As ever, when I start on this column, I haven’t got a clue what I am going to write about without repeating myself or getting caught in a cul-de-sac of unreason, where no beer does sing. And then it becomes obvious, what I want to write about is the infinite and indivisible appeal of beer, which continues to weave its spell on me, that continues to delight and drench my senses with joy whenever I find it — whether it is poured from a can or bottle at home (BTW I have a book out in March 22 that covers the very thing) or sitting in a pub.
So there I was on a balmy late September in London and there I sat in the public bar of a backstreet pub close to Waterloo Station, The King’s Arms if you must know. This was the first pub in London I had visited since February 2020, when I went to one in Tottenham that used to be a public lavatory (I think) [Correct, it’s called The Highcross for those interested – Ed]. I would not be giving away the ending by saying that it was a joy to visit this pub and it inspired and cajoled me to write as if my life depended on it.
The space in which I sat was a scuffed and roughed up and toughened by the tread of thousands kind of place; there was a wooden bar, a wooden floor, wooden panels halfway up the walls, the wooden walls of old England I thought to myself: organic, earthy, ancient and yet as familiar as failure. This was the bar-top as a fortress, a barrier, the great wall that girdled Constantinople before its fall in 1453 perhaps? To lessen the historical analogy, there were snob screens to one side, with diamond shaped panes, a mixture of orange, yellow and pale smoked glass. Above the bar, hanging from a gantry (wood naturally), wine glasses, stems pointing down towards the hand pumps below, hung as if waiting for an executioner, or more likely a stray oenophile with an early thirst.
This visit also enrolled me in the quietness of midday opening time, the early doors of legend, as well as the pub as a refuge from the world outside (paradoxically the world would come in as the hours passed and the tread of feet and the roll call of voices increased). I thought of the slow tick-tock of time as the dark chestnut brown beer stood in the glass in front of me, its firm snow-white head of foam into which my upper lip would glide into as soon as I lifted it to my mouth.
It was Adnams Southwold Bitter and I thought of Dylan Thomas: ‘I liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet-brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners.’
In the bar in which I sat, separated but still seen and heard from the other bar across a working space, an enclosure of beer taps and pump handles, where the bartender worked, there was no one but myself. Even though voices from the other bar drifted across, as ethereal as messages gliding through the vast spans of space, I felt like I was in a world of silence and contemplation, a work space even as I brought out my laptop and tapped out words, which are the currency in which I spend time and try and make my ordinary life extraordinary. Suddenly, as if a pantomime villain had popped up through a trapdoor onto the stage, I noticed my glass was empty and decided to have another.
So even with the crucial issues that hamper the world of beer at the moment and make it all so crushingly disappointing and heart-breaking at times — sexism, lack of diversity and inclusion for starters — I find that there is still always time for moments of reflection in the pub, as well as that sense of serenity and the undivided joy that a glass of beer (cask or keg, bottle or can, ale or lager, milkshake or mild, you make your choice) can bring.