Fish, Chips and A Pint of Ale

I caught the start of one of those property ogling TV programmes yesterday. A pair of high-flying lawyers wanted to move out of their flat overlooking St. Paul’s to live a life of bucolic bliss in the New Forest. While the female of the couple wanted a huge kitchen and reception rooms to entertain friends in (i.e. show off their house), the male partner wistfully imagined a life where he’d grow a few vegetables in the garden, stroll down to the village shop on a Saturday morning for a paper and occasionally visit the village pub for a Sunday lunch.

It was all perfectly achievable for their property budget of £1.5m. It’s ironic that the local businesses that they imagine happily serving them with their Telegraph and roast beef probably need a lot more custom than the occasional weekend visit to continue their effect on buttressing property prices. Properties in villages with shops and pubs will have a significantly higher value than those in dead, commuter dormitories — but the people who can afford those prices often work during the week elsewhere.

Nevertheless, this is another demonstration of the way the local pub is so ingrained into the country’s collective consciousness. Even people who barely venture inside a pub (and the busiest pubs are the likes of cavernous Wetherspoons these days) cherish the idea of the welcoming, thatched local on the village green with its lovable eccentrics at the bar.

In fact, as David Cameron recently proved, the idyll of the English pub and its pint of foaming brown ale extends well beyond these shores. It’s often reported that foreign tourists put the experience of visiting a pub near the top of their to-do lists when visiting this country. And one of the most high profile overseas visitors of them all got his wish last month visiting a pub just up the road from me.

As was widely reported, Chinese President Xi was taken on a brief visit by our Prime Minister to the Plough in Cadsden.

Cadsden -- Haunt of Chinese Presidents and Forgotten Prime-Ministerial Children
The Plough At Cadsden — Haunt of Chinese Presidents and Forgotten Prime-Ministerial Children

The Plough gained some notoriety a few years ago as the pub where David Cameron left his daughter behind in the toilets after a lunchtime visit from his nearby country house retreat, Chequers.

This autumn the Plough can justifiably lay claim to the title of most famous pub in the world given the brief visit’s huge coverage in the Chinese media — and also in many other countries.

It seems the Chinese leader had been determined to sample what must be known in China as two of Britain’s great traditions — fish and chips and a drink in a pub. Of course the traditional way of eating fish and chips is out of newspaper with the grease soaking into your palms so perhaps it was diplomatic to combine the two in the pub visit. However, it’s certainly not a British tradition to eat a tiny portion out of a wire basket at the bar.

Nevertheless, the starter-sized portion of President Xi’s fish and chips has now gone on the menu permanently in the Plough. In the weeks after his visit, coach parties of Chinese visitors pitched up at the pub to sample this rather non-traditional method of serving the national speciality.

Equally significantly, the visit has led to British real ale becoming a much sought after drink in China, with demand for Greene King IPA after the Chinese leader drank a pint in the pub. (A regular beer at the pub is local brewery Rebellion’s IPA — perhaps David Cameron steered clear of that particular brew given his company?)

Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunt -- The Lions of Bledlow
Inspector Barnaby’s Favourite Haunt — The Lions of Bledlow

Like many other pubs in the Chilterns, the Plough has featured as a picture-postcard hostelry in many different television programmes, notably Midsomer Murders. In fact, what’s probably Inspector Barnaby’s most frequently visited pub, The Lions of Bledlow, is only a few mies down the road, also nestling against the foothills of the Chilterns.

Midsomer Murders is an exceptionally popular programme internationally, particularly in Scandinavia, and is another example of how the rest of the world is fascinated by the British pub.

And it’s not surprising why anyone with even a passing interest in the culture of this country should be interested in experiencing life in the pub. Other countries have their wonderful cafes, restaurants, bars and other meeting places but with the possible exception of Ireland, where pubs still seem to provide a subtly different function, it’s difficult to think of an institution quite as casually inclusive, socially democratic and (usually) community focused as the pub.

It’s not even a pre-requisite to drink alcohol — I’ve gone into Wetherspoons during the day and had a cup of coffee and, at the other end of the scale, the likes of Tom Kerridge (whose pubs in Marlow are not that far away from The Plough and Lions of Bledlow above) have made pub food a Michelin starred but (by most accounts) without throwing out the pub experience completely.

It’s little wonder that the pub is a central feature in many dramas — the Bull in Ambridge, the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic are central to their respective soaps — but there’s many other examples of pubs of all varieties in sit-coms and other dramas  in — the Nag’s Head in Only Fools and Horses and the period seventies The Railway Arms in Life on Mars come to mind — both as far away from the bucolic Lions of Bledlow as it’s possible to imagine.

There’s an equally long tradition of pubs in literature — stretching back to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — although many pubs are better known for authors’ real-life drinking than their fictional representations. Possibly the most famous modern fictional pub is the Moon Under Water — George Orwell’s description in an article for the Evening Standard of the elusive ideal pub.

In novel writing terms, a pub offers countless opportunities for characters to meet, information to be passed on and conflict to arise. It can also introduce the community in which the protagonists exist — and also make a large contribution to establishing the culture and ethos of that fictional world.

And anyone who’s spent some time around the pubs of London and other large British cities — or has opened a weekend newspaper food and drink or travel supplement — can’t fail to have noticed the new-found fashionability of ‘craft beer’ and the trendy pubs that serve (and often brew) it.

Sweet Potato and Goats Cheese Pizza at Crate Brewery
Sweet Potato and Goats Cheese Pizza at Crate Brewery, Hackney Wick

The craft beer phenomenon has been building for a few years but craft or artisanal beer has become so popular that Time Out devoted most of a recent issue to London’s breweries — which are often located in hipster hotspots like Hackney Wick, Cambridge Heath or Bethnal Green (see photos of the Crate Brewery on the canal in Hackney Wick).

With the likes of Brewdog opening bars across London and elsewhere (I visited the new one in Soho last week), pubs are no longer best known for their links to tradition and the past but for being as much part of the cultural Zeitgeist as street art and thickets of facial hair.

Enjoy the Street (or is it Canal?) Art With Your Pint
Enjoy the Street (or is it Canal?) Art With Your Pint

And as plenty of the new breweries and pubs are producing excellent beer then this popularity is likely to continue. However, I can’t say my ‘unfiltered’ pint from the Crate Brewery pictured below is one of the best examples I’ve drunk recently.

I Don't Fancy Yours Much: a Pint of Crate Brewery's Unfiltered Craft Beer.
I Don’t Fancy Yours Much: a Pint of Crate Brewery’s Unfiltered Craft Beer.

When I started writing The Angel it may have seemed odd that Kim, an uber-hip street artist (and uber is a word that’s recently taken on a new meaning) would be an expert in beer, working in a pub and having an intimate knowledge of how beer is brewed.  Now it’s clear Kim’ was ahead of the trend, being into beer and brewing before the typical Shoreditch hipster — not that she’d care about being the height of uber-cool.

Nailing It

As well as being the title of the novel, The Angel is also the name of the pub at the centre of the narrative. It’s a fictional village local somewhere in the Chilterns and, is a little like George Orwell’s famous Moon Under Water as it’s something of an idealised English country pub (at least in its appearance — thatched, whitewashed, low-beams, inglenooks, flagstoned floors). As mentioned previously, it’s not based on one particular pub but everything in it is an amalgam of real characteristics of about a dozen pubs in the Chilterns that I know very well.

Of course, the physical appearance of a pub is only part of its appeal — the set where personal dramas are played out.  As anyone who’s visited more than a few pubs knows (in the country or city), it’s doesn’t take that much searching to come across some very idiosyncratic features — or strange activities that occur in otherwise ‘normal’ pubs.

Only a few days ago I visited a pub I’ve known for a while called England’s Rose in Postcombe, which isn’t that far from M40 junction 6. I’d naively assumed that the pub had borne that name for centuries but no — it was renamed from The Feathers almost exactly 16 years ago in 1997 after — you’ve guessed it — Elton John’s reworking of Candle in the Wind at Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral. The pub had been converted into a shrine to Lady Di.

We were given a tour by the licensees. There was a whole bookcase of Diana-related literature in the main bar but the restaurant extension was where the Diana memorabilia had been most concentrated. Sadly quite a lot of the souvenirs had been thinned out in recent years but there are still rare photographs on the wall apparently presented by Mohammed Al Fayed.

In a similar vein, although there is more of a geographical connection, the Red Lion in Knotty Green near Beaconsfield has celebrated the life of probably its most successful writer — the phenomenal Enid Blyton.

From the Imagination of Probably Beaconsfield's Biggest Selling Author
From the Imagination of Probably Beaconsfield’s Biggest Selling Author

I say ‘probably’ because Terry Pratchett is said to have been brought up in the area, although he may have lived closer to the spectacularly ancient Royal Standard of England in nearby Forty Green. Huge though Terry Pratchett’s sales are, I’m not sure if he’s yet eclipsed the figures for the Secret Seven, the Famous Five and the rest of her vast backlist.

Framed Photos of Enid Blyton in the Red Lion, Knotty Green
Framed Photos of Enid Blyton in the Red Lion, Knotty Green

Fortunately, perhaps, at least for adult drinkers, the pub hasn’t themed itself around Noddy, Big Ears and friends. When I last visited a few years ago, it was more a collection of soft toys, books and a few photos framed on the wall. But it’s an example of how pubs can mark unexpected associations with their local communities.

The Brooke Bar, Prince and Lily
The Brooke Bar, Prince and Lily

On a more seriously literary note, the Pink and Lily pub on the scarp of the Chilterns near Princes Risborough, has a wonderfully atmospheric room devoted to war poet Rupert Brooke which is preserved almost exactly as Brooke would have drunk in it himself almost exactly a hundred years ago. Brooke does have a personal connection with the Pink and Lily, having written a poem about it and spending a lot of time in the area whereas I’m not sure if Diana ever drank in England’s Rose  or Enid Blyton in the Red Lion.

Combine the oddity of pubs with their role as venues where the local community comes to mix and things can get very strange indeed. It’s always been an ambition of mine to visit some of the inexplicably weird traditions in some of the remoter parts of the country. The tar barrels of Ottery St. Mary are near the top of my list, although not strictly pub related, but I’m most curious to visit the completely bonkers Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea  — which seems to be the most surreal pub crawl imaginable.

But very peculiar entertainment is laid on in pubs closer to home. Below is a YouTube video I took at the Swan in Great Kimble during its recent beer festival (or Oktoberfest — which explains Mick, the landlord’s rather incongruous Lederhosen). No expense was spared in the provision of scintillating entertainment for the patrons — there was a nail driving competition.

For anyone unfamiliar with the idea (as I was) it is a stunningly straightforward contest. Two people with two hammers and two nails — and the fastest to knock their nail into the stump wins. Who needs 3D films, karaoke or even television when we can entertain ourselves like this?

But, in this clip, entertaining it definitely was. The two contestants are my friends Carl (on the left) and Simon. There are two separate contests but Simon is trounced in each one. The scepticism and bewilderment that Simon displays through movement and body language in checking Carl’s nail has indeed been driven in faster is pure physical comedy.

It’s a priceless little nugget that shows how British eccentricity still thrives if you know where to look for it.

The Sad Demolition of the King’s Head, Old Vine and Windmill

The Angel  is partly set in an outwardly idyllic English country pub — thatched roof, low beams, flagstoned floors and looking out through its mullioned windows on to the village green with its cricket pitch and duck pond. It’s a slightly idealised amalgam of several pubs I know but all the constituent elements can be found in about half a dozen pubs I know well within about a ten mile radius.

The Crown, Cuddington
The Crown, Cuddington

If my descriptions of the pubs are adequate then it may not be too difficult to evoke visual images in readers as most of these pubs have been used several times over for dramas like Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders.

The Lions of Bledlow -- One of Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunts
The Lions of Bledlow — One of Inspector Barnaby’s Favourite Haunts

The image of the Olde English Pub is curious because, while it’s something of a stereotype, it’s not an exaggeration of reality. These iconic places still exist (thrive might be too strong a verb in the current economic climate) and, in weather such as the current heatwave, we’re reminded what a fundamental element of the British national identity the village pub evokes. (And a village pub doesn’t have to be in the countryside — there are plenty of old pubs subsumed into urban areas that still retain that bucolic character. The White Swan in Twickenham is a good example as are some pubs in the most unlikely areas of London and other large cities.)

In terms of visual iconography, I was fascinated to discover how the promoters of British Summer Time interpreted the English village pub. This was the series of concerts in Hyde Park which featured the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi amongst others. It replaced Hard Rock Calling after the infamous incident last year when the plug was pulled on Bruce Springsteen duetting with Paul McCartney as at 10.30pm they were disturbing the tranquility of Mayfair — on the other side of the six-lane inner-ring road that is Park Lane.

I don’t have too much sympathy, having had to endure student house parties with hundreds of ‘guests’, drugged, drunk and very loud at 3am in the morning when living in London myself.

Rather than the standard festival back-of-a-trailer bar, British Summer Time had themed areas for its catering and drinks. When I visited last week between concerts (when the British Summer Time compound, for want of a better word, was free to enter) the Spanish themed area was a dusty and deserted assortment of hastily-erected restaurants and bars — so not that different to contemporary Spain in the Euro crisis then?

The Lions of Bledlow -- One of Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunts
The King’s Head, Hyde Park

In the Village Green area I found three adjacent ‘pubs’ — the Old Vine, the King’s Head (with Henry VIII naturally on the sign) and the Windmil . Given that these catering outlets, oops, I mean pubs were operational for only nine days and had been constructed on a patch of grass in the middle of Hyde Park then historical authenticity was a little too much to ask for.

King's Head and Windmill, Hyde Park
King’s Head and Windmill, Hyde Park

I was fairly impressed with the way the architectural styles had been repesented, particularly the Windmill, which was quite imaginative and stresses the historical link between windmills and pubs. If  you want to experience the inns of Tolkien’s Shire then visit the Pheasant in Brill, Buckinghamshire while we still have light nights. The village was apparently the model for Bree — it’s not too far from Oxford — and has a marvelously restored windmill by the pub on the top of the hill.

Inside the King's Head
Inside the King’s Head

The interior of the King’s Head looked pretty authentic — despite being a prefabricated box its fixtures and fittings and decor were surprisingly genuine.

What wasn’t usual was the way the ‘pubs’ served from a bar on their exterior walls. Occasionally some pubs do this in the summer — the White Cross in Richmond used to. However, the demands of serving 60,000 people in an interval are probably not quite the same as the village local at tea-time in a cricket match.

And sadly, while the ‘pubs’ made efforts to be surprisingly authentic in appearance, they didn’t serve the traditional drink of the British pub — cask-conditioned real ale — at least not in its most genuine form. There was Fuller’s London Pride and Theakston’s Bitter plus Seafarer on offer but I’m fairly sure it was pasteurised — although it was served at a appropriately cool temperature unlike some genuine pubs try to get away with in this weather with real ale — which tastes ghastly if warm.

Old Vine, Hyde Park
Old Vine, Hyde Park

But at £5.50 a pint the pricing strategy of these pubs was only suited to the sort of captive market that spends hundred on tickets for the Rolling Stones. Having had our wallets lightened somewhat I moved on with my drinking companions to the slightly more gritty reality of the Carpenters Arms on Seymour Place.

It’s probably too late to get on to CAMRA head office about the closure of three adjacent pubs in Central London. While we can’t really complain about the demolition of  the King’s Head, Old Vine and Windmill — I noted the lorries in there this week removing all trace of their presence — but their appearance was culturally reassuring, if a little personally expensive.

A Flying View of London

This weekend I visited the latest fascinating addition to London’s skyline, a construction that would probably have attracted a lot more attention had it not opened immediately before the Olympics — an event it was partly conceived to serve.

Its official name is the rather ghastly corporate speak of ‘The Emirates Air Line’ after its sponsors — who also have their name symbiotically linked to Arsenal’s stadium. However, if taking the Emirates money was the difference between constructing this spectacular cable car ride and not then I’m glad Boris and TFL took the shilling. It’s magnificent and I’d recommend anyone to take a ride — take a look at this view of the Shard that I took from ninety metres above the Thames.

The Shard Rising
The Shard Rises Between the Canary Wharf Towers

Stunning: shame I didn’t get the top of 1 Canada Water but the Shard only appears between the Canary Wharf buildings for a few seconds, such is the speed of the ride.

It’s apparently the most expensive cable car system built anywhere in the world — a legacy of the ‘cost is no object’ building frenzy in East London in the run up to the Olympics. It opened ahead of schedule a month before the games and theoretically links the ‘North Greenwich Arena’ (O2/Millennium Dome) with Excel in the Royal Docks area.

Dome and Canary Wharf
Canary Wharf Seen from Above the Millennium Dome (O2 Arena for the modernists)

Its two boarding stations are pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which makes the cable car’s presence all the more surreal. It’s the type of structure that would probably never have been built at any other time and so, to my mind, all the more valuable for that — like many other highlights of last summer, it’s frankly a bit bonkers.

Olympic Stadium from Above the River
Olympic Stadium from Above the River

The photo above shows post-Olympic contrasts in this part of London. The stadium (now looking darker after the removal of the white decoration that clothed its circumference) and Orbit tower sit in the distance surrounded by a post-industrial landscape of squat warehouses, electricity pylons and tube lines.

The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars
The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars

Maybe in years to come large numbers of commuters will actually commute across from one regenerated side of the Thames to the next? (As hinted above, it’s an integrated part of Transport for London — you can get a discount with an Oyster or Travelcard but not fly for free.) In the meantime it brings some fun to this rather bleak and windswept part of London.

As well as Canary Wharf, the dome and the Olympic Park, the cable car gives great views of the rest of London — including the unusual perspective of the City from the East. The push to move the centre of gravity of London to the east, of which the Olympic legacy was meant to be part, is reflected in my novel. Much of the London of The Angel is surveyed in the two photos below:

The City from the East
The City Seen from Downriver
East London
East London

Apart from a brief excursion in the middle of the novel, the furthest the characters go west is the line of the hidden river Fleet (running approximately down Farringdon Road to Blackfriars Station). The characters work and play in the bohemian, unmanicured areas of Shoreditch, Old Street, Spitalfields and Brick Lane that abut the City and live further out in the likes of Dalston and Hackney Wick.

Tap East
Tap East, Stratford Westfield

I started off my trip with a visit to a new pub brewery in the unlikely setting of the retail temple of Stratford Westfield (bibulous research for the novel) and then moved on from the southern terminus of the cable car into Greenwich.


Walking from the area of the O2 into Greenwich, I was struck by how much of this area is still post-industrial and a little down at heel — quite a contrast from the centre of Greenwich around the Cutty Sark where the pubs and bars were heaving at 6pm.

Canary Whard Lights at Night
Canary Wharf, Illuminated

As night fell the towers of Canary Wharf illuminated like beacons in the dark — I walked through the Olympic equestrian venue of Greenwich Park and took a night-time version of the stunning vista that was featured in the horse-jumping events. But with their bankers’ logos on display, the towers across the river seemed to represent the distance and remoteness of the financial institutions from the London that surrounds them — the tension and conflict that I’m trying to tap into as the wellspring of The Angel.

Night Time View from Greenwich Park
Night Time View from Greenwich Park


Red Lion Avebury from This Is Wiltshire
Fire At Red Lion, Avebury from This Is Wiltshire

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Red Lion in Avebury — it’s the most typically English thing imaginable — a half-timbered, thatched pub situated right in the middle of one of the most significant ancient sites in the world — the famous stone circle.

In a typically English prosaic touch, the pub isn’t preserved in an idyllic garden but has a busy A-road passing right by the front door — and, when I’ve visited, this had brought a load of bikers stopping off to provide the pub’s clientèle — not ruddy-faced yokels.

In the current draft of the novel, it’s mentioned at least twice (Kim and Emma are into the stones’ energy) — and the exterior looks quite like I imagine The Angel itself to look — particularly the thatching.

As the photo shows above, the Red Lion became one of the many thatched hostleries to catch on fire — fortunately this was contained in the Red Lion’s case but I know at least three pubs (at least two that were thatched) that have burned down into a shell in the last ten years within 15 miles of where I live: the Woolpack, Stoke Mandeville — rebuilt extraordinarily quickly; the Bottle and Glass, Gibraltar (between Aylesbury and Thame); and the Rising Sun, Ickford (a village in the wilds up near J8 of the M40). Fortunately all have been rebuilt and all are thriving.

So, thinking of plot ideas, if I have a lovely thatched pub in my novel, it wouldn’t be too improbable for some similar catastrophe to hit the building, would it?

A Dickens of a Pub Crawl

As anyone who’d watched TV or picked up a newspaper since Christmas will know, 2012 is the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of arguably Britain’s greatest novelist. If you’re a person with more modern tastes in literature you may believe that the quality of his actual writing is less laudable (he uses plenty of adverbs and adjectives, omniscient narrators and other contemporary sins), you’d still have to concede the lasting influence of Dickens on British society and culture.

I would be interesting to see how a modern-day Dickens fared in a creative writing workshop. As Armando Ianucci argued in his recent BBC programme celebrating Dickens, it’s the writer’s gift for creating memorable characters, evoking setting, raging against social injustice and, above all, as a humorist that make his works so memorable — and so widely adapted into other media. Character, setting, theme and the ability to give a reader the sheer enjoyment of reading are vital ingredients of a successful novel but are very difficult to teach on creative writing courses that necessarily focus on analysing shorter passages.

I bought Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature for my recent MA essay on The Rules of Creative Writing and Nabokov uses a lecture on Bleak House to examine Dickens’s techniques in detail. Nabokov identifies thirteen different different attributes of the style of Dickens’s language — including repetition, evocative names, plays on words, oblique description of speech, epithets and something called the Carlylean Apostrophic Manner.

Nabokov criticises Dickens’s storytelling ability but still rates his as a great writer, as well as a particularly enjoyable one to read. Bearing in mind the extended form of the novel Nabokov says ‘Control over a constellation of characters and themes, the technique of holding people and events bunched together, or of evoking absent characters through dialogue — in other words, the art of not only creating people but keeping created people alive within the reader’s mind throughout a long novel — this, of course, is the obvious sign of greatness.’

This last point is so obvious it often seems to be omitted from a list of techniques required by novel writers — ‘the art…of creating people [and] keeping [them] alive’ — all other novelists techniques are really subordinate this aim.

Dickens’s actual birth date is the 7th February, next Tuesday, but I’m paying tribute to the great man in a way that he would surely approve of — by organising a pub crawl around some of the drinking establishments that he visited himself and featured in his novels. So tomorrow (as I write it — Friday 3rd February for clarification) I will be leading a party in literary homage visiting the following places at approximately the following times:

6pm Cittie of York, 22 High Holborn, WC1V 6BS (Chancery Lane Tube) – The Cittie of York is on the site of Gray’s Inn Coffee House, mentioned in both David Copperfield and Barnaby Rudge.

6.45pm Knight’s Templar, 95 Chancery Lane, WC1A 2DT — not much of a Dickens association apart from being in the middle of Chancery Lane — so bang in legal London — it’s a Wetherspoon conversion of what was apparently the Union Bank.

7.30pm Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,  145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU — the current building dating to a rebuild in 1667, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese was one of Charles Dickens’s favourite pubs, along with many other famous authors. It is likely the inspiration for a pub on Fleet Street mentioned in The Tale of Two Cities.

8.15pm Ye Old Mitre, 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, EC1N 6SJ — Dickens was known to drink in the historic and secluded Old Mitre — a pub that has so much bizarre history (its licence used to be granted in Cambridgeshire until the 1950s) it could fill its own guidebook.

9pm Craft Beer Company, 82 Leather Lane, EC1N 7TR — close to Bleeding Heart Yard (in Little Dorrit*) but it’s the best new beer pub in London (*anyone know which flower’s most well-know variety is named after this novel?)

9.45pm The One Tun, 125-6 Saffron Hill, EC1N 8QS – The One Tun is believed to have inspired Oliver Twist. The Three Cripples fictional public house was located next door to the One Tun and a real-life Fagin lived nearby. Dickens drank in the pub from 1833-1838.

If you’re in any of those pubs on Friday 3rd February then come and say hello — although it might need to be a virtual one via the blog. If I say you’ll be able to spot me as I’ll be semi half-cut (a tautology I used in work submitted on my MA course) with a group of around half-a-dozen males looking desperate for the next ale then it won’t be much use as half the pub will answer that description.

Some of the historical information was gathered from Time Out’s recent Dickens edition and some from the interesting Digital Dickens site.

Anyone familiar with London will notice that this subset of pubs with Dickens associations is in the Holborn-Fleet Street- Farringdon-Clerkenwell area — not a particularly touristy part of the city even now — and one that changed a greatly in the nineteenth century with, among other developments, the culverting of the River Fleet in the Farringdon area in conjunction with the construction of the Metropolitan Railway — the world’s first underground.  (Crossrail now means the Farringdon area is being dug up all over again.)

Even so, the area north of Hatton Garden around Gray’s Inn Road and Mount Pleasant and stretching towards King’s Cross retains a more raffish atmosphere than most parts of London — this was the territory of Bill Sykes and his presence still seems to permeate the area. Perhaps it’s the geography of the area — much more vertical separation than most of London with a roads on different levels and a few steep streets?

I’m attracted to exploring these lesser known parts of London and the characters in my novel will make a journey on the other side of the Fleet valley (the contours of a river valley are very noticeable, particularly where Clerkenwell Road crosses the Metropolitan Line near Farringdon station) from Shoreditch to Bankside via Hoxton, Finsbury, Clerkenwell, St.Paul’s and Blackfriars — not the areas you normally find on the open-topped bus routes.

Wenlock Saved

I have a short update to the story of the Wenlock Arms in Hoxton, mentioned below, which is relevant to the fate of many pubs across the country.

The Wenlock is a spit-and-sawdust, East-end style local (which looks from the outside rather like a more downmarket version of the Queen Vic from EastEnders). It’s typical of an urban pub style that would have been found on virtually every street corner in Victorian London. However, the triple threats of German bombing in the second world war, post-war redevelopment and the consequences of changing leisure time activites leading to changes of use have led to such pubs becoming increasingly rare. If the buildings still stand as pubs then they’re likely to have been either gentrified into ‘bar and kitchen’ gastropubs or be vile drinking dens full of pool tables and fruit machines.

Not so the Wenlock. Mainly due to the pub’s promotion of real ale from small and microbrewers and the consequent patronage of the members of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and like minded drinkers, the Wenlock has continued as a genuine community pub — for example hosting regular live music. The phrase ‘unspoilt by progress’ (used by Banks’ for their beers in the West Midlands) could be applied accurately to the interior, which appears to have been under an informal preservation order that has seen a moratorium on any discernible interior decoration — which to the generally stylistically challenged CAMRA members is seen as a Good Thing.

As mentioned in the post on Shoreditch, the Wenlock sits in an area that is on the fringes of the Hoxton-Shoreditch urban renaissance — had it been any closer it would probably have been converted to a bijou neon place called Bar Frottage or something. However, the economic winds of redevelopment finally reached the Wenlock and an application was made to Hackney Council earlier this year.

As suggested above, planning laws mean that there’s no requirement to request permission to change the use of a pub into a similar sort of establishment, like a bar or restaurant, so long as it’s used to sell food and drink. This has been why many pubs have been ruined by being turned into failed restaurants. You could probably turn a pub into a kebab house quite happily.

However, permission is required to change the use of the building to any other sort of commercial use and, particularly, for private housing. As the price of housing is so expensive in large parts of the country, particularly London and the South East, the physical building of a pub (or even just the land it stands on) can be worth far more as an asset than the pub will ever hope to generate as a business. That’s why so many pubs are owned by speculators or giant pub companies that securitise their property portfolios in the City in exchange for cash.

In the case of the Wenlock, developers wanted to build at least five apartments on the plot. These would no doubt have sold for well over a million pounds collectively — creating a profit that would probably take a back-street boozer decades to realise. Therefore, all but the most successful pubs in this country, are only protected from the raging forces of market greed by local planning regulations. In the case of the Wenlock Hackney Council rejected the change of use application and many locals and real ale supporters celebrated this in the autumn.

However, there is a loophole which those wanting to redevelop the Wenlock sought to exploit. Premises can be denied permission for change of use but, unless a building has listed status or is in a conservation area, then the owners can do more or less anything else to it — including demolish it. This tactic has been used ruthlessly in the past where pubs have literally vanished overnight when developers have sent in bulldozers at midnight. (The famous Tommy Ducks in Manchester was an example, which was razed to the ground one night in 1993 at 3am in the morning. This pub used to have women’s knickers pinned to the ceiling — I was once taken there after a school trip to the theatre by the teachers!)

The Wenlock was just outside the Regent’s Canal Conservation area and so its locals were disturbed to see a notice of demolition attached to the building at the end of November. This is apparently a technical process to inform the council of an intention to demolish a building and normally the council can only object to the method of demolition proposed (unless the building is listed or in a conservation area). So it appeared that the Wenlock was going to be turned into a patch of waste ground — with the presumed intention of later lobbying for the original residential development once the pub had become only a memory.

But the pub’s supporters mounted a huge campaign (there’s a Facebook group called Save the Wenlock, which I belong to) and mobilised a coalition of beer drinkers and lovers of vernacular architecture to lobby Hackney council themselves. The pub could have been demolished, as I understand it, from about the 22nd December.

On Monday 19th December at a meeting of Hackney Council, the conservation area was extended to include the Wenlock Arms. The pub had been, possibly, days from demolition but has now been preserved — the fabric of the building and its permitted usage at least — whether the owners want to hang on to it with no prospect of it being anything other than a somewhat down-at-heel looking boozer is an open question. (There’s a very detailed historical and architectural account of the area — and an adjoining pub, the King William IV — on the council website.)

Fortunately there won’t be the traditional, short-lived rush to celebrate the preservation of an amenity that few people actually used — as happens often when economically struggling pubs are denied permission to change use. The Wenlock has never seemed to want for customers, which shows what a bleak outlook there is for less busy pubs when customers have less disposable income, beer duty is rising and inflation (especially utility prices) is rising fast.

As with most retailers, Christmas and New Year are the best times of year for pubs and there will be many publicans who will trade up until New Years Eve, bank the Christmas takings, and then shut down for good. The Wenlock’s success story is rare but it’s salutary and an example of what community action can achieve.

When I Grow Rich…

…ring the bells of Shoreditch in Oranges and Lemons, Shoreditch being where mos of the start of my novel is set, although I very much doubt the bells of St. Leonard’s are going to help me get rich by writing it.  (The church is apparently features on current BBC series Rev, which is also set in Shoreditch.)

I’ve visited Shoreditch many times while I’ve been writing the novel, particularly recently, and I think I’ve noticed the most recent stages in its metamorphosis from run-down, working class area to the predominantly cool artists’ neighbourhood that it is today — although you don’t need to wander too far away from the Rivington Road/Shoreditch High Street area to find yourself in some very unartistic-looking, grim housing estates.

Bishopsgate from the Edge of the City

Perhaps the opening of Shoreditch High Street overground station about 18 months ago has been a catalyst as now the area is linked directly to south London and the North London Line at Dalston.

Shoreditch is surprisingly close to the City of London and its concentration of wealthy financial services workers. The photo below is taken from Shoreditch  — the marker post on the right side of the photo shows the City of London boundary marker.

It’s an extraordinary transition point with the Broadgate development on the right along Bishopsgate and the Gherkin in the distance. The street where I stood to take the photo is a very short length of road called Norton Folgate which connects Bishopsgate with Shoreditch High Street. It’s probably no more than one or two hundred yards in length but the contrast in urban landscape between its two ends is striking.

Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch
Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch
Slightly further up the road, looking away from the City is Great Eastern Street. This very ordinary looking street is actually London’s inner ring road — connecting the end of the dual carriageway at King’s Cross with Tower Bridge via Angel and Old Street. Village Underground with its tube trains on the roof can be spotted in the middle-distance.
After our first workshopping session of the autumn at Mike B’s in Old Street, I visited Village Underground’s large warehouse space (what the trains sit on top of) for the Moniker Art Exhibition in October , which was timed to co-incide with the big London Frieze event in Regent’s Park (at £27 a ticket that was a bit steep for me). But there was a lot of really good at the Moniker Event — and the space at Village Underground was a good venue for it.
It’s surprising that hundreds of years after the Roman and medieval walls of London fell into disrepair that it feels as if there’s still some psychological separation between inside and outside their boundaries.
Shakespeare Acted Here
Not the Globe Theatre but Noisy, Dirty, Anonymous Curtain Road, Shoreditch

All types of disreputable activities occurred in areas like Shoreditch, just outside the City walls and, in the late sixteenth century, this included actors and playwrights, along with all the other undesirables cast outside the City walls like thieves and prostitutes. Just around the corner from Village Underground is this plaque in Curtain Road, which is a very understated memorial to the Curtain Theatre – a predecessor of the Rose and Globe Theatres in much more historically celebrated Bankside.

London’s first theatre (called The Theatre) was located somewhere around the area between Curtain Road, Village Underground and Shoreditch High Street which has had the track for the new

Rivington Street, Shoreditch
Rivington Street, Shoreditch

overground station laid right through it. It’s incredible to think that this area of Victorian warehouses, 60s office blocks and surface car parks was a crucible of the English language — where Shakespeare started his writing career.

Very close to the Shakespeare plaque is the Old Blue Last — a live-music venue described by NME on its website as  ‘the world’s coolest pub’ and continuing Shoreditch’s history of alternative entertainment. A roll-call of the ‘coolest’ acts of the 2000s have appeared at the pub including Amy Winehouse, Florence and the Machine, (Gordon Brown’s favourites) the Arctic Monkeys, the Vaccines and many more.
Old Blue Last, Shoreditch
Old Blue Last, Shoreditch

Places like the Old Blue Last won’t have deterred the arrival of trendy artist types in the area and I thought the photo below shows an appropriate clash of old and new — über-cool American Apparel (apparently the shop where Ruta Gedmintas bought her outfits for Frankie in Lip Service) has opened up next to a pub improbably called the Barley Mow.

Old and New on Curtain Road
Old and New on Curtain Road

Actually the Barley Mow is only a traditional looking boozer from the outside, as I found when I organised a pub crawl starting at the pub, and found that the price of a pint of their Fuller’s ale was a far from working-class £3.70.

A group of us did 8 pubs in all in a route from Shoreditch to Islington via Old Street and the Regent’s Canal. Second on the list was the also archaically named

Bricklayer's Arms Shoreditch
Probably Not Many Bricklayers in Here Any More -- Bricklayer's Arms, Shoreditch

Bricklayer’s Arms (thought the punctuation of the name suggests there was only one tradesman).

On the crawl was the ultimate down-at-heel boozer that’s been the unlikely beneficiary of being turned into a nationally famous ale drinkers’ destination — the Wenlock Arms on the borders of Old Street and Hoxton.

It’s in a very mixed area with new apartments being developed around the Wenlock Basin on the Regent’s Canal but also being situated in the middle of the sprawl of forbidding-looking council estates that border the trendy centres of Shoreditch and Hoxton.

Wenlock Arms, Hoxton
Wenlock Arms, Hoxton

It’s an almost stereotypically ‘unspoiled’ pub — almost falling to pieces in places — but it’s got a thriving clientele of ale drinkers (some of whom I know seek this place out from the USA) but it has been under threat recently of being redeveloped into a five storey block of flats.

It’s the sort of authentic place deserves to be preserved and, as an example of one aspect of pub culture, a pub very like it might find its way into my novel. And any inquisitive barmaid who might work in this sort of pub would certainly know how to keep and serve great beer.

On Your Bike Boris

Is it Art or An Old Bike in Hackney?
Is it Art or An Old Bike in Hackney?

A couple of weekends ago I decided, purely in the name of research for the novel, to research the area where Kim lives — what has been to me for many years the infamous borough of Hackney.

I organised a modest pub crawl (five pubs — a proper one for me goes into double figures) and was joined by my old drinking chums Andy, Jon and Simon (and later Antony) and Guy from the City course also joined in impromptu.

In my experience Hackney isn’t part of the ‘maggot-ridden cess pit that is London’s East End’ (as Alan Patridge described the land of jellied eels and rhyming slang). It seems less threatening than many areas of south-west London that I lived in or near in the late 80s and 90s (I had two Crimewatch murders within a couple of hundred yards of where I lived in Hounslow).

We started off at the Pembury Tavern — a cavernous beer hall of a place just outside the centre near Hackney Downs station. We then walked through the town itself to the Globe at Mornington Lane — a modern boozer opposite Tesco’s about whose staff the phrase ‘salt of the earth’ could have been invented. We went on to a couple more pubs before ending up in the marvellous Charles Lamb in Islington — something of a post-workshop regular now for Guy and myself.

Crossing the road towards the pub we got a glimpse of the Hackney that will have attracted Kim. An old bike had been painted and adorned with flowers and was apparently attached to a lamppost just over the pelican crossing. Guy was very taken with this piece of improvised street art — exactly the sort of object the artists in his novel would have created. Not a utilitarian street bike of the sort promoted by Boris Johnson but one that has no practical value whatsoever — it’s just mysteriously ‘there’ to make a statement.

And so it seemed to confirm to me that this is Kim’s domain in London — shuttling between Hackney and Shoreditch on the 55 bus — the one Guy and I took there from Mike B’s place after the Saturday morning workshop.

Having been thwarted twice by the incompetence of the Olympic ticketing system and having failed to buy any tickets for events at the nearby Olympic Park for 2012, I may go back to the area and have a look around at the changes associated with the games. Fish Island looks well worth a look.

The Zeitgeist of the Segnits

I wandered into Waterstone’s in Staines (of past Ali G fame) a couple of weeks ago and was magnetically drawn to a book called Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit, which had the good fortune for a debut novel, to be on the 3 for 2 pile.

It had quite an attention grabbing cover adorned by various pubs signs, which immediately attracted my interest. I had a look through, partly out of dread that the subject matter would be very similar to my work-in-progress, which has a big pub theme. Fortunately it wasn’t — the novel uses a very clever device of parodying the sort of country rambling guides that balance the virtuousness of walking with the promise of indulging in a pint or two at completion and are published in mind-boggling permutations (e.g. Best Walks from Pubs in Bucks, Bucks Country Pub Rambles, 20 Pub Walks in Bucks, etc.).

I always flick through the local editions of these books when I find them, mainly to see check if there’s any that guide walkers through my village — and there’s usually at least one walk that does. Unlike many people, I’m always keen that people do come and visit my local area because it is extraordinarily beautiful in its understated way — if it wasn’t so accessible to London then the scenery might be more valued than it appears to be.

I’ve also written quite a number of pub walks myself, which have been published locally. I was quite surprised to find out that people had actually followed my routes — a local pub landlord took about 15 of his friends on one walk. They’re quite tricky to write as there are only so many variations to make on ‘cross over the field, climb a stile, go through the gate’ and so on.

I can see why it might be real fun for an author to take a character who writes these guides and slip in some personal digressions to this very restricted literary genre and weave a narrative out of this — which is the premise of the book.

My dad is a huge Alfred Wainwright fan and I’ve seen plenty of his idiosyncratic guidebooks and I’ve also seen quite a few Wainwright-inspired programmes, often featuring Julia Bradbury in some shape or form (before she got the Wanderlust and headed off to Germany). Wainwright had something of a curmudgeonly reputation and I seem to remember seeing a documentary about him years ago which suggested his attitudes towards the role of women in society, for one thing, did not share much in common with militant feminism. It’s a very clever idea to make a novel out of the conventions of the walking book genre.

I can see it’s also a very fertile subject to write about — recreational walking is incredibly popular. I saw plenty of hikers this morning as I went for a run that took me (via a bloody big hill) on a short section of the Ridgeway and they were all up there with their Nordic walking sticks. Underhill country isn’t the Chilterns but is apparently around the Malverns somewhere.

I was quite interested in Nat Segnit and Googled him and, strangely, in this era of authors and their social media platforms found very little — no blog or twitter — just some reviews, a couple of interviews and a brief biography on his agent’s page which tells us where he was born and went to university but not much else.

But he does have quite an unusual surname that I was reminded of when I flicked through a book that I’d been meaning to read in the detail it deserves since I bought it as a Christmas present for my sister and then thought was so good that I decided to buy a second copy for myself — The Flavour Thesaurus — by another person called Segnit — Niki Segnit.

I was looking through the acknowledgement page in The Flavour Thesaurus as I now tend to with books I like to try and find out who the agents and editors and so on are. The first person she thanked was her husband Nat who helped with her book ‘while he had his own to get one with’.  Ah, so these two authorial Segnits were fairly likely to be married to each other.

This might not have seemed a particularly remarkable co-incidence — I guess that writing can be such an anti-social activity that if  some people end up with a partner who’s a writer, especially a debut author who’s writing in time off from the day job, then perhaps a case of ‘if you can’t beat them’ may be the most harmonious solution. But it’s the subjects of the two books that I found particularly fascinating as both are very relevant to themes in my novel. As mentioned above, Nat Segnit’s book alludes to pubs and deals with the escape of the great outdoors. Niki Segnit’s book is a marvellously inventive variation of the endless popularity of all things foodie.

I may even have James in my novel getting hold of The Flavour Thesaurus and treating it like a bible which will give a bit of theoretical grounding to some bizarrely elaborate concoctions he’ll try and put on the menu. The book works a bit like one of those food-and-wine matching guides (I remember a classic line in a Hugh Johnson guide that suggested a two and three-quarter year old Italian Merlot was required to partner sausages — ‘or a red anyway’). But it’s food-with-food combinations that provide the books’ framework.

There’s a flavour wheel with 16 flavour categories (sulphurous, woodland, etc.) and which contain in total 99 ingredients or food components (onion, walnut, etc.). (The flavour wheel is very similar in principle to a painter’s colour wheel — again another connection with the themes in my novel.) The book is then structured into pairings of the these components — so you look up something you like the taste of — say horseradish — and the book lists some interesting ingredients to pair with horseradish — oysters or beetroot, for example. There are some very interesting pairings indeed but I won’t spill the metaphorical beans by listing them here.

This structure is also remarkably clever as it accommodates a serendipitous mix of scientific research on flavour of the sort Heston Blumenthal is a fan (Niki Segnit has a background working for big food companies), impromptu recipes and, my favourites, her own anecdotes and opinions. There’s a great story about her driving through Italy with a boyfriend with whom her relationship was souring which comes under the unlikely heading ‘Globe Artichoke and Bacon’. She may even have convinced me that the peanut, like its friend, the single kernel of sweet corn, is an ingredient that has some culinary merit and not just a cheap product of the American agro-industrial machine.

Niki Segnit is extraordinarily well read on her subject — with a huge bibliography of cookbooks and other food reference books. She references quite a few authors that are on my shelves, from salad and vegetable guru, Joy Larkcom to domestic goddess, Nigella Lawson. However, what infuses the the book, despite its lack of illustrations or sexy photographs of styled food, is a genuine love of food and the sensual pleasures it offers and, as such, a dog-eared copy would certainly merit a place in my fictional character’s kitchen.

The Oak and the Book Club

I went to three pubs in Aston Clinton tonight (a village about 4 miles south-east of Aylesbury).  The last one we went to, The Oak, is probably about as similar to The Angel as any pub could be. It was even struggling and rumoured to be on the point of closure at the end of last year. However, Fuller’s (the brewery owners) spruced it up a bit and brought in an entrepreneurial landlord called Steve who, with a partner called Joolz in the kitchen who handles the food, has turned the place around. I’m not surprised as the bar staff were extraordinarily attentive.

Oak, Aston Clinton
Oak, Aston Clinton (from Fuller's Website)

The place was buzzing tonight — the public bar area was absolutely jam-packed and a bunch of locals were sitting around the bar — two of whom I was introduced to by a mutual friend.

One of the tables was occupied by about eight or nine women and when I saw the distinctive orange and white of the cover of David Nicholls’s ‘One Day’ I realised they were holding some sort of book club or reading group there. I saw other books being handed round the table but couldn’t identify the titles.

I thought this was all good research for the novel but also thought that there might be a wonderfully circular scenario here to aspire towards — if I was to have the novel published and then it be discussed in the book group of a pub it was partly based in — and then perhaps I could write about that? Maybe that’s too much circularity?

The Gravediggers

A close friend of mine, Charlie Mackle, has come up with a series of short pieces (almost flash fiction in some cases) about a fictional pub that sounds like the dark twin of ‘The Angel’ — it’s ‘The Gravediggers Arms’. There seems to be some cross fertilisation going on (some names are oddly similar) but the style is much more comic and plays to the gallery of its intended audience and, I have to say, is somewhat less polished than ‘The Angel’s later drafts (there may even be typos).

But it’s been published and has a few fans who have even written in to the editor to complement Charlie. Should I be getting  jealous?

He’s let me post a pdf of the first nine instalments in ‘The Gravedigger’s’ story in the attached pdf. Click on the pub sign to open the file.

The Gravediggers' Arms
The Gravediggers' Arms

Elegy for the Pub?

The Economist’s Christmas-New Year double issue had a fantastic article on the current challenges facing British pubs — both economic (recession and the rise in energy costs), legislative (smoking ban, ratcheting up alcohol duty and being paranoid about upsetting the supermarkets) and social (rise of many alternative forms of entertainment and the general trend towards eating out rather than drinking — last year saw the biggest drop in alcohol consumption for a long time — see this BBC News report).

The whole article is happily available for free here on the Economist website (most articles there are subscription only and this may eventually go the same way).

However, despite being a good read, the original article is over 2,000 words long so I’ll try and summarise some of the arguments it makes that are most pertinent to the themes in ‘The Angel’.

Many pubs, particularly in lovely villages such as the as-yet-unnamed fictional community that will be home to The Angel, are worth far more developed as private houses than they are as businesses that generate cash. Within five miles of where I live I can think of at least three very desirable private houses that were pubs not so long ago — I’ve visited one on several occasions that still has its sign outside — The White Star I think it used to be.

Similarly, pubs often sit on valuable plots of land and many are bulldozed to be replaced with infeasible numbers of new-build houses all jammed together where the beer garden used to be. Sometimes the developers have the nerve to allude to the land’s former use by naming a new development ‘Innkeepers Court’ or ‘Red Lion Mews’. (Often developers will demolish a pub without planning permission for any other use — they smash the pub to pieces to prevent anyone else taking it over and making a better go of running it.)

And no planning permission is needed at all to change a pub into a businesses that the government and planning departments (but no-one else) regards as similar to a pub — usually restaurants. That’s why so many pubs have metamorphosised into the Olde Village Tandoori. Not that there’s anything wrong with a curry every so often but a restaurant performs a fundamentally different social function than a pub — where people interact casually at the bar and pop in and out.

As the Economist’s correspondent says (they don’t have names in the magazine, except for very special reports): ‘the vanishing of a pub means, by common consent, the loss of the beating heart of a community, in town or countryside. A pub can become a sort of encapsulation of place, containing some small turning’s grainy photographs, its dog-eared posters for last year’s fete, its snoozing cats, its prettiest girls behind the bar and its strangest characters in front of it.’

Some of the comments made on the website about the piece compare it to George Orwell’s famous ‘Moon Under Water’ essay that appeared in the London Evening Standard in 1946. I love the imagery of the snoozing cats and the prettiest girls behind the bar. The latter comment, predictably, drew accusations of sexism. I’d argue that the ‘pretty girls’ are more metaphorical than literal (although Nick at the Whip Inn in the village of Lacey Green seems to consistently deliver this attribute in practice as well as keeping some excellent beer).

Tim Martin was so inspired by the essay that he named many of his early Wetherspoon pubs after it — while Orwell might not have been too impressed with Wetherspoons barn-like interiors and supermarket type promotions, he might have seen some merit in its offering of staggeringly cheap food (£1.99 for ham, egg and chips in some) and reasonably priced real ale.

Whatever their merits, Wetherspoons don’t represent the profound continuity with the past of traditional pubs. As the Economist writes: ‘pubs are meant to preserve [history]. They hold ghosts, myths, the memory of kings; Green Men live on in them, White Horses carry Saxon echoes, Royal Oaks keep the drama of civil war and restoration. The world before the hunting ban still thrives in the Hare and Hounds and the Tally-Ho; old trades survive in the Compasses, the Woolpack and the Wheatsheaf.’

The pub is also a democratic institution and social leveller: ‘the origins of pubs [were] in the kitchens of wayside farmhouses, where a man exchanged his own hearth for another. He was not, however, alone there. In the pub he met his fellow men and, with them, formed a society of musers and drinkers. He mingled with people he might not otherwise meet, had words with them, was obliged to take stock of their opinions. In a highly stratified society of worker, merchant and lord, the pub was open to everyone.’

This may seem slightly exaggerated but in her excellent book, Watching the English, social anthropologist Kate Fox devotes a chapter to pub etiquette in which she explains how this democratic social interaction usually occurs only at the bar — and there’s a tacit understanding that the further one sits from the bar in a pub,  the more privacy one is granted.

As the Economist says ‘Most pubs retain a peculiarly English blend of socialising and privacy’. Fox makes many other fascinating observations which support her claim that  ‘it would be impossible to even attempt to understand Englishness without spending a lot of time in pubs’. (Download the magazine from this link and scroll to pages 20 and 21 to read a review of the book I wrote in 2005).

Writing a novel about a pub I was pleased that the Economist agrees that ‘drama suits pubs. They are places for pushing limits, and not just in the sense of jars and fists…In pubs normal wariness is suspended in favour of live and let live, of free speech and free space… Americans have their guns; but the Briton has always had pubs, liberty glowing in thousands of small corners, as his weapon to beat back tyranny. John Bull lives there. When pubs are swallowed up, or die, something very much more than a beer-shop perishes with them.’

And the last paragraph is probably the most impassioned that I’ve ever read in the Economist — an exhortation, almost, that some things are more important than mere economics: ‘Time slows; company gathers; speech is freed; beer flows, like the very lifeblood of the land. Pubs are needed, even when every social and economic indicator is running hard against them.’

The ‘very lifeblood of the land’, indeed.

Tattoo Culture

I mentioned in a previous post that the Belle Vue pub in High Wycombe has recently opened an art gallery. The second exhibition starts on Tuesday next week, 23rd November and runs until 28th December — open 12-11pm, free entry.

It’s called Tattoo Culture and features the work of photographer Mark Page, who is one of the UK’s most sought after erotic/fetish/alternative photographers. He sent me the photo below, titled Wild Thing, which is a much compressed version of the original artwork taken from the brochure and poster for the exhibition.

Wildthing -- Mark Page
'Wildthing' -- Artwork for 'Tattoo Culture' exhibition by Mark Page

I’ll certainly try and pop into the Belle View to have a look — both from the pub/art gallery perspective and also because Kim in the novel will be into body art as well. Mark told me that the photos on display in the pub will be very mild compared with some work in this genre. Further information can be found at his website: (you have to be 18 to enter the site).

Belle Viewing

In another example of truth following what I’ve written as fiction, I’ve discovered via our excellent local Campaign for Real Ale magazine, Swan Supping, that an art gallery has opened in a pub in the local area.

It’s not a twee country pub either but the Belle Vue, which is right next to the London bound platform exit at High Wycombe train station and overlooks the railway lines.  It’s a friendly place with good real ale.

The art gallery was set up by Alan Hedgecock, who has run the pub himself, but is also a photographic artist. The first exhibition is of Alan’s photographs and is called ‘Smoking Ban’ as the photos were taken at the time the ban was introduced in 2007.  The gallery will be made available to other local artists for exhibitions of up to 8 weeks.

To underline the importance of pubs in a community, the Belle Vue also runs a monthly book club, a knitting circle (!) and will soon start a film club.

So my premise of having a pub run by an artist and using some of its space to show her work is not only plausible, it’s happening in High Wycombe — although I must add for posterity that I’ve been writing my fictional version of this for the past nine months. (I have been to the pub at least a couple of times in the intervening time, though.) The art gallery idea actually came from a piece of feedback from a City coursemate who assumed that was what Kim would do.

On a more worrying note, I found that a remote pub in an idyllic location in the Chilterns (in fact very close to my fictional village where The Angel will be) closed over the summer and is now up for rent as a 4-bed private house at £3,000 a month. It was the Rising Sun (now set forever) in Little Hampden,

The Sun Has Set on the Rising Sun, Little Hampden
The Sun Has Set on the Rising Sun, Little Hampden

quite close to the spot where I fell over running in the woods last weekend and limped down to wait for help outside Chequers with my hands and knees covered in blood. This is the fate that may befall the Angel if James and Kim fail.

At the pub quiz in my local last night I was shocked to find out that the traditional firework display that the pub has laid on for going on for the last 20 years will not happen this year — here are a couple of pictures from the 2006 display.

November Fireworks at the Village Pub
November Fireworks at the Village Pub That May Be Seen No More

It’s always been a superb firework display for a pub and has been funded by in part by a quiz, a small donation from the parish council and a few quid chucked in a bucket on the day. However, with over £1,000 of fireworks the pub made by far the lion’s share of the contribution. With the current economic situation and the prospect of the VAT rise putting up the price of beer by another 10p a pint then I can’t really blame the landlord. The pub has always been busy on bonfire night but one hour of the bar being packed out won’t make the profit required and many people stand outside to watch without even buying a drink. To be generous to them perhaps they think it’s all laid on by the council or something.

The event used to last longer with a big bonfire on the village green but that had to be discontinued due to ‘health and safety’ — more specifically some parents were letting their children play unsupervised too close to the fire and the organisers thought they were on a hiding to nothing — either be sued after an accident or face the minefield of supervising other people’s children. They could no doubt have put a big fence round the fire but that’s all extra expense for the pub — and, frankly, why they should they.

More Village Pub Fireworks
More Village Pub Fireworks

One of my fondest childhood memories is of standing round a huge bonfire in November but this seems to be another dying tradition — but I will try and revive it at The Angel.

The England of ‘Long Shadows on Cricket Grounds, Warm Beer and…’

Morris Men at Swan, Great Kimble
Morris Men Brandishing Sticks at Swan, Great Kimble

…I’m sure John Major in his rather risible but memorable speech would have included Morris dancing in his wistful list of unchanging Englishness. That speech is a particular bug bear as beer should NEVER be warm — the belief that real ale is best drunk tepid has allowed bad landlords to get away with serving undrinkable crap. It should be cellar temperature (about 10-12 C) and it’s sometimes so difficult to keep it that way in unrefrigerated cellars that even usually reliable pubs might be wisely avoided in temperatures of the upper 20s and even 30s C of the sort we’re forecast now.

Morris Men at Swan, Great Kimble
Morris Men with Their Traditional Tankards at Swan, Great Kimble
Morris Men at Swan, Great Kimble
Towersey Morris Men Look On At Their Aldbury Rivals at Swan, Great Kimble

I wonder what Kim would make of Morris Dancing. I’ve actually e-mailed one of my German friends  one of the pictures below, which I took yesterday of the Towersey Morris Men (relatively local) in a joint display with the Aldbury troop.

‘The Angel’ will certainly be a pub where the tradition carries on flourishing.I don’t know how often Morris dancers perform in London — there are no doubt some — but I doubt most Londoners ever see them. There are quite a number of sides (I think that’s the correct technical term) in the local area.

Aldbury is in the Chilterns and would actually be quite a good model for the village where ‘The Angel’ is to be located. It’s a decent size, with a picture postcard village green, fairly affluent as it’s not far from a fast train service into London (via Tring station — to which it’s probably closer than Tring itself) and has a couple of pubs, including the CAMRA regional award-winning Valiant Trooper, which is old and historic and quite a model of a community pub. There’s a nice review on the Telegraph website which points up some of the idiosyncratic charm that I’d like to achieve with ‘The Angel’.

The Naked Office

I was doing some ‘research’ today which involved sneaking in the back door of my local pub when it was officially closed up for the afternoon — the landlord had previously told me he’d be staying open all afternoon and he must have felt guilty when I turned up at 4.30pm with the doors shut. So I hung around in there for a quick pint — then had to stay for a couple more when it started raining outside — while he counted up his takings and watched some mindnumbingly sensational programme on Virgin TV on his Freeview TV about car crashes and people falling off motorbikes.

There was a bizarre trailer during the advert breaks about a programme that seemed so ludicrous and prurient it could only ever appear on such an obscure channel — ‘The Naked Office’. It appeared to feature people taking their clothes off in their offices but you couldn’t tell if they actually did because as the trailer was shown at 5pm then Virgin put big labels over any potentially controversial body parts.

I happened to be flicking through the TV guide tonight and came across the actual programme on Virgin+1. I was amazed to see that the programme was being positioned as some sort of business psychology programme rather than the peep show that most viewers no doubt expected. There was some ‘expert’ on who made the specious argument that if office workers stripped off naked for a day then they would be more open and it would ‘enhance communication’. This is the kind of HR bollocks that I’m interested in for ‘The Angel’ — the sort of unquestioning, controlling mentality that assumes people can be coerced into abandoning all dignity just by a few uplifting words from a motivational speaker.

Of course, these same HR consultants are no doubt the people who would come down mercilessly on any sexual harassment in the workplace and, thinking about the Peter Kay John Smiths advert mentioned in a post below, I can think of a very obvious practical reason why ‘The Naked Office’ will find its male participants quite reluctant to join in.

No fear, the whole programme was one flaccid non-event. In the end no-one got naked — a few of them paraded for about ten seconds in their underwear, long enough to display their array of tattoos, but no more titillating than one would see at the beach or swimming pool.

The programme was utter crap but a source of ideas for the novel and I’m wondering whether Emma should do a ‘let’s go naked Friday’. While on this programme the expert sensibly stayed fully clothed, I wonder if Emma might cause no end of tension if she suggested to James that she had to take the lead by stripping off in a copycat event that she might quite innocently organise — she’s going to be into crystals and mysticism anyway.

Charlie Brooker completely skewered an earlier edition of the programme in one of his better reviews in the Guardian.

Some Pleasant Research

I went up to the Eight Bells in Long Crendon today — the local Campaign for Real Ale’s pub of the year. (I wrote its entry for the forthcoming 2011 Good Beer Guide.)

It’s interior is very much like the sort of pub I imagine The Angel to be — all hundreds of years old chequered flagstones and so on (interestingly there’s another pub in Long Crendon actually called The Angel, which gave me the idea for the name, but it’s more of a restaurant). It’s such a beautiful, olde world country pub that Helen, the landlady, was telling me that, contrary to what I’d recently written, it’s been on Midsomer Murders at least three times — with a yet-to-be-broadcast episode filmed in the garden and in the street outside. Long Crendon and nearby Haddenham are used as locations for nearly every classic English countryside TV programme — Morse, Lewis, Rosemary and Thyme — the lot. Even if you’ve never been there you’re bound to recognise the places. Here’s a photo of my friend Andy stood outside a couple of autumns ago.

Outside the Eight Bells, Long Crendon
Outside the Eight Bells, Long Crendon

It was good research to see a bit of the every day routine. We had to wait around a while, talking to the barman about the World Cup, until she returned with a load of meat from the local butcher’s. Then a little later she and one of the locals had a table covered with loose change — bagging it all up — which had been raised for by a pub running team for breast cancer research. They’d done a half-marathon in Edinburgh at the weekend. All invaluable stuff.

The pub has a little alcove dedicated to the local morris-men and offers plenty of traditional real ales — the back of the bar was knocked through to provide a stillage. Helen also has a house beer brewed in her own name — quite wittily called ‘Hel’s Bells’ — see photos below.

Bar at Eight Bells, Long Crendon
Bar at Eight Bells, Long Crendon
Beer List, Eight Bells Long Crendon
Beer List, Eight Bells Long Crendon

Penthouse and Pavement

We ran on past our finishing time last night in our workshop — so late that the university building was locked up before Guy and I had our tutorials with Alison. These then took place on an amenable table outside the Queen Boadicea pub on St. John Street (quite apt for my novel). More of the consequences of the tutorial in a later post. This meant I missed a meeting I was hoping to pop into in High Wycombe (also in a pub) and got home quite late. However, I stayed up to watch a fascinating documentary on Heaven 17’s 1981 album ‘Penthouse and Pavement’.

This came out around the time I did my ‘O’ levels and, while I loved the Human League and Soft Cell and others, I wasn’t quite old and trendy enough to have bought ‘Penthouse and Pavement’, although I think I knew of its existence. When I went to university I got to know the album pretty well. I even think I played tracks off it, like ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ when I did the Friday night disco a couple of times at the student union. (It’s hard to believe, I know, but I did a bit of DJ-ing when I was 18 and then did a weekly show with my friend Hog Head on the student campus radio station when I was at UC Santa Barbara.)

Watching the documentary made me realise how much of a subconscious influence it must have been on me as many elements seems to have already turned up in my novel so far. It was said on the programme that ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ was actually a concept album for the 80s — obviously contrasting the disparity of wealth in the Thatcherite early 80s of the penthouse dwellers with those living on the pavement: the vinyl LP had a ‘Penthouse’ side and a ‘Pavement’ side. The brilliant cover, ‘like a cheesy company annual report’  as I think someone commented, was an ironic, arty comment on capitalism with the suited, pony-tailed band members striking yuppie poses — handshaking, on the phone doing a deal — which anticipated the Loadsamoney culture by five or six years.

The part of ‘The Angel’ that I’ve written so far has remarkable similarities — James starts high up in a gleaming office block, coming down to street level to meet grimy, struggling Kim. A stretch of pavement also plays a big part in one chapter. Thematically the characters represent the tension between penthouse (James) and pavement (Kim). The vocals on the title track, my favourite, are also an interplay between Glenn Gregory’s world-weary, deep male tones and sparky, soulful female vocals on the chorus (someone called Josie James, who’s not the woman on the video). That’s similar to the exchange of points-of-view I have so far in the novel. I’d also like to achieve a similar effect (for the City part of the novel anyway) with the prose as Heaven 17 achieve with the music — quite fast, sparse, sly, unpredictable — but not taking itself too seriously.

I guess I could elaborate further and speculate that the first track off Heaven 17’s next album, ‘The Luxury Gap’, becomes the next theme of the novel — ‘Temptation’. This track has been released in several different edits — and often turns up on compilations. My favourite is when Carol Kenyon’s ooh-oohing is allowed to run its full length (just before ‘step by step, day by day’). This is another track with a male-female dynamic and is relevant to the next part of The Angel — particularly the lines taken from the Lord’s Prayer ‘Lead us not into temptation’. In fact the next two singles off The Luxury Gap also fit my story — ‘Come Live With Me’ and ‘Crushed By The Wheels of Industry’ — this is now starting to get worrying.

I looked up the video of Penthouse and Pavement on Youtube after the programme, which I vaguely remembered — and in another stroke of perhaps unconscious serendipity the actress who plays the spying secretary is almost the spitting image that I hold my mind of Kim — once she’s got herself healthy in the countryside — she’s even got green(ish) eyes. (The actress is called Emma Relph — who was in the 1981 Day of the Triffids and is now apparently an astrologer.) The video is embedded below — take a look at the typewriter and photocopier — yet other artefacts don’t seem to have changed too much in 29 years.

‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie and the Bulgarian Carrot

For various reasons I’ve been incredibly pushed for time over the last week — principally related to a suspected outbreak of an unpleasant type of virus in the household. While it didn’t affect me directly, it had quite a knock on effect but I won’t go into the gory details. I was also quite addicted to watching every news programme and political discussion going that read the runes of the post-election negotiations — and I got most indignant at times about one potential outcome. Also, while it’s wonderful at this time of year, especially where I live, to see the trees coming into leaf and the days lengthening, it brings all kinds of tedious jobs in the garden like lawn mowing and weeding. I got nearly 200 little bedding plants delivered in plugs during the week which needed potting up, which I couldn’t do until this evening, so I lost quite a few. I also got five chilli plants delivered — one has the great name of ‘Bulgarian Carrot‘.

While I was otherwise occupied time was running short all week and I had a couple of novel course related pieces to produce. Most worrying was my looming tutorial with Alison on Monday for which I needed to send up to 3,000 words ‘by Friday’. I also have a major stage looming in my MSc dissertation and had to postpone my regular Skype chat with my supervisor by two days. I hastily revised the ‘problem overview’ section of the dissertation (2,000 words in all) and sent that off for review by Thursday afternoon (I’m very behind on that). This meant I had about 300 words written by about 3pm on Thursday for my tutorial. With the liberal assumption that ‘by Friday’ would mean by about 5pm on Friday I sat down to write a chapter as quickly as I could.

I wasn’t particularly well disposed to writing towards the end of the week. In Emily’s class we were reading extracts that we had potentially chosen for the evening event in June. I wasn’t sure what to use and hadn’t had time to write the Prologue idea (see previous posting). Alison had helpfully responded to an e-mail that I’d sent out bemoaning my inability to choose and she suggested a section from Chapter Two where Kim pelts Nic with paint from the roof of Village Underground. I quite like that bit too but it was over 900 words. I managed to pare it down to just under 700 in an editing session on Wednesday afternoon and then read it a few times for timing — marginally over 4 minutes.

Because of the virus issues, I had to miss the class I’ve started doing on Wednesday afternoons at City Lit and drive instead to London. I set off late and got stuck in traffic, due to an broken down horsebox, and then it took twice as long as on Monday to get from Finchley to Islington. So I arrived about 25 minutes late for a 90 minute class.

We had quite a few readings to hear and I happened to sit at the end of the row and was last in the reading order. I spent most of the class wondering if time would run out before it was my turn as well as being very impressed with the quality of the material that everyone else was reading. Some people read familiar stuff we’ve already heard and others read out reworked pieces that were significant improvements on the originals. A couple of people read completely new material — and it was all good — frighteningly so.

We ran out of time before Simon and I could read. I wasn’t in a particularly good mood anyway but I knew people had to have their tutorials so I asked Emily if I could mail the piece to her as I really wasn’t sure whether it was the right one. She then took pity on the two of us that hadn’t read and let us run on late. Simon read his novel’s opening of his — which had impressed us all the first time he’d read it.

I read mine but found what seemed to work ok on the page tripped me up as I read it out, although I’d generally managed it ok when I practised it — mainly stumbling over tongue-twisting alliteration. A few people in the class had read this chapter but most hadn’t — including Emily — so the location and situation were new to them as well as one character. I got a few laughs as I read, which was good, but the feedback afterwards seemed to be somewhat underwhelming. People seemed to think other scenes might be better. Emily said it was a good scene — very visual — but perhaps I should use something about when James and Kim go on a bender together — had I written that yet?

I came back home in a pretty foul mood. I think Emily had a good point about the choice of scene — I want something that features both my main characters — but I brooded over whether that meant I’d not yet written anything good enough to read out yet. The readings had also shown me how much progress other people were making on the course and made me think that somehow I was regressing. Almost as soon as I got home I went upstairs to bed and wouldn’t talk to anyone.

So I wasn’t in too much of a hopeful mood to set down writing for the tutorial the day afterwards — but nothing focuses me like a deadline. I wrote most of a first draft on Thursday night — about 2,000 words — then got up at 6am and added another 500 or so — and I added in the 300 I’d previously done. By 10am — when I Skype’d my MSc supervisor, I’d got a first draft of 2,800. I printed it out and made many corrections on hard copy then revised in Word. I then printed it out again, read it out loud, and did a further revision. By 3.45pm I was able to e-mail it off to Alison.

I was very pleased to have been able to write so quickly although in retrospect I think the piece is flawed by a few misjudgements about plot and tone more than there are problems with the writing. I ran the risk of planting issues in Alison’s mind before she read it by asking ‘is it too melodramatic?’, ‘are the main characters sympathetic?’, ‘is the balance between humour and dramatic action ok? ‘.  Some of the description is a bit clunky but what can I expect?

Part of the reason why I feel happier with the writing is that it’s moved back into a situation where I’m very at home — a pub. Kim works at a pub that I’ve based very closely on a spit-and-sawdust boozer in Hoxton that I’ve visited a few times, the last being a couple of months ago. I’ve tried to describe the varied clientele and the down-at-heel ambience. Before Kim goes in to work she winds James up by telling him he’ll be unwelcome if he looks like ‘a City arsehole’. He then asks her if it’s the Blind Beggar that she’s taking him to. This, unknown to Kim, is a pub notorious for its connections to the Kray twins (it’s also where the Salvation Army started, which is ironic for a novel about a pub) — click on the link to find out more.

This immediately made me think about how the Krays and their associates are such an ingrained part of popular folklore — but something that’s probably not very well-known to people who’ve only been in the country for the last few years. Even though the events were 45 years ago and these people were in reality unpleasant, violent criminals, the exotic names of some of the players in the Kray story have entered a collective cultural consciousness — Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie is my favourite but also ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser and ‘Nipper of the Yard’ (though he was on the good side).

In a section that no-one but me will probably like, but that cheered me up writing it no end, James reels off these bizarre nicknames to Kim, who is utterly bewildered. It also brings to mind the brilliant ‘Cockney Wanker’ cartoons in Viz which features some hideous East End boozer — which has two framed portraits on the wall — one of Winston Churchill and the other of Hitler.