Albion august

August azure

 

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The pores of your skin dilate from the lurid heat. The way the light in the evening sends people’s shadows spilling across the ground, you’d expect to see a mushroom cloud on the horizon. God it’s hot.

The lounges and snugs of St Alban’s public houses gape empty and still. The illuminated beer founts glow alone in the darkness. This void hasn’t come about due to the death of business but very much because of its health: everybody’s outside in the oven glow of August.

When summer gives over to autumn in this country, it’s the sun’s last stand. Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed its nuclear core in its final charge. It’s going over the top.

The customers sunbathe at picnic tables in the beer gardens. Pale-skinned people have finally darkened and the elasticity patterns and strap lines of June have been absorbed by these brown-hided herds.

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People move at a slower pace and pints of ale carried aloft navigating their way through the tables glow like nodes of clearest honey. Glasses of red wine become rubies, white wine refracts like diamond.

In the garden of the Mermaid, a beer festival/contest is taking place: Oakham Ale’s pale beers versus Titanic Brewery’s dark beers. The weather would suggest a bias towards the former but the victor hasn’t yet been called. A rack of twelve casks tilt respectfully towards the drinker. These precious pupae require reverse parental care whereby their nappies need to be kept moist. This keeps the contents of the casks’ bellies cool. Each time the diapers dry out, the pressurised hose comes out again.

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My own leaning is in favour of Oakham Ales but the two halves I had from Titanic did give the Staffordshire brewer a little leap up in my book. The Cappuccino Porter tasted more like its eponym than the sweet caffeine froth itself and defeated the Peterborough brewer’s gingery Oblivion. But then Velvet Claws by Oakham saw off Last Porter Call – bold grapefruit, pine and lemon zest trumped dry roast coffee and malt.

The parks have also caught the sun and the sward is exhausted like the edges of burned parchment. Concrete pathways appear to have quartz marbling from the diffusion of sunlight through the canopies. Several weeks ago twitching clusters of ragwort heads glowed an impossible yellow – each petal imprinted like a mercury blade onto the retina when you shut your eyes. Now they’re reduced to faded crepe paper.

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The townscape is seen as if through smoked glass, the buildings look like aged photographs of themselves.

For the second year running, the Sopwell area of St Albans is running a Sopfest over the August bank holiday. Six pubs are taking part. The beer range has improved this year and become as varied as it’s possible for cask ale to get. It covers fruit beer, Saison, spirit aged, milk stout, black IPA, barley wine, porter, Belgian pale, wheat beer and honey ale. It even has the odd archaic bitter.

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People are having halves in pint glasses because we’ve all turned from swillers to nosers. This used to be done furtively by appreciators of fine ale for fear of social ridicule. It’s now done proudly and publicly. With a beer aged in rum casks you’d have to be dead for your eyes not to swivel back with post-coital bliss into the back of your skull from inhaling the aroma.

I hear my name called by a shape. You can’t recognise people right in front of you as they’re a pastel silhouette – you need to raise your arm in a hook over your brow to see them.

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Before the bank holiday weekend comes to a close, there’s live music on in the White Lion garden. I’m drawn in to an acoustic version of Cockney Rebel’s “come up and see me” by a bearded man in his sixties wearing a straw hat. To shudders of glee from the audience he then tightens the pitch his voice and actually nails “kiss!” by Prince. I witnessed this within reach of the beer stillage. A pint of pale ale seeded with Belgian Saison yeast complimented the experience.

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Young mothers dance barefoot with their toddlers on the grass and fat couples snog each other as the vault above us turns from white to golden to crimson. Darkness is finally creeping in though it’s still balmy. This is where I have my last beer of Sopfest – Bona Nox by the brewery I started this post with: Oakham Ales. The title is latin for good night and served as my august nightcap.

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.
 
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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.