Christmas in the Pub, 1983

A 1980s photo of two boys in a pub.

In the picture above you can see the aftermath of Christmas present unwrapping in the bar of the Artillery Inn, Exeter, probably at around 6am, on 25 December 1983. That’s me on the left with my little brother Tim at my side.

We’re wearing wigs left over from the pub Christmas panto in which my Dad played Widow Twankee. He wore clip-on ear-rings, a bra stuffed with newspaper, and a pinny. The make-up treatment made him look like Mollie Sugden in Are You Being Served, despite his ginger moustache. Another member of the cast, then a student at Exeter University, went on to be a top-flight news cameraman at the BBC.

My brother is wearing his favourite underpants. His favourite trick when we lived in the pub was to escape from the flat, scramble down the flight of stairs behind the off-licence, and burst into the pub wearing only those Y-fronts. He would then run screaming down the entire length of the bar before disappearing out of the back door. I reckon he was addicted to the customers’ laughter.

In the background is a box for the Return of the Jedi edition of the Millenium Falcon with a yet-to-be-stickered X-Wing fighter protruding from the top.  Among the good things about my parents running a pub was the amount of space it gave us to run around in when the doors were closed and I have a memory, which I think was from this Christmas or maybe the birthday that followed, of racing with speeder bikes through the chair legs which for the purposes of play were the great redwood trees of the forest planet Endor.

My brother is drinking a bottle of R. White’s Orangeade, another perk of life in a pub being ready access to the worst (best) soft drinks. I guess being allowed that at breakfast time was a Christmas treat.

One of the downsides to living in a pub was that Mum and Dad worked late the night before and then Dad had to disappear for a few hours around lunchtime on Christmas Day to serve the regulars. Having talked about it with them since I know Mum and Dad found living where they worked difficult and even at the age of five I could pick up on the stress in the air.

On the window you can just see the words ‘Merry Xmas’ sprayed in decorative snow — the wrong way round, really, if it was meant to be viewed from the street. There were also artful drifts of snow in the bottom corners of each frosted pane. Unfortunately, when Christmas was over and the fake snow got wiped away it took the nicotine stain with it so that people were being wished the ghost of a Merry Xmas for months to follow.

The Brigadoon Pub in Greenwich

Ashburnham Arms

I first visited the Ashburnham Arms in Greenwich’s Ashburnham triangle about 17 years ago, and it’s been lost to me ever since.

I was taken then by my flatmate, a Greenwich native, who had heard that the pub had won some award or other. I seem to recall it took us a while to find that time, too.

London streets rarely run in straight lines so two roads that seem to run at right angles can slowly curve to meet, while what feel like parallel lines can turn out to be subtly angled spokes off a hub. At the same time, the houses are made of the same London stock brick, to similar designs, denying the wanderer the necessary points of reference.

Even as you draw near, the Ashburnham can be hard to spot, its signage hidden behind shrubs, and its exterior otherwise resembling the grand 19th century houses that surround it.

Which, of course, makes it all the more charming — a kind of secret reserved for locals, not tourists.

So secret that when I’ve tried to return, I’ve failed, popping out in Greenwich Park, or on the high street, or in Deptford, thirsty and scratching my head.

Of course Google Maps spoils the fun. This time, I walked straight there with only a bare minimum of confusion and back-tracking.

It was much as I remembered it — multi-roomed, just; modernised, a bit; respectable, but not posh; friendly, without overdoing it.

It’s a Shepherd Neame pub and this time the only cask bitter on offer was Master Brew, their ‘ordinary’. It cost somewhere north of £4 a pint but tasted extraordinarily good — light, bright, and snapping with earthy, vivid, tea-like hop character.

I sat in a corner with my book and enjoyed the atmosphere. Outside, intense sunlight tempered by a breeze that carried the smell of the city and the jangle of ice cream vans through the open door; inside, the murmur of soft London accents, the sisterly chat of the bar staff, and the rustling of newspaper pages, all wrapped up in warm wood and scented with furniture polish.

As dinner service finished bowls of crisp, salty leftover roast potatoes were distributed around the pub — a physical manifestation of unpretentious hospitality.

I had to stop for a second pint, didn’t I? After all, I might never find the Ashburnham again.

A Pleasingly Busy Pub

The Star Inn, Crowlas (exterior)

I took my parents to the Star Inn at Crowlas, our favourite pub, on two occasions last week and they were amazed at how busy it was.

They are former publicans, albeit almost 40 years ago now. It didn’t work out for them — they talk about Whitbread much the same way present day campaigners talk about pubcos — and kept muttering, astonished, and jealous: ‘We’d have been happy with this on a Saturday night, never mind a weekday teatime!’

Everything is stacked against the Star, on paper at least. It’s way out of town, and there’s no food. It’s a handsome building but not a quaint old inn by any measure, not with the A30 running right past the front door. Though there are campsites nearby Crowlas isn’t really a tourist destination either.

And yet, there the customers are, session after session, day after day.

A group at the bar.
Mid-afternoon at the Star back in January — a relatively quiet moment.

It’s tempting for us to argue that the Star’s success is down to the exemplary products of the Penzance Brewing Co, the onsite microbrewery, that dominate the pumps, alongside exotic guest ales from the North. Certainly that’s what gets into the Good Beer Guide and draws in at least part of the crowd — people who might otherwise not make the trek on public transport from places like Hayle, Penzance and even St Just. That the beer is relatively cheap by Cornish standards, as well as being great, probably doesn’t hurt either.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s a proper village local with a loyal core of regulars attracted, we guess, by the same thing my parents particularly liked: it’s completely unpretentious, without being rough. A tightrope walk for sure.

People come in tracksuit bottoms and trainers, overalls and work boots, tweeds and wellies, suits and ties, hiking boots and anoraks — in short, they wear whatever they like, in whatever condition they like, and no-one cares. Well-trained dogs roam about licking up pork scratching crumbs, sometimes joined by a child or two in the after-school window, drifting quietly from parents to relatives to family friends with pop bottles in hands. The management sets this familial tone — informal, low-key, bluster-free.

We’re not against food in pubs, or even anti-gastropub (see the upcoming book for more on that) but my Mum was right when she observed that it made a change not to smell deep-fat frying the whole time. The lack of dining also seems to encourage friendly groups to form in what would otherwise be inconvenient places. It also leaves tables free for scattered newspaper pages or for elbows-on-the-wood deep-level conversation. The absence of food changes the mood, in other words. It’s certainly another blow for the received wisdom that a pub can’t thrive without a kitchen in 2017.

When we left after our trip on Wednesday my Dad, not a demonstrative bloke, turned and looked back at the door. ‘Bloody lovely pub,’ he said, sounding almost annoyed to have been so seduced by an establishment 150 miles from his house.

Disclosure: the Penzance Brewing Co’s Peter Elvin has shouted us a few pints over the years, including a round for Dad and me last week.

Mild in Manchester

It turns out to be difficult to stumble upon cask mild in Manchester these days — you need a few clues as to where to look.

We have a theory that we’ve been testing for a few years now that there’s a sort of corridor running from the Midlands to Manchester where you can expect any halfway decent pub to have some kind of mild on offer, even if it’s only keg. (Keg mild can be quite decent, but it’s distinctly different.) When we’ve floated this thought before people have pointed out that it might extend down as far as Cambridge and up to Leeds, so something like this:

Mild map of England
Adapted from images at Wikipedia.

We’re not interested in pubs that sometimes have a guest mild, or left-field interpretations of mild. In fact, we’re sceptical of many micro-brewery milds which, through misunderstandings over how the style evolved, are too often really baby stouts. No, what we’re intrigued by is the idea that there are still pockets of the country where you could, if sufficiently perverse, be a Mild Drinker, day in day out, in roughly the same style as your parents or grandparents before you.

Continue reading “Mild in Manchester”

DETAILS: Performance Enhancers

Item: the pills they sell in pub toilets that definitely aren’t Viagra.

The other week in Munich with friends I mentioned how funny I found the various ‘blue pills’ they sell in gents toilets alongside condoms and other useful items such as a novelty penises that expand when you put them in water. The women in the group were astonished by this revelation, as was Boak when I mentioned it to her the other day.

So, because this leads me to believe other people may not know about this either, here’s an example:

Solid Gold vending machine in a pub toilet.This one is unusual in that it doesn’t have ‘blue’ in its name but otherwise the characteristics are typical:

  1. A vague suggestion of potency (extra strong) without any indication of what the active ingredient might be, if any. A quick search online suggests these ones are ‘herbal’ which leads me to conclude that you might as well eat a vegetable stock cube.
  2. Some iconography of ‘adultness’ — in this case, a simple nod to the BBFC’s 18 certificate logo, although it’s often an elaborate illustration of a ghostly blue naked woman.
  3. And a word that hints at what it is supposed to do to your physique without being open to challenge under Trade Descriptions — solid, if you catch my drift, nudge nudge, know what I mean?

Who buys these? The condoms I can understand but non-specific pills that might do… something? Then again, perhaps someone gullible enough to spend their cash on ‘medicine’ in a pub bog is also highly susceptible to the placebo effect.