Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Local Distinctiveness

“A pint of Sparta and a bag of Scampi Fries please.”

The last word is still thrumming on my tongue when I realize something monumental, something that stops me in my tracks. I’ve become a regular in my local. I’ve now got a specific round I order whenever I go in there for a quiet pint on my own (real ale and the kind of guilty pleasure snacks I’d never dare ask for if I was in polite company). These days it’s as if the barman possesses precognitive powers - he’s got his hand on the pump before I complete the sentence. With January looming into view like an unlicensed mini cab driver (ugly, unwelcome but somehow sadly inevitable), I'm having are confusing thoughts about this fact. What happens next? On one hand, it could be a lifetime of chronic alcoholism and ranting about the state of world from the bottom of a pint glass. On the other, it's the warming feeling that you get when you realize you belong to something. My very own Cheers bar, right here in the heart of sunny Hackney.

The idea of the local boozer and its loyal crowd of regulars seems almost ridiculously antiquated nowadays – quaint even. Every day the newspapers are fit to bursting with stories about how the recession will bring about the death of the public house as we know it. Supermarket booze; duty increases down the pub; the smoking ban; bad weather; good weather; Celeb Big Brother starting on the telly that night... the finger of blame can be pointed in any number of different directions, few of which any of us as individuals can really affect. Whichever way you look at it, the pub as centre of the community is under serious fire. The same could be said of post offices, of corner shops… heck, in a time when the high street is being radically rearranged from one news broadcast to the next, what hope is there for the humble boozer? This sad state of affairs has made me think back to Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as society” statement of 1987. Here now in 2009, by some gruesome twist of fate and time, it almost seems like the old sow might have some kind of prophetic point. Society, community - whatever you want to call it – maybe is disappearing in front our eyes. Pubs and all these other places where people congregate and socialize are being smoked out and boarded up. What’s going to be left? Huge, county spanning megalithic Tesco Extras’, Vue cineplexes and the occasional footie game to keep the 'lads' in check. All the best rock'n'roll bands formed in pubs - what hope have we got when the best thing on offer is the local Wetherspoons and a branch of Starbucks that's open til 10pm?

With all this in mind, I started a seasonal re-watch of Craig Cash’s magical telly show Early Doors. The story of a small Manchester local, The Grapes, and its patrons, it ran over two series between 2003/04 on the heels of Cash’s hugely successful stint as co-writer on The Royle Family. Maybe it works so well because of the blissed out, Mogadon-like pacing; maybe it’s down to the characters, painted in such intricate and loving detail they could only have been dreamt up by a daytime drinker; maybe it’s the music on the jukebox or the improtu sing-alongs; maybe it’s the smoky, dust flecked ambiance captured so brilliantly on film – whatever it is, the show manages to portray the pub like a club house, somewhere were all walks of life converge, where sage advice is proffered by barroom philosophers whether invited or not, where silence is something to relish like that second swig of sweet, sweet beer. Here is where society is shown itself in the reflection of a dusty, nicotine stained mirror – warts, bald spots, bad breath an’ all.

Sadly, it's these pubs that are shutting down all across the country – the village pubs, the locals on the corners - the community boozer that supplies not only good cheer but also a localized networking system, i.e. a bunch of mates to talk to, all with one thing in common - they're in the pub. The pubs that will survive, like cockroaches in a nuclear winter, will be the unbreakable chains - stacking bottles of WKD high, selling punters short.

Your local is in danger. We need to save our pubs. Have a think about what you can do with the space on offer – start a darts team, a chess club, book bands to play… anything to bring back that warming sense of community to your local boozer.

Me, I’m off for another bag of those stinking crisps. (RT)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Please sign up to save The Vulcan, our number 7 pub in the guide.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Plough & Harrow proud to be in the book!

Very proud moment on Boxing Day, seeing the certificate in prime position on the bar in the Plough & Harrow in Monknash. Supped a few pints in there to celebrate with my Dad (star of The Plough entry, page 88 in the book) and his mate Dewi, one of the all time great Welsh drinkers. Happy days! (RT)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Save Our Pubs volume 2

And if you fancy supporting us, you can buy the book here


Stars rally round the Save Our Pubs campaign - remember, a pub is for life, not just for Christmas...

And if you fancy supporting us, you can buy the book here

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pub Signs voted top icons

"At a time when 36 pubs per week nationally are closing their doors, it is heartening to hear of the value still placed on this heralded tradition. Only around 30 independent pub chains and breweries in Britain are still ordering individually painted signs, amazingly a few of these fine artists are still working and there are some notable examples such as The St Austell Brewery in Cornwall that still employ sign writers. But it is a shrinking market and the dominance of a few chains has contributed to the disappearance of traditional British pub names, and led to a profusion of bland corporate makeovers."

Bill Bryson on pub signs, which topped the list of Icons Of England at the CPRE site.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Drink Beer And Carry On

Just got sent through this link to the perfect Christmas wear for any denizen of Rough Pub Country - surely the rallying call for all boozehounds, the whole year round. We're loving these, obviously what you want to be wearing on Christmas morning down the pub! Click here to buy. Thanks to Gabrielle and Pat.

Guardian Travel

We wrote a piece for the Guardian website, it's gone up there today - click here to read.

Mail On Sunday

With massive thanks to Tom Parker Bowles.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Brew Wales

Great Welsh beer site , Brew Wales, reviews the book here - thanks loads!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Vice, No Photos issue

From the latest issue of Vice- thanks massively to Andy Capper for this.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Caught By The Liver

Wrote this for Caught By The River at the end of last year - thought it was worth archiving here.

"My Caught By The River moment of 2007 mainly came served in a pint sized glass. It was filled to the brim, gently foaming and always mildly intoxicating. It came in various hues, various strengths and was delivered in various locations up and down the country. It was drunk in lounge bars and living rooms; in gardens and fields; at weddings and funerals. At times, it was calming, relaxing and meditative. And other times, was the 28 Days Later rage virus in a glass. Yep, this year I was truly Caught By The Liver (copyright Andrew Walsh - genius). It was the year I finally made the transition from lager drinking gig going teenager to card carrying CAMRA member facing down rapidly approaching 5th decade; from nightclub goer to snug bar sitter - pipe, slippers, Guardian crossword and all.

It helped that I ended up spending pretty much the whole of 2007 landlocked due to a crippling fear of flying (no amount of valium can stun me these days, though I still give it a damn good go). This year, I got the chance to explore the British Isles for the first time since I was a kid. Family holidays in the 1970s saw myself, my brother and my Dad touring Wales in a tent. Usually we’d be joined by a few of my Dad’s mates (the most notorious of which being ‘Uncle Klaus’, 6 foot 6 high and wide, an Estonian refugee in World War 2, a man who had actually taken the time to work out how much his beer belly had cost him – over one hundred thousand quid - in old money). Those holidays were memorable for the fact that each time we moved on the tent would be pitched in the beer garden of a pub (note – familial theme emerging here). Me and my brother would be stuck under canvas as it inevitably pissed down outside. Dad, ‘Uncle Klaus’ and their mates would be inside, getting demented on ale in front of a roaring log fire. If we were lucky, Dad would remember we were there and bring us a bag of crisps every few hours. These were the days before kids were allowed to run free in public houses, also the days before these kinds of parental acts were labeled ‘child abuse’. Let’s call them the Good Old Days.

Anyway, back to the present, where 2007 saw me traipsing around the UK one beer at a time. Thankfully the tent in the beer garden had been traded in for train, hotel, holiday rent and guest house. By the middle of the year, outside the windows our green and pleasant land had become a rotten bog. Shit, even the Cotswolds flooded – The Daily Mail’s very own Hurricane Katrina proved that God wasn’t just on an anti-Glastonbury tip last Summer. Inside the various Lambs and Flags and Coaches and Horses and Dogs and Ducks and Queens and Kings, the weather was just fine.

So, this year, after deciding to swap the Med for the Medway towns, I travelled the UK in a pint glass. A trip to Adnams country in March took in Southwold and meant Broadside, Regatta, Explorer and their exemplary Bitter. Three separate jaunts to Cornwall meant Doom Bar, Tribute, Eden, Tinners and HSD. Hay On Wye? Hereford Pale Ale and Dorthy Goodbody’s. Glamorgan? Cwrw Haf, The Reverend James and the legendary Brains Skull Attack. Back home in the Smoke and the country seemed to come to town like a pissed up farmers market – London Pride sits alongside Summer Lightning, Exmoor Gold, Deuchars IPA, Caledonian XPA, Milton’s Sparta and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. To a booze hound who these days is less Fear & Loathing and more Last Of The Summer Wine, this reads like a roll call of the greats. And the list grows yearly as breweries try out new combinations of water, yeast, hops and sugar. In a way it’s like something like stamp collecting – you’re constantly on the look out to try new things, trying to tick all the boxes and try everything but the breweries just keep on making new ones. It’s what keeps you interested. And also drunk.

Anyways, without trying to get too Whittingstall about the whole thing, there is a vaguely important point somewhere in this beery blur. These days, people in the know talk about seasonal foods and becoming more aware of and sensitive to your environment via the food it produces, about food miles and local distinctiveness. Real ale is one of Britain’s finest homegrown products – seasonality and locality are key factors in production. It’s also unique to this country – it doesn’t get exported, it stays at home and waits patiently for you. People say beers don’t travel very well from their place of origin – where I’m from in Wales they say that the beers that Brains brew don’t really taste any good outside of Cardiff. Perhaps in a way they are intrinsically linked to where they are brewed, the ingredients they comprise of make sense when you’re breathing the air they grew in. This means that real ale can take a unique high and mighty pedestal in the boozer alongside Scottish and Irish whiskeys, like mud caked organic box next to the mange tout flown in from Kenya. The rest of the bar, from the keg lagers to the optics - well, it’s pretty much the same the world over.

I know I sound like a horrific alcoholic here. Probably I am one and possibly I’ll be writing a blog from The Priory in a year or two, evangelical about my newfound clarity after a healthy period smashed up, living the Snort By The River dream, all the while seething with boredom and milk eyed nostalgia at my former life. Until then, there’s a book to write (The Rough Pub Guide, something myself and Paul Moody have been working on for a few years, due out through Orion in the Autumn of 2008) and whole lot of beer to be drunk. If by any chance you do catch me by the river bank, make sure I don’t fall in – I’m bound to be somewhere well past half cut.

By the way, I’m not joking about being in CAMRA - my Dad got me membership for Christmas. Their monthly newsletter is called Beer, a name so brilliant it’s almost Gonzo in its simplicity. Check it out, it makes for a far better read than the NME these days." Robin Turner

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Carl Barat likes pubs

Great attitude...

Blackpool Tower Suite

Great story in the Blackpool Gazette about two of the more 'lively' pubs in the book - click here to read.

Friday, October 31, 2008

City Life

Great article from Manchester's City Life magazine on the Rough Pub Guide here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Rough Pub Guide "Save Our Pubs" campaign

For the first time since the Domesday Book was written over a thousand years ago, more than half of the villages in the UK are without pubs. 57 pubs close for good every month. Britain’s remaining publicans are pulling almost a fifth fewer pints than they were three years ago. Whether it’s due to the smoking ban or high street supermarkets selling dirt cheap booze, more and more people are choosing to stay home and get sozzled, so much so that one thing is certain - the British pub trade is in crisis. Instead of demonising drink we should celebrate the pub as a central part of British heritage.

After all:

Every huge rock’n’roll band in Britain has started off touring pubs;
All of our major TV soap operas revolve around the workings of the pub;
Some of the most iconic British films -from Withnail And I to Shaun Of The Dead, focus on the pub (both pubs involved in filming these movies have been gastro-ed);
And, you can't get a decent pint anywhere else.
We need to stop taking these places for granted before it’s too late. We need to support traditional locals and stand defiant against General Gastro (Gordon Ramsay) and the refit brigade. With that in mind, The Rough Pub Guide is launching a ‘Save Our Pubs!’ campaign to highlight the alarming state of the nation’s pubs.

1. Save Your Pub – if your local is under threat from re-development, organize a petition to tell the government how you feel about it - you’ll miss it when it’s gone!

2. We’d like the government to rethink recent legislation to allow smokers a designated room in which to smoke and drink (currently in practice in France, Spain and Italy). Live music venues should also be allowed to re-introduce smoking to prevent gigs smelling of farts and Domestos. It is killing live rock’n’roll. Yes, we know smoking is bad for you, but so is loud music. That's why we like it. (Health freaks please note: Hitler was vehemently anti-smoking).

3. Alistair Darling’s recently budgeted alcohol taxation plans will give us a £6.50 pint just in time for the Olympics – is that how we want our country to be perceived by visitors? Write to your MP to register disgust!

4. We’d like to see an Honours system set up for long serving landlords who have provided communities with more than thirty years service. Our Olympic athletes return home from one Games heralded as national heroes, yet landlords and ladies who have tirelessly poured pints for decades don’t even warrant a mention - It’s time to celebrate the landlords that time forgot!

5. And, finally, we’d like to instate a National Pub Day – a good old, all-bets-are-off piss up that celebrates the public house as an essential cornerstone of British culture. We’re suggesting a new bank holiday held in the bleak midwinter, on the date of Oliver Reed’s birthday, February 13th. It’s what he would have wanted…

Remember, a pub is for life, not just for Christmas!

George Orwell "The Moon Under Water"

There's a printable online version here. Click here to read Ian Jack on the Moon Under Water in the Guardian from earlier in the year.
Click here for some serious pub talk from the man from CAMRA, Roger Protz.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Horror Of The Family Room

Great piece in The Guardian on Saturday weirdly echoing some words from the Rough Pub Guide - why do people still take kids to pubs? i grew up in the carpark outside and it never did me any harm, etc etc.

Also in The Guardian on Saturday, a feature on the Rough Pub Guide, focusing on pubs in films and on the telly.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

There's a really great pub site here

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008

Death Of The Working Men's Club

"Working men's clubs have been a bastion of the British entertainment scene for 150 years, blooding young comedians and crooners before unforgiving audiences and setting them on the long hard road to stardom or the short cut to obscurity. But now there are fears the clubs themselves are facing an even tougher audience – their creditors." From yesterday's Independent which follows up on this story from last year.

Friday, April 25, 2008

14 Years Livin' In The Bottle

I first started drinking in the Cock & Bottle 14 years ago. At the time I was living in the next street, somehow lucking out with a cheap flat in the Ladbroke Grove area. The pub, although as down to Earth as you could get, attracted local bo-ho heroes. On any given night you’d see Suede Anderson, Elastica, 3-D from Massive Attack, Damon Albarn, Goldie, The Chemical Brothers – it seemed to be like a Brit Pop era Stella Street. The place was understated and encouraged our particular brand of lazy all day drinking. The same vertically challenged man has been sat at the same stool at the bar for as long as I can remember. This place was never trendy, more an antidote to what was going on around it – mellow, welcoming, warm, friendly.

Nothing has really changed in the ensuing years. Yesterday, sat with my friend Ed, I found myself scratching my chin and wondering on whether the place had been retouched in the decade and a half since we started drinking there. He remembered it had, and, quite fantastically, they’d done it up just the same as before. It didn’t need a refit, an open kitchen, a jar of olives on the counter, it just needed more of the same. The surrealist picture of the landlord had always taken pride of place in the fireside bar (he appears to floating suspended in a sea of Guinness glasses, twinkling like stars in a boozy firmament – it really is worth seeing for yourself). The beers and the snacks, as far as I can remember, have always been the same (the only variation being market forces and marketing gimmicks – ‘Extra Cold’ this or ‘Ice’ that). Tavern Snacks, always the saltiest potatoes in packs, are the only food I’ve ever eaten in there, and I kind of like it that way.

It’s remarkable and heartening to know that the Cock remains just so after all these years. The surrounding area was razed like a blast zone at the end of the ‘90s and rebuilt entirely for ladies who lunch – pubs like The Duke Of Norfolk have gone the way of dodo, replaced by another shop selling overpriced fashion wear to people with more money than sense. Westbourne Grove doesn’t seem able to support great, old fashioned pubs – the sole exception of the Cock. Everywhere else constantly shifts and reinvents, even the giant Sam Smiths booze palace The Lonsdale, formerly a hangout for Goths and people in bands who could have been contenders. Elsewhere, in the knock on effect areas like Kensal Rise and even Harlesden, where locals have shifted to due to sky rocketing house prices, pubs have undergone a fundamental shift – locals out, gastropub prices in. the square mile where I used to live (the corner of Ladbroke Grove, Chamberlaine Road and Harrow Road) now has six gastropubs to one ‘Last Bastion’ style spit and sawdust boozer (The Flora). That’s six pubs playing the same music, six pubs where food is pushed round the plate while someone nips off to the bogs to hoover up a load of gak before coming back to loudly bray about how tough things are in the world of music videos. Nothing against that kind of behaviour, but does London really need more ‘hang outs’ like this rather than good old-fashioned palaces of reflection like the Cock?