Talk about an auspicious entry into a pub. Outside on the wall, pure Kentish Town brick, leaning against it, there’s a lad with a couple of coppers talking to him, blood trickling from his nose, his face a mask of shock. Friday night fever, plenty of pubs in the vicinity, lashings of whatever gets you going: someone said something about someone else and someone got a nosebleed with the aid of someone else’s head. Move along now nothing to see, move along. Which we will as we want to get inside the Southampton Arms: ale, cider and mead house of this parish. And we: on the final stage of our four-part trek to launch Otley’s Saison Obscura last Friday night.
Visits had already been taken to:
The White Horse, where we saw Oz Clarke (that’s him right with Nick Otley) and I kept badgering him for his thoughts on SO (and then White Horse Dan came along for a few beers).
The fantastic Cask where a lad with a Russell Brand barnet shimmied through the crowd glasses in hand.
The rumbustious Rake where I stood in a small group, turned to Rakeman Glyn and asked ‘I thought Reluctant Scooper was here’; bloke next to me said, ‘I am’.
A busy, brilliant night of great people, great beer and the rare chance to get a glimpse of London pub life on a Friday night. I chat away in the glorious space of the Southampton with its gorgeous selection of beers and ciders and pork baps and ask someone why he prefers a handled mug to a straight glass, a London predilection I noticed in the Jolly Butchers — here almost with panic I asked for a sleeve for my beer, can’t bear jugs myself, but I understand they’ve been taken up by thirstysomethings in the same way as pipe smoking and corduroy jackets were encouraged by 1950s hipsters; I suppose it’s that old playground game of subversion, take something with a dodgy image and get it associated with the coolest of the cool; as Brucie would say, ‘good game, good game’. In the same instance of which I thought that thought, he answered: ‘I like it’.
And then I discuss with a couple of cider-drinkers what they think of the Otley (I don’t really know what they said as my handwriting was starting to desert me by then and the scrawl in my notebook suggests that I was being controlled by an entity from ancient Sumeria). A bit of a daft question when you think of it, but Nick Otley saved the day and bought the sisters a glass each. They seemed to enjoy it and something was said about Guinness but then outside at closing time I spotted one of them being as sick as a dog. That’s cider for you.
And amidst all this I still find time to look about and ask myself: why do we congregate in pubs? Why are we drawn to them? I know why I do (I enjoy the mood and ambience of those pubs I like, allied along with good beer, decent, interesting folk and food, and a location that takes me out of myself), but that itch of a question still persists — why do we get into a room with dozens of strangers (maybe the odd acquaintance) and drink beer, cider, wine, whisky, whatever, experience a decent level of inebriation (not too much, not too little), maybe have a bite to eat and discover that time passes with a modicum of ease.
The right pubs are heaven, the wrong pubs make us like balls being flipped about in some mad game of pinball, bouncing in through one door and exiting with great speed through the other. I’ve been going to pubs since the age of 15 (sorry Mum), and they’re second nature to me. I can spend ages talking about pubs, about their reputations (someone asked me the other day if I still visit a particular Exmoor boozer, I said no, I’ve done my time in that place), about the people who prop up the bar (see said Exmoor hostelry), and about the phenomenally strong ciders or ales you could get, the whole vibe.
But there are also times like Friday night when one strips away the familiarity and normality and sees the pub in all its naked functionality — it’s a room or a series of rooms, an ersatz home; it’s where we drink beer, where we chat with people whom we wouldn’t invite into our homes, spill our secrets (well some), enjoy the sort of comedy between characters that would cost a fortune to see if on the stage. It’s familiarity, ease, a difference from home, and yet similarity, people, the excitement of what might happen (nosebleed, come back for a coffee?, party?, I’ve bought half a pig) and the crestfallen feeling next morning of what might have been (should have decked him, should have gone back, should have gone to that party, should have bought that pig). I still don’t entirely know why I like pubs, but I know I do. It’s as if trying to write about understanding the feeling is like making stock: boiling ideas, desires, likes, attitudes and hopes down and down until I get to the core reason of why I like pubs. It’s a continuous process but I’ll get there.
Girl being sick in on the pavement, lad waking up with a swollen nose, a desperate need for a triple espresso at 8am, listen to me all of you: and in the evening (or morning if you’re a member of the 9.30am Spoons club) I/you/we all know that it will start all over again.