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George Shaw, June 11, 2024

This man walks into a pub …

Filed under: Brewing Folk / My Life In Beer
This man walks into a pub …

Drink responsibly is what this fucking beer mat says. Jesus! I never used to drink at all. I could peel back this printed layer and write my life story in the few square inches of exposed bare cardboard. And then leave it behind on the table. Going out and not drinking. Staying in and not drinking. Hanging around by the subway and pretending to swig from the two litres of Strongbow or Blackthorn or Woodpecker. A bigger boy on a bike with cowhorns spitting on the floor and saying he’d just licked a girl out and swiping the bottle for his own swig to swill his bigger boy mouth out. Less for me to lie about, thank god. Pagan gatherings of glue sniffers with nicked booze and fags in the woods. No thanks. Not that I got the invite, bastards. Sixth formers pretending and posing and going to The Burnt Post after the exams. Or was it when the results came out? I was happier scarpering into town flicking through records, walking home and getting on with the present tense on my own. All the hanging out and drinking and smoking was so much wasted money, so much wasted time. Nothing to show for it the next day but empty pockets and bad breath. The Oak no bigger than a couple of tables. Should have been called The Acorn. The Rose and Crown and not getting thumped. On the edges of dance floors at the Dog and Trumpet or the Roma Wine Bar, even Busters, not drinking was like not dancing, a stubborn act of resistance, avoiding dog shit cliche, becoming somewhere else in the middle of the here and then. Always arriving too early and staying too late. Or so I thought. There wasn’t much drinking at home although there was some kind of history. Dad and Uncle Mick, mum having one too many at the Old Bull and Bush, pub gardens, lemonade and crisps, advocat and Harveys Bristol Cream, Hirondelle and Concorde wine on a Sunday, Jameson’s, the fated home brew. The rumour of lives having been lived some where else and by other people, all before we came along. And of course mum worked in The New Star when dad’s heart attacked him and the home.  And then was laid off. But none of us went to The New Star or even when it was just The Star. Or for that matter any of the pubs nearby. Their names had the faint mythical whiff about them; The Black Prince, The Hawthorne Tree, The Unicorn, The Woodlands, The Bell. and further afield The Bear and The Peeping Tom and The Bull’s Head. Places to walk to on a walk. For a short spell Mum was a kind of live-in landlady at the Horse and Jockey which was more than a walk away. We lived there for a couple of weeks one glorious summer. But without Dad which is odd now I come to think about it. What was that all about? When I was at the art schools not drinking was the character I brought everywhere. Once I ordered an orange squash in a pub in Glasgow after an opening and the barmen said sorry, they only served drinks. He gave me a pint of it for nothing and later kept his eye on me when I ate my chips in a door way so my feyness wouldn't get kicked in. Usually it would be just apple juice. Mostly nothing. Lost hours in The Psalter Tavern or The Stags Head, the Broomfield or The Broadfield. P.H. said he bought me my first drink on one of my birthdays probably my 21st in Henry’s in Sheffield but I’m sure that’s not true. What was it? Pernod and black. Served in a glass-for-a-lady most likely. Bulls eyes and ice. An anxious glass of pick ’n’ mix, my childhood smuggled into the future. And then one day being so bored with myself I just ordered a pint of Guinness and a Jameson’s and drank myself into a kind of anonymity, an ordinariness, the great inevitability.  Too much Thomas and Behan, like I was drinking ideas. The getting pissed didn’t bother me much. It was certainly never an ambition more an irritating by-product. For a while I simply enjoyed not being over there in my own world but being in someone else’s. Perhaps dissolving into history.The pub is always someone else’s world and I was fed up with mine. Where had it got me anyway? Picking the same scabs on the same knees since the mid seventies and the faint beginnings of a common middle aged white whine. Was there ever a time without pubs? Since childhood they have been the fantastical in a very common-place world, the doorway a border between one dimension and another.  Adults and the occasional under-ager vanishing mysteriously from the streets, bodies and personalities transformed, time being bent or standing still, day becoming night, escape becoming another cornering. Even each pub name was a Mappa Mundi way marker, the navigation through a strange land, warning and invitation, you are here or you are no longer here, one drink leading to another, the pissheads progress, here be dragons, passe avant.  A crapper Monday. Flat roofed, net curtained, real fire, more real cold radiators, not heated, not seated, perched, cosy, 24 hour happy hour, over-priced, empty, rammed, left alone, redecorated, rotting, themed, not themed, soundtracked, silenced, over heard, ignored … A day doesn't get any better than finding myself in a pub, perhaps a rainy afternoon, a bag of second hand books or records, a few fellow drinkers, no conversation save for a hello and a how are you, a nod maybe.  A pint and maybe a bag of nuts. Sometimes my notebook and a pen, sometimes a novel or the paper. Most of the time just staring into space or at whatever the cat dragged in, eavesdropping. Mostly mulling over what has happened, not happened, not going to happen and what will definitely happen. As I’m never local I’ve never really had a local. The landlord of The Fat Pig knows my name and my drink and that I’ve got a bag of over-priced records. Years ago it would have been a Guinness for certain. Then, depending on where I was, a pint of Shipstones or Bass, Black Sheep, Landlord, Doombar, Tribute, Beamish. A bottle of White Shield if you were lucky and a sober pourer. Rarely lagers or craftier beers… until I noticed that the middle of me was looking more middle aged than the rest of me and my face was looking like a wet smartie.  On summer afternoons I’d have a pint of cider every now and then and now that’s what I prefer. It sits well with me, half way between a wine and a beer, a reminder of the apple juice I used to take to ward off ordinariness. Perhaps the swig I failed to take in the subway catching up with me.  If I know the Guinness is going to be good - and it rarely is  - I’ll drink it till they kick me out. I keep looking at the dartboard mistaking it for a clock. I’m always thinking of the time. Drinking and being in pubs pushes that anxiety into the background. Time is marked in different ways. I’ve walked into a pub at midday, never the first customer even though it opened at midday, and within twenty minutes its feels like eight o clock in the evening. And I’ve lost count of how many times that time is called when I could swear that I’ve only just arrived. It's not time wasted, this. It's time being spent, of time having been spent, of time slipping away without my whittling, my fear, my clock watching. The bar man philosophically and poetically announces Time every night. The pub I’m drinking in this evening is called The Bell. One of the last drinks I had with my dad was in a pub near our home and it too was called The Bell. It was a bit of a crap pub but none the worse for that. He would have had something like a Tetleys or a Boddington’s because thats all they’d had. Shortly after dad died I made a drawing of the pub from a photo I’d taken many years earlier. The front of the pub had two big Bass signatures and as Bass was his favourite beer it was supposed to be a little tribute. In the making of the drawing I found myself looking at my dad reflected in the glass door of the pub as he was standing next to me when I took the original photo (no doubt waiting patiently for me to get my arty pretensions out of the way and get a pint). Unless you know the story you cant see the ghost of my father trapped in the pub, him for whom the bell tolled.  John Ding Donng. I’m happy to say that the last pint I had with dad and my brother was a pint of Bass. In the Royal Oak in Coventry. Many years later my mum’s wake was there too. Mum and dad met in The Kings Head in Marylebone. My dad played darts there and worked in one of the hospitals as some kind of odd job man cum porter. Mum was with her sister, fresh faced girls on the town from Donegal and other adventures. Dad was from Lancashire.  Dad told me a story that when he and his mate Terry first came to London they’d pin a map of the city on the wall and throw a dart at it to determine where they were going for a drink that night. Quite a few of the soho pubs and trad jazz bars only served halves so you could always spot northern working class blokes on a bender because they had a half in each hand. So I was told.  The last pint my dad had in London was in a pub near the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn after seeing a performance of The Quare Fellow with my brother and me. Perhaps the Colin Campbell? In pubs what’s important and what’s trivial can gently mix up. What will be my last drink, I wonder? My last visit to the pub? Will I know it will be the last time? Or will I be brought here as a knowing final act? I always like to know which is to be my last drink. The one for the road. What a tragedy to leave half way through but I’m sure that’s how it will be. Drink Responsibly? Who’s telling me to do that? The pub? the brewery? the police? the government? The great unseen. You can fuck off. Have you thought about governing the fucking country responsibly instead of mithering me about how I spend my evening. Why should I have to shoulder the burden? Perhaps it's just this beer mat talking to me. I’ll have just this one more pint then I suppose and then home.

PS just back from Langley Mill in Nottinghamshire where they served Bass in a pub called The Middle

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