There are some publicans who aren’t managers or tenants merely ‘living the brand values’ for a year or two on their way somewhere else, but who are part of the pub, just as the pub is part of them.
We arrived in Bristol with a print-out of Stephen ‘Blue Giant Beer’ Powell’s very tidy pub crawl and, just as Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers used to be ‘The Book’, it became ‘The List’ – an authority to turn to in moments of confusion. One of the pubs on The List is the Bag of Nails in Hotwells which, along with the Three Tuns and the Grain Barge, offered a neat crawl-within-a-crawl. If we didn’t like one, we figured, we could move on to the next, finishing in the Grain Barge as a safe bet.
We approached the Bag of Nails cautiously. Luke, the guv’nor, isn’t ashamed to describe himself as ‘ranty’. Online, he occasionally gets angry at CAMRA and also at Brewdog, amongst other things. We’ll be honest: we were a little nervous – what if it was an angry pub? Then we remembered we were adults, gave ourselves a pep talk, and went for it.
We walked into the warmth and our spectacles (we are both four-eyed) fogged up as we stumbled towards the bar. As we commenced peering at the pumpclips, hoping that this atrocious hesitation wouldn’t get us thrown out, someone sitting on a high stool kindly leaned in: ‘I’d strongly recommend this one.’ We ordered a pint of that one, whatever it was, and a pint of something else, and scurried off to a free table. That is, mostly free – we were sharing it with a cat, but he didn’t seem to mind us too much.
In the cubby hole next to us were several boxes of records and a turntable. The walls were covered with admirably clear, detailed instructions on their use, only lightly peppered with the gentlest of threats: ‘Do not fuck up my records.’ After a while, the guv’nor came to change the music. We all but held our breath as he went about it, not wishing to invoke his wrath. ‘You can put the next one on when this side finishes,’ he said. It seemed, somehow, a much friendlier gesture than any ‘have a nice day’ scripted customer service speak ever does.
As the evening wore on, the crowd thinned out, and we realised for the first time that there was a tiny black kitten – as if from a Disney cartoon – prowling up and down on the bar. The guvnor was teasing it with a dangling key-ring. Perhaps not so scary after all?
We didn’t make it any further on our mini crawl and, in fact, had one more pint than we’d intended to because we were so comfy and contented. We thought it was a great pub, but not everyone will. Go and make your own mind up.