group around one of the tables with about seven children. The kids soon zipped up and left. In their wake, they left behind reams of paper, felt tips, the smell of glue and two lovers whose faces were festooned with glitter and spangles. The couple look relieved to have weathered it and proceed to get into each other. It’s the man’s birthday. I spy the cards.

I take in the surroundings anew. I think of the lives gone before, the permanence of this bastion, springtime, ageing, renewal, death.

One of the four pines in the park was toppled by storm Doris a couple of weeks ago. The locals congregated around the recumbent bough. Kids crawled over it like bluebottles. There was a feeling that the exposed wound – the fatal breach – needed to be witnessed while fresh. Gathering around it constituted a wake of sorts. We needed to see the body for ourselves to actualise it; confirmation of the new reality without pine three. It’s the act of witnessing that makes it official. Only after that can you move on.

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The tree’s roots remained steadfast in the earth when its spine broke at the small of the back. This demonstrated that it had in fact been ailing.

Standing at the bar, I see someone I know and acknowledge them by lifting my index finger and raising my eyebrows. These signals also mean please move on.

This pub’s name references the parish church that stands two hundred feet away. It was renamed from the Bell (or even Le Bell) in 1739 to make it more modern when the church upscaled to incorporate six bells in its belfry. Another two were cast in 1953 to celebrate our own Liz’ coronation so this should actually be the Eight Bells now.

This village was once home to the working poor. So was Hampstead. If you can get a property here now you’ve done very well for yourself. There was a time before this pub was here. But there was also a time when the English channel was a stream. The flagstones of this floor might as well be bedrock.

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Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring

Before the road it’s on was ever tarmac’d it sold ale to the farming public. Before the nearby bridge that straddles the river Ver was built, it was drawing punters. Back before the grazing pastures became the landscaped Verulamium Park, it was already here. In fact, it’s been trading here since before the Reformation. The Six Bells predates the landscape of St Michaels around it but is still just a sprat to its wider Roman environs.

This pub is full of curios. Milk jugs and horse brass line the brickwork and window sills. Tokens from the agricultural and brewing past are lined up along beams and behind glass cases. Copper pans adorn the open hearth. Two guns are mounted above it. The ceiling undulates gently from age. The scattered lamps cast a light brighter than the sky outside.

But now I’m absolutely fascinated by a man standing over by the coat hooks staring at the television screen above my head. I can actually see the blank screen in stereo – a reflection in both lenses of his spectacles; two black rectangles. Pointlessly, I crane around to look behind my shoulder to confirm something I already know: the television is off. Yet he’s mesmerised by it. What a soul sees with his eyes might not compare to with what he’s witnessing in his mind. I wish I could see his thoughts played out in those frames.

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the drinks list in the Six Bells in the run-up to the Second World War

Lurking under the table of the spangled lovers (whose faces are reddening from booze and libido), is a french bulldog who emerges and starts masturbating using his paw – I’ve seen this behaviour before with the same breed. Because of their large heads and barrel bodies, they can’t bend to lick their genitals like most dogs. Their paws don’t have opposable digits either so they don’t get the best of either world. He takes on almost human form like a mini wanking Buddha on the floor. Round bloodshot eyes implore the room and its inhabitants as he tries to bring himself to climax. He looks like a little busker strumming an invisible banjo and the couple notice me snort my beer as, in my head, I overlay their pet’s labours with the voice of George Formby.

By current averages of longevity, I’m equidistant between the teat and the grave. I want a home from home where I can become a fixture. I fancy being an octogenarian or older and cranking my hearing aid up to listen to the increasingly alien and unknowable views of pub goers in their teens.

I’d like to be able to come to pubs like this for as long as I can. It’s something I want to have in my life for as long as I’m able to get myself (or for as long as someone can help me) into one.

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I try to take a shot of the self-pleasuring hound with my phone and this puts him off. He looks at me with disgust. Rude. I feel guilty now. What’s the world coming to when you can’t even have a quiet knee-trembler down your local without drinkers capturing it on their devices?

A few days after the fall, guys with hi-vis jackets and chainsaws came for the stricken corpse of the pine. They tore through it and stacked the giant’s vertebrae in the back of a trailer as neatly as cheese rounds in a dairy. I hope the pine is reincarnated through some skilled carpentry rather than burned.

On the walls, black and white prints from yesteryear of men staring back at the box brownie with stage fright have one connection to you: they once came here to unwind too. The closest I can get to knowing these people and their social mores is by tracing their outlines with my finger. They wouldn’t have recognised our morals, atheism or our liberal mindsets. Our converging gender roles wouldn’t have made sense in their world. If they could come back, they might even have trouble telling the men from the women.

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the remains of pine three

How can the British pub be so permanently here? Generation after generation, why do we keep returning? It’s like it’s a point of reference through time. Dependable – a stout bannister flanking life’s upward climb. As folk, we change out of all recognition but the Six Bells endures.

This pub has been here for about half a millennium. The local history extends way beyond that but I think of this: the Six Bells has existed as a public house for longer than the Roman empire ruled England and Wales. This pub has outlasted that empire and even watched while the British one rose and sank too. Within that flowing timeline, I want nothing more than to be depicted in a tapestry panel with pint in hand, raising it at the viewer.

There’s a quote by George Orwell:

“What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

tradition and craft

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Over the weekend, I noticed that Chiltern Brewery had a stall in the Sunday market with a couple of beers I’ve been aware of but never tried: their Black IPA and White IPA. I’ve always been a fan of their cask beer but it’s rarely seen in St Albans despite the brewery being considered “local” in a broad sense.

En route to visiting my parents, Chiltern Brewery is somewhere I occasionally haunt. I go on a small detour off the M4 into the Buckinghamshire landscape to pick up some bottles or fresh beer.

The countryside motif replete with fox appeals to the British fetish for bucolic nostalgia but in Chiltern’s case, it’s simply a point of fact: it’s very rural, very traditional and it’s situated on an old working farm so it’s a badge it can wear without being contrived.

Chiltern Brewery was founded in 1980 making it a really old new trad brewery or a very young old one. Here though, a traditional brewery gets craft right. There are no skulls, no living dead mammals, no split personality, no psychosis. Just well crafted beer.

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The Black IPA (bottle conditioned 7.8) pours a dark tan with a fluffy beige head and lilts of earthy British hops. There’s less of the Opal Fruit fluorescent green coming through on the aroma compared to other Black IPAs. It’s more grassy and finishes dry.

I was most looking forward to the Black IPA as I love the style, but it’s actually the White IPA I enjoyed the most.

The White IPA (bottle conditioned 7.5) is so-called because Marris Otter and wheat have both been used in the grain bill. Despite the name, it actually pours darker than most IPAs. It’s racks up a big nougat head. Its bouquet is of candied oranges. There’s a musty ashen note too. Drinking it reminds me of red hedgerow berries and Braemar apples – just the fruity sweetness – there’s no tartness here. It’s an English fruit sponge take on a double-strength IPA.

The thing that these two ales share is that they completely conceal the alcohol; it doesn’t come through on the taste or nose. They’re both full-bodied but could pass as session beers. Both IPAs were matured for 18 months which helps smooth them out too.

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Some of the writing on the bottles explains the thinking behind Chiltern’s releases. This for the Black IPA: “dark ruby and full bodied this is a smooth roast black IPA – a new style of beer that is fast gaining popularity”. I like it. It’s straightforward, honest and unpatronising.

In the smaller bottle range, Chiltern also have their fulsome Lord Lieutenant’s Porter (6 abv) and their longstanding Bodgers Barley Wine (8.5 abv) – a beer I’ve had many times. It’s an unctuous sweet ale like liquid macadamia nuts – perfect for ageing. All these beers are in 330ml bottles which makes perfect sense for the more boozy sipping beers they all are. So they fit in neatly with other craft brands.

When it comes to diversifying into new beer styles from the craft cannon, traditional breweries can be a bit like a dad trying to dance at a party – Batemans or Marstons come to mind. They can also implode into a steam punk schizophrenia whereby they change their name and identity, get tats done and invest in piercings. You know the ones I mean. Maybe it’s a form of mid-life crisis.

Version 2Here is a photo of a pump clip I took a while back. This brewery is actually Northumberland’s Mordue Brewery but as you can see, it’s taken on an alter ego: The Panda Frog Project. I did have a pint of this but can’t remember much other than it was quite hoppy. I’ve got nothing against the lively artwork I’m just puzzled by it.

I can’t reconcile a pale beer with the nightmare scenario depicted. It didn’t make me hallucinate any more than a bitter or a stout would. So what exactly makes it insane? And that’s my point. I think breweries are feeling compelled to follow this vogue.

These two new beers by Chiltern haven’t required that the brewery go on an acid trip to release them. What comes across is simply a brewery confident in its own brewing ability releasing a couple of limited edition beers.

pride and prejudice

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In June of last year, I got back from a day at work and walked into a pub in St Albans. Standing at the bar was a friend of mine I’ll call Keith. As I approached, I heard doleful murmurs of consolation between him and the barman. Despite the glaring sun, he seemed to stand in shade. We greeted each other. I asked how he was doing. It went something like this:

“Weeell. Alright, I suppose, despite the obvious.”
“The referendum?”
He gestured with his hands, indicating the world in general, and then let them drop to his sides.
I told him I’d voted to leave the EU and he groaned like he’d just been winded.
“You as well?” he sighed. He turned away theatrically for a moment but then rose back up to his full height and we resumed. He told me he was worried about the border in Ireland. He had family ties there and talked of his memories of the troubles – something I have only vague and uninvolved recollections of. It’s a matter I hadn’t much considered.

And that was that. We accepted our differences. The referendum ended up just serving as a springboard for conversation. We improved each others’ evenings – me by letting him get his worries off his chest and him by the telling of first hand accounts to fifteen years of history (our rough age gap) I hadn’t been around in.

The crux of this post is this:

GOING TO THE PUB AND TALKING TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE IS GOOD FOR YOU.

Why did I capitalise those words? I think it was just to ensure that if you don’t read the whole post you at least get the point of it. Talking freely in a public place isn’t a given.

And don’t worry – I won’t try to persuade you to adopt any political position.

I’m not trying to make out that pubs are perfect vessels for debate. They’re only pubs. A book could be written about the history of pub violence (and if it were, I’d wager that for most of the UK, the catalyst would be football rather than politics).

The public obviously speak to each other in other locations like at the newsagent till (while I stand waiting to pay for a newspaper wondering whether to do the quiet cough). But the pub is where we stand or sit for a time without being in transit. The pub’s only equal in this respect might be the hairdresser where conversation is even more compulsory.

I’ve never been a university student so have no personal insight. This isn’t a kind of reverse snobbery boast but some context for my own impressions of students. I can be influenced by what I read about them. But the pub comes to my rescue in this matter too.

There is a young barman in one of my favourite pubs who challenges how I view a lot of people his age (nineteen) and younger, and their limited experience of the world. He is recently out of university. He got disillusioned by the same referendum. It was the first thing he ever had a vote in and he’s now of the opinion that it’s not worth voting. I really hope he changes his mind about that. At the bar – in fact – often running the pub when it’s crowded, he displays greater confidence and more advanced social skills and emotional intelligence than I did when I was his age. I was always chewing my lip and removing myself to the periphery of events. I still do a bit – but not as painfully so.

Despite his disillusionment, he hosts customers of all views – some have politicky nicknames (let’s say Brexit Bob, Tory Tom, Green Greg. You get the idea). But these monikers in the pub are used endearingly as he spends time in deep banter with them and gets on really well. When you converse with people in the flesh, respect comes as standard.

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In the context of university debating societies “no platforming” speakers as they might espouse opinions anathema to the student body, you wonder about the word debate and what happened to it.

I like social media such as Twitter and it goes with me to the pub. The smart phone can be a replacement for a lot of things but it’s actually a new limb.

I don’t think smart phones have killed the art of conversation. You can converse with others, and in the lulls, go back to the scroll. You can be unsocial if you want (sometimes you just want to be by yourself), but you can equally cut out the world with a newspaper.

If pub life followed the rules of social media, punters would come in to the Red Lion and interject into other groups’ conversations with aggression. They wouldn’t last long. Customers that slammed down others’ opinions as a matter of course would be at best ignored, at worst barred.

Imagine one little huddle’s member listening closely to another table’s conversation. He jumps up and shouts “Oh my god! These twats are against abortion!” His group responds by shouting in unison “Oh my god! What a bunch of twats!” right in front of said table. Has anyone experienced this in a public house? No. This is how it works on Twitter and Facebook, though.

The people you encounter in real life haven’t just pinged up on a mobile phone screen with a singular belief as their identity. They have a past and will have a future. Their complexity, physics, contradictions and essential humanity are there – you get irradiated by them when you meet them. People aren’t just three-dimensional in a physical sense.

There’s also the submerged understanding each of us has that our opinions, over time, change and we can rotate 180 degrees and 180 degrees again and still get no closer to fully knowing.

On social media, we tend to present ourselves as more knowledgeable than we actually are as our frantic fingers rip a hole into Google by looking things up we supposedly know in real time. We get away with it because we can’t be seen doing it. Words, terms, abbreviations, techniques, history, authors, activists that we “know” we might only have looked up three seconds ago.

How do I know this? Well I do and I don’t. I’ve done this myself online – claimed to know about a subject who’s Wikipedia page is still burning my retina. I also know some people online that I knew in real life first. My family, for example. And I know for a fact that unlike their online alias, they’re at least as much of an ignoramus as I am.

In pub life, this caper doesn’t work. Instead, we present as we actually are in all our dog-eared, imperfect beauty. Above each of our heads is a quota of empty space our potential should be filling. We’re like partially empty lava lamps.

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We can’t start to speak, then delete the words, quickly look something up online, search for the meaning of a word, then re-speak, backspace again to re-edit and finally give an answer when we’re in the Victoria. We are stripped to our nucleus as unrefined and unready beings with too poor and too unorganised a memory to give a column-space verdict.

That man or woman you know from the White Swan whose beliefs would incline you to wear garlic around your neck? Well, when you meet them in the Mucky Duck, you’ll be asking after their mother.

In the Boot, I’ve watched two men with completely opposite views initially go to overwhelm the other with an assertion and realise it won’t work – the opposite party will not convert and what becomes a bottom line to agree on is re-set in order for the conversation – socialisation at close quarters with a fellow ape – to survive. They make noises a bit like ships’ horns before collapsing back into social mode in the Hygge of the Gemütlichkeit. In the pub, to be right is relegated below the warmth of connection.

Knowing how to talk together across the bar is a skill we learn. To speak to people with different views is not a burden but a privilege. To converse with folk who have had a contrasting experience to yours is enlightening – each person is like a separate piece of a jigsaw to a landscape you’re trying to put together. Also, meeting individuals and having a chinwag often deflates the stereotype you harboured of them.

As children, we develop this learning in the yard. As adults, we continue the voyage down the pub – the public space where you’re on the same level as everyone else. The students “no platforming” just want the rest of their lives to be a safe space. They would learn about their fellow humans, challenge their beliefs and expand their knowledge far more in the pub than in the closed conformity of the university commons room.