CHARING CROSS – November 2016

The notional centre of London, Charing Cross is not short of pubs, nor – as we discovered – of licentious Norwegians.

“I own around 50 motors. I have a nice home.”

Such is the language of the modest folk one is likely to meet around Charing Cross, that most central of London districts from which all distances to the capital are measured. We met John, the humble speaker of the above phrases, in our sixth pub of the night, The Nell Gwynne. By this point we were in an expansive mood, seeking interaction with persons hitherto unknown. We were a group of four, Andy and I being joined by pub crawl stalwart Oli (his fourth outing with us) and eager new initiate Helen. We formed a formidably jovial quartet, sharing anecdotes with warm competitiveness. Before we met man-of-the-people John in the Nell Gywnne, we spent happy hours in The Harp, The Marquis, and The Lemon Tree, all traditional-style pubs fitted out with wood panelling and framed portraits. We discussed our favourite palindromes (Madam in Eden, I’m Adam) and dabbled in other conversational topics befitting the hip young Londoners that we are.

Pub number four, the cavernous Porterhouse, was our one let-down of the evening. Its titanic size was exciting for all of two minutes but its lack of character soon became abundantly clear. For oversized things to be a success, their spirit also needs to be larger-than-life: see Brian Blessed. The Porterhouse failed this simple litmus test, yet somehow it was heaving. They provided live music to try to mask the inherent inadequacies of the venue, but even the band were devastatingly lacklustre. They were here purely to get paid, that was obvious. The music elicited no fun for them; their passion for performing had dried up long ago. It was depressing to watch. Oli described them aptly as “the Kronenbourg of pub bands”. I need say no more.

After the elephantine disappointment of The Porterhouse we came across the smaller, chicer Mabel’s where we were seated in front of a large gilt mirror, giving us ample chance for some light narcissism. After a round of Vedet our convivial mood – momentarily subdued by those vapid musicians – returned stronger than ever.

We could barely contain our merrymaking. As we wandered out of Mabel’s we made a pact to each make a new friend in the next pub. The Nell Gywnne was that hallowed place. It is here that salt-of-the-earth John re-enters our story, befriended by the intrepid Oli. Helen meanwhile had met John’s partner, Vicky, a lady of modest means who owns a small portfolio of 43 properties. These properties are in Nottingham, mind you, not London – a source of eternal chagrin to the landlady herself. She nearly snapped one up in Ealing recently, but it got away. Poor woman.

I knew none of this at the time of course because I was locked in discussion with Del, a middle-aged man who has the distinction of being so dull I immediately forgot everything he told me about himself the very moment it left his lips. He had a warm and friendly demeanour but his conversation was as hard to catch hold of as a greased eel. I think it was his tone of voice – a monotonous dirge, low and soft, hesitant yet with the uncanny impression it could, and maybe will, go on forever. His voice felt somehow part of the pub’s furnishings. Something that you’re aware is there but that holds no focus for you whatsoever. I’m astounded I can recall even the three letters of his name.

Andy meanwhile was having a rather different experience with his new companions. Christine and Tuva were from Norway, visiting London in order to “go shopping and have sex with English men”. They were both in their mid-50s and Christine had a fiancé back home. “He’s a Viking!” she said proudly. “What do you mean, a Viking?” asked Andy. “A Viking! You know – big arms, big cock!”

img_5414It was hard to say goodbye to our diverse new friends: humble John and Vicky with their 50 cars and 43 properties, utterly unmemorable Del and the salacious Norwegians, but the call of the crawl sang beckoningly in the night air. We just made it in time for last orders at The Coal Hole, and what a last order it was. They were selling off bottles of Prosecco at bargain prices – how could we possible say no? The bottle had to be finished quite rapidly but we rose to the occasion. Spurred on by the emboldening fizz, we just had time to grace the dance floor at the Charing Cross Theatre Players Bar before the last train.

And so – thanks Helen, thanks Oli, thanks John, Vicky, Del and Tuva. But most of all, thanks Christine for further defining my mental image of a Viking.

Next stop: CHESHAM

CHANCERY LANE – October 2016

Chancery Lane, the western boundary of the City of London, has been a legal epicentre for just shy of a thousand years and pertains all the traits one may expect when pining for a post-trial pint. But amongst the bar puns and big wigs, there is one special London novelty which never fails to entertain.

cl-sign

On a blustery and busy October night, Greg and I met beneath the shadow of legal equity’s past and headed out in search of refreshing beverage. Joining us on our 43rd stop were Helen, Oli, Chloe and Dave who all assembled in the charming, if somewhat predictable, word play heavy The Inn of Court. Gone is the upstairs seating area, but you may find a chair in The Dock where you can peruse the many artefacts of law enforcement history.img_5247

On other occasions Greg and I may have felt the need to spin yarns of our legal grandeur. Much like Marshall and Colin from Bank, Greg could be Perry Mason to my Della Street. An acerbic, capricious legal genius and me – his loyal, quick witted secretary. But tonight we decided to tread the boards in our usual late 20’s garb.

We made flying visits to the Sir Christopher Hatton, a surprisingly dour place considering its namesake, The Argyle, with an excellent heated balcony, and the pleasingly Byronic The Bleeding Heart. From here we stopped in The Sir John Oldcastle, a Weatherspoony sort of Weatherspoons, and finally onto our favourite and final bar of the evening – Bounce.

Tucked unassumingly in amongst a multi-functional modern build, a blue plaque by the entrance claims Bounce to be the home of Ping Pong and descending into its cavernous heart the seemingly misguided but excellent collaboration of Ping Pong club, swanky bar and disco comes to the fore.

img_5265With blaring, bass heavy music and every table tennis player clothed in finest city worker garb, Ping Pong balls fly endlessly in every direction from the dozens of tables. Half the tables appeared to be holding court to fledgling office romances – the girls, in their pencil skirts, playfully hitting the ball across the table to enjoy a polite and jovial rally only to have the boys, ties off and top three buttons undone, return with unmerited power and minimal aim. The ball usually flying away at a forty five degree angle and landing somewhere behind the bar. It was a hypnotic display – an infinite rally of one. As the balls flew to the heavens I’d watch the players celebrate (what they had achieved I do not know) by using the paddle as a phallic addition. Leaning back, scrunching up their face and waving around their new, hard, oddly shaped penis at the room. Something of a ritual, it would appear, to prove that one cares not for sport, only for show . . . and cocks.img_5272

Soon the central tables were cleared away and the newly introduced dancefloor beckoned us. A group of men parallel to our group’s number stood in a line and watched us sway around (apart from one who had taken a seat on the floor and, green faced, was desperately holding onto the spinning room). Once eye contact was made their leader raised his arm, his troops on pure reflex formed behind him, and they launched into a near faultless routine as the DJ spun Flo Rida’s Good Feeling. They surged to the front one at a time to have their moment as we tried to take in their routine and skills. I am no dancer, and I was certainly drunk, but I remember being oddly impressed by the dancing panache of the city boys.

We returned and played into this dance-off as best we could but our shapes were similar to the males’ Ping Pong. We were greeted with a welcoming, playful competition of sorts and responded with a wild, uncoordinated flailing of limbs. Our rivals did not mind, however, and an evening of dancing and clinked glasses stretched on until past midnight and the final train.

dance

Next stop: CHARING CROSS

CHALK FARM – September 2016

Would this blue plaque bedecked district provide pubs enough to slake our thirst for liquid and social nourishment, or would we be tempted to the nearby pleasure inns of Camden?

If you depart Chalk Farm tube and head south (turning right out of the station and then left, over the railway bridge) you will discover five delightful pubs before reaching the watery barrier of Regent’s Canal. They are, in the order we visited them: The Pembroke, The Queen’s, The Princess of Wales, The Lansdowne and The Engineer. This quintet of hostelries share several praiseworthy attributes – adventurous beers, friendly staff, abundant seating – and all have the sort of convivial atmosphere that puts you entirely at ease.

img_4966It was a balmy Monday evening. The pubs were restful; our fellow drinkers placid and content. As we strolled the affluent streets we spotted blue plaques on a regular basis: Plath, Engels, Yeats. We caught the start of a quiz at The Queen’s (“which US state shares its name with a country?”*), I learnt the meaning of FUBAR in The Princess of Wales, and Andy treated himself to a pizza in The Lansdowne. A more pleasant Monday evening you could not wish for.

img_4970Five drinks down and we had no choice but to cross Regent’s Canal and visit Chalk Farm’s rebellious son, Camden. It was here that things started to get out of hand. First off, we were at a loss where to sit in the vast beer garden of The Edinboro Castle. Feeling bold, we opted to join a large table of merrymakers and did our best to integrate. Unfortunately, on this occasion our best ended up being taking a photo of us ‘integrating’ while they steadfastly ignored us.

img_4971Moving swiftly on, we came to The Spread Eagle where it really kicked off. Andy spotted two cosy chairs and a pile of boardgames, whereupon I had a violent flashback to the time he beat me at Trivial Pursuit in Brent Cross. Blinking away that bitter memory, I picked up the first game that came to hand: some sort of fiendishly difficult IQ challenge. After scant minutes it became apparent that, by witchcraft or deception, Andy was beating me once again, quite comprehensively. The game was clearly defective, so we switched to Connect Four. What visceral pleasure, to send those red and yellow counters hurtling into their plastic prison! This was more like it. Andy, intellectually worn out by the IQ challenge, soon began to fade and I seized my chance. Game after game I successfully lined up four yellow discs, while Andy’s red ones hovered impotently at the periphery, like introverts at a house party. This couldn’t go on for ever and so we packed away that finest of games and made a beeline for the The Dublin Castle. We accompanied our final drink of the evening with a spot of air drumming to the Foo Fighters (or I did at least) before catching the last tube homewards.

Chalk Farm provided us with a quietly congenial evening and its vicinity to Camden is perfect if you’re in a slightly more riotous mood and/or have a hankering for some Connect Four.

*It’s Georgia.

img_4972

Next stop: CHANCERY LANE

CHALFONT & LATIMER – August 2016

Nestled in the corner of the idyllic Chilterns, this Zone 8 getaway is one of the least London-y tube stops on the line.cl-sign

The burgundy ribbon of the Metropolitan line starts in Aldgate – a borderland between the pecuniary towers of the city and the working men’s clubs of the East End – and terminates out in the verdant countryside of mother England. Chalfont & Latimer itself being the penultimate call before Amersham and Chesham.  Greg and I had climbed aboard a Metropolitan line train at Kings Cross an hour earlier and disembarked the quintessential subterranean London train, complete with discarded Metros and a faint urine aroma, to find ourselves in a parochial and distant land some 25 miles from central London.

Chalfont & Latimer station opened in 1915 and, although the inhabitants now traverse the smooth undulating terrain in Range Rovers rather than horse and carriage, it remains one of the few stations not to have sprung to city-life with the introduction of a tube station. Were it not for the ubiquitous London Underground logo hanging by the roadside it would be hard to determine one was connected to the city at all.imag0021

Heading out the station we started at the Craft Beer Society – possibly the greatest premier to an area we’ve so far experienced. With a flight of tasty ales, beers and ciders for the pleasingly anti-London price of five humble pounds, we sat outside the tiny establishment and enjoyed the comings and goings of Chalfont & Latimer’s commuter elite. Staggering off their trains after a hard day’s graft, all took a moment and breathed a deep lung full of country air before loosening their worker garbs, grabbing a couple of bottles from the Craft Beer Society’s healthy selection, and skipping into their suburban dreamscapes.imag0019

Indeed, knowing of the duration of our return to the modern world I stocked up with a couple of bottles to see us through when the magic hour chimed.

Although we could have happily spent the evening sampling bevvies and gazing into the car park vista outside the Craft Beer Society, Greg and I imag0023moved on to The Sugar Loaf Inn where a beer garden, selection of local ales on tap, chirpy bar staff and a 2-4-1 pizza deal kept us happy for the next 45 minutes.

We sauntered on to The White Lion and The Pomeroy Inn – an upmarket bar and restaurant at the end of a long, festooned driveway and hugging an orchard from which it takes its name. Enjoying the evening air and with the last tube calling, we started out the mile walk from The Pomeroy back to Chalfont & Latimer.

With the Rio Olympics in full swing and our carriage empty, Greg and I took to some Tube Sports of our own to fill the hour back to Kings Cross – all of which included beer in one form or another.

We left Chalfont & Latimer feeling like we had had a rejuvenating weekend away. A tube stop which leaves behind the addictive, heady and exhausting pace of the capital and reminds one that tranquillity is but an Oyster Card touch away.

tube-olympics-final

Next stop: CHALK FARM

CANONS PARK – July 2016

The far-flung district of Canons Park is the least-visited stop on the Jubilee Line. It turns out there might be a reason for this.

OVER 21’S. NO HATS. SMART DRESS.

Such was the welcome that greeted us at Moranos, a bar which boldly eschews any apostrophe in its name, a la Canons Park itself. We were several years over the age-limit and mercifully hatless. But our dress was on the casual side of smart. I mentally prepared myself for the shame of being turned away at pub number one. Coyly breaching the threshold, we made it across to the bar, ordered some coronas and continued our way out back to the al fresco drinking area, unmolested. We’d successfully violated the hitherto iron dress code of Moranos! Toasting our success, we relaxed in the fully-paved beer ‘garden’.

We had a guest with us. Faye, a fine conversationalist and drinking partner, had been lured out on the crawl by the promise of good times in unknown and exciting lands. The pressure was on. Leaving Moranos behind, we began the first of several gruelling hikes to find the next pub. It turns out that Canons Park is a veritable menagerie of suburban housing, and not a lot else. But, just as Faye began to voice doubts about the area’s nightlife, we discovered Doolan’s.

IMG_4810The apostrophe was a good sign. The stereo was playing Less Than Jake, transporting Andy and I back to our teenage wonder-years. We ordered some beers and then, a first for the crawl: darts. We attempted to prick the circular target by hurling the traditional tiny winged spears towards it, with varying results. After a few minutes of unregulated spiky chaos we set ourselves a competition: who could score the highest with three darts? Faye and I made valiant attempts but it was Andy’s steady arm and steely eye that won the day with a colossal total of 46. Having impressed the locals with our lithe athleticism we moved on to crash a busy 50th birthday bash at Buckley’s Bar. We wished good health to the birthday girl, Marie, and reminisced wistfully about our sporting achievements back at Doolan’s, before returning to the road and staying on it for quite some time.

IMG_4812All this wandering gave Faye a chance to extemporise on her time working as a director in Siberia. When that particular cup of conversation runneth dry, we moved onto more serious discussion:

“Would you rather always have to wear the most outlandish, gaudy clothes, or be naked for fifteen minutes every day but you’d never know when?”

These, and other similarly philosophic questions were hurled back and forth willy-nilly until we found the Boulevard Club, an Indian restaurant and bar. Here we received a warm welcome and enjoyed the synth-heavy live Asian music on offer, continuing our quick-fire interrogations of each other.

IMG_4815We almost walked past the Cinnamon Place – it seemed more curry house than boozer – but Sanjay, the owner, spotted us and insisted that we patronise his establishment, clinching the deal by buying us a round of drinks. We stayed here for quite some time, enjoying Sanjay’s hospitality along with more live Asian music, once again complete with an impressive synth setup. Sanjay compelled us to make use of the modest dance floor, which we dutifully did, providing world-class entertainment for the diners who eyed us with a mixture of envy and admiration. When not dancing Faye was engaged in sending progressively weirder snapchats to her friend Laura, culminating in a beatific shot of Andy and I which I later realised bore a startling resemblance to Botticelli’s 1480 work, The Madonna of the Book (see below). We could happily have stayed until the early hours but, with the spirit of the crawl beckoning, we bade a fond farewell to Sanjay and his son Kengo (who was rather enamoured with Faye) and promised to return one day.

IMG_4817We had time for one more pub. Funky Brownz turned us down because I was wearing shorts (prompting a brief yet traumatic flashback to a similar episode in Brent Cross) so we ended up in the nearby Badger Kelly’s. Andy and I were soon befriended by a sozzled middle-aged lady who militantly demanded we demonstrate the dance moves to YMCA, whereas Faye found a dancing partner in the form of a bald and randy casanova at least twice her age. Exhausted, we eventually caught a bus to Harrow & Wealdstone just in time to board the last tube to Waterloo. Faye, alas, had missed her last train home from Waterloo East, and so had the rare and highly-coveted pleasure of staying over at Chez Andy.

Canons Park doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of an evening out but, as always, the right crowd can generate a jamboree anywhere. Cinnamon Place deserves a particularly special mention for its hospitality and sheer goodnatured fun. If you ever visit, tell Sanjay we say hi.

Next stop: CHALFONT & LATIMER

CANNON STREET – June 2016

Home to the famous London Stone, a rocky marker at the centre of old London, and housing innumerable financial powers, Cannon Street threatened to be nothing but another hoard of dull city boozers. But beyond the glass and steel promontories, there’s a clutch of excellent drinking spots to be found.Sign 3

Greg, ever the optimist, was certain Cannon Street would provide high jinks but I, marred by previous city crawls, feared more dull opulence. Despite our antithetical premonitions we launched forth into the pubscape in search of summer imbibing.

First Pelt Trader, a pleasant enough modern bar with a wide selection of craft and artisan beers that reverberates with a chorus of pint rim sniffs and repeated astute analytical comments such as “very hop-y”.

Heading towards the Thames we stopped in at The Banker, pleasingly filled with an eponymous clientèle, and then to The Oyster Shed – a vast, riverside bar and restaurant standing in the Shard’s shadow that falls gracefully across the surging, muddy waters of the Thames. A perfect location for a summer drink but unfortunately brimming with unpleasant stereotypes. A middle aged, synthetically orange skinned gentleman was refused entry for being too drunk, the hour barely tickling the fair-side of eight o’clock.IMAG0015

Enjoying a cold one outside, Greg and I listened in to the conversations of our fellow customers. A group of young financial types were discussing the blessings and curses of their jobs and locale.

“Ten pound lunch budget!”, one scoffed, “get a coffee and you’re fucked!”

His attention was momentarily taken by a young woman stood on the river walls, spreading her arms wide in an angel like pose.

“Hope she doesn’t swan dive – fucking concrete down there . . . great tits though.”

We dived onwards into the backstreets and happened upon our first real find of the night –The Olde Wine Shades. Built in 1663 and still featuring a beautiful archaic aesthetic, this quiet and cosy wine bar is one of the few buildings in the area to have survived the Great Fire of London. It then became one of the few buildings in the area to survive the Second World War (and even has a secret tunnel underneath connecting the north and south banks of the Thames). It then, as if it hadn’t already proved its architectural integrity over the preceding four hundred years, survived acute water damage after the upstairs boiler and water tank exploded.

WineDavid from Bordeaux was our affable barman and, between filling us in on the building’s indestructible history, pointed us in the direction of the cheapest but best wine for us two uninitiated experts of the grape. We attempted to impress and integrate by redundantly sticking our noses into our glasses, echoing the grain elite of Pelt Trader. David politely told us we had a naturally skilled nasal palate whilst simultaneously dropping the bill onto the bar and demanding swift payment.

Next The Bell, another excellent little pub erring on the side of traditional English local rather than a continental winery. Upon entering we were met by rapturous applause from Paul and Timmy, an Irish and Australian duo who had been “on a session” for most of the afternoon. They soon accepted us into their drinking gang and conversation took a turn for the predictable.

“How long have you and your husband been together?” Timmy slurred in a thick Aussie accent.TandP edit

“He’s not my husband”, I replied.

“Your partner then.”

“He’s not my boyfriend, he’s got a girlfriend in fact”

“Oh. But you’re gay right?”

“No, I’m not.”

Timmy took a step back and looked me up and down in pure aghast shock. Offended at the lacking coordinates of his own Gaydar.

“But you’re the gayest bloke I’ve ever met!”

Thus began a light-hearted dissection of mine and Greg’s physiognomy, personality and fashion sense.

“You two are like Seigfried and fucking Roy”, Timmy announced, “but more like Teapot and Horseshit!”, the latter coupling of nicknames being a charming moniker derived for my habit to stand with one hand on my hip and Greg’s taste for plaid shirts.

Last orders was called (at ten o’clock, “it’s an old pub” the barman explained) and the four of us headed across the road to rock bar London Stone – somehow losing fifty percent of the group along the way so myself and Horseshit were again a twosome.

With the city quickly closing down around us, we headed to The Core for a nightcap. The evening had somewhat altered my thoughts on city boozing, maybe I was wrong and there were good venues and people to find in the fiscal byways of central London. But my precautionary worries came surging back to the fore when I witnessed a suited city Dantype aggressively haggling with the toilet attendant in regards to what small change demanded which branded deodorant. My head hung low by tangential and vicarious embarrassment, Greg and I headed back to the tube where, in a brightening moment, we met Dan.

Dan, for reasons unknown, was carrying a leather clad bench. This allowed us a final tube ride as needlessly decadent as the district from which we were retreating.

Bench

Next stop: CANONS PARK

CANNING TOWN – May 2016

“Many select such a dwelling place because they are already debased below the point of enmity to filth.” – Charles Dickens (1857)

Canning Town 1

With Canary Wharf fresh in our minds, we were looking forward to exploring the nearby district of Canning Town which sadly, according to Wikipedia, is “among the 5 per cent most deprived areas of the UK.” Grandeur has always existed in startling proximity to poverty, and London is no exception to this unfortunate truth. But Canning Town is on the rise. A huge regeneration scheme to the tune of £3.7 billion is underway, and the myriad cranes crisscrossing the skyline are a conspicuous testament to the area’s impending metamorphosis.

Dickens, describing Canning Town in the 1850s, wrote that “a fetid mist covers the ground.” Thankfully we saw no evidence of this miasma, strolling out on a clear summer’s evening to track down our first pub. Filled with an inflated sense of derring-do we opted to explore a dusty side road – more of a cart-track really – home to some dilapidated sheds and industrial relics. Initially our tenacity proved foolish, but just as we were about to admit defeat we discovered the Durham Arms, the last bastion of booze in this grubby hinterland. The pub seemed frozen in time, decade after decade having passed with indifference. Its patrons were of such close ilk that they seemed almost of one homogenous life-form, like a vast human fungus sprouting here and there from the ale-soaked carpet. They barely seemed to notice the intrusion of two new individuals in their midst. Indeed, weeks went by before we got served. We used this time to get acquainted with the resident parrot, who sat morosely in its gilt prison behind the bar, subsisting on M&Ms which the landlady doled out in diabetic quantities. Eventually we were granted service and sat drinking in comfortable anonymity, watching the locals reenact their nightly rituals for the ten-thousandth time. But something seemed amiss, something strange or uncanny which we couldn’t quite put our finger on. It wasn’t the parrot. It wasn’t the table of sandwiches that was gradually being set up in the corner (had they been warned of our arrival?). Finally the fog of ignorance cleared: everyone was smoking. Openly smoking, not vaping or simply pre-rolling but drawing deeply on cigarettes, dropping ash nonchalantly in and around countless ashtrays. Dickens’ “fetid mist” was still here after all, alive and well in the Durham Arms. Although we’re both non-smokers, it was strangely uplifting to see a pub flouting the law in so flagrant a fashion; perhaps news of the ban had simply yet to reach them? With a catch in our throats and tears starting to form in our stinging eyes we bid the Durham Arms adieu.

Heading back to Canning Town’s main thoroughfare, we had a quick drink in the Princess Alexandra, where a group of cynical Cockneys were watching Britain’s Got Talent, augmenting Ant and Dec’s commentary with their own adroit analysis. Next came Charlie’s, a more modern establishment with a dapper crowd swaying suavely to dance music. Once again, something seemed amiss. The fog of ignorance cleared faster this time, Andy quickly pointing out the rising spirals of smoke throughout the venue, like so many middle fingers raised to the 2007 smoking ban. Who’d have thought Canning Town would turn out to be an outlaw state, a place where laws were ignored and the populace embraced Aleister Crowley’s self-serving dictum “do what thou wilt”? The air thick with danger – and smoke – we continued deeper into this rebel-held land.

Canning Town 2Bronze, an African/Caribbean Bar & Restaurant, was our next stop and surprisingly smoke-free. Perusing the sizeable beer fridge, Andy selected a bottle of “rich and satisfying” Hero, whereas I opted for the “ultimate beer” otherwise known as Gulder. At first this place seemed suspiciously law-abiding, but the astronomical price we were charged for these two drinks (which, for the record, were neither rich, satisfying, or ultimate) proved that a certain criminality was no doubt at play here too. Nevertheless, Andy and I chatted away happily enough, mulling over what would happen if the loyal patrons of the four previous pubs were forced to explore each other’s boozers. We simply couldn’t imagine it happening, which suggests either a failure of imagination on our part, or the strength of territorial loyalties – or abject inertia – on theirs.

Canning Town 3The evening changed tack as we entered the Red House. Andy seemed different all of a sudden. His eyes lit up and he seemed to grow a few inches in height – a sure sign that a pool table was nearby. He eagerly scribed his name onto the list of upcoming players and waited impatiently to have his go with the pointy wooden stick and the large coloured marbles. I indulged his love for this ‘sport’ – he is actually rather good at it – and watched him bash the marbles into the small goals for a while. After several minutes I needed a rest from this gratuitous athleticism and settled into conversation with John, a middle-aged ex-Navy man with an almost impenetrable Glaswegian accent. By some miracle I managed to perceive the overriding narrative of his mumblings. He had lived quite a life by all accounts, travelling the world extensively during his naval days.

“What did you do for your 18th birthday?” he asked in an out-of-character burst of intelligibility.

“I think I went to a gig and had drinks with friends.” I replied.

“Well, I spent the day in a Bolivian brothel.” said John, former man of the seas and now it seemed, insatiable lover.

“The day?” I retorted.

“Ay, it opened at 8am.”

Images of an 18-year-old John placating a harem of Bolivian harlots swam in hideous clarity before my eyes, the dull sounds of colliding marbles my only link to reality. Eventually Andy let the marbles rest (he’d won four games on the trot and the locals were starting to get restless) and we departed hastily, leaving John staring vacantly – but I like to think happily – into the middle distance.

Canning Town 4It was nearing 11pm and last orders were looming. The Abbey Arms came and went in an oppressive cloud of cheerless masculinity. Ever the optimist, I calculated that we had time for one more drink, if we were willing to jog almost a mile to the Black Lion. Andy, buoyant from his sporting dominance at the Red House, sprinted into the night and it was all I could do to keep pace. As we crossed our last threshold of the evening, slices of birthday cake were thrust into our hands; it was Norman’s 80th! After a brief moment of indecision we plunged into the orgy of senescence and soon found ourselves in the capable arthritic hands of Sonia and Veronica. A doddering singer-pianist crooned out Neil Diamond with the vim and vigour of a mere 70-year-old. Before long Andy was being eyed up by the sprightly and only slightly varicose Mary, and within seconds she was throwing him around the dance floor like a rag doll. Andy was besotted but I sternly (and somewhat enviously) reminded him of the impending last tube, and so we departed Norman’s 80th with Sweet Caroline ringing in our ears and the tantalising tang of elderly urine in our nostrils. This blog’s for you, Norman.

Next stop: CANNON STREET