Scotland #2: A tiny taster of Edinburgh

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.

The Stockbridge Tap.

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.

The Guildford Arms.

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.

Wetherspoons as public forum

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.

It’s clever, that. Oth­er pubs – prop­er pubs – might learn some­thing from that.

Scotland #1: Glimpses of Glasgow

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.

Glasgow Bars.

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.

Inso­far as we know them at all, it’s from Scott Graham’s blog, Old Glas­gow Pubs and the odd bit of research we’ve done into, for exam­ple, Alex Ferguson’s brief career as a pub­li­can. And, of course, from por­tray­als on TV.

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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Scot­land #1: Glimpses of Glas­gow”

A Nice Cold Pint at the Winchester

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.

The unwritten rules of round-buying

There are few things as odd as reading an observed description of your own culture’s unconscious habits, such as the buying of rounds of drinks.

When we arrived in Glas­gow last week­end we browsed the guide­books sup­plied in our flat and stopped short when we found a note, aimed at vis­i­tors to Scot­land, on how to buy rounds:

Like the Eng­lish, Welsh and Irish, Scots gen­er­al­ly take it in turns to buy a round of drinks for the whole group, and every­one is expect­ed to take part. The next round should always be bought before the first round is fin­ished.

It was that last line that gave us pause.

We’ve nev­er real­ly thought about how rounds are paced, even though we’ve some­times been aware of strug­gling to keep up with fast-drink­ing friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers, and  on oth­er occa­sions of sit­ting with emp­ty glass­es wait­ing for the round-buy­er des­ig­nate to make a move.

Our Twit­ter fol­low­ers offered vary­ing points of view:

  • The fastest drinker sets the pace.
  • The slow­est drinker sets the pace.
  • If you drink espe­cial­ly quick­ly, you should buy the odd pint on your own to fill the gaps.
  • The round-buy­er should go when there’s a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty at a busy bar.

Which sug­gests that if there are rules, they’re flex­i­ble, and vary from place to place, and group to group.

We also looked at Pass­port to the Pub, a bril­liant piece of work by soci­ol­o­gist Kate Fox from 1996 which attempts to break down in exquis­ite detail every aspect of pub cul­ture for the ben­e­fit of non-Brits. She writes:

Don’t wait until all your com­pan­ions’ glass­es are emp­ty before offer­ing to buy the next round. The cor­rect time to say “It’s my round” is when your com­pan­ions have con­sumed about three-quar­ters of their drinks. (Beware: the natives tend to drink quite fast, and may have fin­ished their drinks when you have bare­ly start­ed.)

She also adds, how­ev­er:

Don’t be afraid to refuse a drink. If you can­not keep up with the drink­ing-pace of your native com­pan­ions, it is per­fect­ly accept­able to say, “Noth­ing for me, thanks”. If you alter­nate accept­ing and declin­ing dur­ing the round-buy­ing process, you will con­sume half the num­ber of drinks, with­out draw­ing too much atten­tion to your­self. Avoid mak­ing an issue or a moral virtue of your mod­er­ate drink­ing, and nev­er refuse a drink that is clear­ly offered as a sig­nif­i­cant ‘peace-mak­ing’ or ‘friend­ship’ ges­ture – you can always ask for a soft-drink, and you don’t have to drink all of it.

There’s also a lot of good stuff on round-buy­ing in the 1943 Mass Obser­va­tion book The Pub and the Peo­ple, includ­ing a note on how drinkers in Bolton in the late 1930s kept pace with each oth­er to avoid awk­ward­ness:

[All] our obser­va­tions show that the major­i­ty of pub-goers tend, when drink­ing in a group, to drink lev­el; and very often there is not a quar­ter inch dif­fer­ence between the depth of beer in the glass­es of a group of drinkers… The simul­ta­ne­ous emp­ty­ing of glass­es is the most fre­quent form of lev­el drink­ing. And it is (for rea­sons con­nect­ed with the rit­u­al of stand­ing rounds) the most like­ly form of lev­el drink­ing that is due to ‘antic­i­pa­tion’.

We sus­pect a fair bit of this still goes on today even if, again, those doing it don’t know it’s hap­pen­ing. Or maybe this is a bit of a lost art?

In prac­tice, of course, all of these rules or cus­toms are under­stood with­out being spo­ken, and pos­si­bly com­plete­ly uncon­scious­ly. We mod­er­ate our behav­iour based on the group we’re with, our knowl­edge of people’s finan­cial sit­u­a­tions, or their capac­i­ty for alco­hol.

The only time strict rules are like­ly to be enforced is when we’re drink­ing with com­plete strangers.

Anoth­er thought: in a good pub, there are plen­ty of options for keep­ing pace with­out get­ting exces­sive­ly drunk. For exam­ple, Pal­ly makes the pace with pints of strong ale; Matey, drink­ing a bit quick­er than they’d like, is on best; and Woss­name, who keeps hav­ing to chug the last third of every pint, takes ordi­nary bit­ter at 3.7%. They all end up about as pissed as each oth­er.

At our local, the Drap­ers, a fur­ther refine­ment can be found in the four-pint jug. First, choos­ing the beer is a real team exer­cise, leav­ing no room for fussi­ness. Sec­ond­ly, shar­ing, while not strict­ly equi­table, does solve the pac­ing prob­lem: if your glass is emp­ty, have a slug more; if the jug is emp­ty, some­one needs to get a round in.

Final­ly, Kate Fox also makes the point that it’s as bad to make too much fuss about equal­i­ty in round-buy­ing as it is to be seen as stingy. After all, it gen­er­al­ly evens itself out across mul­ti­ple ses­sions, or over the course of a life­time of friend­ship – a boozy take on the con­cept of kar­ma.

Only once that either of us can remem­ber have we encoun­tered some­one who real­ly broke the unspo­ken rules of round-buy­ing, almost seem­ing to make a game out of avoid­ing pay­ing their way over the course of months. Even­tu­al­ly, after about a year of mount­ing irri­ta­tion, there was an inter­ven­tion and they were forced to buy a rea­son­ably-priced round in a Sam Smith’s pub in cen­tral Lon­don. This was, as you might imag­ine, an awful thing to wit­ness.