Category Archives: london

Beer is Wisdom, and Wisdom is Beer

Adelphi Terrace off the Strand, 1906.

Adelphi Terrace off the Strand, 1906.

By accident, we’ve found ourselves collecting various bits of information about London’s trendy lager scene in the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The passage below from a 1909 book by James DouglasAdventures in London (full text), seemed too good not to share. It comes from a chapter called ‘The Philosophy of Beer’ in which the narrator is enjoying a night out in the West End with his friend ‘Falstaff’.

* * *

Pointing to a lantern over a narrow door, he cried:

“A Berlin!”

“Berlin here,” said I, “and Paris round the corner? You are absurdly fantastic to-night.”

He pushed into a room, dim with smoke and crowded with men and women sitting at huddled tables. Falstaff seemed to know everybody, for as he led me through the maze he sent salutes in all directions. His path was paved with laughter. At last he flung himself into a seat, and throwing his sombrero on the table, he seized a stone beer-mug and rapped a postman’s knock with the metal lid. A waiter, whose face was slit with a wide grin, hurried up.

“Varlet,” shouted Falstaff, as he smote the table with his clenched fist, “let there be beer!” And there was beer. For a moment his tongue ceased to wag, while he buried his nose in the pale amber flood. Then he banged the lid amain, and cried, “Varlet, let there be more beer!” And there was more beer.

“Now,” he said in a calmer voice, “let us sup.” Seizing a huge sheet, covered with a bewildering catalogue of German delicates, he began to descant upon the glories of Teutonic cookery.

“My son,” said he, “the Germans alone know how to create an unquenchable thirst. Every dish emblazoned on this document is salt. What is salt for? It is for the stimulation of the divine drought that demands an ocean of beer. You eat in order to drink.”

“Your palate,” said I, “is perverted. I decline to eat and I decline to drink.”

“Abject! I despise you. But I will eat for you and drink for you.”

“And he did. I stared in stupefaction as he devoured Westphalian ham, Frankfort sausages, pig’s knuckles, and sauerkraut. I looked round me and I saw scores of jolly fat men, who were pickling their throats in the same heroic fashion. The very sight made me thirsty. Round the walls of this briny temple were horns innumerable — horns of the goat, the elk, the buffalo, the deer, the ram, the sheep. Little horns. Big horns.

The lid clicked musically on the stone lip, and Falstaff lay back at last in Gargantuan ease, his golden beard bedewed with golden beerdrops.

“When I was in Heidelberg,” he began dreamily, “there was a fair-haired girl, with forget-me-not eyes, and . . .”

“And what?” said I.

“Ah,” said he, “and what?”

He gazed sternly at me, straightened his back, squared his broad shoulders, and pointed proudly to a faint scar on his left cheek.

“And that,” said he. “I drink to her rosy lips.” He dashed away a tear, and, stretching forth his hand to a tumbler, took a long crooked cigar, with a straw sticking out of the thin end. He lighted it, blew a mighty volume of smoke up to the ceiling, and, turning to me, put his huge paw on my shoulder.

“My son,” said he, with immense gravity, “the Germans are the only true philosophers. They see life through a sea of beer. Beer is the drink of philosophers.”

“I have heard of Bass and Guinness.”

“Bah!” said Falstaff. “They pall. Give me the brew that keeps oblivion at bay, that nourishes thirst while it quells it. The nation that can drink without being drunk is invincible. Germany is that nation.”

“I perceive,” said I sneeringly, ”that you are a sot.” A flush of anger mantled his clear brow.

“Creature,” said he, “a sot is not a philosopher. I am a philosopher. I sit at the centre of life and watch it going round with the contentment of contempt. It amuses me. It
tickles me. It arrides me. I tolerate everything — even you. Yes, my son, I find a reason for the meanest of the mean. Your chill sobriety pleases me. It is a bubble of contrast.”

“Drink,” said I, “is a curse.”

“Shall we put out the sun because shallow-pates die of sunstroke ? Fie upon you ! Look at these good cits with their buxom wives. Would you begrudge them their little Paradise?”

“It is artificial.”

“Is there any Paradise that is not artificial? My son, read Heine and Kant and Hegel and Haeckel and Nietzsche and Spencer and Shaw, and then tell me if all their wisdom is not folly. I drown them in a draught.”

With that he emptied his stone tankard, and swallowed all the wise men of the West in a gulp. As the waiter collected his pile of papier-mâché discs, and reckoned up his bill, Falstaff smiled happily.

“Beer,” said he, “is wisdom, and wisdom is beer.”

(See also this short post about the Tivoli Bier Garten on our Facebook page.)

Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House

“This is a basement under the angle between Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street. It is not trying to be Irish; it just is. A big, bare room with a central zinc-topped bar; no concession to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London… It has surely got the fairies on it, though mentioning fairies in this rough, shabby, real place you might get some strange looks.”

Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House, in Nairn’s London, 1966.

(NB. before it was Irish, it was German…)

The Alma, Islington.

Gallery: Pubs from Aldwych to Islington

Some pictures we took while walking from one meeting to another in London a couple of weeks ago. We’d forgotten quite how densely ‘pubbed’ London is, and how characterful and varied those pubs can be.

(There’s more of this kind of stuff on our Facebook page, by the way.)
The Black Friar, City of London.

The Snug Bar Preservation Society

With photographs by Teninchwheels.

For those of us who feel sad whenever a pub vanishes, this is a sad life. Progress, reconstruction, town-planning, war, all have one thing in common: the pubs go down before them like poppies under the scythe.

Maurice Gorham, The Local, 1939

Early in 2012, regulars at the Ivy House, a 1930s pub in Nunhead, South London, were stunned when its owners, Enterprise Inns, gave the manager a week’s notice and boarded the building up.

Howard Peacock, a secondary school teacher in his 30s who regarded the Ivy House as his ‘local’, felt what he calls a ‘sense of massive injustice’:

[The] pub was one that should have been able to stay open in any fair trading environment. The small local pubco that was running it… had been making a go of it even with restricted stocking options and limited profit margins thanks to the beer tie…

But he and his fellow drinkers (Tessa Blunden, Emily Dresner, Stuart Taylor and Hugo Simms) did something more than merely grumble and begin the hunt for a new haunt: instead, they launched a campaign to SAVE THE IVY HOUSE!

Nowadays, the idea of a community campaign to save a pub hardly seems remarkable — they are seen as an endangered species, the cruel property developers’ harpoons glancing off their leathery old skin — but a hundred years ago, thing were very different. Then, a cull was underway.

Read the rest of this ‘go long’ post after the jump →

Some Accidental London Pubs

The Chequers, Walthamstow

Our trip to London coincided with Craft Beer Rising, a big event on the beer geek calendar, but we didn’t get anywhere near it. Nor did we get to take on the Bermondsey mile.

Fortunately, in London, you’re never far from a pub, and we don’t know many people who take much persuading to meet in one.

1. Friday afternoon: The Craft Beer Company, Islington, for a meeting

This happens to be the nearest pub to our publishers’ offices and so we adjourned to what they call ‘Meeting Room Three’ for the last part of our discussion. We weren’t concentrating on the beer, really, but enjoyed Burning Sky Saison L’Hiver and Kernel London Sour well enough. A party of female students from various parts of the world sat to one side while two burly Londoners perched on stools in a corner.  Very pubby. We could happily have spent the entire weekend here, but duty called.

2. Friday night: The Pelt Trader, City of London, to see friends

Our friends demanded a central location, ‘not one of those real ale pubs’, near a station, with room for a fairly large group. The Pelt Trader fit the bill, though there were still grumbles about the lack of ‘normal beer’. A bit of a bare, noisy echo-chamber, but very efficient, with lots of bar surface to minimise queuing. It was good to try Burning Sky Aurora (a decent US-style pale ale) and to have another go at this Lagunitas IPA everyone is on about, though none of the beers blew our minds. Lasting memory: great service driven by a bar manager who seemed to grow happier and more energetic the tougher the crowd got.

3. Saturday evening: The Queen’s Arms, Walthamstow, out of thirst and curiosity

Having spent a day clearing out and cleaning a store room, we literally had dust in our throats. Seeking fresh air, we went for a walk around our old stomping grounds, and couldn’t resist checking out the Queen’s. It used to be just short of rough, but when we occasionally went there to watch football we were always made to feel welcome, as long as we behaved. It has recently, however, become a ‘gastropub’, straight out of 2002. It has a small range of not-the-usual beers, but nothing actually very good. Bare brick, candles, pushchairs. We felt sad at the loss of the karaoke stage and dart board. ‘One gastropub too many,’ seems to be the local view.

4. Saturday evening: The Nags Head, Walthamstow, for old times’ sake

This was our local for years — the pub we went to at least three nights a week and most weekends. It hasn’t changed much (cats, red lights, jazz) though the beer selection has taken a turn for the worse in some areas (Caledonian where once there was Crouch Vale and Mauldon), and improved in others (bottled Brooklyn East India Pale Ale in the fridge). Thwaites’ 13 Guns is a very nice bottled IPA, but by no means ‘intense’ as the label claims. The crowd was more Shoreditch than it used to be — younger, trendier, and more ostentatious about it — but the local bearded CAMRA stalwart and his partner were still sat in their usual corner — ‘one fixed point in a changing age’.

5. Saturday night: The Chequers, Walthamstow, for a pint with our hosts

We were staying with friends and this is where they like to drink, even though the William IV is nearer their house. Of course we were also interested to see what had happened to a pub that was once no-go, was taken over by Antic, and then taken away from them in mysterious circumstances. From outside, it looked as tatty as ever, and High Street remains eerily deserted at night with market packed up and gone. There was a healthy buzz inside, though, with, at a guess, 90 per cent of seats taken. We drank more Lagunitas IPA (we’d have loved it five years ago) and pints of Sambrook’s Porter, the first of their beers we’ve really enjoyed. Surprisingly, it had a real East London feel: if the DJ had stopped for a moment, we wouldn’t have been surprised at a spontaneous chorus of Roll out the Barrel.

6. Sunday lunchtime: The Castle, Walthamstow

Multiple sets of friends with multiple children adding up to a party of fifteen required a banqueting table and Yorkshire puddings. It was absolutely heaving with every seat and surface occupied. There was hardly a beer worth drinking (Adnams’ Broadside was just about OK) but the food was good, and the staff were friendly and professional, feeding and ejecting us in two hours flat without hurting anyone’s feelings.

7. The Village, Walthamstow, out of convenience

Our party of fifteen wanted to keep boozing, so we retreated to the nearest pub likely to have room for us — the poor old Village. This was once the best in the area, but hasn’t really kept up. Even here, though, there was something for the beer geek to observe: an off-the-shelf ‘craft beer solution’ for pubs seeking to capitalise on the latest market trend. That is, a fridge containing Kwak, St Stefanus Blonde, Viru Estonian pilsner, and so on, probably supplied by Matthew Clark (PDF) Twitter reckoned.

8. Sunday evening: Tap East, Stratford, to see Boak’s little brother

He was working a double shift behind the bar but we caught him on his break to discuss some family business. We took the opportunity to drink a couple of pints of Tonic Pale Ale brewed on site — austerely bitter and genuinely refreshing. Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale was the last of the day and reminded us why we used to get so excited about American beer: widescreen and awe-inspiringly Spielbergian. Almost everyone else was drinking Fuller’s Frontier Craft Lager or Koenig wheat beer — make of that what you will.

9. Monday lunchtime: The Mad Bishop & Bear, Paddington, on the way home

Most of our trips to London finish here. It’s not a lovely pub, but it has (a) a departure board; (b) cask ale kept to the high standard of most managed Fuller’s pubs; and (c) a nearly complete bottled range on offer, too. This time, we noted approvingly the addition of an information board listing all the available cask ales, when they were tapped, and when they were first served. We were also pleased to see a few beers from outside the Fuller’s empire, notably Castle Rock Harvest Pale.

All in all, this was a reminder that beer isn’t the only reason to go to the pub, and a great opportunity to look outside ‘the bubble’.