Father Forgive Me!

Father Forgive Me!

Batswell sits amidst the crop seas of central Hertfordshire. It’s a pretty community full of tudor overhang and cottages whose roofs are in a permanent state of suspended collapse. Wood-warped beams, lopsided masonry, doorstep boot-scrapers and cascades of wisteria scaling whitewashed walls represent the soul of this village. Like many settlements in the area, it’s basically just a street. If you drive through, buildings appear by each side of the road, cluster, and then peter out. Keep going and you’ll hit similar gems a few miles down the road whether it be Whitwell, Codicote or Kimpton.

To denote public rights of way, herbicide is used to scorch out pathways through farmers’ plots. These access routes are often ochre in colour cutting straight through the majestic green. You creep up on villages from over their shoulder and penetrate their very heart first. It’s telling how many times the main footpath in ends up intersecting with the location of the public house until you realise it makes perfect sense; cars weren’t always a staple of the landscape. In Batswell, the pub this leads to is the Whetstone Inn.

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I arrived in Batswell at the start of May and found it festooned with that most evocative emblem of rural England: bunting. Triangles of coloured fabric were draped over and across everything.

I could hear the sound of jollification seeping through the pub’s weathered walls. There were the shrieks of children mixed with the babbling bass of adults. Trying to look nonchalant, I edged past the dark windows to try and make out the silhouettes of the pump clip parade and get a handle on a pub I’ve never been in. Crowds on the inside might have deterred me if it felt like walking in on a private party, but it didn’t seem too busy. I realised that most of the human commotion I could hear was actually from the beer garden round the back. Another detail as I crept past: there was a banner hanging over the bar in the manner of the flags displayed during the World Cup. It read “Happy Hanging Day 2017”.

A portly man in his late fifties emerged from the side of the building cradling a cigarette, his lighter sparking. We almost collided and he startled. He clutched his chest theatrically. We did that bizarre rite of apologising to each other simultaneously. He was wearing what earlier in the day might’ve been a smart white shirt but it was crumpling now and half untucked at the waist. He had stonewashed blue jeans that were at least two sizes too tight.

“Ere for ‘angin day?” he asked. He was jovial and quite tipsy. A combination of the springtime sun and early drinking had flushed his cheeks.

“No. I didn’t realise it was on. Just walking through.” but then I paused, “What is hanging day exactly?”

“Ooh blimey,” he goggled in disbelief, “well don’t be a stranger. You missed the main event but come in and ‘ave a look. I’ll introduce you to Pam and Kev”.

I resisted. In truth I wouldn’t have minded a drink and to tick this pub off from those unvisited on my list but didn’t want to get pulled into anything by an unknown quantity. I assumed the named couple were landlady and landlord. I didn’t have much money on me either. In cash terms, only enough to buy for me which would be social heresy. He insisted. He made the cigarette glow with a few motivated sucks and took it down to the filter. I started trying to find excuses but he waived them aside.

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“Bloody state o’ me!” he said looking down at his gut. He forced his shirt back in. “What you need mate, is a glass of serisea and a pecky.”

He’d said the magic word. I’d heard of serisea but had never found a place that still brews it. It’s basically a strong traditional cherry ale from Hertfordshire. The word serisea must come from the french word for cherry – cerise (the “c” is pronounced as “s”). It sounds as though the word is being used as a verb in the passive – cerisée (“cherried”) or maybe it’s just the word being vocalised in an english accent. Maybe neither of the above. In any case, I’d finally stumbled on a pub actually serving it.

What a pecky was in terms of a drink or food item, I’d no idea.

A century ago, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire were the epicentre of Britain’s cherry trade. These counties were even more renowned for cherries than wheat or water cress – their other main exports. The varieties are still out there growing in back gardens but unrecognised. There are varieties such as Circassian, Doesn’t Split, Dangler and Hertfordshire Black. This harvest’s been long forgotten but was reflected in pub names like the Cherry Tree (ex-pub, Wheathampstead) and the Bunch of Cherries (now the Speckled Hen, St Albans).

He introduced himself as Les and led me into the pub via a side door. There was a cinema foyer warmth to the inside lounge from the aged carpet and burnished oak bar. There were also those twee red papery lampshades beloved of pubs the country over capping the light bulbs in the walls. This front section had wooden tables and chairs rather than settles or stools. It obviously served a lot of food most of the time but right then, nobody was sitting apart from an observant presence by the hearth. On closer inspection, his dog collar revealed him to be a vicar who watched me with interest. Everyone else stood in converse. As I gained on the bar I heard someone address Les:

“You ent’ caught another one ‘ave you? Poor bugger!” I grinned back at the room in general.

I could see through the bar to the next room where people were also standing. I realised that everyone in this half was male and everyone on the other was female. Though I noticed, I didn’t make much of it at the time as folk often congregate down gender lines; conversation topics can often cause that. So can hen and stag dos.

There was a gorgeous oak brewer’s barrel behind the bar tilted forward on chocks. It had some age judging by the patination on the metal hoops. The colour of the wood suggested it had been re-used many times over many years. The year was written in chalk over the tap but I could still see the faded scrawls of previous years’.

“Kev! This is Alex!” barked Les “He was just walking through.” Kevin was a man of slim build with a publican’s manner. Watchful, officious, and clean-shaven with polite dimples. His pressed shirt was impeccable. He proffered his hand and and I shook it.

“Pleased to meet you Kevin. It’s Alec actually – like Alec Guinness.” I said.

“So finally – someone with a touch of class!” he slapped the bar. There was some audio feedback from the other locals to that.

“Glass o’ the red stuff please – on me!” called Les. I objected. I wanted to know whether card payments were possible but I couldn’t think of any acceptable social route to ask this now without it being completely awkward. I also wanted to know how alcoholic the beer was. From what I’d read, serisea was like a barley wine.

But we’d managed to enter at precisely the wrong moment because the barrel had literally just exuded the last drops and a sludge of yeast. I saw a small measure at the bottom of a pint glass left on the bar. It was beetroot in colour and had a pink candy froth head. Despite being gravity dispensed, it looked well carbonated.

A quick apology from Kevin who immediately press-ganged Les into the two-man task of mounting another barrel onto the chocks from the cellar. I noticed a pulley system above the bar consisting of a three winch set fed by what looked like multicoloured mountaineering ropes with a hook hanging at one end. This had been obscured by the “Happy Hanging Day 2017” banner.

Before disappearing into the cellar with Les, Kevin pulled through a pint of a local pale ale – Tring Brewery’s Fanny Ebbs, and as I got my wallet out (even though I hadn’t ordered the beer), he told me it was on the house. Result. I scatter-gunned gratitudes. This gave me a chance to have a proper look at the surroundings whilst holding a prop.

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I nodded a shy greeting to the other punters and got a general return. The red carpet extended several meters from the bar until its edge revealed pale flagstones. Near the door that linked this bar to the other, the stone flooring became darker. It looked centuries worn. Also on the bar were four oven trays covered in foil. On them were rows of small reddish breads or sponges. Each portion seemed to have a filament or string attached.

I glanced into the other bar and witnessed a woman duck down like she’d gotten on her knees. There was a male after all – a boy standing with his arm raised. He dangled one of the breads above the woman’s face by the thread. Her eyes were shut. She uttered something that sounded a bit Italian and the child popped the treat in her mouth. This was met with cheers and encouraging coos towards the lad. Rising again, she pulled the string from her mouth and chewed on the cargo. Something red oozed from her lips. She caught the sauce with her finger and sucked on it. Whatever it was looked sweet but I was perplexed as to what I’d just witnessed. I was going to have to ask Les about this when he got back.

“First time in Batswell?” The voice cut through from behind me. The vicar I’d noticed earlier was watching me with his fingers knitted over his chest. My bewilderment had amused him. He too looked to be in his mid to late fifties but was in good shape. He wore a smart black T shirt under his dog collar and the shepherdic look of clergy wasn’t compromised by it. He had dark chinos and I noticed that his left foot was in a cast, hence, probably, why he was the only one sitting.

“I’ve walked up from St Albans.” I replied. He raised his eyebrows.

“Well that’s quite a yomp. Are you familiar with Hanging Day?”

“I’m not sure. I think I read about it. Is it connected with beating the bounds in St Albans?” I seemed to be on the right track. “Civitas versus ecclesia.” I added. I impressed myself by my last comment – and was even more surprised that I could remember the year – 1327. The quote was from a book and the words had obviously lain in wait like a sleeper cell waiting to ambush fellow anoraks.

Beating the bounds is a tradition in May whereby a throng – made up mostly of local school children led by the mayor – traces the outskirts of St Albans banging drums. It’s to symbolise the town’s citizens proclaiming their freedom from the mighty established church. All I knew is that this led to repercussions by the church on tithes further out where it reacted antagonistically by increasing its grip over local trade and taxation. The fact I knew this made the vicar light up and he gestured at one of the chairs at his table. I looked back for Les. It seemed rude to abandon him and the reverend read this.

“Oh don’t worry – Leslie and Kevin will be a while. Those barrels are precious but they weigh a ton.” he pointed at the ropes in the ceiling. “I saw you scrutinising those. You’ll see the sight of the next barrel being raised through the floor in a few minutes. It’s been rigged up like that since before the war – different ropes and fixtures, of course,” he leant forwards, “and have you had serisea before?” that magic word again.

And so I spent some time at his table. I learned that his name was Peter Stone but I could call him Peter, Vicar, papa or even pop. Not being a church-goer, I called him Peter. He told me something I’ve never realised about serisea – it’s been traditionally brewed as a sacramental drink and is also used for the blood-red filling in the breads; these turned out to be the “peckies” Les alluded to earlier. The church of England has less emphasis on the role of the Eucharist than the Catholic or Orthodox church, but instead of red wine representing Christ’s blood, serisea – a high abv cherry barley wine – was used instead in this parish. This was a revelation to me. To my astonished ears, this made Hertfordshire more beery and ecclesiastical than even Belgium! He went on to tell me about another ancient tradition which would further establish that: the privilege of altar.

The privilege of altar is deliciously British. It’s when the local clergy transform part of the public house (The business bit – meaning the bar) into an altar. This means that the Eucharist is actually performed in the pub and the vicar becomes both shepherd and landlord.

“If it wasn’t for this…,” he indicated his foot injury, “I would be serving behind the bar now. Mind you, glad to be avoiding moving the casks downstairs if I’m honest. I always end up putting my back out. I’m not really just sitting here drinking – I’m delegating!” he winked.

A little girl with dark hair appeared through the doorway connecting the bars. She paused at the edge of the crimson carpet and folded up neatly and silently into a sitting position on the floor. Peter noticed my attention drawn to her. She ogled me curiously, her look reflecting coyness and impishness in equal measure. She was clad in a denim dress over white tights and blue trainers. Her scalp hoisted up a pair of short pigtails in blue bows. But what was most striking were her eyes – she had a green eye and a blue eye. It was almost like the piercing stares of two people at once.

The vicar’s own eyes got dewy.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” I nodded – she was. He lowered his voice to a whisper “It’s called heterochromia.” I wasn’t sure whether I’d heard of it but went to try and impress.

“Isn’t that what David Bowie had?” I ventured. This pleased Peter. He straightened up like he’d just been given a feed line and raised a finger.

“Ah. No. Mr Bowie’s condition was anisocoria – his pupils were of different size whereas this angel has different coloured irises.” he relaxed back again smug and allowed himself the indulgence of quiet laughter. “Not bad for a man of the cloth, eh? I had a poster of Ziggy Stardust on my wall as a teenager,” he raised his voice, “but all that really means is that Hayley over here is very very special, doesn’t it?” he addressed her directly, “but then we already know that don’t we sweetheart?” Hayley beamed in return.

The vicar rose with a controlled grimace from his lame foot and limped over to the bar where he snatched a pecky from one of the trays. Hayley flipped around into a kneeling position with all the eagerness and agility of a Labrador puppy. The vicar let the pecky hang before her.

“Pater dimette me!” she squealed. The titbit disappeared and she scoffed it gutterally, her eyes even more backlit than before. She jumped up, hugged Peter and gambolled away into the women’s lounge.

Returning to the subject, the privilege of altar (as Peter impressed on me) also explained the separation of the genders: there is a long held belief that females cannot work or help behind the altar to the point that babies, depending on sex, are baptised either in the nave or at the altar. Only the boys get the latter privilege because only boys can become priests. The church of England is more progressive in this matter as it actively ordains female vicars but this changes from diocese to diocese. We were still in the diocese of St Albans which publicly promotes women vicars. Here, though, the preference parochially was for how it used to be.

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It dawned on me that this was why Hayley had stopped at the carpet’s edge – beyond it constituted the altar. She was a girl and so stayed back.

There was then a public spectacle: Les re-appeared, gave Peter and myself a salute, swiped and made three peckies vanish with a muted incantation, threw the threads aside and proceeded to open a floor hatch behind the bar. He reached up – exposing his flocculent bare gut – to grab the hook and yank at it to feed the rope down into the cellar. Presently, a barrel wearing a truss with an inbuilt loop for the hook rose from the floor. The rope quivered from the weight. I heard the growl of a motor. Les steadied the pod’s slow ascent and with great care, it was lowered onto the chocks. This, I thought, must be why it was called Hanging Day.

Plonking himself back down at the table, Peter couldn’t suppress his adoration.

“She really is the most beautiful little girl. Absolutely besotted!” his joy was contractive. He collected himself, saw in me a hive of questions and made himself ready. He answered the one I’d had since before I’d even walked in: “pecky”. Now I knew it was a bake which traditionally included a serisea-based custard. It basically acts as the sacramental wafer but is much tastier and as Peter opined at one point – “almost sinfully indulgent” – which ironically will bring us to the name. Why is it dangled on a piece of string? And what were the words Hayley had said? I assumed, because of the religiosity it must be Latin rather than Italian as I’d fumbled earlier.

He leant towards me again

“If I said the word “Peccator”, would that mean anything to you?” I asked him to spell it and this enthused him further but I didn’t have a clue. I hazarded a guess: something to do with fish. This was incorrect. “It means sinner.” he stated.

So: Peccator gets shortened in English to “pecky”.

I also discovered that peckies are actually supposed to be in the shape of a human figure but that the ones on the trays had risen too much in the oven so this was difficult to make out. There used to be a similar thing in St Albans a hundred years ago – popladys – these were baked around Easter to represent a female form: Mother Mary. Hot cross buns reputedly originate from St Albans too. I was startled to find that the strings the peckies are on signify the figure being hanged from the neck. Peter thought this might originally have been a reference to Judas hanging himself after his betrayal to Jesus, but admitted it was just conjecture.

Finally, Peter then explained that “Pater dimette me” means “Father forgive me”. It’s also a Christian sacramental custom. And so to round things off – my final assumption about hanging day being about the barrel of serisea needed to be confirmed. It must be about the brewing and raising of a sacramental ale.

“So, Les told me I’d missed the main event!” I said thinking of the original barrel. I imagined a custom of it being tapped publicly for the first time.

“Quite so.” Peter gave me a tentative look. “Would you like to retire to the garden? You go ahead – I’ll get there eventually. I’m a bit of a cripple at the moment – wish I could heal myself….maybe I lack faith.” he fingered his dog collar. “A lot of people are hostile about Hanging Day so may I say it’s a pleasure to meet someone so interested in history and tradition…… tell me – do you have the faith?” I understood the question – I’d hoped we wouldn’t touch on it, but being with him was like being a schoolboy again in the presence of a history teacher with genuine passion for his subject. In the lounge, I could sense the reverence people held him in. He was patrician-like; a sage. He saw all and counselled on all.

“No,” I answered, “I’m an atheist.” his look of disappointment seemed token. He more acted like someone who’d been handed a challenge.

“Maybe you just don’t believe yet….” not wanting me to feel awkward, he dropped it and gestured to the side entrance I’d entered by. “Shall we?” with that, we made our way out to the beer garden. As we left the lounge he added “This year, not so much a Peccator as a Peccatrix.” whatever that meant, I looked forward to seeing it.

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There were more people in the beer garden and the sexes mingled. There was a cluster of tables covered with white cloth. Further oven trays bore the remaining pecky rows. Aged wooden picnic tables bore the weight of punters’ backsides. The acoustics – the conversations rumbling in tandem, the clink of glasses, the abandonment to embarrassing laughter and the kids baying for attention – could’ve been bottled and exported.

The centrepiece was a white pole that stood in the middle of the children’s play area. Something I hadn’t expected was the effigy of someone that had been hanged from its crossbar about twenty feet up. The hangee was slouched in an odd position: it was standing but twisted at the hip so the body curved. Its full weight was on the ground but the noose kept it from slumping over. The dummy’s hands were tied behind its back and wrapped in a CostCutter plastic bag. Another was covering the head. I pondered that the one at the back was to hide the fact that hands are difficult to mould – maybe there was just hay or sponge sticking out from the sleeve ends. It was odd to have one over the face – perhaps a crappy gallows hood. Possibly it was even to keep it dry in case of rain. Some long purple locks poked out from under the hood the same colour as a goth’s hair – they’d gone to the trouble of a wig.

“Is that supposed to represent a woman?” I asked. My enquiry was drowned out by the rampant squeaking of a horse see-saw on a spring. A boy rode it vigorously lunging backwards and forwards before crying someone’s name and scampering off. The fixture continued to head-bang frenziedly by itself.

A finger tapped my shoulder and I turned to see Les. I apologised for leaving his guardianship. He just laughed. His cheeks were even redder and I could hear he was starting to slur. His shirt had again liberated itself and he pushed a wine glass into my left hand. The liquid inside was the colour of red wine but cloudy and with the pink froth I saw earlier. I still had half a pint of Fanny Ebbs in my right hand.
“Is this the serisea?” I asked pointlessly. I motioned getting my wallet out but he made bodily clear that that would only cause opprobrium.

“Ere!” he said, “which cherry type was used for this year’s ‘angin’ day?” I didn’t follow his meaning “Dangler!” he slapped my arm and pointed at the effigy “Dangler!” he shrieked again. My head twitched to avoid a gob of flying spittle as tears were on the verge of breaching around his sockets. I coughed up a smile and managed some laughter.

“Cheers Les and thanks very much for that.” I hoped that underlined things.

I approached the hanged form and scrutinised the dummy at close quarters. It had a bulge around the hips and chest. It certainly looked like it was supposed to be a woman.
“Who is she supposed to represent?” I enquired. I considered the basics. “Is she supposed to be a politician or a reality TV star?” I suspected the latter as the victim had been clad in a grey Umbro tracksuit. I looked back at Les who didn’t seem to understand my question. Peter appeared behind him clutching at the tables for support.

I put both the half pint of Fanny Ebbs and the glass of serisea down on the corner of a bench and went to have a proper look at the face. Surely they’d bothered to make one under the supermarket bag if they’d done the hair. Maybe I’d recognise the likeness of a celebrity. I tried to nudge the corpse but it was as heavy as lead. Possibly the clothes hadn’t been stuffed with straw but with sand or carpet. It wouldn’t budge. Instead I raised the edge of the carrier bag. A blowfly rasped under the crumpled plastic logo and flew out.

Version 2

I stared at the face of a teenage girl. Her brown stare was like glass. My thumb came into contact with her soft cheek which was still tepid. My interference upset a river of drool that coursed over the braces on her bottom teeth – the strand elongated, then retracted around a lip piercing. The stream re-poured mixed with a blood yolk. Her chin was glazed from the recent effulgence of saliva. A glut of red mucous hit her white Adidas trainer.

The ring around her neck was dark brown from the cut of the rope.

Weightlessly, I backed away – my torso a barren cave. I’d left the constraints of my body. I drifted through the silence. I saw Les’ face sporting a twisted gurn of confusion. I then passed to the vicar – Peter’s head was in his hand; something terrible had just dawned on him. I panned over the other grotesques gathered around – I was their focus. Groups in the background stopped their unheard conversations and cast their lights on me.

I propelled silently through Les and Peter like a spirit. I could feel no emotion but taste sodium and feel the cold press of zinc in my stomach. The building walls passed me. I haunted the street and glided towards a red beacon in the distance simply because it was a red beacon in the distance. I put the phone booth between me and the last few moments, saw my boots stop and align. My hands landed on my knees and I watched a torrent of pale vomit brake over the edge of a rockery.

I didn’t stray from that nook. I recall my voice on the mobile phone saying I’d found the body of a girl that had committed suicide or been hanged but the voice was detached from mine. It gave my name and location. I still don’t know why I mentioned suicide. Maybe it had been. Perhaps there had been a tragedy but things would be okay; optimism in spite of evidence.

Time passed.

Presently, a blue light pulsed – reflected off and through the glass in the windows at the street bottom. The patrol car approached and I ambled into the road to be seen. There were two officers. The driver’s side window lowered and the woman officer addressed me. She introduced herself as PC Mills.

A few metres from the corner of the pub, she asked me to wait as she and her colleague – a young man in his twenties PC Hayes – entered the garden and public lounge respectively. She was immediately blocked by Les in the doorway.
“You can’t come in ‘ere! This is the altar! On ‘angin’ day this area is sacroshanct. Men and boys only!” Les was snarling. He was also increasingly drunk but PC Mills was unfazed.

“I’m here to inspect the premises after reports of a dead body and ask questions, Sir. This is Police business.” Les looked past her to me. He glowered. All prior friendship had been wiped.

“This is to do with that cunt, ain’t it?!” He stabbed a finger at me. “We invited ‘im in. We give ‘im a drink – bring ‘im into our pub!” Spit was flying again. I readied myself. I was aware that Mills and Hayes were standing in a practiced formation. However, PC Mills backtracked and spoke to her companion. She asked him to go inside with Les for questioning instead as she couldn’t compromise religious custom by going into the lounge. I listened dumbly. Les made his look of betrayal linger for as long as viewable as he was ushered back inside. Again PC Mills told me to stand at the corner and not to leave. She spoke into her shoulder radio and disappeared into the garden.

I waited and could discern the calming tones of Peter being questioned. I expected people to come around the building but all was quiet. No drama erupted. After a few minutes I heard crunching on gravel and she returned. She was again issuing orders into her radio. I heard her request for the ambulance team to be stood down. She said she had a suspected HRP and was still investigating. I then recognised PC Hayes coming through on the radio frequency from inside the Whetstone Inn where he’d been questioning Les. Finally she addressed me.
“Can you tell me why you called for the emergency services, Sir?” I understood the question. I was just confused why she was asking it.

“A girl’s been murdered.” My answer sounded like a question.

“No. And don’t say that again. Repeating a smear against a religious practice could be used in evidence against you. I’m duty-bound to record that you repeated that. A woman has been judged according to the laws of the society she lives in. You can’t subject this community to your own ethnic bias. That’s now recognised as a crime by the European Court of Human Rights.”

Version 2

“How old was she?!” I gurgled, “sixteen? What did she do?!” She raised a hand.

“Listen – the vicar’s not going to press charges. He says he thought you were aware of what was going on but was mistaken. He’s giving you the benefit of the doubt. Do you know what a HRP means?” I shook my head listlessly. “It means Harassment of a Religious Practice. Have you been in the dock before?”
The question didn’t land. She asked it again.

“Yes” I answered ”Years ago I was in the magistrate’s court and was done for reckless driving.”
Officer Mills rolled her eyes at this.

“So you got a slap on the wrists and a fine, right? Believe me this is more than wasting Police time. You could be in the dock facing a charge of hate crime if charges were pressed. Do you understand, Sir?”

PC Mills changed her timbre and started talking to me in a conciliatory vein. I felt the relief physically. I also realised how tired I was. She explained that she’d had to stop things from escalating and that it was increasingly being seen as a priority for Police forces to avoid confrontation with religious groups.

Once PC Hayes came back out from the inn, he and PC Mills exchanged a nod as if to conclude business. She then advised I go the kitchen to speak to the licensee who’d asked to see me. Her name was Pam. I recalled that Les had mentioned her a short lifetime ago before I even crossed the inn’s threshold. That was the last I saw of the officers.

I was loath to see Pam. I didn’t want to talk to anybody and wasn’t legally obliged to. But I was miles from home and had the fear that over the long tramp to St Albans across the crop fields I’d be constantly looking over my shoulder. I pictured a blotch covering the centre of the Hertfordshire map – a no go area from now on. But then I also felt that meeting Pam might help get closure on this experience and I honestly wasn’t sure what to envisage. I imagined a woman with her knuckles white from fury but there was the vanishingly small possibility it was someone wanting to apologise or make up. I suppose my pride was that wounded that that hope was in there somatically rather than logically.

There was a single concrete step leading up to the kitchen doorway which, thankfully, didn’t face the beer garden. I somehow knew that the only reason the crowd wasn’t congregating around me was that Peter was standing them down, but I could still hear them speaking under their breath following the Police intervention – it made being an audience to it all the more intense. I forced myself not to listen to the individual words and concentrated on the emphysema of the kitchen extractor fan instead.

The door was ajar. I heard a woman’s voice say: “Come in, love.” no emotion could be attributed at this point. Pam was a stocky woman. Her greying blonde hair was bundled up in a top knot. She wore a white blouse and white jeans. She stood leaning against a tumble dryer with her arms crossed. Despite this firm body language, the impression she gave was of someone trying to gauge another. Her expression was quite soft. Perhaps there was even hurt. I lowered my gaze. When she spoke, her tone was controlled.

“Why did you call the Police? It’s horrible to have the Police visit on a day of religious celebration. The children thought we were in trouble. It really upset them.” I was careful about what I shouldn’t repeat.

“I didn’t know hanging was legal in Britain. That’s why I called the Police.” My answer was steady. Nobody moved.

“Do you hate us?” She waited. The silence prompted her clarification: “Do you hate Christians?”
I said I didn’t. I told her I had relatives who are Christian. I was raised Christian. “All we want is the same freedom as you have – to express ourselves.” she shifted “We want a meaningful relationship with god. It’s about family.” she sighed and some of the tautness left the atmosphere. “You’re not a father are you?” I shook my head. “No. I can tell. Are you married?

“Separated.” I whispered. She nodded and contorted an insightful smile

“Might’ve guessed. Well if marriage was truly sacred, if you had children to love and bring up, you might understand why Christianity is so important. It’s about love. It’s about family” I felt numb but nevertheless asked the right question.

“Did she suffer?” I demanded. There was a pause. She blinked. “Did the girl suffer when she was being hanged? How long did it take for her to die?”

“She transgressed!” Her voice was more pointed but still level, “We have a duty to protect our children from the devil. She will have to account to god now!”

“So why didn’t you let her live and leave god to judge her?”

“Because what if other children followed her example? What if they turned their back on god too? What if we couldn’t persuade them back on the right path and they never found heaven?!” her voice broke at the end and she lost composure.

This removed the charge that had been in the air leaving behind two people that hated each other. Suddenly Pam drew me to her and pursed her lips on my forehead. Under her breath, she blessed me. She framed my head in her arms and pressed her breasts into me. They were soft. Her perfume was soporific. I hadn’t expected this. I became wilfully limp until she released me.

She left the room. I could see a section of the bar through the archway. The trapdoor was still open in the floor in front of a row of boxes with perfect holes cut in. Each contained different flavoured crisps. Bizarre – I continued to notice the minutiae despite having seen a murdered girl. Maybe it had been someone else that had witnessed it. She returned bearing a glass of serisea and holding a child’s hand. It was Hayley.

I stood in the doorway which led to the front of the Whetstone Inn, around its side and off to the seraphim rape fields of Hertfordshire and away from Batswell back into a land in which I felt safe. Pam put down the glass on the sink drainer close by my hand.
“It’s about time you put this away, love. It’s good stuff and it’s on the house. Would be a sin to waste it.” I scanned her face for any brazen humour but there was just sincerity. She looked down at Hayley who was gazing at me. The sharpness of colour in those eyes were the livid blues and greens of forget-me-not and stonecrop – droplets glistening on morning meadow. Hayley lifted her arm. A pecky jerked on its noose. She looked up at Pam with hope. Suddenly the little girl was unsure – fearful, even. She couldn’t read this situation.
“It would mean so much to her if you’d kneel.” I shook my head. “After she saw you with papa in the lounge, she went on and on about you. She’d really like to…….do you this honour. All you have to say is Pater Dimette Me – Father forgive me.” I dropped eye contact and shook my head again. I started to turn but Hayley trotted up to my trunk, her face turned up. Water was her eyes – jewels gleaming from the depths of pregnant wells.

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Tasting notes:

The serisea had an aroma like fruit compote or the succulent pink flesh in a rhubarb crumble. It was tart on the verge of sour but a generous malt blanket wrapped around it keeps this firmly in ale territory. The alcohol (in this case 10 abv!) comes in around the fourth sip whereupon I felt my pores dilating as my cheeks competed with the purple/red of the drink. The feeling’s a bit like the warmth of cognac. After a glass, you start seeing petals open on the periphery of vision. The pecky starts off bland and salty but this is cut straight through by the flood of cherry jelly that bursts from the centre. This is its design and gives it both wholegrain bread and oozing sweet Hartley’s jam. It’s very carby. The serisea and the pecky really do compliment each other like a sharp red wine with Kirschtorte.

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.”

Traveller’s Joy

Traveller’s Joy

I was a Londoner when I first kindled an interest in beer. At the time, there was only one shop for it: Utobeer in Borough Market. More shops began to proliferate around the time I moved away and I assumed that to “browse” beers on the shelf – other than macro supermarket staples – would always mean a trip to London.

However….

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Every Wednesday and Saturday is market day in St Albans

Of all the home counties, something spectacular is happening in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Over the last several years, beer shops have opened up in St Albans, Berkhamsted, Letchworth Garden City and Hitchin (Herts), and Chesham, Amersham and High Wycombe (Bucks). If this catchment could be approximated geographically, it very roughly describes the Chiltern Valley.

I’ve done some searching online for these shops’ equivalents in surrounding counties. I find, for example, one in Billericay for Essex and one in Reading for Berkshire (where I once lived), but they’re singular enterprises. Within Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, beer shops have happened in spates.

Although there are eight stores all within a short drive of each other (more if you include new breweries selling other breweries’ ale in their tap rooms), they are owned by just three concerns.

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Back in 2013, the Red Squirrel Brewing Co had just relocated from Hertford to Potten End near Hemel Hempstead. This was an example of East coast to West coast before it became synonymous with American IPAs (though long after rap music, which never really got down with real ale). It opened a bottle shop in August of that year in Chesham – the first beer shop. Red Squirrel soon followed up with shops in Berkhamsted and Amersham, and has just opened its newest venture in High Wycombe – the Emporium – which also serves small batch coffee and pizzas.

Over the Herts border, John and Ben (the latter working for Tring Brewery – I name them both as I know them and regularly frequent their shop in St Albans) trialled market stalls in St Albans, Harpenden and north London selling bottles from British breweries as well as from Europe, America and beyond. The success enabled them to set up a permanent shop in St Albans in October 2013. Last year, John and Ben also opened a second larger store in Hitchin to the north of St Albans.

In June 2016, a new brewery and tap room opened up in Letchworth Garden City: Garden City Brewery. Hot on its heels, and just a block away, Crafty’s Beer Shop opened to the public in what used to be a jewellers’ shop where the display windows lend themselves perfectly to the presentation of gleaming bottles.

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For Hertfordshire alone, I could see similar shops and tap rooms opening in towns like Watford, Welwyn Garden City, Royston (where sadly its brewery Buntingford has ceased trading), Baldock, Harpenden, Tring, and of course, Hertford.

I’ve been to the bottle shops in London. One difference between them and their more rural counterparts is that those in market towns are often right in the heart of them rather than out in the ‘burbs or under railway arches.

There is something special about a market town. Market towns are magical places where bunting suddenly appears. There is always the well-tended war memorial and it’s always afforded pride of place. Then of course there’s market itself – the white canvas village encamped along the main drag. I love the smell of meat being fried and the call of the stall holders who adopt an accent that verges on caricature…

“Cammin’ ‘ave a look! Two bawls f’ra pahnd, nar!”

When you join in the cattle-like drove of the customers, you almost start braying. The irony is that when it’s someone else’s market town, you join the herd wide-eyed. When it’s your own market town, you cut an arc around this human infestation in order to reach Tesco’s.

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The war memorial – an elemental part of the market town.

There’s something special about a bottle shop too. It seems to have come about through cosmic ordering and is rooted in both specialism and localism.

I remember visiting a proto beer shop a few years ago in Whitstable. It was an off licence and I say “proto” because there was a specific section set aside for Kentish beer which I was immediately drawn to. The same was true of one in Swanage for Dorset ales. At the time, they could only exist within the structure of a larger off licence.

But now the beer has broken free. Racks of wine from Gallo and stacks of Heineken cans are no longer necessary. There’s a more continental feel to beer shops – they often have seating on the cobbles in front. They have come to fruition and are evolving.

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Here the continental outside seating comes face to face with the British weather – the first bottle shop in otherwise gorgeous Chesham

Beer shops blur the edges between brewery tap rooms, shops and bars. This is in the context of supermarkets like Waitrose serving coffee and chain restaurants like Carluccios and Jamie Oliver’s flogging their own products – books, ingredients, cooking gear – within the eatery itself.

There is however, no confusion between the experience of drinking in a beer shop and drinking in a pub. This isn’t about the differing licences, either. With a beer shop, there is no illusion that you’re entering somebody’s lounge as there might be when visiting the Red Lion. The foundation here is basically the shop floor. The rest is added benefits. This is a much specialised form of the deli rather than the public house.

But maybe you could argue it’s in the eye of the beholder.

You also wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) session beer here as you might in a pub as that would defeat the object. It would be like filling cartons with a single sweet at the Pic n’ Mix. Yes, a beer shop is a confectioner’s boutique.

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I now feel that a market town isn’t complete without one – it fits in with the ethos perfectly. You inspect the wares on the shelves; try before you buy on the taps. What’s good? What’s local? But equally – what’s foreign, exotic and exciting in a sharing bottle?

Though I don’t want any more to be lost, the beer shop might one day gain as equal footing in communities as the pub.

Let me finish on this as proof of evolution. This is the beer shop in Hitchin. To me, it represents possibilities and the future. This isn’t a pub but a cross between a celebration and an analysis of beer. It’s been thoroughly thought out – the tasting tables separated from the bottle shelves as neatly as pub snugs used to be separated from the public lounge. The thing this establishment reminds me of most is a library – the archiving section and the reading section. This is the kind of set-up you get when you have an increasingly discerning clientele – the browsing and the study.

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Despite the onslaught of morris dancers, the beer shops in England’s market towns are leading the way. Beer has become a focus and a quest rather than a staple. The beer shop is something new in Britain. There is, of course, precedent in Belgium but the ones flowering in our market towns are raising the… what’s the word?

Bar.

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 (.…)”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Watford has provoked fear in me for some time because I’ve usually driven in and its road system was designed by Hieronymus Bosch. Circling the town centre, you build momentum through centrifugal force and are either flung from the circuit into deep Hertfordshire or brought in by its gravitational pull. In fourth gear, you realise you need to cross four lanes of agitated motorists in the space of twenty metres. You exit like a dart to breach a chicaned car park entrance. I’d recommend drinking Red Bull before attempting it – in fact, the traffic could be sponsored by it.

I didn’t need to worry about that this time though, as I got the train that shuttles between St Albans and Watford Junction which is a genuine delight. It trundles back and forth along a route of just six stops and takes but sixteen minutes. Each time it sets off after a station, a recording of a “ding ding!” is played. I thought I could hear Ringo Starr’s voice narrating.

I was commuting to Watford to visit a unique local hero: Pope’s Yard Brewery – this way please ladies and gentlemen.

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under the road system can be more aesthetic than above it

Considering their almost walking distance proximity, the difference between St Albans and Watford is striking. St Albans is a cathedral city of strict masonry, building discipline and conservation areas but Watford feels very different. On the walk into town, it veers off in every architectural idiom at once. The office buildings at the top of Clarendon Road look like the round-cornered and smoked glass futurism of the 1980s and 1990s. The Victorian era Beech Grove Baptist Church boasts its ship-like hull. Then there’s the stocky frontage of the Palace Theatre, Edwardian in age. Deeper in, St Mary’s Church roughly dating from the 1200s squats awkwardly among the multi-storey car parks.

There is a tangible pride here too. It’s seen it in the murals on the walls along the subways that give pedestrians safe passage into the town’s heart. Watford is written in big colourful letters and illustrated in spray paint pictures.

The market here is an institution that goes back 900 years and still dominates. Part of it has been repackaged into a structure made from shipping containers and renamed New Watford Market.

The town centre is a bric a brac of chronology and style. It seems both up-and-coming and run down. Gentrification sits shoulder to shoulder with destitution. B&M Bargains neighbours Pret a Manger.

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does what it says on the tin

But there’s a creative energy here that St Albans is too prudish to acquire. St Albans has too much rectitude. Trashiness – a quality Watford has, comes with a kind of hunger for new blood. St Albans practices self-deprivation in this respect – its city centre looks like the browning photographs of itself from the nineteenth century and will be just as recognisable centuries from now. Watford is a bargain bin of civic projects. It’s alive.

St Albans is a tucked-in shirt, cobbled, IT manager-y, Waitrose-y, Jack Wills-y. You just know its pretty streets are heaving with conservation orders and neighbourhood associations that do mulled wine evenings – and they are! Whereas Watford has the freedom to keep redefining itself.

There’s an awkwardness to Watford too, though. When said aloud, it even sounds like it’s annoyed. The town’s chaotic but through some cosmic fairness, it’s just as difficult to negotiate through it by car as it is on foot. It’s like the town was planned to make life harder for both modes of travel without putting bias on either. Maybe the planners just got a fantastic deal on concrete.

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the flyover – Exchange Road soars straight over the town centre

And another thing, why does everybody cycle on the pavement here? I keep almost getting mown down.

Perhaps what tops it all is the brutalist concrete flyover careering straight over the main drag – Exchange Road built in 1972. That carriageway needs to stay because one day soon when 1970s brutalism isn’t the recent past but the sepia history, that structure will be as symbolic for Watford as the bridge is in Avignon. It will become a listed monument closed to traffic with a public walkway, visitors centre, viewing platforms and a sustainable coffee shop. Watford, the town on a roundabout, will become a UNESCO site.

A cold grey version of the Jetsons – vehicles orbiting in rings around the town and even soaring overhead on roads through the air. This was the future as we used to imagine it. Kudos to Watford for trying.

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The humble shoehorn

The humble shoehorn

The post I had envisaged writing has been ruined by research. This often happens. I was planning to chart the change in cask ale at a CAMRA beer festival over the last five years. I suspected – and it’s hardly controversial – that tastes were drifting away from the bitters and golden ales to the IPAs, porters, black IPAs, rye ales and fruit sours. In a way, that assumption has been borne out but not in the way I’d anticipated; the results are wearing camouflage.

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The only beer festival I’ve been to each time in the past five years is the St Albans Beer and Cider Festival thrown each summer in the Alban Arena. Not only have I visited and volunteered, but retained each year’s brochure with the beer lists. Over the course of the lustrum (five years to you and me), this literature is what I’m basing my findings on. It won’t be 100% accurate because as each festival’s set up, some beers never arrive, some don’t get drunk because of cask or ale defects whilst others are substituted at the last minute. Notwithstanding all that, I’m taking the lists at face value.

First I counted the overall cask tally and then the amount of each style within it.

The amount of golden ales has increased and then dropped. The peak was 140 in 2014 (out of a total of 348) and has come down to a low of 75 out of a list of 337 in 2016. Other traditional styles – the stouts, porters, milds and barley wines have stayed within similar margins each summer.

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From 2012, the bitters make up just under half but that proportion obviously dropped right? Except it didn’t. It went up. This year, over 50% (180 out of 337) of the beers on offer were bitters. This didn’t seem right.

I then scrutinised the bitters a bit more carefully. Unlike the GBBF, the festival at St Albans hasn’t included the increasingly popular IPA in its categories. By extension, it hasn’t confirmed black IPAs , American IPAs or DIPAs in its flock either. Amazingly, all these developing styles have instead been shoe horned into the bitter or golden ale category.

Here’s a small sample of some of the “bitters”: Dark Star Green Hop IPA, Red Squirrel Double American IPA, Thornbridge Jaipur and Siren Craft Brew Liquid Mistress.

dscf4868And a similar taster of some of the golden ales: William Brothers Joker IPA, Deuchars IPA, JO C’s Knot Just Another IPA and Oakham Ales Green Devil. Granted they’re all golden in colour but beer isn’t a paint chart but a sensory experience.

Stout, porter and mild all get their own colour tag yet they’re often difficult to distinguish. It’s hard to get a Rizla rolling paper between the first two.

There were just twelve milds at this year’s festival (including Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best – this, I think, was just an honest publishing error). There were in the region of 27 beers that self-identify as IPAs or could be included in the broad definition. There were also a number of self-proclaimed black IPAs or black india ales including the beer advertised on the staff festival T shirt – Farr Brew’s Blacklisted India Black Ale. Yet they’re all bitters or golden ales according to South Herts CAMRA!

This year even saw the entry of some barrel-aged beers, Saison and fruit sours – all on cask. Each was duly baptised as a bitter or golden ale. A locally brewed bottle beer – AleCraft’s Sonoma Double IPA weighing in at 8% – has during the course of the lustrum been both bitter and golden ale. It’s never been able to “come out” as what it really is to the family.

The problem is twofold:

Firstly, this categorisation reflects beer styles as they used to be to the point that the monikers mean absolutely nothing if they encompass all of the above under the same umbrella. Bitter and golden ale have basically come to mean anything that can’t be lumped under other headings.

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Secondly, punters coming to the festival to learn a bit about beer styles might end up leaving more confused than they arrived. A golden ale could’ve been the sweet honeysuckle of Tring Brewery’s Fanny Ebb’s Summer Ale or alternatively it could be Oakham Ale’s aggressive Green Devil – a visceral grapefruit flesh nectar on steroids. Sampling bitters might have thrown up Dark Star’s Green Hop IPA or Windsor & Eton’s Conqueror – their black IPA. These are nothing like the more textbook Boltmaker or Sussex Best.

It’s time to revise the evolving topography in the field of beer categories. The GBBF does list IPA (how can it not?) but this is only one category more than its smaller cousin in South Hertfordshire. In reality, the craft of brewing, the technology used and the wider range of ingredients are shaping beer’s future. The old chalk-scrawled categories on the casks are becoming obsolete.

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.

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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.

Albion: the first days of July

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From behind the tree line, a red kite ascends with the heat. Its blazing orange wings and tail twist to knead the thermals’ contours. It hangs in slow motion above the canopy and then, in silence, drifts diagonally like flotsam on a tide. Below, tiny red UFOs hover and alight on the white umbels of cow parsley: Soldier beetles are mating in their own tiny canopies. It’s summertime in Hertfordshire.

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In the park, a large human male with bleached white legs plods along with all the confidence of a man who’s had his trousers stolen. He wears new sandals from TK Maxx. His partner accompanies him, studying his expression. 
“So what should we do then?” she asks with arms firmly crossed. It’s a summer’s day after all, the possibilities are manifold. The Neanderthal feigns racking his brain but she reads it out for him.
“You just want to go to the pub don’t you?”
The man falls even more silent. Memories of wanting to jump back into the pool as a young boy are blinding all rational thought.
 
Summertime in England doesn’t just mean exposed flesh and a few weeks of warmth, it heralds a change in a town’s acoustics. This is achieved by pubs simply leaving front doors wide open. During the other three seasons, the babble of conversation can be heard but stays locked within the pub’s walls only briefly breaking cover when a door heaves open to unload a punter. Otherwise to passers-by, it’s like Radio Luxembourg with the dial set at one. In the summer the noise ambushes the lazy streets – outbursts from an invisible crowd bayonet the peace: Sonic irruption.
 
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I walk past the Six Bells on a sweltering day. A Sid James-esque laugh booms out from the open doorway and I immediately know who’s inside – it’s not his usual local. I can picture his stance, the way he holds his head and grabs the bar like it’s a railing on a heaving ship. I can even see the mischief and the spittle glistening on his grin.
 
It’s amazing what else you can see. You don’t actually have to be there, you just need to let your sensors reach out. There is zen in this.
 
I pass the White Swan and a cry erupts out of the door and windows like lava. An emergency consultation in my head identifies it as a goal being scored. England must have scored, but wait – this pub’s the Irish pub. Maybe it’s Ireland that just scored. I walk on. Moments later, I hear the same throat-rending scream almost cause two other pubs to collapse. Wingbeats chop the air as pigeons scatter upwards. Now I know that England have scored and I don’t just know when they score but when they get close. The customers’ eyes are my eyes. I hear pained exclamations wailed in perfect chorus. Even though my sight can’t pierce the brick, I can see their hands rammed against their temples as if to stop their heads from coming apart. The other side has just scored against them. Downy pigeon feathers fall slowly back to earth.
 
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On the inside in the comparative dark and cool of the snug, a man with leather skin tries to master his sea legs. He gains on the bar. The publican he was expecting to speak to isn’t there or is hiding – a young woman’s serving instead. Two identical hands are raised – each holding aloft a trembling index finger. He squints so that they merge back into the one.
“Tell…tell Justin ‘e’s a good man.” He draws breath anew as if a powerful tagline is about to follow. 
“Tell ‘im from me ‘e’s a good man…. and you’re a good man too.” For a second, the lucky member of bar staff toys with finding a compliment in that. That second evaporates. With what might’ve been a flourish in a soberer dimension, he turns and sways like an worn MFI bookshelf towards the bright rectangle of outdoors. His head and shoulders are red and smouldering. The union jack shorts and white Nike socks give him the air of a toddler taking his first steps and then he’s gone – enveloped by the light. A moment later a sound like sizzling bacon can be heard. The barmaid goes back to staring at her smartphone.
 
Teen males walk around bare chested – their sweaters looped back over their heads so the sleeves bounce on their shoulders like wobbly antennae. CAMRA veterans wipe the perspiration from their foreheads and look around to check who’s watching before eyeing up the corporate lager taps.
 
DSCF3674 St Albans morris dancers
 
It’s the annual St Michaels Village folk festival. The pubs disgorge themselves – they turn inside out spewing the drinkers onto the road. The streets become the public bar and inside is transformed into outside. The Rose & Crown has raised the standard of Britishdom by holding an ice cream van hostage in its own car park. Men and women in straw hats and bondage gear charge at each other and smash sticks. Obscure little gaggles demonstrate their ethnic group’s traditional dancing inability. Alcohol is served in the grounds of both the parish church and the primary school.
A man with a white beard and a paunch edges through the throng with bells strapped to his ankles. In his left hand is a pint of bitter and a clashing stick, in his right a ninety nine with a flake. He looks from one to the other realising he hasn’t thought this through. His blouse inflates for a moment as a breeze picks up. The ice cream runs down his wrist and a dollop hits his wooden clog with a splat. In summertime in England, this display of sartorial mental illness becomes the most normal thing, and I for one feel reassured.