Monday 30 March 2020


The people come and go talking about Michelangelo, except they don’t when they go to the pub. Here we tell stories, weave a web of tall tales and low occasions, sometimes told in whispers about so-and-so and what they did and how they did it, but at other times our stories are bellowed out and butted up against the hard surface of the occasional lie and conspiracy. Did you know about what he was doing when he went into that house, or whether the money that changed hands was legitimate or as dirty as the mind of a person who longs to bring the dreams that torment into full view? Or in between pints, the man whose wife left him for a religious cult when they were on holiday in Tenerife repeats his loss with additional tears and when finished gears himself up to tell the couple over there, minding their own business, of how low and lamentable his wife’s behaviour was (a true story, believe it or not, that happened to me in a pub many years ago). 

So this is what I miss during this (hopefully brief) interregnum of pub life — the stories, the gossip, the laughter, the exaggerated tale and the overheard adventure that drifts in from the next table, fragments of words, which when patched together give a glimpse into a stranger’s life. The young man, I once heard in a London pub, who had just arrived in the city, and was sitting with an older man, a mate of his late dad, who was drunk but telling him that he had a room where he could stay; the self-proclaimed beer expert from somewhere in the North of England in a Munich pub whose three (or was it four?) friends sat reverently at the table as our hero explained the difference between cask-conditioned beer and the lager they were drinking; or the 20something couple who somehow engaged me in conversation at the bar with the man explaining that he was enjoying his first pint since coming out of jail and then seeing the expression on my face adding ‘it was nothing  serious’. 

But for the moment the pubs are closed and our stories are on furlough, waiting for that moment (which will come) when with the scrape of a chair on a stone floor and the whoosh of sun-flecked or Bible-black beer into an empty glass, we can start our lives again.

I have a pile of books to read during the lock-in, I mean lock-down. Beer and pubs are represented by the1946 edition of Old Inns of Suffolk (finished yesterday), while Niki Signit’s The Flavour Thesaurus is the food entrant. Everything else is eclectic — history, topography, myth, semiotics, short stories, crime novels and ordinary novels. One of the latter is Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield, which as soon as I started to read I knew what I wanted to write about. It begins at The Swan in Radcot, where according to the author, ‘was where you went for story-telling’. 

Friday 27 March 2020

Travel stories: Munich Oktoberfest

I was in the middle of a maelstrom, senses reeling, voices and screams around me batting through the air, the logic of noise making its point with the hammer of inevitability. A variety of coloured lights batted and bartered through the air, psychedelic in their movement but sly in meaning. The irony of a brass band playing The Sound of Silence at the sort of tempo punks used to pogo to was not lost on me, as all around drinkers, men and women, old and young, sensible and insensible, climbed onto tables to clink their bullet proof glasses and join in the singing, before breaking into raucous renditions of Ein Prosit, which struck me as perhaps an authentic version of stadium rock. 

On that night at Oktoberfest, in 2014, having just trained in from three (or was it four?) rather tranquil days of drinking beer and visiting small breweries in northern Bohemia, I felt overwhelmed in the midst of what seemed like a mini-world of well-tailored chaos. Drunken men, their lederhosen stained by the flights of a thousand draughts of beer, strode around, with the bow-legged hilarity of sailors on a sloping, heaving deck during a summer storm, while the waitresses, arm muscles bulging above their standard issue dirndls, carried pots of beer to the well-oiled crowd, which that night as the more time I spent in their company seemed to merge into one strange mass.

I stayed in Munich for three days and went back to the festival twice. I was on assignment for a glossy travel magazine and my plan was to get to the heart of the festival, for after all this was one of Europe’s celebrations of beer, drunkenness and the Bavarian identity. On that Sunday night, this heart seemed like an over-excited organ, overly strained and pulled this way and that by its elaborate anarchism, a wildness that even I, who has always travelled for beer (and will continue to do once this horrid little virus is put back in its box), thought was perhaps too much for me. And yet… I returned twice on the following two days, during the daylight hours, when the calm had settled on the festival like the hand of a parent on a fevered child’s brow. The fairground rides, high and haughty in their nighttime extravagance seemed normal, the screams that had made me think of the sounds of the damned in an ancient 1930s movie called Dante’s Inferno were now just all the fun of the fair. Families strolled, a small boy with a mohican and wearing lederhosen tried to look ferocious but failed when he smiled, while an American challenged an Italian to an arm wrestle, laughs and high fives all round. In the hall I was in, the music put on a speed accompanied by clapping and I felt a sense of communality pass through the crowd like a Mexican wave. It felt like the we’re-all-in-it-together of disco and then a woman passing by selling hats including one made of felt broke the spell.

The beer? I drank deep in Munich over that period, though more in the town’s taverns than in the festival, where my notebook was a constant presence. My favourite in the festival was Augustiner’s Oktoberfest with its light and appetising bitterness, though it was run close by Hofbräu’s with its caramel sweetness and hint of lemon. Outside in the town, I was a constant presence in the Ayinger tap, somewhere to I went back to in 2018 and devoured a dunkel that nearly wrote a hymn to its presence, a mighty fortress is our god perhaps. 

I doubt if I will return to Oktoberfest again, but to Munich I always want to go back (and then onto Bamburg and the upper reaches of Franconia), for after all travel broadens and stretches and tunes up the mind, which at this moment in time is rather restricted for all of us. But that will change.  

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Wednesday beer — Duration Doses, 5.1%

What does this beer from Duration do to me when I drink it, apart from making me dramatise my inner feelings about the superbness of Noble hops and the refreshment and pinprick of joy that superlatively lagered beers bring to my soul as it turns its furrowed brow towards the gentleness of southern climes? Every gulp of this German Pils, made and laid to rest but not forever in the middle of the Norfolk countryside, carries a nod to my imagination. It makes me think about long forgotten debates in long-forgotten monasteries about the weight of a feather against that of a soul; it makes me think of the spirits that guard wells and pools and small rivers and whose presence on the earth is a whisper compared to the roar of the Severn Bore; it makes me think of the glimpse some have had of a forgotten land whose folk speak an unknown language but who are there between us and the land in which they live; it is a beer of magic and tall tales and old lives and yet as modern as the glimmer of chrome in a gleaming bar and as relevant as the sun that comes out each day to shine. 

Yes, it is a pale golden sheen in colour, and has a fresh floral note on the nose, which is almost mineral-like in its freshness, enticing and enchanting, as if you’ve caught a glimpse of something beautiful reflected in a pool and yearn and cry because you know you cannot really experience it. That mineral-like and floral note of the hop character extends itself onto the palate alongside a light, lemon-sweet presence and a bracingly dry finish with echoes of bitterness that hang around like the gruff voice of a god who has suddenly taken its leave. This is a heavenly beer with an angelic presence on the tongue, even with the soft growl of bitterness in the finish — it is not an ethereal beer, a beer of the fae folk, more like a beer that reminds me of the growing sound of approaching thunder that never seems to break, but remains comfortingly and cosily somewhere beyond the mountains that you know you will go to one day and perhaps never return from. That is what this wonderful beer says to me. 

You might or might not be able to get this beer online at the moment as it is out of stock on the brewery’s website, but I can guarantee it will be worth waiting for when we can walk out in the sun without fear again. This btw is going to be my regular Wednesday beer, something which I have just drunk or something that I once drunk and made me think about it in a way that many beers don’t. 

Monday 23 March 2020


Coronavirus brings disturbance, a curtain drawn down on life as if in a sudden urge and perhaps in my darkest moments I imagine a man whose face suggests that he has just undertaken a pungent purgative that I might believe is a representation and reflection of what most of us experience and feel when we come face to face with this mirror called now and life. Where shall I wander when I’m told if I’m old and need to be at home? At what shall I wonder if I cannot stroll alone? The cities and towns in which I clowned but also frowned and then classed glasses of brown, gold and amber beers with varying degrees of hwyl are closed to me for now. 

Would you like to saunter down this narrow, cobbled lane where at journey’s end the bar with a sense of passed time and whose beer — brewed 100 metres away did you know — has a rhyme and a robustness and a thrust of flavour that keens and howls like the wolves that once lived in the hills just beyond the city limits. Of course you would. Or would you listen to the waves as they launch themselves onto the beach, sightless and senseless in the way as each wave breaks and draws itself backwards, a drag and a lag of pebbles and stones behind, the brilliant foam breaking itself into nothing and reminiscent of the assurance of an autumnal bear who knows but not calls the cave it enters home. 

The amber bright gleam of the beer in the glass, the glint of the lights that illuminate the cave of the pub, a reflection of a basic law, that I might once have learned (but probably didn’t) in a dusty, sunny, sleepy schoolroom class where my memories of the past were low and lone in what I had earned. Or could I remember the mew, the cry and the slightness of my joy when presented with a gold-flecked beer, smiling like a child in the glass of its own dominion in a bar in Brussels, where fresh and spritzy aromas of the brewery’s art rose from the glass with the pure lines of an artist, a sensation, a feeling, an evocation, a mood and an ambience? 

Tasting beer is subjective, its value points a corrective but also a directive towards what might eventually end up in the glass. It is for me and then you, something different, the end result of what we might be feeling on that particular day and how disturbed or perturbed or even becalmed we feel that day. It is the canvas on which we might paint or even write our hopes, the canvas with which we will show to the world the feelings and sometimes the healing that we endured as each sip took us nearer to our definition of another world. This is the tasting of beer.

And then I am in the dark woodland of another traditional pub, where the tidied-up god-knows-where-they-got-them-from trinkets of another age stand on parade with the steadfastness of RSM gargoyles. Toby jugs, framed hunting scenes, burnished brassed off plates and here and there the odd black-and-white photograph of a local in the throes of lifting a pint. This is a decor that decorum doesn’t have a language for, a decorative pattern once thought to be as modern as the H-bomb, but obviously not as destructive.

So what do we like about pubs — obviously we love what is put forward in front of us on the plate and in the glass, as well as how the mood and the atmosphere fills the air; then there are the people and their feeble but lovable attempts at jokes, the locals and the blow-ins, and the reason for why we are there. We love pubs because we are social animals, eager to beaver our way into the lives that people lead, the tales that are told and the old, old song that once let the world know how happy I was. Which leads me back to the disturbance of coronavirus. I look forward to the next round.