the Harrow, West Ilsley

the Harrow, West Ilsley

In the spring of 1996, a young man mounted the ridgeway – the ancient backbone straddling the high grounds of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. It was a path he’d already known for years. He was catalysed by the social revolution that would one day be ushered in – the fresh air and rampart feel to these high causeways only breathed oxygen into these dreams. He was also deeply into Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and the Moody Blues at a time when guitar-based pop music enjoyed a sudden comeback. A period of long summers ensued.

In the inside pocket of his denim jacket was a qualification: it was his birth certificate. The document was a foot wide by two foot long, the sections neatly filled in with fountain pen by Gwynedd Council and it had to be folded up like an Ordnance Survey map. It proved he was eighteen years old. His destination was the Harrow in West Ilsley – the first pub he ever went in to legally order a pint.

DSCF5589

 

A week ago in the early summer of 2017, I decided to try and relive this experience by retracing the fourteen mile round walk from my parents’ house. I did so quite lamely: my left foot is recovering from plantar fasciitis; a step can feel like treading on a steak knife. There’s also a healing flesh wound. But never mind that. There’s a pub to get to!

In 1996, I was like a boy queuing for the fun house peeking through the canvas to glimpse the attractions within. I wish I could go back and know everything again. Youth is nothing to be ashamed of but at the time, ignorance was indeed bliss. Ever since, each month has been a repeating loop of delaying the bank balance dipping under before each dawdling pay day.

Back in that year before setting off, I’d gone through the yellow pages to ring the Harrow in advance to confirm the opening times. It feels so weird writing this now. Two decades ago pubs didn’t have websites and even if they did, I had no mechanism to view them.

Today on the internet, the identity the Harrow promotes induces the bends because it seems that as it goes forward, it’s actually going back in time with the vintage motor cars and fox hunting themes. The local hunt – the Southern Shires Bloodhounds – stops there for refreshment. Twenty years ago this was completely unknown to me.

DSCF5607
entrance to the Harrow, West Ilsley

If I’d known about the fox hunting connection at the time, I’d never have gone into the pub because I was a militant vegetarian. In fact, I was a militant in lots of things – that’s because I was eighteen. My vegetarianism lasted eleven years ending one day when I worked for the NHS: a portion of battered cod a patient rejected beamed itself into my mouth instead.

Over the course of the lapsed time I’ve forgotten some of the walk’s details. I don’t find the paths straight away and make quite a few wrong turns. I couldn’t recall a gravel drive outside one farm and one copse seemed like it had moved. I was still able to read the land though. The curves of the landscape itself – including bronze age tumuli (they can’t have been relocated!) – kept me going in the right general direction but I did waste time.

I reflect on the hunt. Traditionally, once the fox is down, a blade is used manually to pierce the heart. A young boy – often the future hunt leader – is then summoned and blood from the open fount is marked across his cheeks in twin stripes by middle and index fingers. This act actualises what just happened and implicates the lad in it. You’re a part of this now, boy. This marking is also a handing over of responsibility but the practice is now rare.

This symbolic rite would make sense in the jungles of South America where the prey is cornered by bare foot hunters with just a flap of fabric protecting their genitals from a furious clawing. When the quarry could easily kill you back in the most gruesome way, you need all the rites, appeasable gods and superstitions you can grab at knowing that being turned to mince meat is a genuine possibility. On the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, fully clothed, booted and on horseback with a pack of vicious dogs where the prey has all the menace of a small Labrador though, it’s hard to see the struggle.

To me, the hunt is a travelling Gilbert and Sullivan production, not pest control, but I digress.

DSCF5614
a phalanx of oil seed rape. The yellow bloom has already been and gone

Wheat fields neighbour the expanses of oil seed rape. The ears of wheat are caught in the constant motion of a wind-borne tide, each wave heaves towards the walker with chattering swallows tumbling over the swells. The oil seed crop is far more stoic; individual plants will twitch grudgingly to acknowledge the shifts in air pressure but never commit as a company. Occasionally the canopies do shake in the wake of a red-legged partridge sprinting blindly through its forest.

Though only being divided by Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire share many similarities but there is difference topographically. Both counties have a gentle landscape though Oxfordshire’s is more rolling. The dips and slopes in Hertfordshire happen abruptly – I think of the sudden plunges towards villages like Wheathampstead, Kimpton or Berkhamsted. The apexes of Oxfordshire are reached over a longer distance with a lower gradient. The effect of this is that when you’re making towards a distant summit, it never seems to get any closer. Such is the case with much of the ridgeway.

DSCF5581
the remaining cooling towers of distant Didcot power station

The cooling towers of Didcot power station used to be a blot on the landscape. This was fact. I even recall a canvas in a gallery in Oxford depicting each one as a giant cigarette (if things had evolved slightly differently, a modern day vape would be more appropriate as it was clouds of steam that used to pour out – not smoke). Now, with their purpose redundant, people are waking up to their awe. They stand like giant sentinels in the Oxfordshire landscape as mysterious as menhirs or pyramids but on a godlike scale. These formations are now a testament to human endeavour.

Reed bunting, whitethroat, corn bunting, skylark, yellowhammer and linnet sing and twitter and drop from sight as I near. Over twenty years ago, their distant ancestors did the same for a younger version of me. Above, the glaring blue vault humbles us all as tiny animals.

Hobbling through pasture, I become the eye in a whirlpool of fleeing sheep that only have two reactions to my approach: grass munching obliviousness and blind panic with nothing in between and each bleat is as individual as a human voice.

DSCF5593

 

After the next stile, there is a paddock inhabited by a black stallion. His musculature ripples with a near metallic sheen. He watches me, wondering whether I’m worth leaving his patch in the sun for – I’m not. He flicks his mane like he’s in a shampoo advert and turns his attention back to the champ. I’m wonderstruck. I move on in envy.

I finally descend on West Ilsley after two and a half hours on the ridgeway.

Before going to the Harrow, I have a nosey around the village. West Ilsley was the original home of Morland Brewery in 1711 but when I lived in the area, I’d assumed it had always been based in Abingdon as it’s on all the livery. The move was only made in the late 1800s. Morland beers are part of the Greene King portfolio now and most only exist as spreadsheets. Bottles of Old Speckled Hen in supermarkets and off-licences are likely all you’ll see of it.

There’s a cul-de-sac called the maltings. Though that’s a name used arbitrarily across British estates, in this case it probably reflects the past. The way the drive slopes up makes me think of barrels being rolled down towards a dray horse and carriage. Nearby is Morland Close. There’s a well in a front garden. It looks a bit too twee and ornamental to be genuine but on closer inspection, the well wall is actually made from a cask base. As I wander around, I notice casks that have been recycled as flower pots and hogsheads as water butts.

DSCF5599

 

The character depicted on the plaques is reputed to be George Morland – one of the lineage’s many sons. It’s claimed his father would keep him locked in a turret to paint! Morland senior would milk his offspring’s talents by making money flogging his work. In turn, George would smuggle canvases out to his friends at night and spend the proceeds on “frolic and self indulgence”. This shouldn’t be difficult if you belong to brewing royalty. This tale seems a bit too fairy in my opinion.

Whoever he is, when I was growing up, that man painting in the Morland plaque was known locally as “the piss artist”. Unfortunately, when you see these beautiful decorations now, they’re usually on someone’s house – ex-pubs.

As I gain on the Harrow, I notice that the pub sign has been felled. There is just a stump where the pole bearing the frame crowned by the shining Greene King crest is on the website.

DSCF5617
when I was growing up, this character was known locally as the piss artist

I enter for the first time since 1996.

Walls on the interior are painted dark red and green and divided by pitch beams from which hang pewter tankards. The fox hunting theme isn’t evident though there are a couple of vestiges: two brass hunting bugles are fixed facing each other above a doorway (but you get them in every rural pub in the country), and I spy a hunting-themed cushion on one of the armchairs in the public lounge. Now every frame, photo and painting is dedicated instead to horse racing. This links to the local landscape with its many stud farms.

Instead of the card pump clips that make up colourful canopies in pubs the land over, there is a neat row of the plastic shields still mounted on their brackets. They jut proudly over the bar.

I get a shot of the beer engines because I have a few seconds at the bar by myself. Getting an SLR out of a rucksack on the inside of a public house can feel as wrong as getting out a rifle with a telescopic sight and aiming it at the punters, so it’s the only inside image here. I’m puzzled that none of the beers are from the Greene King range.

DSCF5601
hmmm. Neither a Morland nor Greene King based selection

I have the fortune to speak to the landlord who’s run the pub for twelve years. He tells me it’s not owned by Greene King anymore. The Harrow pub is now owned by a property consortium called something like Hawthorn Investments (the Hawthorn part is right at least, I got confirmation when I repeated it back to the landlord). Maybe it was they that decided to ditch the hunting vibe. He also stressed with visible pride that this pub was the first ever Morland pub. Considering the brewery was but a moment’s walk away, this used to effectively be the taproom.

From the halcyon days of Britpop, I distinctly remember a coin-operated one-armed bandit or a game of that ilk. It stood to the right of the bar – huge and red – and was based on the TV show Only Fools And Horses. When one of the customers put money in, the theme tune would crank up.
“no income tax no VAT, no money back no guarantee” In fact it was bloody annoying, not least because I loved the series and this was ruining it by association. You could also buy chocolate with your pint. There was a row of Crunchie and Yorkie bars with fluorescent cards as price tags.

I try and pick out where in the pub I used to sit until I realise I never did – I’d always take the pint outside like it and I were contraband. Also, there was a sense that I could only be there on best behaviour. The adults around the bar had priority. I still identified closer to school pupils than to men and women. There is still a residual stamp of that to this day when older pub goers are around. Respect for elders has always been firmly imbedded. These days, realising they’re often quite civilised, I’m more likely to speak to them.

DSCF5605
the rules of cricket are a mystery to me. The players all retreated to the club house and never came out again

If I didn’t know I’d been here in 1996, I wouldn’t have recognised the interior. I think this has more to do with me never looking up or around when I was eighteen. I’d just wanted to get that beer and squirrel it outside as fast as possible.

I choose Good Old Boy Bitter from the three ales and take it out to the garden which overlooks a live cricket match. As I sip the pint, the game descends into a hand shaking competition followed by rabid clapping.

Good Old Boy is dark like bitumen or molasses. The taste is of caramel and I’m reminded of bygone adverts for Mars Bar that boasted sugar, glucose and caramel as completely separate natural ingredients; they’d each spray like ejaculate against a black backdrop. There’s a tingling bitterness here but none of the sharp exoticism of modern new world hops.

I’m serenaded by an unseen corn bunting. A red kite drifts overhead on a heat thermal and then the weather starts to cool.

On the road into a bucolic village and with its unique sloping lawn and front row seat to the cricket, not to mention its easy access to the M4 and A34, this pub would make a desirable dwelling and in truth, when I researched the Harrow for this post I was surprised it was still here. On the market as a house, it would be snapped up on the same day of sale by some lucky hedge fund manager faster than you could say lost community asset.

DSCF5585
mural done by a local school of king Alfred defeating the Danes (the battle might’ve been in nearby Compton). This work predates 1996 and is on the wall of a pedestrian tunnel that goes under the thundering A34

And what of the clientele? Well apart from the weirdo who limped in with a notebook and SLR, there were business men who sounded like they were from Leeds. A group around the bar – some of whom then served behind it – sounded more south London. Outside, two men sat before the front entrance. They definitely had the local Oxon twang and were likely farm workers judging by their weathered hands, bare legs and cargo boots. The lack of high-vis clothing ruled them out as civil engineers. Though Oxon is indeed a posh county, the rural accent is strong. “Afternoon” is pronounced “aaa-dernoon” or even “aaa-ernoon” with only a glottal stop in the middle by older people. If you really want to hear it exercised, visit Didcot on market day.

So the pub – though difficult to get to by anyone who doesn’t live in West Ilsley – is still a local in a wider sense. It also has these points going for it:

I know for a fact that the pub has a brown sign indicating a place to eat on the A34 but it hasn’t become a restaurant. It’s lucky to have two large separate rooms. When I was there, the main room which hosts the bar was only populated by drinkers. Food must make up a lot of its income but the dining room’s hidden by dint of architecture.

However the horse racing theme was decided, it does reference local business and so links a public house with its surroundings. I’d rambled (more accurately trespassed) over gallops to get here – they’re an absolute luxury to walk on – so springy.

Good Old Boy by West Berkshire Brewery is a locally brewed product. The two pints I had (I drank the Tribute too) were adequately kept. The choice is safe and conservative but it wouldn’t have turned anyone onto cask ale.

DSCF5584
just over seventy years to the day…

I opt to walk up the road out of the village to get back to the ridgeway. This necessitates leaping up onto an overgrown bank four feet high every time I hear the growl of an engine. I realise I make the same sounds as olympic weight lifters each time I alight. I never used to. The skylarks are no longer singing in symphony – just some isolated solo efforts as the light weakens. I get back to my folks’ house an hour and forty five minutes later just as the sky deepens to night.

In twenty years’ time I might come back again and reflect on how much of Britain has vanished since 2017 and how much of me has vanished with it trying to work out why I thought the way I do now. What was going through that young man’s tiny mind as he approached forty? Whether the period of long summers really did ensue after 1996 I shan’t research, but I have a feeling that looking back, my days now will seem bathed by soft light.

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.

DSCF3606

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.

DSCF1852

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.

DSCF5106

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.

DSCF5203
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.

DSCF5191
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.

DSCF1864

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.

20170306_123544
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.”

pride and prejudice

DSCF5134

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.

DSCF5136

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.

DSCF5146

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.

pub primatology

pub primatology

I am a voyeur. Not in the 1970s Robin Askwith “confessions of..” sense, but in a more holistic one. Wherever I am, I’ll be keeping a narrowed eye on those around me. I like to people-watch. This is just as true whether I’m drinking a pint, an americano coffee or sitting in traffic.

I love the body language of converse. At a table, men sit and lean back to talk to one another and raise their voices to be heard. Men seem to hold their abdomen proud so the chest and stomach are exposed to each other – often with arms folded back over the chair. Women are more inclined to lean in towards each other. In conversation, they often look like they’re playing poker – each holding her cards close. They sometimes keep a hand over their mouth – only removing it to talk. When the plot thickens, their eyes widen and necks extend to close the gap between them.

Women have also developed a way of removing their handbag from the shoulder and setting it aside that tells me they’re having or are about to have a row with their partner. It’s actually the over-care and the slowness with which the bag is put down that instills fear.

But with regard to pubs – they’re the best place to be a voyeur. The kind of behaviour I watch might also be dependent on the kind of pub I’m in. I’m going to call type A the singleton pub and type B the group pub. In a singleton pub, you enter alone then “become” part of a group around a bar (if you want to). In a group pub, you enter or congregate as a pre-organised group and stay insular from the others in the pub.

DSCF2199

Also, I’m not talking about tap rooms or breweries which I think have a more varied demographic to pubs.

Type A and type B represent the extremes with most pubs occupying the vast space in the middle. But how did these types even come about? Let uncle Alec try and tease a few threads apart.

The singleton pub, in my opinion, is a public house of long standing to which the interior has changed little. The culture of mainly just men going to the pub has endured enough to still be noticeable. By this, I mean that most “singletons” are men whether they’re in a relationship or not. Music is either absent or background only. Also, there’s a small television in the corner – usually with sport – that can be as equally followed or ignored.

I find that group pubs are often ex-restaurants. A restaurant has a higher stock than the pub and this perceived classiness still clings. They are venues that tend to be candle and soft light heavy. Flowers are another ingredient. Group pubs have more seating around the bar. Fewer people can stand – hence fewer singletons frequenting them. They’re also likely to play music so shouting is necessary. Again, this would deter the singletons. There are no televisions in group pubs, either.

Some of these pubs can make you feel like you’ve come to a swingers’ party alone. There’s nothing to do but to get a facial tan from the scroll of your smart phone while fondling the pump clips on your tod.

The more these demographics occur, the more they establish as the singletons and the groups seek out the places that reflect them. But then again, it’s just my theory.

DSCF4763

primatology observations from type A:

Wherever there’s a bar with men in, an odd posture is adopted: first, you lean onto your elbows and let them take the stress of about forty per cent of your body weight. Then, you try and put a hinge in the small of your back where there isn’t one by extreme arching. The effect of this would be quite provocative in other circumstances – you’re actually pushing your bottom out to form a shelf (I’m afraid I’ll return to the issue of male bottoms in pubs later. Please bear with me). Then you stand on one leg – usually the left – while your right one bends around it so only the toes at the end of it make contact with the floor. Straining on just one elbow, you could also hook a thumb through a belt loop of your jeans if you wished. Texans accessorise this look best (probably) with a belt, a couple of holsters and a tilted Stetson. Here in Britain, a rain-spotted copy of the Guardian and a brolly isn’t quite as manly.

The bizarre thing is that this position – public statement of male relaxation – gets really uncomfortable. After all that heightened relaxation you need to sit down somewhere to recuperate from it.

This is a learnt male behaviour you can see across the globe. This posture also advertises that the stander is open for business and proficient in a very special discipline: the fantastical and ancient art of bollocks – a language rooted in beer.

There is something magical about beer and bollocks. A few years ago I was in the Blackies’ (Blacksmiths Arms, St Albans) standing at the bar adopting the requisite position. At some point, I got talking to an Irish man who was also assuming the stance. Between us, over the course of a couple of hours, we put Britain’s farming problems to rights. I’m not a farmer and neither is he. I did once work on a farm near Loch Gruinart in the Inner Hebrides when I was sixteen (this actually sounds like bollocks but it’s true!) and that served as the basis for my authority. I eked this out to about thirty years’ experience man and boy with the environment minister having my number on speed dial. I was a consultant. He’d probably once owned a pair of wellies, so he was an expert too.

I’ve seen him about and we acknowledge each other whilst not being in the zone. We’re normal punters going about our business, but at a given signal, if both of us cross a certain threshold whilst being in the same pub, we can take on new identities again. I fancy the one where I almost qualified as a winger for the England Rugby team. If I can have that, he can have almost being a scrum half for the Irish one. That’s the beauty of bollocks.

Like Dorothy, all we need do is click our heels together. And raise the wrist….

primatology observations from type B:

I once witnessed a car crash of a first date – and, as I’m sure, dear reader, you’ll agree – last date.

There were some small tables and stools in that pub and this “couple” was sat at one. It gave the impression I was looking down from an elevated floor.

I could tell by their body language they didn’t know each other. She’d dressed up. He’s dressed down. I watched him laugh at something on his phone while she was trying to talk. I got the impression the venue was his choice. It was hard to tell whether she wasn’t into beer or just not into him or both. He was certainly into beer. He drank fast – having to go to the bar to get himself another pint as her stalked half pint glass stood virtually untouched.

DSCF2123

What had originally drawn my attention to them was actually two sides of pink mutton – his bare haunches squashed above the driveway to his builder’s bum. It was all on display and because it was summer, it had a dewy glisten-on too. His jeans and belt were too tight and his T-shirt too small. The effect it made was his rear seemed like a fat child’s face smiling at me. I smiled back but that wasn’t the worst thing – this was: every time he wasn’t using his right hand to hold his glass, he was tucking it snugly into the hind cleft like it was a docking station.

One grace might have been that his date was spared this knowledge as she didn’t have my view of the house.

When they got up to leave, he swiped her glass off the table and drained it in one go – waste not, want not. The look she gave was pure rennet. And then, dear reader. He attempted. To plant. A kiss on her. I’m not talking about tonsil-devoration but an affectionate lip-purse to the cheek. Instead, he puckered the dry air in the space her head had just taken evasive action from. He then proffered a hand (that one!) which was left hanging.

Meanwhile, her entire body channelled an arrow being fired at the exit and then she was but a memory of footsteps. He looked confused and hurt and I snapped my gaze to the ground as I thought we were about to make eye contact.

We were the same species. I was feeling humiliation, shame, impotence all on his behalf. I felt like a beetroot roasting in its skin because I knew that there was more that connected me and him than separates us (though not the hand down the trousers!). His inability to read other people is something that goes to my core – I have personally been human illiterate too many times. And yet there I’d been “reading” his companion perfectly from a safe distance as he fulfilled his own dire prophecy.

If you want to know yourselves, then scrutinise the people around you. I find that the pub is the best place to people-watch as it exposes our quirks and vulnerabilities through the gentle unwrapping of alcohol.

should you help save pubs you don’t know?

A few days ago, I got a message in my inbox. Here is an edited version (SADC stands for St Albans District Council):

URGENT – WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!

“to all our members in St Albans and Harpenden
(….) over a year ago we successfully obtained an Asset of Community Value designation (….) on the Red Cow pub in Harpenden which was under threat. Unfortunately the owner has appealed against this decision (….)
The council have asked us to provide the names and addresses of at least 21 of our members who are resident in SADC to support our opposition to the appeal (….)
The Council have assured us that nobody listed will be contacted by the council or by the appellant.
So all I need is your permission to give them your name, address and postcode. No emails or telephone numbers are needed (.…)”

dscf5057

Should I lend my weight to help save a pub I’ve never been in? Or am I unwittingly colluding in a practice that will blow a major hole in saving pubs or granting them ACV status in the future?

As evidenced in the email, the council currently takes no steps in contacting anyone putting their name to an appeal like this. But could this change? Will the time come when the local council has to actually question each signatory on a petition? I get the feeling it might.

Over the past few years, the number of petitions has soared. This is mainly for two reasons: the popularity of e-petitions that can be signed from the comfort of the sofa, and umbilically, 2010 government legislation whereby petitions of 100,000 signatories automatically get debated in the Commons. Without any discussion on the issue, 100,000 names can easily be gathered in a few minutes

Following on from the June EU referendum, the government was swamped by petitions calling for a second referendum. This in turn provoked internet petitions for the football match between Iceland and England to be replayed, the Battle of Hastings to be refought and the National Lottery draw to be recast as the participants didn’t like the result. There are even online petitions calling to ban online petitions.

dscf5060
I wouldn’t fight to save this hideous pub sign though. Is that the Dairylea cow?!

Fun and mischief was being had with those latter examples, but they do illustrate the ease, whimsy and apathy that petitions – especially online – can potentially nurture.

I’ve often suspected that if the signatories were contacted after a campaign, many of those who added their name might have forgotten they ever signed it, did it just to get the canvasser to go away, because the rest of the students signed, because their friend or partner got them to et cetera. This is part of the reason petitions are often ignored or given a token debate in Parliament at around 4am.

Now admittedly this is very different to the case being fought by South Herts CAMRA. For a start, unlike many e-petitions, it won’t be cancelled out by a rival e-petition trying to push matters the other way. Also, the people signing this will be local (as it’s addressed to the South Herts branch), will have an interest as dedicated pub-goers and genuinely want to see pubs stay open.

I decided to give my permission to send SADC my name and address as it stipulates nothing else is required. A knowledge of the threatened pub isn’t essential but I’ve given my details with a feeling of hypocrisy. Not only have I never been into the Red Cow, but up until this point I’d never even heard of it.

image
the doomed battle for the Camp. Photo source: South Herts Advertiser

Something else decided me too: there was recently a petition in St Albans to save a pub called the Camp which I didn’t get involved in because I thought it couldn’t survive as a public house. I now regret this as other pubs I wrote off at the time have successfully turned themselves around. The Camp closed.

In my opinion, petitioning to save pubs has been a huge success so far (though obviously this doesn’t mean all of the pubs have been saved). But my fear is that very soon, the owner who wishes to sell or develop the pub will have lawyers to cite evidence based on the shortcomings of petitioning itself. If it can be proven that very few of the signatories had any historical connection to the campaign, it could undermine appeals like the one for the Red Cow.

the best beers out in 2016

the best beers out in 2016

It’s time to reflect on 2016, its beers and the places I drank them in. Frequently lugging a camera about has helped preserve my memories and added some nice detail to blog posts. The unsung hero, though, is the mobile phone which is always in pocket. Swiping through the image archive is a resource we didn’t have just a few years ago. It’s amazing how many (mostly dreadful) photos I took but without it, many recollections would’ve been lost. Admittedly, this can often be attributed to the drink itself.

I’ve decided on a list of seven to sum up beer in 2016. Some I blogged about, some I didn’t. Each is included for a different reason. I rarely leave the orbit of St Albans or London so they all take place there. I also want to keep the focus on the pub, bar, brewery or taproom so I’m not regurgitating experiences I had at home.

The garden of the White Lion, St Albans:

DSCF4397

One thing I love about summer isn’t so much the nuclear light of early afternoon but how long into the evening it takes for the sky to darken and how many transcendent colours it turns. In St Albans the celestial streaks from aircraft contrails add a Jackson Pollock flourish to the canvas too – both Luton and Stansted airports are very local. On the pub’s lawn, burning brasiers provided a primal warmth. When the heavens finally deepened to indigo, the fires radiated their orange and hunched over, people sat around as they have done for thousands of years with their shadows flickering about them. It felt so natural and timeless and it intensified conversation to the clandestine. On pallets we sat back to back with a friend or acquaintance without even realising it as they were engrossed in equally intense exchanges. What was the beer I was drinking? I’ve no idea but it was good and came in rounds. Elemental and outdoors, it just felt like freedom.

The London Craft Beer Festival, Bethnal Green:

dsc_0052

I want to avoid cliché here and not use the sweetshop analogy but can’t. It was a full-on Willy Wonka extravaganza but I can at least customise it a bit by specifically referring to the 1971 version with Gene Wilder. That film had technicolor psychedelia and a brooding menace. It was like having free reign in a sweet shop because this festival has dispensed with cash, pint measures, tokens and (virtually) queues too. It’s one swig of beer after another. All the hipsters with their common sartorial pomp served well as updated Umpa Lumpas too. I usually keep tally of how many pints I’ve drunk but that measure – for good or ill – has also taken voluntary redundancy at the Oval Space. No idea how much I drank and difficult to even remember which I consumed. Only the most memorable gobstoppers punctuate the memory. Somehow I made it back home. The recollection will be forever date-stamped by the geometric hulk of gas holder five – the gasometer cage that lends the venue its name.

Paradigm Brewery, Sarrat:

dscf4892

I spent an hour or so exploring a quiet village in a low hanging mist. It was the first chill of winter and Sarrat seemed deserted – a perfect Midsomer Murders venue. I descended into the Chess Valley to find a commercial watercress bed and bought some by leaving money in an honesty box. Watercress has a long history of being stream-farmed in Herts and Bucks. I then dropped in unannounced to Paradigm brewery who brew a beer with it. It was in the fermentor on my visit. I met the two brewers going about their grind in a converted pig house. They were hopping, taking orders, driving, collecting, delivering and good enough to show me around. I was given a glass of a Mosaic-hopped beer straight from the cask in a cool room. It was carbonated, cold, zinging and utterly refreshing in a way I don’t usually associate with gravity dispense. Paradigm is a brewery successfully exploiting the traditional and the present.

St Stephens Tavern, Westminster:

dscf3939

This is the only entry I include where the beer was bad. It was a pint of First Call by Hall & Woodhouse and it was awful. Despite that, it makes it into this roundup for the location’s surreality. Even if the beer had been good, it would never have matched up to the sights and sounds – the unreal view of human and vehicle traffic teeming past parliament. It made me want to pinch myself. The architecture of the pub interior had window panes soaring towards the sky. Summer was rearing up. The scene from the service bay looking towards Queen Elizabeth Tower was like standing in the aisles of a giant movie screen – the backdrop to a documentary about parliament you could walk into! Just order a half.

The Six Bells, St Albans:

dsc_0004

I can be a bit of a ticker (less so these days as it increases the amount of crap beer you pay for), but when Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild and Ram Tam come around, the stakes change. Both are ales I’ve been aware of for years, they just don’t break out of West Yorkshire much. The feeling was like celebrities coming to visit your home town. They were here as part of a tap takeover and food pairing that had happened a couple of days before which I missed due to work. But I crossed the threshold at my earliest opportunity. Even though the Six Bells had few customers at the time, I ordered a half of each together in case one cask ran out. I then returned for a pint of each at a more civilised pace. I had the chance to savour them, talk to them, listen to their concerns and make plans for our retirement together in the Pennines.

The Harp, Covent Garden:

dscf2139

The relaxation and comfort I associate with a pub I don’t expect to sit down in speaks for the pub’s conviviality. This is the feeling that’s been reinforced over a decade. The Harp is the kind of pub that gives a backbone to pub mythology. Not only that, but this glow was made even more cosy by a glass of fondant manna – Fullers Vintage Ale straight from cask. You don’t so much drink it as absorb it like a vanilla sponge soaks up brandy. The Harp is one of those pubs where you feel yourself willingly becoming part of the structure – you start to melt into the wall you lean against like you’re becoming one of the many characters portrayed in its paintings. I hope to be reincarnated as part of the decor so I remain forever.

Craft & Cleaver, St Albans:

dscf3405

In London you could probably tap one of Cloudwater’s 2016 smash hit DIPAs and turn an hourglass over next to it to see if there’s any sand grains left in the top before the keg runs dry (especially if you’ve Tweeted about it too). In St Albans, it lasted a week and I seemed to be the only person drinking it. I went back to the Craft & Cleaver four or five days on the trot like an addict returning to the drug. Each time I sipped it in quietude – I think it’s best savoured this way. I don’t want anybody speaking and interfering with the taste. This is good anti-socialism: the kind you sometimes need. Cloudwater DIPA is a beer you need to shut your surroundings out from to allow a large empty space for contemplation. I witnessed so much footage gazing down at the headless surface. Beers that force you to drink them slowly have this power. The price was worth it.

Conclusion:

In 2016 going out to drink has lead to a wealth of experiences – some opposing, some complementary. They have reflected not just socialisation but introspection, heritage as well as modernity and both solitude and conviviality. The feeling of outdoors has been as remarkable as the awesome anatomy of architecture and it’s been a year where institution can equally accommodate innovation.

the trials of an inbetweener

the trials of an inbetweener

Today I turn 39 and it was almost a year ago I wrote “Caught between the Revolt and the Revolution” where I talked of being too young to remember CAMRA’s inception but too old to be “down” or possibly “up” with what’s going on in the more general sense. Little’s changed since then apart from growing older.

Maybe a couple of examples from 2016 could help illustrate some of the trials of being an inbetweener – of not completely swallowing the benefits, bias or even the bullshit of either tribe.

20160408_193718

On a dulcet spring afternoon I visited one of my favourite breweries in Bermondsey. Though I’ve stomped that ground enthusiastically for the past several years, the gathering popularity of the beer mile and the warming climate meant that a twenty minute queue snaked out of the entrance supervised by a zealous bouncer who shoved and prodded at people to keep in line. It was like being a sheep corralled towards the dip. I had come alone and was a quarter of an hour from actually seeing what was on tap (to nip inside to scan the badges would be to lose one’s place in the queue). Once at the bar, I ordered two glasses – I had to – otherwise once I’d finished one, I’d have to start from scratch at the back of the line.

dscf2514
this brewery image is for illustration only. The experience I’m moaning about didn’t happen here

The two glasses (both two-third pint measures) came to over ten pounds. For a moment I thought I’d been charged for the drinks of the guy standing next to me too. But no. Something about these drinks had cost the earth. Neither beer was of a rocketing ABV – both around five per cent. Neither had a rare botanical ingredient that necessitated scaling the reaches of Machu Picchu to obtain it, either. Both beers were brewed in London! Why were they so expensive? The moment to reject the drinks was there and then at the head of the queue. Stupidly, I let that moment pass and went on to stand awkwardly in the corner with my two stem glasses. Because the railway arch was standing room only, I was unable to put my cargo down anywhere. The bouncer glowered, ensuring my spine was flush with the wall so none of my limbs projected outwards to cause a fire hazard. I actually remember re-evaluating my life from the shock.

Objectively, the beers were nice. They were both cool, carbonated and hoppy as is the modern new world wont. They’d have tasted nice for five pounds but not possibly enjoyable for over ten. I observed the other customers in small huddles not seeming to smart from this daylight muggery. The contingent in cycling gear was enjoying itself. The group of Americans reminiscing was too. The gents with chequered shirts and immaculate beards were beaming. Or that’s how it felt and their enjoyment increasingly seemed in spite of the lack of mine.

dscf2082

 

I longed for the comfort and hospitality of a real pub and without finishing either beer, I placed the glasses back on the bar and tramped sprat-like from Bermondsey to Covent Garden to the uterine warmth of The Harp on Chandos Place. She cradled me and lifted me to her bosom where I was nourished by an institution perfected over generations. I had my faith in social drinking restored. Because of her, that day ended with everything being okay with the world.

With mature pub-goers, I understand everything they say but might miss historic cultural references. With pub-goers of my age, I get the vibe but haven’t got a clue what anybody’s job title means. With some younger drinkers, I might understand the words individually but not when they’re strung together. My next recollection reinforces the negatives of the Bermondsey trip but does so at a different kind of price.

I wandered up to one of my locals in the summer. I saw Gerard (not his real name) through the window sitting at the bar before I’d even entered the pub. I recognised the barnet of white candyfloss that marks out an elder member of CAMRA. Glowing, it hovered over the bar like a small lampshade in the comparative darkness. I heaved the door open and faced a troop of pump clips, the young guy serving and the back of said swiller’s head.

Version 2
look closely and you can just make out Gerard’s luminous hair in the right hand window

There was to be no avoiding each other – I’d have to speak in a second to order and get rumbled anyway so I chose to salute him in the way I address all Watneys Red Barrel veterans:
“evening young man”
Eyes wide, Gerard swivelled around on his bar stool. His cheeks blazed the same auburn as his Twang brewery T-shirt (not the brewery’s real name either). It looked like he’d been steaming for some time.
“Allo matey. ‘Ow’s it going?” He struggled to recall my name.
We’d first met several years ago behind the Hertfordshire bar of the St Albans Beer Festival during a quiet shift so we’d had the time to chat. We’d glimpsed each other through various throngs many times since. And so we got to talking.

dscf4620The conversation inevitably moved onto what beer was around and I made the mistake of mentioning that a popular DIPA was currently on keg at St Albans’ “craftiest” pub. By way of precaution, I added that it was quite dear. This was misguided. It sparked Gerard to recount an experience he’d recently had in Soho whereby a barman had warned him that a pint of London-brewed beer would be seven pounds. The battle cry went out:
“Seven pahnd! I’m not paying seven pounds for a pint!’’ This salvo was launched lengthways down the bar of the pub we were in and caused heads to turn – many as luminously white as his. I was in an awkward position: I loved the DIPA. I wanted to enthuse about the beer but knew everything about it would be prohibitive in present company. One of the permanent bar staff appeared in time to hear Gerard add
“One day there’s gonna be a revolution!” He was still referring to the seven pound Soho pint!

To make me squirm even more, barman Ted (you know the score) let on that the exact same Manchester-based Double IPA was due to come on in that very pub during an upcoming beer festival and he pointed out that seven pounds is what it would sell for. It cost a lot to buy; if they sold it for any less they’d be giving it away. Ted shot me an annoyed look as it was me that had brought this spotlight upon him.

I regarded Gerard. He looked like he might start a march. I toyed with coming at this appreciation from a different angle: maybe I could ask how much he’d be prepared to pay for a half pint of red wine but the analogy was too strained. My point was that a half of this particular number was a sipping beer. It wasn’t a cask ale – more of a hop nectar – a completely different experience to downing a pint. In fact I’d been having a daily dose of it five days running at the other pub. I was given no option but to stare at the carpet for a while until the conversation moved on.

dsc_0075

To many of the older generation, beer only comes in pints and should always be sold at the lower price bracket regardless of style, strength or any other underlying factors. Reading the letters page of What’s Brewing, it sometimes seems volume to pound Sterling is the bottom line. However amongst younger drinkers, there seems to be literally no upper limit to pricing and they don’t seem to mind what they pay as long as the beer and the brewery’s “on message” in an alt cultural way.

Like a charged particle, I still find myself drawn towards the rubbings of both the older clusters and younger hipster “collectives”. But increasingly, I find it easier to mingle in age upwards rather than downwards even if I’m closer by vintage to the younger generation.

So in 2016, have I taken one step closer to the older mindset – to codgerhood and drifted further from youthful enthusiasm? I’ll keep a running update as the years go by.

core strength

core strength

Until recently, when a new brewery opened in Britain, it started with a bitter. It might then go on to brew a best bitter, a pale ale or even a stout but then several years ago something changed. Though some new breweries still follow what could be called the traditional path (mostly brewpubs and rural breweries), it’s becoming increasingly outdated.

On Thursday 13th October I went to a Siren Craft Brew tap takeover in London along with a craft beer Meetup group. To me, Siren Craft Brew was the first new brewery to create completely different beers not just as specials but as its core range. This confident new chapter in beer started in 2012 and never deviated back toward the norm. As a nation, we were obviously ready for this new stage in our drinking culture.

dscf4823

Siren Craft Brew inhabits the countryside of the home counties. It’s situated in a business park in Finchampstead, Berkshire but unlike rural names like Chiltern, Hall & Woodhouse, Exmoor, St Austell, Timothy Taylor or Hook Norton, it eschews the traditional. There are no wheat sheafs, anchors, clergy or ploughs to be seen on the pump clips. The nostalgia for the maritime and the agricultural has been replaced by a more Mediterranean guiltless pleasure.

 

dscf4832The recipes aren’t about tradition either but indulgence. The basic range consists of silky oat bodies, fragrant aromas and citrussy new world flavours. The mainstay also sees the return to Britain of the rich chocolatey breakfast stout once beloved by labourers, and at the other end of the spectrum, the sour dry-hopped Calypso.

 

The artwork on the bottles is reminiscent not of session beer but of luxury. The siren depicted is a cross between a pre-raphaelite female, a Klimt muse and the character Durham Red from the comic 2000 AD. She even has a touch of the Starbucks logo about her. To my mind, a possible forerunner could’ve been the reclining figure that represents Brewsters Brewery. These women are a world away from tired British smut – the swollen women’s anatomy on Hobgoblin pump clips, naughty seaside postcards, the confessions of a plumbers mate.

Instead, it brought to mind imagery more commonly associated with high-end desserts, perfume or even wine. The website itself alludes to fine wines and some of its aged beers fulfil the analogy: I can imagine someone leaving his guests to reappear from the cellar blowing the dust off a bottle of Siren Craft Brew he laid down several years earlier and announcing the vintage.

dscf4835

Now on the badges, the artwork still represents sirens but also drops of oil/blood dispersing in liquid like unfurling tendrils with the hop flowers opening out at the edges. I think this was a part of an artistic meme later taken up by breweries like Cloudwater whereby those primary splashes have been deconstructed again into component parts: they’ve become the abstract shapes representing a synaesthesia of taste and aroma in Cloudwater’s own branding. Or maybe it’s just what I read into it.

Siren Craft Brew and its evolving beer range isn’t the only thing that causes me to pause in my tracks, however. There’s also the venue the tap takeover is happening in.

dscf4826The Draft House on Tower Bridge Road is part of a small chain of pubs that beer lovers could only have dreamt of a few years ago. Not only does the beer occupy centre stage like a burlesque act under the bar’s seductive red glow, but there are beer menus too – a phenomenon once known only to Brussels.

 

I pace around the inside. In some ways it’s less comfortable than a pub. It’s certainly less intimate. The bar doesn’t have a landlord or landlady but a shift manager. There aren’t any dogs sprawled out on the floor, and yes, there is a lot of neon which I hate whether in its pre-ironic, actual ironic or post-ironic form. It also has hideous 1970s style goblet patterns on the wallpaper. Some of the seating is like an American diner. The signage for food and events is like a cinema foyer. The dimmed lights bathing each section are the hue of the coloured bulbs of an underground laboratory. Somehow these flights of ague and distemper balance each other out into a welcoming warmth

Along with the tested comfort of Sound Wave, Broken Dream and Liquid Mistress on tap, there is their chilli beer 5-Alarm, Pompelmocello – a grapefruit IPA, Amigos Britanicos – a farmhouse ale with lime, honey and chilli, and Tidal Wave – a 10% IPA based on a barrel aged cask of Sound Wave.

dscf4839

The grapefruit IPA didn’t taste like the Citra hop as I’d imagined, but is refreshing like the oval cells in citrus flesh are exploding on the tongue. It’s cool and sharp like zest spray. The Tidal Wave reminds me of the orange cream centres in chocolate assortment boxes combined with the cool freshness of orange peel.

From Siren’s vast portfolio, I’ve drunk beers aged on cedar wood, gorged on the clay-like depth of Ryesing Tides and wrestled with their braggot Uncle Zester. I’ve been soothed by their tea-infused beers, tantalised by their peach cream IPA and been given a wedgie by their black Brett Gose. I’ve downed seaweed and cloudberry beer, sipped a dessert of cacao nibs and cypress wood and kept vampires at bay with their blackberry IPA.

Could it be that these challenging and, frankly, mad beers become the core range of other breweries in a few years time? They could be the new norm just as the bitter, best bitter and stout were of the recent yesteryear.

Contortionism & Diplomacy

Contortionism & Diplomacy

I move we celebrate a public holiday in honour of our bar staff whereby they get to keep all the day’s takings regardless of pub owner. All punters would need to present the exact change each time, anything over stays in the till. Each customer, even the regulars to show support, would also be required to sport a trademark prop to be immediately recognisable like a Mexican sombrero or a red carnation. Each empty glass would be returned to the bar along with a packaged food offering or bottle of fine wine or beer for the staff’s consumption and the following day would – of course – be a day off for them.

But how did I come to this conclusion?

I just volunteered at the 21st St Albans Beer and Cider Festival. I staffed one of the main bars during the busy times – Friday and Saturday evening. Though I’m proud to offer up my time, the hours didn’t so much feel like shifts as tours of duty.

From my temples, Diamante beads of sweat dropped silently onto the rubber matting which became more and more adhesive from the spillage of pints on mass migration. I played stillage twister with my colleagues. At one point I think I successfully dislocated my pelvis and shoulders just to crab walk through someone’s legs to get a half of imperial stout from the casks on the bottom row.

With live music causing my atoms to vibrate, I was confronted with a face I had to try and lip read from. I pressed my head sideways on the bar to hear what it was saying using a cupped hand to deepen my lughole’s parabola. The order just perceptible, I then scurried away, found the label, poured the beer and started my return shuttle. I forgot what the face looked like and couldn’t pick it out. A quick profile from memory: male, thirties, bearded, blonde. I headed towards that fit like it were a stadium version of Guess Who? The man looked perplexed as I handed him a beer he hadn’t ordered. His own glass was still in his hand. I looked back along the living Brueghel canvas and the guy I’d actually taken the order from was waving. The thirsty soul looked quite hurt. I lost count how many times I did this to attendees.

Working at a beer festival is obviously different to working in a busy pub: There are no hand pulls but a sheer wall of casks. For the first time this year, there was also no handling of money either as we moved onto a token system. There isn’t the pub intimacy and each customer approaches the bar with their own glass.

dscf4736

But with regards to the workers that keep the nation’s pubs alive, consider the following:

Whilst in constant motion they need to clock every new face at the bar, the place it gets in serving order and the fact that it might pop up somewhere else than where they first marked it.

As they do that, they need to be able to add up prices in multiples, get asked to change some of that order half way through and even have several punters in the same group trying to pay at once and want the change to be split three ways.

Whilst these calculations are going on in their brains, they need to develop a sense of psychokinesis with their co-workers behind the bar and always sense where they are so their bodies arch around each other – the art of contortion is essential.

In the midst of that advanced Yoga, their skills of diplomacy will carry them through as casks run dry one after the other – something the customer starts to believe was set up especially to torment them.

With those apologies, unsure of who was there first, customers start to inflate and stand on their toes to avoid being overlooked bearing expressions of both dejection and anger. They’ll need to be reassured with a mouthed “you’re next” – an incantation as soothing as a dummy/teat hoving into view is for a baby.

I haven’t developed these talents. I’ll probably only ever be the barman once a year. I give it my best shot but I’m very conscious of my weaknesses. I also recall the times I’ve been the customer perched in a corner and witnessed a phalanx of young men or women irrupt into a quiet pub – glad I’m not the one that has to serve them. I’m sure I don’t even need to bring up the always potential face to face confrontation of the drunk and lairy – something the many patrolling stewards and bouncers in a festival offset.

After the toil was over and the crowds were herded out through the arena doors by security, it was the perfect time to reflect on the service that thousands of good publicans and bar staff provide across this country. Working behind a bar is far more than the simple dispensing of beer.

Dear publicans and bar staff – never in the field of human society was so much owed by so many to so few.

Mass Observation 113: 02.07.16

 
DSCF3576 Mermaid St Albans
 
On Saturday I took notes in a local for the Mass Observation Study hosted by Boak & Bailey. This visit took place from around 6pm to 8pm in the Mermaid, St Albans.
 
There’s around 30 customers in the pub when I arrive though it does steadily decline over my two hour stay. Most folk are over the age of fifty. The gender distribution at the busiest peak is 24 male and 6 female. The general dress is jeans and a shirt or T-shirt. Most people are British Caucasian though there are also British Asian. Beards amongst the men are rare – it’s generally clean shaven faces and heads. I discern three couples in the throng. The youngest – who look like they’re in their early thirties – sit next to each other on a settle scrolling through something on their smartphone. Whatever they’re viewing keeps making them laugh. Two men are playing darts. Most people are standing or sitting around the bar chatting. I see one man outside smoking.
 
The inside of the Mermaid has a stripped wooden floor. The bar is also wooden and horseshoe-shaped. Dimpled pint mugs and German Krugs hang glinting over the taps. There is a slate six-beer tasting flight hanging on the wall. The main decorative hangings are of old Worthington, Hammerton (not the new Islington brewery but its familial ancestor), Guinness, Maryport and Holt brewery mirrors. There are also depictions of the pub’s eponym – mermaids as well as framed photographs of David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. There’s also an historic Blaeu wall map. Last but not least, there’s a mounted document issued by Oakham Ales to pubs that stock their beer – the Oakademy of Excellence certificate. 
 
The furniture is comprised of wooden stools around the bar’s arc that are paired with coat hooks under the bar’s lip. In the lounge are wooden settles with heavy iron tables, small stools and several soft-topped seats chased into the large window recesses. There are also oblong communal tables that can easily accommodate eight people. There’s a couple of carpeted areas – one has a communal table and one contains a bookshelf, fruit machine and dartboard. Just below ceiling height, the pub also boasts rows of both archaic and modern beer bottles and drinking vessels on a narrow shelf. I spot some bottles bearing candidates from the British 1992 election (John Major and Paddy Ashdown are represented, though I can’t see Neil Kinnock) . The pub has outside seating both in front and behind. During my stay I watch people out front but can’t report on anybody in the back garden which contains picnic tables and a pagoda with astroturf.
 
The pub has one small television. It was showing the Tennis when I entered but went on to show football – Italy v Germany in the European cup. 70s soul music is playing in the background until the football match starts. Media wise, there is also a huge range of regional CAMRA publications from across Britain and a table with a newspaper/magazine rack. The Times, the Guardian and Private Eye are all tucked into it.
 
There is a lot here to drink. On cask is Citra by Oakham Ales, Slippery Jack by Brandon Brewery, Queen Bee by Slater’s Brewery, Fabric by Ashover Brewery, Cotswold Way by Wickwar Brewing, Booze Hound by Gun Dog Ales and Stowford Press Cider by Westons. On keg dispense there is Pilsner Urquell, Old Rosie, Guinness, Carling, Stella Artois, Amstel and Bitburger. Behind the bar is a wide range of bottled Belgian beers. The cider range here is huge, best covered by an image:
 
20160702_200604
 
With regards to what the punters are actually drinking, two of the cask ales are a stout and a dark ale so I can tell that few people are drinking them (though I have them both). The most popular beer is the Citra; it’s also the house beer that’s permanently on. Stella Artois goblets are also in evidence, then the choice seems to be cider and both red and white wine. One woman has a branded glass of Pisner Urquell too.
 
Apart from crisps, nobody’s eating. Cold tapas style dishes are available but this is by no means a food pub.
 
The topics of conversation I hear aren’t entirely impartial as someone notices me perching at the end of the bar and asks my opinions on the CAMRA revitalisation project; a consultation will soon be happening in St Albans. With the barman joining in, this debate then segues surreally into a conversation about how Nicola Sturgeon looks like Jimmy Krankie. This is because one of us shows a photo they took in an airport of them standing next to the first minister of Scotland. The barman once saw Father (Ian) Krankie in Dartmouth. 
 
There is some referendum banter across the bar about which side bullshat the most. Another thing I hear (without being involved) is “why is the England team so shit?” Two people debate whether Portugal or Wales will win the European cup. I also hear Michael Gove’s name mentioned but can’t hear whether the talk’s for or against him. The barman brings up the death today of writer and comedian Caroline Aherne and I also hear him ask an older patron if he was around in the 1960s and whether he knows why the Who song My Generation is sung with an enforced stutter.
A couple of details to end on: there is a Mermaid pub T-shirt worn by staff with the following slogan printed on the back: “The Mermaid: Always giving you head the way you like it” In the gents, a ceramic demijohn has been rigged up to make it seem like it’s integral to the urinal’s plumbing system. A Carlsberg label has been affixed to it.