For ages, we’ve thought the trick to showing Ray’s parents a good time was taking them to proper pubs. It turns out we should have been going to craft beer bars.
Now, we’ve had some bloody good fun with them in places like the Merchant’s Arms and the Annexe, playing euchre and sharing bags of pork scratchings over pints of Butcombe or London Pride.
The other weekend, though, as we crawled around central Bristol with them, we were inspired to take them to Small Bar.
The specific trigger was a round of awful, buttery Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter at the William IV – a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all but does at least usually have cheap, decent beer.
We left feeling down in the dumps, the session in jeopardy, and Small Bar, Bristol’s craft beer central, seemed as if it might be the antidote – a short, sharp shock to jolt us all back to life.
“You might not like it,” we got in, preemptively.
Ray tried to identify something vaguely like Dad’s usual bitter and the staff reacted rather wearily, as if they get asked this all the time. In the end, it was two-thirds of Lost & Grounded Kellerpils that did the job. Ray’s Mum, who drinks lager when she’s not on whisky, got a murky pale ale – the kind of thing we don’t really enjoy, as a rule. And do you know what? She loved it.
In fact, they both thought Small Bar was great. It had a vibe, a bit of a crowd, and despite being the oldest people there by some stretch, they didn’t get looked at twice.
After that we thought we’d try them on BrewDog, which they also liked a lot: Punk IPA, it turns out, is a decent substitute for Butcombe. (Not sure BrewDog will be pleased to hear this, mind.)
They’re now planning to bring a couple of friends up for a craft beer crawl later in the summer.
For our part, we’ve learned a lesson: don’t make assumptions about what people will enjoy based on what they’ve enjoyed in the past, or based on their age.
Next time, we might take them on a taproom crawl – they’re probably cool enough to enjoy it, unlike us.
We spent a day in Edinburgh – just enough time to be intrigued but not enough to claim that we’ve even begun to understand it. But, anyway, here a few impressions.
First, Edinburgh’s pubs, based on the two we drank in and a few more we peered at, feel more like English pubs than those in Glasgow.
The Stockbridge Tap, with two reformed vikings behind the bar, could have been in Bristol, not least because of the presence of Tiny Rebel, Electric Bear and other familiar names on draught.
There were some Scottish beers – Swannay Island Hopping on cask, for example, and Crossborders Heavy on keg – but we got the impression those were for the benefit of visitors like us. The Heavy was our favourite beer of the day, though, bundling cherry with chocolate with the dark crust of a day-old rye loaf.
Crashing a get-together of local beer geeks we heard English, Australian, American and French accents, and contributed our own chat about the West Country and Walthamstow to this off-brand blend.
On the way back to the station, tanks dangerously full, we stopped at the Guildford Arms which had caught our eye as we rushed past it earlier in the day. It’s at the junction of a passageway and a backstreet, like many of the best pubs, and projects a distinct gin palace energy. A handy board outside tells the story:
In the period 1880–1910 a unique breed of luxurious pubs were built. This coincided with major changes to the city including the demolition of old buildings like The Turf Hotel and The Bridge Hotel… Curiously, and perhaps as a reaction to it, pubs like The Guildford Arms were built during the height of the temperance movement: their opulent character was in marked contrast to the dark and dingy bars of Edinburgh where the ceilings were not often beyond the reach of a man’s arm.
Though we chickened out of trying to cover Scotland in the 80,000 words of 20th Century Pub that really does seem a familiar narrative.
Inside, it felt like a London pub: a bar at the back, not horseshoeing through the centre, as we gather is the standard in Scotland; large windows with ornate detailing rather than frosted slits; with all the carpet and brown wood you could wish for.
And Fyne Ales Jarl in fine condition. This is what lured us through the door, if we’re honest, and we stopped for a couple of rounds, watching locals and German tourists navigate around each other at the bar and bargain over table space.
“Shame you didn’t make it to…”
Well, here’s the thing: we’re at peace with the idea that we can’t get to every pub in every city on every visit.
Cramming ten pubs into a single day just isn’t much fun for us anymore; we’d rather than spend two hours in one pub and three in another than just 20 minutes each in every stop on a crawl.
We also know we’ll go back to Edinburgh sometime and have another go.
That’s what we have to tell ourselves, anyway, or these kind of drive-bys would break our hearts.
We think about Wetherspoon pubs a lot. You can’t be British and do otherwise, really – they’re an institution, on almost every high street.
Lately, we’ve been consistently disappointed by the experience of drinking in them. They seem tatty, the quality of the offer declining, presumably as they struggle to retain the all important bargain prices as the cost of products go up.
But every now and then we’re reminded why they’re so popular: as truly public spaces, ordinary pubs and working class cafés disappear, Spoons fills the gap.
A week to so ago we found ourselves in a branch in east London with a few hours to kill, beginning at breakfast time.
It was quiet, you might almost say tranquil, full of natural light and the smell of ground coffee.
One man was there before us, and left after, leaning on a posing table, steadily downing pints of lager, conducting business on his phone: “I got a box of them Fred Perry’s coming in next week, and another load of them summer shirts – yeah, yeah, perfect for out and about in the day, nice fit for an older bloke.”
Another man came in, ordered coffee and a bacon roll, and then worked his way around the pub showing off a watch in cellophane, part of a new line. We couldn’t hear his patter, just the responses: “Lovely. How much? How many can you do? Alright, mate, I’ll give you a call Tuesday.”
An elderly man ordered his breakfast and a mug of tea using the phone app and when a member of staff brought it over, adopted a mock-posh accent to say, “I say, what what, jolly good, Jeeves! Any messages for me with the porter?” The waiter-barman laughed politely.
A gang of construction workers arrived, head to toe in orange, and apparently exhausted. They ordered full English breakfasts, teas and energy drinks, and colonised a corner.
A student bought a fruit tea and took an hour to drink it as she worked on her laptop.
A party in suits came in just before lunch, ordered lagers and wines, and rehearsed a sales pitch complete with slide deck.
People charged their phones, read newspapers and books, used the toilet, and generally treated the place as if it were a library or community centre.
The manager didn’t seem to object to the relatively small amount of money going over the counter. In fact, they made a point of reminding us that a £1.60 cup of coffee was bottomless.
What’s the idea here? To send a message, we suppose: if in doubt, go to Spoons. Whatever the occasion, whatever you want to eat or drink, whatever the time of day, wherever in the country you are, go to Spoons. You won’t be hassled or judged or, indeed, paid much attention at all.
We were in Scotland for ten days. It was Ray’s first ever visit and the first Jess has made for pleasure rather than work. We took a list of pubs recommended by the Good Beer Guide and social media but otherwise, as usual, let instincts and the advice of friends guide us. What follows are some impressions – snippets and moments – and we apologise in advance if we’ve put our feet in it culturally speaking.
Our train arrived in Glasgow towards the end of Friday night, and Glasgow, it turns out, goes big on going out.
Convoys of young women and scrums of young men stumbled by, all gym-buffed and contoured, dressed for Los Angeles rather than drizzle; parties of police officers stood by, detached and dour, with vans ready to be filled.
The tang of vinegar on hot chips, iceberg shreds scattered like confetti from kebabs, chicken nuggets straight from the sack, and Buckfast from the bottle in an alleyway, by the bins.
Laughter, mostly, and yelled into the night heckles, propositions and instructions from the nightlife brigadiers who keep their gangs on course from pub to club to bar.
Indoors, bolts shot, we drifted off to the late-stage of the party, the lullaby of smashing glass, distant four-four kicks drum loops, sirens and final kerbside murmurings.
The next morning, under tweed-grey cloud and seagull bombardment, the streets were silent, but here and there were lost shoes, disgorged dinners and shards of green glass.
This is going to be fun, we thought.
Wandering about, we got the distinct feeling we’d missed our opportunity to explore the traditional Glasgow bar.
It’s as alien to us as the Tabac – another culture’s way of drinking that’s a cousin to the English pub but absolutely distinct.
Here’s pub historian Michael Slaughter on what distinguishes Scottish pubs, from the 2007 edition of Scotland’s True Heritage Pubs:
One of the most distinctive exterior features of thousands of Scottish pubs and also the most noticeable difference between them and pub in other parts of the UK is that they occupy the ground floors of tenement blocks of flats alongside a variety of shops… This means that many Scottish pubs are often little different from adjacent shop-fronts, while pubs in other parts of the UK tend to be the only building on the plot, whether freestanding or part of a terrace. In Scotland, most pubs do not have living accommodation for licensees, due to early 20th-century legislation that made Sunday opening illegal. As a result, pubs were known as lock-ups.
And that’s what we saw in Glasgow beyond the city centre: flat-faced, blank, fortified bunkers that gave little indication from outside as to whether they were still trading.
Sometimes, it seemed, the buildings into which the bars had once been integrated had disappeared, leaving only the bar, one-storey high, flat-roofed and diminished.
John’s Bar and the Empire Bar captivated us in their romantic dereliction but the closest we got to drinking anywhere like this was the sanctified, certified-safe Laurieston.
“Take car. Go to mum’s. Kill Phil, grab Liz, go to The Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?”
The above line in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s 2004 zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, accompanied by a cartoonish wink and the raising of a pint of lager by Pegg, spawned a meme and summarises a whole (pointedly flawed) philosophy of life.
Shaun of the Dead is one of the all-time great pub films. Few others feature a pub so prominently as both a location and in dialogue; hardly any make a pub so pivotal to the plot. Shaun’s attitude to the pub, to this particular pub, defines his entire personality and directs the course of his relationships.
It has an added resonance for me in that, for several years in my own flat-sharing twenties, I lived around the corner from The Winchester.
And, to be clear, I don’t mean that I lived near a pub that was like The Winchester: the actual pub you actually see in the actual film was about four minutes walk from my house in New Cross, South London.
It was called the Duke of Albany and I never went in.
Why? I was too scared.
I was, in general, fairly brave, regularly drinking in several pubs near my house that others might have balked at – the kind of down-at-heel, last-legs places where it was a choice of Foster’s or Stella, and everything was ripped, stained, broken, or had initials carved into it.
The Duke of Albany always seemed next level scary, though, perhaps because it was a Big Millwall Pub. Or maybe because it was on a backstreet rather than the main road – the only street, in fact, where anyone has ever tried to mug me. I have a faint memory of there always being dogs outside and I don’t mean 10/10 floofy internet doggos – real face-chewers. You couldn’t see in, either, which meant walking through the door would have been a pure gamble.
And that fortress character is, of course, exactly why Shaun chooses it as his base for the zombie apocalypse.
The pub In Shaun of the Dead, though it is The Duke of Albany, isn’t the Duke of Albany. It represents every decent but unpretentious, tatty but not grotty, functional neighbourhood pub in London.
As such, it is lovingly, carefully depicted, Edgar Wright’s hyperactive camera swooping in on resonant details: a cowboy boot tapping a brass rail, the fireworks of the fruit machine, textured wallpaper varnished with nicotine, and frosted glass that speaks of privacy and mischief. TV screens, flaming sambucas, glasses that only just barely look clean…
It’s an attempt to depict a real backstreet, outer-rim London pub, not the romantic Olde Inne of popular imagination. An ideal, sure, but not a fantasy.
It picks up on threads laid down in Spaced, the cult TV show that launched the careers of Jessica Hynes, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost. One episode in particular, ‘Back’, the opening to series two from 2001, features a Matrix-like fight sequence in a very real-looking, unglamorous pub.
You might discern a progression, in fact. In Spaced, about post-adolescence, pubs are important, but just part of the mix alongside nightclubs, raves and house parties. By Shaun of the Dead, with characters staring down the barrel of 30, pubs have become the default, with fancy restaurants and dinner parties the threatened next step. And in The World’s End, pubs have definitely become a problem, something to be shaken off with maturity.
Simon Pegg has said as much outright, in fact, acknowledging last summer that he had stopped drinking, and describing The World’s End as a way of admitting his problem with alcohol.
Re-watching Shaun of the Dead recently both Jess and I were struck by the extent to which the specific pub culture depicted has already begun to fade out of existence. The portrayal of a lock-in, for example, gave us a rush of nostalgia for the world of drawn curtains, low muttering and conspiratorial glee.
The Duke of Albany closed a few years after the film came out and is now flats. When I visited New Cross last year I found that other similarly rough-and-ready pubs had also disappeared, either re-purposed, demolished or gentrified into something fundamentally different.
The Windsor had some of the old Winchester atmosphere, though, with chat about pool cues being broken over people’s heads (‘Don’t Stop Me Now’) and elderly drinkers whose faces told stories.
But would I hole up there during the end of the world? No chance. After all, man cannot survive on scratchings and Extra Cold Guinness alone.