Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Ghost in the Shell: St Johns Wood

folk like to get together of an evening in one of the many local estate agents

The above image is of an estate agents in St Johns Wood in North London. It’s odd insofar as behind the blue Volkswagen Polo, there is a trapdoor to the agent’s basement chased into the pavement. Whatever for? There’s also the proud mounted sign. There are the celled and smoked windows that allow daylight to enter but inhibit folk from peering in - this would just hinder the advertising of properties, surely? Then there’s the small front yard which, if you notice, won’t allow any cars in but would be perfect as an enclosure for say…. outside tables. They could even be used in the evening as light would be provided by the central courtyard lamp. Bizarre.

Yes I’m being facetious. Up until recently it was a pub called The Star. It was originally a Charrington's pub which was later taken over by Punch Taverns. I only ever went in there once in about 2006. My recollection is of a very dark, booth-like and smoky pub as this was before the smoking ban. It was a typical back street boozer. I seem to recall Flowers bitter on keg but it was before I’d kindled an interest in beer - my staple would’ve been Guinness at the time. The ghost has departed this shell. At the time of writing, this ex-pub still bears the original panes for Charrington's Ales & Stout. It would be hard to imagine these surviving as all estate agents use clear back-lit windows so properties can seen by passers-by.

original panes like this make it difficult so see photos of 2-bed properties

In the 1997 film Men in Black, chameleonic actor Edgar D’Onofrio plays an intergalactic cockroach that inhabits a human’s flesh like an ill-fitting suit. He shambles about the movie with his face stretched across his skull and his arms and legs rigid and stuffed to the cuticles because the alien ‘roach is roughly 6 times the size of the human skin it’s wearing. When I look at Champion Estates, it’s easily as incongruous. 

There’s an architectural term that’s used to describe valued buildings whose fronts have been maintained (and are often listed), but whose rears have been desecrated: an amalgam of facade and sodomy - fasodomy.

A good example of fasodomy can be found in Lancaster Gate off Bayswater; Spire House is a reworked 19th Century church whose derriere has been unsubtly converted into a block of flats complete with intercom system. Dry rot was discovered in what was Christ Church and the cure - demolition - started in 1977. The flats were finished in 1983. The head has been saved, the body sacrificed. There should be an equivalent term for buildings that so obviously used to be pubs.

seamless: see if you can spot where the old church ends and the new flats begin

The Knights of St Johns Tavern on Queens Terrace to the rear of St Johns Wood tube station is the headquarters for an urban regeneration project called The Riding School. Its target is the development of what used to be a military barracks around the block. The website boasts that it will preserve the heritage of the site - by which it means build a swimming pool within the grounds to the rear and erect luxury apartments around it. For this ex-pub, it’s fasodomy of a kind. On the frontage there are twin Toby Ale plaques and high up on the building, a beautiful cartouche to the former Charrington's (and later Wells’) pub’s name. The beauty is a reflection of the craftsmanship, not the fact the stonework depicts Moors being slaughtered by Christians on horseback.

What St Johns Wood has now is a small portfolio of ex-pubs that invoke more interest than the diminishing list of current ones. For a map of pubs and ex-pubs, see

also see:

St Johns Wood is certainly no destination for beer. Its high street is like a showcase of affluent food & drink chains. There’s Carluccios, The Bread Shop, Starbucks, Gelato Mio, Pret a Manger etc etc. What it also has in abundance, as wealthy areas generally do, is estate agents. The irony is that the greater the sum of agents selling the benefits of the zone 2 tree-lined “village”, the less of that characterful “village” there is as the agents swallow up the community’s shops and bars themselves. For the time being, the manor’s tidy, spacious and acts as a suburb to the north of Regents Park. 

gentle pastel blues and blushing pink make up this tableau of ethnic cleansing 

Confined within the vehicular triangle made by Wellington Road, Avenue Road and Prince Albert Road, there are only three actual pubs left: The Ordnance - A Samuel Smiths pub, The George - a small bar with the token line of European keg beers and The New Inn - a Green King pub/ Thai restaurant. Everything else is a ghost.

Is there a hierarchy to the scale of the tragedy?

The Lyndhurst Club on Allitsen Road used to be a pub called Pitt’s Head. It now has a somewhat sclerotic identity crisis as it has two parallel websites; firstly as the largest Japanese private gentlemens club in London, secondly as a modern Karaoke club that advertises room service. Does it mean table service? Wholesomeness or lack thereof aside, when a pub becomes a club (by which I mean a party/disco venue rather than a working men’s or Labour/Conservative club), there is a sense of it staying in the same clade but being a completely different species. It’s disconnected from the outside world, there’s exclusivity. It’s not somewhere you can just pop in and the older you are, the less likely your custom - although in this particular example, it might make it more likely! Communities do not get together in a club of an evening.

At the corner of the High Street and the Terrace is a white building with what looks to be a sculpture of an eagle at its apex. Look closer - there are flames broiling around the talons. It used to be called The Phoenix and it’s now a pharmacy. The only link is that the community’s older generation can go in there for their regular fix of mind-altering substances but they can’t lean against the till necking them with the other customers - they’re expected to take their drugs home; more like a jug bar.

what was once The Phoenix - it still provides succour to the elderly community

When a pub becomes a local business like Equipe - a hairdresser’s on Charlbert Street, it stays part of the community fabric. It’s a service and it employs. Regulars will go there and, because of the intimate one-to-one nature of salons, it will remain a place where people go to chat with each other too.

When a pub becomes a strip joint of which there are none in St Johns Wood (the jury’s out on The Lyndhurst Club) - it’s probably just a phase it’s going through. This was the case for The Scottish Stores in Kings Cross which re-opened last year as a generous craft watering hole. Three cheers for the art form of burlesque but boo to sleazy G-string joints and the dodgy mulleted people who run them.

Ever since The Eagle in Clerkenwell Green - often cited as the first gastro - pubs and restaurants have merged, occupying the ends of a sliding scale. Right at the pub end you would have a bar with no cooked food, lots of standing space and often pool or darts. At the restaurant end, just wine and bottled lagers. The majority of pubs nowadays reside somewhere in the middle of the scale in order to survive. In St Johns Wood, The Crown, The Sir Isaac Newton and The Portland Arms all became restaurants or diners that retain a bar.

when buildings were built with pride

We should compensate for pubs that become restaurants as they still bear a lifeline to their pub past and could still support local breweries. Beer pubs like The Harp have their reputation and the millions of people that visit the Covent Garden area. We can’t expect this to be the case on each street corner in every town. A resurgence in craft beer can encourage restaurants to develop their bar and strengthen the link. Restaurants will also make full use of the kitchen, improve the toilets and employ more people as well as potentially source more produce locally for ingredients. It could thereby sustain local producers and dealers. This is to counter an oft tilted argument that keeping pubs open protects employment and supports local businesses. In a pub’s case - just the breweries.

There is too the possibility that by one remove it might return to being a pub as the licence to sell booze is still exercised. When a pub becomes a supermarket, on the basis of the local community using it and being employed by it, the value is many times greater than the pub. The change of venue however, is too radical and all-encompassing to ever revert back.

The Portland Arms is now a Carluccio’s, its model is a restaurant that is also a shop. The distinction between coffee shops and supermarkets (Waitrose now incorporates a coffee area) - and restaurants and shops - is becoming blurred. So too is the bar. We have seen a healthy surge in beer shops which also act as tap rooms. A lot of people who frequented pubs that can’t keep up to speed with the latest tastes in beer visit brewery taps instead at the weekends.

Carluccios and a man dragging a terrier by the throat

The rate of pub closure in the area was made clear to me when, in summer last year in the nearby Church Street Estate, I happened to see the contents of what used to be a pub called The Perseverance (I know - the irony) being sold on the street outside. I bought a boxful of metal & plastic pump shields for £5. Around the same time, a pub just around the corner called The Globe closed but re-opened as a fully qualified modern craft beer bar. It seems that either the business adapts quickly or disappears. The greatest tragedy is when the building is transformed into something it was never meant to be like the estate agents. You know that as a place where people dwell and drink together, it’s gone forever.

In my home town of Saint Albans there have recently been pub closures. There was a campaign to get a threatened pub in an area where there are no other pubs ACV status. The pub was a McMullens tied house called The Camp. The status was given but the building was bought and developed for housing. South Herts CAMRA - of which I’m a member - started a petition but I didn’t sign it as I couldn’t reconcile the ex-pub with a salvageable business. I had visited only twice. Both me and my dog were given a friendly welcome but there were signs of fatigue; only several locals providing custom on both visits, loads of empty space. 

Two other pubs looked likely to close but were resuscitated. Both The Crown and The Great Northern looked likely to become houses but had money spent on them and were completely turned around. No matter how remote the possibility, I regret not signing the Camp’s petition as a window of possibility - no matter how narrow - might’ve put the running into the hands of someone who could turn it into a place the greater public actually wanted to go.

etching detail from Megan's Diner - it was The Sir Isaac Newton

The Crown and The Great Northern both completely changed their business models; they became places of light, employed chefs, made the premises family friendly, set up Wi-Fi and employed website designers. A good pub needn’t have these things but a business determined to attract as many people as possible and be viewable online does. Pubs that are failing can’t expect to just open up as they were before even if the small group of locals that patronised it for years would want it that way.

Finally, coming back to St Johns Wood and its ex-pubs, when a pub becomes Tibet House - the headquarters of a Tibetan charity that was opened by the Dalai Lama who is its patron, and  simultaneously the Kailash Centre of Oriental Medicine, to be honest it’s such a curve ball I haven’t a clue. It was once called The British Flag. It was a Watney Combe Reid house on Newcourt Street.

At the centre of St Johns Wood is the Townsend Estate. It has well-maintained, well built and smartly laid out blocks of council and ex-authority housing. This lives cheek by jowl with the affluent wide stuccoed streets like the High Street, St Johns Wood Terrace, St Anns Terrace and Ordnance Hill. There’s also another cadre that characterises the area - a large American population. There has long been an American school in St Johns Wood. Don’t all these people need a local?

once a common fixture on buildings in London

I frequent one of the chains I’ve already mentioned - Starbucks and it draws the builders & decorators that also find custom in the area along with tourists (often preparing for a photo opportunity on the nearby Beatles-related Abbey Road pedestrian crossing), French ex-pats, the wealthy middle class and the Americans. When I’m sipping a coffee, I recognise a lot of the regulars who bring their pooches in and I can’t help but reflect that this experience might have supplanted the community’s pubs. At this corner, coffee is the new beer and it’s served in pints. Smart phones have replaced conversation. I’m as guilty as everyone else.

The most exciting thing happening in St Johns Wood in terms of beer might actually be that its branch of Spirited Wines on the High Street is selling bottles by the Wild Beer Co in Somerset. Could it be that with more focus on craft beer and less on wine, it ends up becoming a tap room and beer shop? Might I walk past and see The George boarded up only to re-emerge as a Craft Beer Co pub emulating the namesake of what was The Phoenix right opposite? Probably not, but things are changing with regards to drinking habits and the venues they’re habituated in.

The ex-pubs in St Johns Wood still feature the cartouches, date plaques, etched window panes, sculpture, and saloon doors of their previous incarnations. Researching the ex-pubs, I’m also intrigued to find that all but one (The Knights of St Johns Tavern) occupy street corners rather than being terraced. Even if the beer experience is weak here, it’s worth a walk around just to see the architectural shells that remain. Think of it as a ghost tour.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Best Craft Beer Bar in London?

Behind the bar, a hand pull without a clip is pumped a few times by the publican. The small measure that sloshes into the glass is raised. The serving area is more brightly lit than on the public side so I can see the light amber hue of the beer. It glows as it’s held aloft and turned from side to side. A nose is probed into the glass and then it’s knocked back and drained. He pauses and ruminates as if studying an invisible text. The answer’s no - a quick shake of the head confirms it. The remainder’s poured into a jug and the beer engine continues to be pumped. The ale wasn’t quite ready.

cleaning the line - a fast turnover but never rushed

What I’ve just witnessed is a man check the look, aroma and taste of the liquid he’s just drawn up from a cask in the cellar below him. Whenever I see the above choreography at a bar, I know I’m in a place that takes its beer seriously and the hundreds of people that patronise this pub daily obviously agree with me. Cask ale stands proudly under the craft umbrella even if it’s not seen that way - both by many drinkers of cask ale that don’t like the craft soubriquet and by other craft drinkers who regard it as dull. But think about the word craft and what it means in the broadest sense and then consider the care that goes into the brewing, sourcing, storing and dispensing of beer here; synonymity.

To wildly overgeneralise, two divergent experiences have evolved when it comes to cask vs (key)keg. We are talking about malt & hops versus yeast & hops. Cask beer has traditionally been very malty to the extent that even drinkers who cut their teeth on it can now feel put off by the sweet sweaty aroma of some of our older staples. Over the past couple of decades, as a reflection of the American craft beer scene, the hops have come up for equal parity and often dominate. This has produced a shift in cask ale tastes. Simultaneously, craft beer served from (key)keg has been dominated by heavy hop and yeast incursions. I needn’t draw attention to the modern hops arms race but with the kegs you also get the Lactobacillus, the Brett, the Saison and Lager yeasts that aren’t as well suited to cask condition. Whilst The Harp serves some good examples of keg beer (represented by Kernel and Mondo Brewing on my last visit), its staple is cask - the malt and the hops. I also find that cask beer starts off underwhelming but the attributes grow as the pint is downed. With keg beers, I find the character arrests you at the start but reaps diminishing returns towards the end. But maybe that’s me.

Whereas the general evolution of craft beer bars has produced those dominated by kegs with occasional cask, The Harp is simply a pub dominated by exceptionally well kept cask with some additional well-sourced keg. This pub is also a home to good cider and perry and a broad range of bottled beers.

The Harp has the most rapid beer turnover of any pub I know. This process was originally overseen by the landlady Binnie Walsh but has been kept up under Fullers who now own the pub. Over the past decade, I have spent hours watching to see what beer is about to come on - a process that takes a mere ten minutes here. I don’t normally subscribe to notions of “cosmic ordering” but I have found myself trying to wish a specific ale to appear. I once desperately wanted to try Greenjack Brewery’s Lurcher Stout. After the ten minute hiatus the clip was turned to face the public and there it was!

watching beers come on is a spectator sport in The Harp

Einstein calculated in 1951 that time equals money. Around 5pm on a Wednesday I watched as a pint was drawn 8 times per minute - this during a lull time. The Harp gets through around 35 - 40 firkins of the rotating guest beers each week. Into the evening the door creaks open and clonks shut as the babbling noise absorbs more human bodies. From an oblique angle, the hand pulls along the bar bow perpetually like pumpjacks on an oil field. It’s mesmerising to watch.

Every so often it rewards its customers with a cask of Fullers Vintage Ale - Fullers own barrel-aged barley wine. It’s that good it warrants its own paragraph as anyone lucky enough to have scored some can attest.

The variety of beer on offer at any time on any day is sweeping. There’s no point saying cask has a limited range when you’re confronted with a kaleidoscope of porters, bitters, pale ales, IPAs, milk stouts, rye beers, milds, black IPAs and barley wines. On a recent visit I had an obsidian black and velvety smooth Weird Beard Black Perle Milk Stout, a crisp, lemony hopped invigorating Dark Star Hop Head, a dark malty caramel Aylesbury Brewhouse Company Ursa Major and a zesty honey-like Vale Brewery Gravitas. Each charged from the life thriving in the hidden firkins.

you can hear the conversation drifting out of this image. Note also the concentration of the man navigating through the narrow straits with pints in hand

The pub also retains some clever and popular permanents at either end of the hand pull parade - Hop Head and American Pale Ale (golden, bitter and tropical) by Dark Star, Sussex Best (dark, fruity and malty) by Harvey’s. It’s also a pub that champions selling beer from local start-up breweries so they can get their foot in the door. It hosts tap take-overs, most recently from Kew and Oakham. Despite all these pros, there are also two gleaming Fosters taps to cater for people with impaired sensory chops. 

There are other reasons apart from the ale that I rate The Harp so much though:

There is a great crowd diversity. I watch young skinny-Jeaned calves in their twenties pick their way through the fattened herds. I see septuagenarians holding court with a flush of colour to the cheeks and the freedom to laugh aloud. I see the hipsters’ concave abdomens balancing out the CAMRA drinkers’ convex bellies. There are suited folk who have just finished work, retired couples dressed up for an evening in the West End and even MPs and celebrities. Everybody’s back to back loosening up in the communal warmth. The feeling of a shared experience, what the Germans call Gemutlichkeit, is overwhelming in this pub. The atmosphere’s never tense like it can be in many busy pubs and it’s there seven days a week, not just at the weekend.

The staff. Many of the good people in The Harp have been there years and have developed a near telepathic link with customers getting to the end of their pint. They sense it and instinctively gravitate towards you. There can be three layers of fellow primates between you and the bar but you’ll still be served in good time.

Warmth and comfort: this is something it really has over a lot of craft beer bars. The warmth is generated by the rich earthy colours in this pub and unlike many craft beer bars, it isn’t afraid of the light. It has a theatrical splendour with ceiling fans and chandeliers. The walls are filled with paintings and mirrors. The portraits aren’t of the subverted kind - they’re of straight study. You find yourself looking at the subjects’ faces trying to assess their thoughts and character. The main draw - a visual banquet - is the canopy of pump clips over the bar. In my ten years of coming to The Harp, I can actually scan the flanks of this collage and pick out memories amongst its cells. 

so many golden memories......

When the sun comes out the gorgeous stained glass windows that look out onto Chandos Place open inwards offering another means of refreshment. Upstairs there is a serene chill-out room like an opera house foyer with comfortable armchairs and soft light. I always see something I’d not noticed before. Last week I finally noticed the little wooden grotesques under the bar with the bag hooks. Wood - especially oak - is a material that acts as a sedative on a crowd.

Value: measures of cask beer cost considerably less than those of (key)keg craft beer. In London the latter’s about £6 and sometimes as much as £9. A session strength pint in The Harp is about £4.

When the turnover is quick, when the cellarmanship is tight, when the condition is induced, cask beer is one of the best value and rewarding craft beer experiences there is. It’s often more complex than a £20 barrel aged bottle conditioned beer and deeper and more engulfing than punchier primary-coloured equivalents on keg. Once a cask’s been tapped, there’s a narrow window of time it needs to be consumed in for optimum quality. It’s when this care isn’t taken or people don’t drink it that cask ale gets its poor reputation for being bland and flat - which it can equally be. You won’t find that neglect here at The Harp, it’s its reason for existing and it’s my primary reason for nominating The Harp as London’s best craft beer bar.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Full of Beans

Two of these beers feature a flaming red-eyed demon with gnashing teeth

It’s been absolutely perishing in the evenings of late. It’s that kind of time when only something dark, strong and stimulating will do - preferably by the fireside. I’ve therefore summoned together three behemoths as black as night to ward off the chill. These beers have attitude and a possible history of assault. In both senses of the term, they’re also full of beans.

We have a bottle of 3 Bean Stout - a collaboration between Norwegian brewers Lervig Aktiebryggeri and Brazilian brewers Way Beer. This stout is made with tonka beans which are the seeds of the South American Cumaru tree. I’ve no idea what tonka tastes like but It’s related to the pea family. It also has vanilla and coco beans. It’s a stonking 13 ABV.

Then we have our own Beavertown Brewery’s ‘Spresso - an imperial espresso stout made with the help of London roasters Caravan with 40kg of their Guatemalan Xutuc coffee beans so again, we’re with South America as a theme. It’s also been brewed with oats and molasses. This beer’s in a can and features a psychotic red-eyed skull with pronounced teeth in front of a flaming background.

Finally, we have a bottle of Flying Dog’s Kujo imperial coffee stout from Virginia in the U.S. They source their beans from black dog coffee. The following excerpt features on the reverse of the label: “Enjoy your new pet!”, he said. Twelve hours later, your heart is pounding as you wake up to find the savage beast growling over a puddle of your neighbour’s organs" Delightful. The aforementioned beast on the label looks psychotic with a glowing red eye, pronounced teeth and flames in the background. Is this recurring motif down to deranged minds thinking alike or a side-effect attributable to drinking imperial coffee stouts?

I’m not sure whether any of these culprits is conditioned with yeast or sugar. I didn’t read it or see any in the blackness that trickled out.

Lervig 3 Bean Stout (13 ABV):

Tonka beans can be grated like nutmeg. Also like nutmeg, it can be toxic in large doses but then so can alcohol, coffee and chocolate. It’s used in the manufacture of perfume and is a popular gourmet cooking spice in French desserts. In the U.S.A it’s been technically illegal since 1954 as it was considered to be a blood-thinner. It’s also been likened to opium. After all that, sipping this beer is either going to be a near-religious experience or a needle that’ll prick the anticipation I’ve swelled up into. 

The pour’s not actually black but an intense dark brown with blood red at the edges and is utterly viscous. The head is more of a khaki tattoo imprinted onto the surface like an orb spider web rather than anything you can swirl up. You don’t get coffee on the aroma (which is fair enough as there isn’t any in it). Instead, it smells like a cross between enamel paint and cherry liqueur. I’d go so far as to say the aroma’s like that strawberry cream you get in chocolate assortment boxes most people leave behind. It’s light on the sip but you feel the alcohol kindled in the back of the throat like a spoonful of cough syrup. The aroma overwhelms the taste. It’s dry but the mouthfeel’s silky. The aftertaste’s sticky.

An unexpected dimension to this is the sense of inhaling sawdust from a hopper. It reminds me of woodworking class - the ozone of exertion and heat from manually sawing wood. Once the senses have got accustomed to it, I warm to it more. You do feel the booze smouldering like rum but somehow the body remains even. It isn’t a top-heavy feel. Gradually, you even start to taste something akin to coffee from the coco if not from the tonka. That sawdust edge becomes more like something bordering lolly stick and liquorice root.

I’m a bit disappointed that with all these exotic ingredients I wasn’t sent on a more exotic journey.

Beavertown ‘Spresso (9.5 ABV):

The hop oil in the head is the same off-orange as that gritter salt you see in patches on pavements melting the one inch of snow we get in winter. The liquid itself is jet black and so dense in the glass it creates a perfect obsidian Escher portrait reflection (see image).

Sweet chocolate stick liqueur on the aroma with a touch of iodine and brown sugar. On the tongue, there’s a bitumen bitterness and strips of soft torn chocolate cake, chunks of dark bourbon biscuits and an oil slick of dates and figs. All very rich and comforting.

It’s heavy but straightforward and harbours no twists.

Flying Dog Kujo (8.9 ABV):

I read Cujo by Stephen King when I was about 14. Is the spelling discrepancy to avoid litigation?

You can tease up a crayola brown head but it’s fleeting and reduces to an edge-hugging corona. The aroma is dry and sticky like heated liquorice - burning rubber even. You have to pull your nostrils away to avoid intoxication just on the vapours alone. There’s a cloying demerera edge to the bouquet too. Dry black 80% cocoa powder dust lands on the tongue. It parches the gullet like a pipe cleaner. This twists into a kind of gnawing woody taste.

It’s tangy and the strength outweighs any balance but maybe I’m being too British with my hankering for moderation. When you see a barista knocking a coffee spatula against the wooden block to dislodge the compacted “cake”, this beer has that as a character - both the contents and the banging. Sweaty hands foraging in a bin of used coffee filters - those fingers then stuff your face with rich coffee sponge. It’s a satisfying experience but it’s the kind of Red Bull hit that might set your temples pounding.

In conclusion, 3 Bean Stout could maybe do with an economy of ingredients. I couldn’t for example, pick out the vanilla - usually an ingredient that overwhelms. Maybe on tap it would tell a different story. It’s still a beer that deserves respect but it definitely comes third in this round-up.

I’m split between the two psychotic-eyed brews. Kujo really is like being mauled but that’s exactly what the bottle is in pains to make clear. It never promised such anaemic notions like moderation or balance so it does exactly what the label implies. ‘Spresso I like precisely because it is more drinkable and balanced - how’s that for hypocrisy? It doesn’t quite live up to the menace of its schizoid skull and presented in its little can, it’s more cute than savage. It’s more suave than unhinged. Pushed, I’m going to go with Kujo as it stays completely in character. If balance is what you seek, look elsewhere. I’ll bring it back when I review Saisons in a forthcoming post.

Other taste-offs:

Flanders Red Ale
Heavy Rye Beers
World Saisons
Tea-infused Beers
Strong Black IPAs

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Thank you Terry for the Joy of Reading

Wherever I live, they live.

There is a shelf in my home that has been there most of my life. My home has moved around but the shelf – though it’s grown – hasn’t changed. It looks like a barcode of lush colours. It’s made of paperback books - Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

My memory of my first Terry Pratchett book is as bright as the detail on the cover. In the late 1980s I had the wonder of seeing a book called The Light Fantastic in Leo’s Supermarket in Bangor (1). The cover had a luggage trunk flying through the air with rows of human feet. Depicted clinging onto the trunk were a wizard, a man with four eyes, an amazon woman and two Conan-style barbarians. Below them was a castle strewn landscape with massive axe-wielding trolls lurching toward the viewer. The glowing azure sky in the background is what gives the book its colour on the shelf. 

The Light Fantastic is actually the second book in the series but I read it first and read The Colour of Magic – the first Discworld book - second.  Although I was too young to appreciate a lot of the humour, the spell of that universe bound me.

The first book I ever bought by Terry Pratchett. I treasure it still.

Terry is responsible for my leap from children’s books to adult books. It was a window into something hitherto clandestine and hidden. Reading my first Discworld novel, I could watch the forbidden scene unfold with the security of being an invisible witness to it. The secret had been exposed! This is what adults watched in their head when they read adult books! The novels tap into the same childhood wonder but through genius stealth, bring the boy up to the man's speed in literature. Sitting down by yourself and reading a book from cover to cover is a huge rite of passage which only truly special authors make possible. Not to have that escape in my life now is unthinkable.

One particularly fond memory is from a Dorset camping holiday I had with my parents. There used to be a tiny bookshop on the quayside in nearby Swanage and that year’s novel – Pyramids – had by chance come out in paperback the same time as our trip (2). Gold was the colour of this novel emblazoned with desert sands, camels and sequinned bikinis and gold forms the background colour for the entire holiday when my grey matter rings it back up. I read Pyramids in the oven glow of the tent canvas as the light died outside and continued to strain on until the bulb in the torch dimmed like a glow worm’s last stand.

At a later date, Pyramids went with me to Oxford to the Paperback Shop where it was signed by Terry Pratchett himself. Eric had just been published (3). I bought it but also took along my copy of Pyramids. We waited hours. The queue to have copies signed trailed right around Broad Street and around the corner towards Carfax. When my turn finally came, he wrote ‘to Alec – may your camels be multiplied’.

To Alex Alec - May your camels be multiplied

I re-read his first ten books when I was a bit older and became privy to fresh layers of comedy. The in-jokes, euphemisms and insinuations beyond my ken when I was younger were now within grabbing range of my older ken. Ken the elder loved them. Terry would take us into the dark places and we’d find that even the elementals, the gods and the Djinn need to consult their own prompt cards in the execution of their duties or use their dark powers to whisk themselves off to another dimension for some peace and an uninterrupted fag.

The science-related books he co-authored with Jack Cohen allude to works by other writers which I then sought out. Those books instilled yet further questions. It was a path that led me to read books by Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, Dava Sobel, Richard Fortey and others. Basically, Terry kick-started my own thirst for the enlightenment - a continuation of the process that started with reading grown up books as a child. It fostered an interest in anthropology, natural history, evolution, archaeology and astronomy. I think of the trade-off – the few coins that have trickled down to him over the years in return not just for the hours immersed in a parallel world, but for my own education. For those few pennies, nothing could be better value. 

It also taught me important lessons like the fact a hedgehog can’t be buggered (5).

I love Terry Pratchett for his footnotes – a process he improved upon from reference books. Throughout his work they appear like seams of precious ore in the text’s bedrock. They give depth to an imagined world, adding a perverse level of legitimacy. They reveal further and as yet unrecorded (un)civilisation in the realm, baking up a thick historic pastry base to build the current novel on. These notes are sometimes longer than the regular text on the same page and even spawn footnotes of their own – stratum upon strata.

Terry has stayed with me my whole life. There may have been dry gaps but with every new government I catch up with Great A’Tuin and the characters that dwell in his unique cargo. Each time I get taken back to the intimate pleasure of having the text and me together - The Light Fantastic all over again.

Today is the anniversary of 4 tweets that opened up a chilling void in thousands of readers:

Terry Pratchett
Verified account

 Terry Pratchett
Verified account
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

Terry Pratchett @terryandrob 12 Mar 2015 

Terry Pratchett @terryandrob 12 Mar 2015

The End.

What we have lost will never be greater than what we gained. He has not just bequeathed to us an entire universe that will outlive us all, but his own struggles put greater focus on Alzheimers. He was also pivotal in charities concerning assisted dying, humanism, children with AIDS and others. 

And, inspired by the librarian at the unseen university, he left an appreciation and foundation for the plight of orangutans.

It is with the passing of Terry that the coloured bar on my bookshelf will stretch no further. In my life it has moved with me eight times. They are the only books with an “own shelf” privilege; with each move I have lovingly unpacked each one, thumbed it nostalgically and replaced it into its proper slot. That special shelf which has accumulated over 28 years has finally reached its limit

Terry - your presence on my shelf will stay with me on every future move because without you in my home it simply wouldn’t be my home. Thank you for the joy of reading.

Terry Pratchett 
28th April 1948 – 12th March 2015

Illustration from Eric by Josh Kirby


(1) It was part of (and was later re-absorbed by) Co-operative Retail Services ltd. The name and brand identity were dropped a long time ago. The other footnotes will be more interesting than this one.
(2) I never bought his books in hardback – something I have maintained right up to the present day. The hardback would always be like the trailer for a coming attraction. A member of staff in Waterstones once told me that “when is Terry Pratchett’s book coming out on paperback?” was her most frequently asked question.
(3) Rincewind the wizard needed to return to the Discworld series so Terry came up with Eric - a Faustian story to act as a mechanism to bring him back (i).
(4) It’s those damned spines.


(i) Eric is the stubborn book that never fits properly on the shelf as it’s in A4 format and is more like a graphic novel. It’s always underneath the other books acting like a plinth (ii).
(ii) In Eric, artist Josh Kirby also depicted Terry Pratchett. The eponymous hero wears a fake beard which makes him the spitting image of Terry - see above (iii).
(iii) In honour of Terry, I just wanted these footnotes to have footnotes.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Redchurch Brewery

On Saturday afternoon I fancied visiting a brewery and decided to head to Hackney. It almost didn’t happen. I eyeballed the snowflakes that started tumbling from the heavens as I approached St Albans City Station and contemplated whether a micron layer of fluffy rain might bring the whole rail network to a standstill. I distinctly remember thinking “sod it” and girded my loins. About a half hour later I emerged from Bethnal Green Tube Station. My gamble had paid off.


The Redchurch Brewery tap room sits directly above the brewing equipment at 275-276 Poyser Street. Hanging hessian covers and peachy light soften the industrial stamp of the railway arch interior. Hogsheads add homeliness and create a comforting link to our pub culture. Otherwise the venue is tidy with bar and tables made from up-cycled wood. I perched on a stool and became aware of a superior presence patrolling the joint - Len the house cat. Len has become accustomed to people like me trying to pap him on smart phones and cameras. He lets you know you’re only there because he tolerates it - you can see it in his swagger and in his film noir insouciance.

All fresh beer is served from key keg. Based on beers I’ve had by Redchurch in the past, I associate this brewery with Saisons in particular - especially their beautiful Sauvage (available in 750ml bottles). On this visit one Saison was available - Petite Mort (4.5 abv). The title relates to the ecstatic sensation of the body “dying” after the scrumption of orgasm. Though the beer wasn’t THAT good, I did keep a close watch on the other punters for tell-tale signs. It’s pineapple yellow with a charging carbonation that soars up to a thick white meringue of a head. There’s a Champagne-like quality to the first sip. I often taste apples with Saison yeast and this is no exception. After the bubbles and refreshment comes the apt Saisony dryness. 

I should drink lager more often and I had the perfect opportunity here. Brick Lane Lager (5 abv) is a cloudy orange yellow and immediately bitter like pine. There’s a sweeter suggestion too like custard to temper it. You can roll this beer around the tongue. It’s very juicy and quite tart. In a blind taste I’d have collared this as an American IPA by flavour. This is no doubt down to the hop profile: Cascade and Chinook.

The beer board displays a canter up and down the globe with regard to beer styles. The biggest influence on British brewing is still overwhelmingly American but increasingly when I go to tap rooms I see Wits, Goses, Saisons and Altbiers. We are eagerly mining continental Europe for inspiration, in fact I’m sure there are now more of the aforementioned styles being brewed in London alone than in their lands of origin.

Len calmly plots the downfall of the human race

Pillar of Salt (5 abv) is this brewery’s Gose. This Leipziger beer type isn’t really my thing but I still like to see different breweries’ takes on it. It’s a cloudy yellow with a vegetable soup aroma. Coriander is included and it can be sensed when you inhale it. When I drink it I’m reminded of seasoned tubers - especially parsnips eaten cold the day after a roast dinner. It parches you as well, this may also be down to the addition of salt/gypsum required by the style.

This tap room offers live music in the evenings. I sat by the latent music hub with its impressive looking gubbins, knobs and dials. While I was there, tracks were being played from the 1950’s like Little Richard’s Lucille. The tap room mixes the modern, the hi-tec and the classic. I like a bar with curios (shazam!) and there is both a snarling fox head mounted above the bar and a huge Indonesian beetle under glass. I hope Redchurch continues to surrender to the Magpie gene.

I left the strongest beers till last - Great Eastern India Pale Ale (7.4 abv) and Old Ford Export Stout (7.5). They are both sumptuous in their respective directions. The former echoes on the nose and palate with mango and the latter is rich and indulgent like coffee cake. Also on offer were Hoxton Dry Stout (6), Shoreditch Blonde (4.5) and Bethnal Pale Ale (5.5) which I’ll hopefully savour another time. I also love that most beers are linked to their East London neighbourhood by title.

There is massive competition for Redchurch in the current London boom and I hear that the core range will be brewed out in Harlow leaving this unit to concentrate on more experimental brews. It’s both exciting and reassuring to know that this brewing revolution is still in its ascendancy. Indeed, it seems like a comprehensive re-invention of beer itself. Redchurch is upping the game further still.

Classy tap room, delicious beer, great people, vibrant atmosphere, cool AF pussycat. What more could you possibly want of a Saturday afternoon?

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Perfect Pub part 2 - The Magpie & Bodger

A most elemental part of the country pub

Out in the countryside, The Red Lion has thick whitewashed walls, a creaking sign, bulging ceilings, cold flagstones and a shotgun hooked above the hearth. It has metal bed pans, old bottles from extinct breweries lined up along oak beams with the horse brass and copper milk jugs. It has animals - the live stretched out in front of the fire, the stuffed mounted and posed while fox hunts stream up the hand pulls. The Red Lion is woody, cavelike, conservative, worn. It throws beer festivals in the beer garden and Morris Dancers jingle and collide out front on special days. Country pubs seem to me as steadfast and eternal as the geology that surrounds them. There is a sense that for however long the landscape has been there, the pub has too.

The Prince Albert in the town has matchboard drinking compartments and regal etched glass windows that make it difficult to look in from the street. It boasts ornate elbow shelves, carpentered bling, plaster mouldings and opulent chandeliers. It has Toby jugs, a yard of ale glass on the wall, photographs of itself through time and portraits and busts of its eponym. The colours scream red, walnut and cream and the regulars that haunt it possess trademark laughter. A piano sits in the corner covered in pint pock marks. It heaves from crowds returning from football matches. Casks are turned to seats.

This could only be a city pub

The Culta in Barbam in the gentrified sprawl has exposed brick and floorboards, a back plate for the taps, chalk boards and glass walls. There are subverted Magritte-style artworks, graffiti by commission, stalked glasses and gleaming chrome. It’s got seating in the form of plastic and metal geometry. In terms of comfort, it goes beyond Puritan to Spartan. A combination of fairy lights and neon signs heighten the darkness inside. Stripped bare, lean, hip, gaunt, ironic, hipster, hoppy. The bodies spill out during the tap takeovers and collaborations orchestrated on social media.

Finally, the Weekend Brewery and Tap under the railway arch. This last venue might differ from the others as all the available space will be taken up by stacked bottle crates, fermentors, heat transformers, mash tuns, palates and teetering columns of key kegs. So far, no room for conversation pieces as the old equipment is likely to retire to an even younger start-up brewery than hulk in the background to be cooed over. If it isn’t essential, it’s robbing space.

Hardworking breweries like this are time capsules rather than museums

I frequent all of these fictitious bars and shoehorn them into the rural, the urban, the modern and the functional. The first three of them, unless they take active steps to avoid it, will become small museums in their own right. Why? It’s simply a part of our fabric: we just can’t throw things away and should be proud of that. The fourth will remain relevant to the present only - a time capsule rather than a museum.

There is something to be said of completely modern bars like Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green. It’s minimalist with regards to decor - looking a bit like a mess room with graffiti. There’s an appeal to this like a blank canvas to start from scratch on, but over time paraphernalia and curios will amass given a purchase. Amongst males especially, there’s a sartorial and hirsute look being rocked at the moment. Some related items should be stockpiled on top of the fridges. They could include vinyl and 1980s record players, a row of beanies, flat caps, redundant Apple Macs, a scooter and a set of headphones ripped from the cockpit of a Lancaster Bomber. Whether or not many people will remember the significance of these items in the future is besides the point. A curio appeals because it’s curious.

Many pubs now display the hand pumps’ back catalogue of clips above the bar & along the walls, best exemplified by The Harp near Covent Garden. Pubs used to do this but with beermats instead. This is an example of an evolving trade memesis. It also shows our magpie nature. I love it. It’s like a celebration of tat.

Possibly the best pump clip canopy there is - The Harp nr Covent Garden

Archaeology is literally the unearthing of rubbish; archaeologists in the field sift through whatever the bygone peoples hoarded, left behind or threw away. If Britain had suffered its own Vesuvius, digging up a pub would be the pay dirt. It would house the accretion of years of cultural obsoletes and disposables revealing not just a snapshot, but whole passages from history in need of an archive.

Whoever runs a pub has a choice: to let stuff build up randomly or to channel it into an orderly fashion. Dirty Dick’s in Bishopsgate was a good example of the former. Cobwebs were so thick from the rafters it was like clinging soot. Guns, bank notes, skulls and mummified animals inhabited the recesses and over time it accumulated, reinforcing its own reputation. I’ve never actually been but my father remembers it from decades ago. Online it seems the wilderness has been sanitised and put behind glass. It’s a Youngs pub now that caters equally as a restaurant (and would need to meet food hygiene standards to do so).

On the other hand, The Speaker (Enterprise Inns) in Pimlico is a good example of collection by design. Directly above the bar which also acts as a Deli, there is a shelf crammed with hardback books. As you scan from right to left, these books give way to antique food containers like OXO and Wilburs Cocoa tins. On the adjacent wall is a glass case containing a display of explosive fuses. There’s another case with a small heraldic sword and a police truncheon. Outside by the doors, the history and procedure of the house of commons is emblazoned on cartouches. As an establishment, it has absorbed the business and pageantry that surrounds it and turned itself into a kind of totem for political Westminster.

Pubs often give me an education

So we’re a nation inclined to collecting and to organising the build-up. Sometimes the collection doesn’t come about through chance but is actively sought: A Wye Valley brewery pub called The Morgan in Great Malvern is so called because of the Morgan Motor Company. There is a tradition of racing sports cars around the Malvern hills and on a visit in 2012, two vintage specimens were parked outside. Paintings and photographs of Morgan cars were all over the walls inside. Again, this is an example of a premises being a gallery or museum to its local history.

Without going as far afield as the Scilly Isles, the north Norfolk coastline is easily Britain’s premier birdwatching stretch and here the public house links arms with enthusiasts too. The Dun Cow in Salthouse and The George Hotel in Cley both keep public bird sighting records that birdwatchers can use as a resource - often as a means to decide whether or not it’s worth leaving the pub based on what’s been seen. The log book in the George is a hefty tome splayed open on a lectern like the Gutenburg Bible. The two pleasures of ornithology and pub-going have here conjoined. There is no greater sight to a birder after an arduous trek across a shingle beach in horizontal rain, than a pub sign coming into view.

Sometimes a collection is even passed down like a baton to subsequent generations. There is a pub in Dorset that deserves World Heritage Site Status (except of course even more tourists would engulf it). The Square and Compass sits in the village of Worth Matravers in sight of the English channel. Apart from having all its beer on gravity served through a hatch you queue in front of, the pub also houses a museum filled with local paleontological, archeological and historical artefacts. It’s a serious endeavour including both Ichthyosaur and Plesiosaur skeletons. The collection is still being added to from the third generation of the same family.

The public lounge of The Square & Compass

Occasionally the collections in the pubs themselves are collated into a single volume. There is, for example, a website that has put together the museums (many of which are in pubs or breweries) that collect railway signalling equipment - a hobby squared as it collects collections.

There’s a very British drive to pursue something outside of your job - possibly as another calling - a dream that might some day be achieved, or just a means of escaping the grind you’re required to pay the rent by. We are a nation of hobbyists. People who don’t have their alter ego in an outside passion are incomplete.

In 1992 my grandfather was interviewed by The Imperial War Museum. He had joined the RAF as a teenager and had been involved in the inception of RADAR. His humble beginnings were as a hobbyist repairing wireless radios. Through the self-driven efforts of the boffin, he went on to explain how come the British recruits could continue the RADAR project when a component broke or malfunctioned. The interview can be heard here:

Excerpt from the second half:

“We were allowed to make ad-hoc modifications to keep the stuff going which I think from what I gather is rather different to the German situation. (…..) I think that when a unit failed in Germany, it was replaced with an identical unit. (…) I don’t think the chaps operating them/looking after them (the German RADARS) had quite the same facility to make do and mend that we used to have.”

(interviewer) "What kind of ad-hoc changes?”

“You might put in a non-standard resistor or a non-standard capacitor or something like that or you’d perhaps short something out. If one of the receiver stations failed on the RF7 there were five intermediate frequency stages. If one of them failed you’d swap over the anode caps so that you worked on four stages temporarily instead of five and turn up the gain to compensate, that sort of thing and all sorts of ways you might substitute different cables than the ones put in originally. You might substitute a different generator or something like that. (…) These things were overcome by a bit of ingenuity and general resourcefulness on everyone's part.”

The point isn’t to understand the terminology employed by my grandfather but to see that getting something up and running was something you had to rely on your own nous for - not by passing the problem up the chain of command. The young men and women had basically tutored themselves in the potting shed, in the back room or in the cellar honing their problem-solving skills with whatever they could get their hands on. The Germans hadn’t because they were professionally trained - such Heath Robinson approaches were looked down on. Our culture of hobbyism effectively gave us the edge.

A collection of archaic brewing supplies - The Six Bells, St Albans

Our pubs reflect who we are not just in exposing us as a land of inebriates but as incurable tinkerers. Our descendants might gaze at shelves of iPhone docking stations, food mixers and electric fan heaters on the windowsills of future pubs and marvel at how rustic and basic they all seem. Maybe they’ll imagine our sepia-tinted era when folk worked a punishing 36 hour week and had to walk each day to the car. A time when the body’s liver had to filter the alcohol itself rather than the the LiverApp and food couldn’t be dowloaded into the gut. With any luck we’ll still love the accumulation of tat and the labours of personal passion we always have.

More about what makes a perfect pub here