In Caledonian Road we explored the disparity between local boozers and chic bars, raged against the upswing of “posh coffee”, and played Tekken.
It had taken two entire years but finally, as 2016 opened its doors, we were visiting a tube station beginning with C. The letter B was old news. 24 stations of B, from Baker Street to Burnt Oak, were behind us – banished forever to the Archive. The sense of forward momentum, of progress along our lengthy challenge, was palpable. The letter C – how novel it was! We left the tube station with a spring in our step, eager to explore the alphabetically-advanced environs of Caledonian Road.
We were joined by Danny, an old friend of Andy’s who was in town for a few days. Andy had recently returned from a month-long road-trip around the US and filled us in on his escapades over a cold beer in The Cally. When one ‘brief anecdote’ threatened to grow to Wagnerian proportions we hustled Andy out of the door and proceeded on. As we passed a few posh coffeehouses, Danny began a tirade against the gentrification of such establishments, the gist of his point being something like this:
“Coffee shops aren’t what they used to be. Who the hell wants a skinny soya macchiato brewed in laboratory conditions served in a fucking cocktail glass anyway? Where can a lad get a simple black coffee?”
Although secretly a fan of complex caffeinated beverages I nodded in deference to Danny’s passionate argument; Andy, braver than I, lampooned it mercilessly and repeatedly. Thankfully, we soon happened upon the wonderfully-named Doyle’s Tavern. My heartfelt impression of Father Ted’s faithful housekeeper fell rather flat. Danny must have still been sore over Andy’s cruel but accurate parody.
Doyle’s Tavern was a back-to-basics kind of place; no frills, no exposed beams or literary quotes emblazoned on the walls. The barmaid looked us up and down, stating with utter certainty, “You’re new here, aren’t you.” We settled down, feeling conspicuous and vaguely ridiculous in our matching plaid shirts, as Andy returned to his American anecdotes.
The evening continued in seesaw motion between trendy hipster bars and earthy local haunts. The former advised against visiting the latter, on fear of grievous bodily harm, and the latter scoffed at the “rich twats” in the former. This all-too-human fear of ‘the other’ is repeated across the globe and throughout history, and it exists in miniature across the pubscape of London. Andy and I, in our role as wandering nomads, often bypass this fear, and are usually treated – at worst – with curious ambivalence and – at best – as honoured guests from another land. Will these varying tribes of London drinkers still exhibit hostility towards each other in 20 years time? We shall see.
The ivy-clad, bibelot-hoarding Hemmingford Arms was next. We passed a pleasant half-hour there in the claret mood lighting, among a crowd of affluent thirty-somethings, nice enough if somewhat cliquish. Our next pub, Kennedy’s, was of the Doyle’s Tavern variety, much quieter, more spacious, home to an older, local clientele. Andy and Danny showed off their considerable pool skills, while I watched sagaciously from the sidelines, offering convincing noises of support or commiseration honed over many years as a pub-games spectator.
Next came the wildcard of the night – Meltdown. This was London’s only “gamer bar” with manifold screens on every wall, tables rammed with MacBooks, pints and takeaway pizza boxes, and a tournament area complete with racecar-style seats for the lords and ladies of the realm. We hovered uncertainly, unsure of what to do. Andy valiantly asked a surly, long-haired chap for advice, who murmured a few words of gamer-speak and slunk back to his electronic war-games. Thankfully the barmaids eventually took us under their wing and provided a run-down of the etiquette and hierarchies of this unique London subculture. Only half listening, I had the perverse but persistent urge to press the off-button of the nearest MacBook, just to see what would happen. With huge strength of will, I refrained. Meanwhile, Andy and Danny were indulging in some Tekken, once again leaving me to observe. They were maddeningly well-matched and my increasingly unsubtle pleas did nothing to speed up their tournament.
The Meltdown barmaids had strongly advised against the next pub, The Tarmon, as apparently a fistfight was almost guaranteed. Impervious to fear, we waltzed in and soon struck up a conversation with Janice, a middle-aged woman who seemed quite fond of us all, but of one of us in particular, offering me the flirtatious if colour-blind statement: “you’re a handsome young man…for a ginger.” The Tarmon was full of loud, passionate conversations, played out over a pulsing backdrop of 90s pop hits. Janice claimed that here, “everyone knows everyone”. We believed her, and truly warmed to the place.
Sad to leave, we necked a quick bottle at the Thornhill Arms, followed by an invigorating shot of tequila in Be At One and finally made it to Simmons in time for an ardent boogie before sprinting for the last tube.
As we’ve come to learn, almost as much fun can be had on the journey home as over the night itself. On the tube we met a fine young Scotsman, out celebrating Burns Night, and wearing a sporran made out of the corpse of a beaver. Bertie, for that was the beaver’s name, was over 100 years old, as our Scotsman proudly pointed out. Feeling rather underdressed we headed for the last Surbiton train. I suggested a bit of quiz action to enliven the journey and Andy gamely began regaling the carriage with general knowledge questions. Most of these sleepy drunken Londoners failed to respond, but Tom and Kyle were game, taking on Danny and I for a heroic batch of quizzing. We soon lost count of the score but I got the sense that Andy’s stentorian quizmaster voice was enjoyed by all, especially those travellers with furrowed brows and pale faces attempting not to vomit.
Next stop: CAMDEN TOWN