Pub visits this week 7
Locations London, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield
Hello again, folks. June was Get to the pub.com’s busiest month so far – in terms not necessarily of visits to pubs, but certainly of visits to this site. Across the month we recorded a total of 1,250 page views, averaging more than 40 per day. In the grand scheme of web things, this doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, of course. But it’s steady progress. I’m very grateful to you for reading. And if you could help us progress further – by sending links or mentioning the site to people you know who might be interested, or in any other way – I should be very very grateful indeed.
This week I almost didn’t get to the pub at all here in Sheffield. I played a couple of gigs, though, in London and Nottingham, and spent a day in Manchester, so it’s been a pretty interesting one.
May your pubbing this week be serendipitous.
Usually, when I tell people I’m playing a solo gig, they say, “Oh, good,” or, “That’s nice,” or sometimes even, “When is it? I might come and see you.” When I told people I was playing a solo gig in Croydon they said, “Why?”
When I reach Croydon I can see their point a bit. It ain’t exactly pretty. But the two pubs I get to before the soundcheck suggest a place that might have a little soul below the surface. The Dog & Bull is one of those unassuming small boozers that London does so well, with one room arranged around a central bar. There’s some nice stained glass as well, although it depicts a sheep and a horse, which I can’t help thinking must irritate the the dog and bull terribly.
On the telly Japan and Paraguay have gone to penalties in the second round of the World Cup (if I ever start calling it “the round of 16”, find me and punch me in the face). A smartly dressed man sweeps in from the sweltering heat outside, sits at the corner of the bar and opens a large briefcase containing two broad-format business newspapers and a can of Stella Artois. The barman asks a drinker where the penalties are up to. “Three-two to Para-guay,” he says. Marianthi (ever my reliable guide in London) says this is actually the correct pronunciation of Paraguay and Uruguay, with the emphasis on the final syllable. Either way, it sounds strangely splendid in the lavish, rolling accent of a round, hairless, middle-aged gent from south London.
The Royal Standard is a lovely pub which seems to sum up Croydon. Crouching absurdly in the shadows beneath a huge road overpass, it’s a charming building, aged but well cared for, thus combining the old and the almost new, and with a wondrous jumble of baggage and trappings.
Within a few minutes of arriving, and without leaving our seats, we’ve discovered a flyer for a UK tour by a local troupe of morris dancers, a vending machine selling nothing but Skittles, and a signed cricket bat on the wall commemorating a match between Surrey and Middlesex in 2002. A sign on the wall whimsically promises internet access via “wife eye”, next to a solitary man poring over a directory of combat aircraft from World War II. Prompted by this panoply of curiosities, we unleash the full power of our posh web-enabled smartphones to research the connections between the local area and my fellow Grimbarian John Whitgift.
For all of this, the greatest thing of all about the Royal Standard (which also, almost incidentally, offers some very fine beer) is the expression on the face of the twinkling old barman. Faced with two newbies, one of whom carries a guitar on his back, who both look a fair bit younger than all of his regulars, and dress quite a lot differently too, his smile expresses pleasant surprise to the point of profound gratitude.
The Green Dragon is perhaps the least interesting of tonight’s three pubs. The upper floor, where I’m playing, is fairly large, while the downstairs is cavernous, giving the place a more generic, less characterful feel. It’s still a decent pub, though. The beer is fine and the people both sides of the bar seem nice as pie. If you’re ever hungry and skint in Croydon, drop by: the food seems staggeringly cheap.
Given that it’s the first time I’ve played solo since December, my set goes pretty well. Just as pleasingly, my friend and fellow indiepop singer/songwriter type MJ Hibbett shows up as promised, and my friend and former work colleague Miles Barter shows up completely out of the blue. These are the joys of playing and pubbing in different cities. I didn’t even know Miles had moved to London.
While I’m having a wee, I glance idly at the chart on the wall which the staff fill in to show that the toilet’s been cleaned every hour. Hidden away in the corner is a tiny logo for something called the Town & City Pub Company. This is the only sign visible to drinkers of any branding at all for the company that operates the pub. Furthermore, it’s on a piece of internal staff communication. Until now I’ve never even heard of the Town & City Pub Company. Why are these pubcos so shy? It’s almost as if they don’t want us to know they’re there. It’s almost like they’re ashamed of what they do.
Before my train back up north, there’s just time for some lunchtime refreshment. Marianthi guides us to the Wenlock Arms in Hoxton, promising that it has a reputation for being one of the best ale pubs in London. What a fine place it is. Look out for a full-length feature about it on this blog in the next couple of weeks.
Today, Manchester. There are a couple of hours between the end of a recording session and the start of my train home. I fill them, alone, in the Lass O’ Gowrie. I’ve been to the Lass two or three times before, at bustling weekends, and enjoyed it a lot. Hard by the University of Manchester (or at least a quite large section of it), it’s a Cool Pub, styled to pull in students of a more discerning type as well as twenty- and perhaps thirty-somethings who might have a job and a mortgage but feel no compulsion to listen to Chris Rea. They have retro computer game nights at the Lass: I wonder what proportion of the players owned Spectrums and Commodores first time round, and how many don’t know what a cassette tape is.
This time it’s a sleepy midweek afternoon, with nothing much going on besides an unwatched TV showing one of the Williams sisters at Wimbledon thrashing the hell out of their latest victim. Then the third prettiest girl in the world enters the pub, and walks through to the beer garden. Flanked by two quite ordinary-looking young chaps, she has no idea at all that she’s the third prettiest girl in the world. The rest of my session becomes a struggle to avoid gazing gormlessly out at her through the cruelly open door.
“Should be back about midnight,” I told my girlfriend when I left the house. My band has a gig at the Jam Café in Nottingham and, unusually, we’re travelling by car. We’re on last, so I expect us to finish before 11 o’clock, and the goodbyes and journey back to Sheffield should take an hour or so. At 11 o’clock, however, we’re still waiting to go on. It’s one of those gigs where the schedule slips. Nobody really knows why, but nobody’s too bothered. The licence extends to midnight anyway.
I have to admire the live music promoters of Nottingham for continuing to try and promote live music despite the total unavailability of suitable venues. The Chameleon the other week was a great place which happens not to be designed in any way for watching bands. At the Jam Café we’re playing with our backs to a large plate glass window and the drunken population of the city wandering past. It’s always funny to watch bypassers gawping in at a windowed venue while a band’s playing, with stupefied faces as if they’ve never heard music before. So I ask the audience, every time someone does it, give them a wave!
This turns out to be the best idea I’ve ever had, though I struggle to sing at times because I’m giggling so much.
Just when I thought I’d go through an entire week without getting to the pub in Sheffield, Dan sends me a text. “Up for a cheeky couple of pints this evening? Princess Royal maybe?” Oh, I think so, Dan, yes. I’ve spent much of the day as a lone parent – while my girlfriend nurses an epic hangover – and there’s only one thing you can spend that kind of brownie points on.
While Dan and I talk about Abba all night, some of the older drinkers are having a night round the jukebox. I’m not particularly enjoying the Steely Dan – but I’m enjoying them enjoying it.
I’ve been to the Princess Royal at least half a dozen times now, and not once have I discovered what time it actually closes. This is truly a pub lovers’ pub – and a great place to end the week.