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Will Burns, April 22, 2023

Old Men With Beer Guts and Dominos

Filed under: Brewing Folk / My Life In Beer
Old Men With Beer Guts and Dominos

It’s not quite true to say I grew up in pubs - though of course that might depend on exactly how far into adulthood we think of ourselves as continuing to ‘grow up’ - but I certainly feel I grew up around them. In beer gardens, or carparks, sat, for instance, outside the Warwick Castle on Ladbroke Grove with my brother in the passenger seat, pretending to drive the old man’s blue Montego with The Story of The Clash Volume 1 in the tape player. My parents loved the pub and it felt to me then as if the world of adults, a world I looked on with a blend of wonder and desire, was built around it, and it’s no surprise I have gravitated in my own time towards the same depth of feeling.

The pub. Even the phrase is magnificent - short, romantic, evocative, singular. God… pub. Paul Muldoon might count it as a rhyme. And of course with the pub comes drink. My memories of the pubs of my childhood are lager memories. Pints and pints of it in nonic glasses on picnic tables, bottles and cans of it, cold and dripping with condensation. Red Stripe in buckets of ice at the old Rough Trade shop during Notting Hill Carnival, or outside the pavilion at the ground of the shop’s cricket team where again I watched the grown-ups living as I wished to live - a dream of what I thought adulthood must be. Drink and sun and endless play.

And, so, somewhat inevitably, I too threw myself into lager as soon as I was able to. I had my first two ‘drinking buddies’ in Bradley and Ben from the village, who had thrown the towel in at school before the sixth form and had proper jobs, and we went out most nights, as I recall, hit three or four pubs, Ben mostly chucking his money into the fruit machines, Bradley and I playing pool or putting the only Dinosaur Jr song on the jukebox on over and over again. Castlemaine XXXX in The George, Kronenbourg in the Red Lion and Carlsberg Export in the King and Queen. In the mind’s eye of memory these pubs were almost magically - impossible surely to imagine now - busy, rammed full every night of the week with what seemed like the whole life of the village. Why on earth would anyone stay in and watch TV when all this conversation, banal, brilliant, threatening, flirtatious, funny, was there for the having . Like Guy Clark sang, ‘Old men with beer guts and dominos, lying about their lives…’

And lager remained a true friend when I left the village for university, it washed down the heartaches and thwarted ambitions, it lubricated the gears of new friendships and lusts - loves even. It provided the all-important debriefings, the decompression, after band practise, or a cricket match, or football, or, dare I say it, even work if the devil had so driven me. It was the physical manifestation of time properly spent. Time that was mine, or better still, ours. Freedom.

In many ways - and I think I’m happy to say it, I’ve never really ‘grown up’ - I’ve spent my adult life working in record shops, wasting time it on doomed bands and - ha! - writing poetry, and I find myself now living just a few hundred yards from one of those seminal pubs of my youth. Even better, my parents now run it. It’s quieter than I think I remember, as if the building itself, and the culture it stands monument too, is in its own dotage and decline, but I still get the same thrill out of being there as I did when I first truly fell for the place, along with all the others of its kind. When the pubs were closed during the pandemic I tried to articulate that feeling in a novel, The Paper Lantern, a kind of ode to the real-life King and Queen in my home town of Wendover and its strange mis-match of regulars and odd-balls.

In my own late-middle years I have come to adapt my tastes somewhat. I no longer need the simple dry ice of lager - though dig your allotment over, or stand in the outfield for a few hours in the baking sun and tell me a lager top isn’t exactly the right drink afterwards. It’s with the possibly inevitable step of my folks finally taking a pub on, and with it my own habits changing, that a real, profound, appreciation of beer has come about. Is it seasonal? There are times, for instance, when you know the Landlord (extremely well kept cellar in the King and Queen) is going to be perfect, or some local drop is on, or alternatively something exotic, or new. The taste of the stuff has come to matter. It’s still about the pub for me, as much as the drink itself - about the room and its inhabitants, about socialisation and talk, so I’ve not embarked on home-brewing, or the tracking down of outlandish, insanely strong DIPAs (I still want five or six pints of the stuff, minimum, so the real mind-bendingly strong gear isn’t always practical…), nor do I have a hop-tasting, beer-locating equivalent of the bird-watchers tick list, but I have come to thoroughly enjoy those hoppy, un-fined beers that, for want of a better word, have come to be known by the epithet ‘craft’ and I have one or two breweries I look out for, and a few real favourite beers - hazy pale ales mostly, ice cold Mexican beer in bottles, good quality German lagers… the truth is, I suppose, that I love it all. Good beer. The pub. Simple pleasures, perhaps, but I just don’t think things really get much better.

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