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

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

CANARY WHARF – April 2016

Our third anniversary crawl saw us head to the eternal glow of Canary Wharf’s glass and steel towers. Our usual duet now swelling to a gang of 14, we explored London’s primary financial district in search of high jinks amongst its 100,000 peak time inhabitants.

Canary Wharf sign

Over the past three years Greg and I have always found the business and financial sectors of London to be somewhat lacking. Lacking in warmth. Lacking in personality. Lacking in colour. Despite the abundance of cash monies surging through Hedge Funds and Off Shore accounts straight into the tills of nearby wine bars, the wealth of these areas is rarely translated into anything other than varying hues of grey and the occasional loosened striped tie.

This isn’t to say these areas aren’t filled with laughter – thrown back heads and hysterics can be found within every city Startboozer. But on occasion enough to mention, the laughter is more akin to a tenor whine. An unfulfilled and exhausted tremolo covering some sort of existential crisis. The panicked chortle of a struggling decorator who lifts his head to find he has literally painted himself into a corner.

We have tried to combat this when the crawl has thrust us into these boroughs. Greg once used a break-dancing banker’s discarded shoe as a phone. But, alas, no one answered.

For our third anniversary crawl we continued our campaign to brighten the fiscal shores of London and our open invite was sent with only one instruction – you must wear your most outlandish clothes. We were determined to bring to Canary Wharf, that infamous gleaming promontory of dull opulence, some warmth, some personality and some Jarekcolour.

At first a merry septet, we poured out of Canary Wharf station and into Smollensky’s where, after squeezing to the bar to order cocktails, we examined each other’s gaudy garbs. Greg and I had managed a vibrant palette of floral designs and 80’s colour schemes. Amongst the rest of the group there was the occasional red top here or purple scarf there. Our office memo entitled “Fun Fashion Friday!!!!!” had not been taken seriously by the rest of the team.

We drank through the Slug and Lettuce and headed to All Bar One. Now a band of 14, we were certain our buoyant and carefree spirits would promote some sort of crazed party. But with professional monthly goals still far off, All Bar One and its patrons were decidedly sullen. A musical trio of glasswind instruments was quickly assembled to elevate the sombre mood but sadly to no avail – despite the band’s obvious magnificence.Glasswind

From here we led our party to Obicá, a bar that stands in the middle of a vast, vacuous glass cube. Its Italian stylings and redundant indoor parasols do nothing to lift it above the sorry truth – its utter and uncompromising unattractive lifelessness. A pub designed by committee, it is reminiscent of the solitary pub in an airport departures lounge but without the thrilling promise of a foreign jaunt only a few hours away. It is Ron Burgundy’s purgatory – a void, titanic and perpetual glass case of emotion.

We hastened out and indulged at Hazev and Goodman, two bars sitting alongside South Dock. The hour was only half ten, but the heaving bars were now a thing of the past and the torch of the city was fading to dying embers. Either the affirmation “work hard play hard” is but a flimsy marketing slogan regurgitated in false promise by tired employees, or the local worker types play elsewhere. The latter being a likely truism considering the quality of the local pubscape.

BDUndeterred, we ventured onwards and raced into the young night in search of final imbibing. In and out of transparent towers and through empty hallways and shopping pavilions, we were turned away again and again by the perplexed door staff. Constant suggestions of short bus rides to thrilling destinations did nothing but energise our search for the elusive final pint hidden within the gangways and avenues of Canary Wharf.

We finally fumbled our way to Fine Line, another waterside bar and the last we found with its doors still open and taps still running. Although completely empty, a dedicated DJ continued to reel out hit after hit to the empty room. We filled it as best we could, employing walking dance moves so to enhance the illusion of a swelling patronage.Sleepy

As the final bell rung at midnight we marched back to Canary Wharf station through the now deserted streets – joy still ringing through our unaccompanied group. In the 12 hour stretch between 8am and 8pm Canary Wharf is a swirling, hectic, chaotic mass of motivated workers. A place where sums of money too wild to imagine are spent, lost and recouped with a shrug and the whimsical flick of a director’s hand. Of an evening it is a bizarre, deserted dystopia with only the occasional light shining from an office on the 28th floor. A hunched silhouette desperately punching numbers into multiple screens and not even the promise of a late night local boozer to console their hard work.

Our outlandish clothes and inviting smiles, although genuine and well-meaning, did little to invigorate or alter the deep-seated traditions of Canary Wharf’s crammed institutions. But hopefully one late-night lone trader, looking down through the window from their cluttered, paper filled desk, saw a dozen people being led through the streets, Piper-esque, by two men in kaleidoscopic shirts and forgot, just for a moment, about the impending doom of Monday morning.

Finish

Next stop: CANNING TOWN

CANADA WATER – March 2016

“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” – Herman Melville

These lines from Moby-Dick rang saltily in my ears as I emerged on the barbarous coast of Canada Water tube station. I knew there was a pub nearby named after Melville’s demonic white whale and I was keen to visit it, being a fan of the novel after listening to a particularly well-narrated audio-book a few years ago. Andy accepted this plan and we set off, navigating not by the stars (alas, it was cloudy) but using the ancient and esoteric Maps of Google, which miraculously manifested themselves in our handheld telephones.

Regular readers of our blog will know that a tenet of ULPC is to never pass a pub or bar without entering. And so, our route first brought us to the door of The Surrey Docks, a Wetherspoon’s, which we dutifully entered. It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever we enter a Wetherspoon’s there are no spare seats and we are forced to linger awkwardly between tables, to the constant chagrin of customers and staff alike. Tonight was no exception. Eager to track down the elusive Melvillian pub, we drank quickly and resumed our monomaniacal quest, circumnavigating Greenland Dock like madmen.

Whale“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” This aphorism of Melville’s swam to mind, but just as I began to doubt its existence, there it was: The Moby Dick. I was Captain Ahab and here was my prize. I don’t know what I expected but what we found was a pleasant Fuller’s pub, showing precious few links to its literary namesake, except for cheery model whales impaled on wooden sticks adorning the tables of those who ordered food. But the pub was well-named, for the dock it sits upon was used throughout the 18th century by Greenland whaling ships, and blubber boiling houses previously bedecked the dock’s south side. I wonder if the residents of the luxury flats now occupying the site know of its blubbery past? We didn’t stop to ask. Instead we enjoyed a cheap but satisfactory meal and pint, wished The Moby Dick farewell and decided to head for the Thames and follow its serpentine curves west towards a lovely pub I’d visited once before – The Mayflower.

Rotherhithe, the district within which Canada Water sits, is a strange beast. Mainly residential, there were points during our wanderings when, looking south or west, we could have been in any quiet, tidy suburban corner of England, the only give-away being the occasional glimpse of the Shard, sparkling cockily between rooftops. But, turning our gaze northeast across the river, we were greeted by Canary Wharf and its glittering glass cathedrals of capitalism (where, in fact, we would be visiting next month). If there is a better vantage point to take in the night-time beauty of the financial district, I haven’t found it.

Over the next hour or two we visited The Ship and Whale (pleasant and posh), The Blacksmiths Arms (welcoming, great rock playlist put together by one of the friendly barmaids), and The Salt Quay (cavernous and impersonal). By this time we’d walked over two miles, making various failed attempted to join the Thames path – we kept being foiled by locked gates and iron fencing – and we still hadn’t found The Mayflower. But once again, perseverance prevailed, and the oldest pub on the Thames appeared from the hushed gloom of Rotherhithe Street.

Us with beerI had fond memories of this place, spending a joyful evening last year catching up with an old school friend. It was just as I remembered. Characterful and jovially cramped inside, all dark wood and exposed brickwork, with a large tented area outside sitting directly over the Thames. You could see it gently lapping several meters below the floorboards. We sampled every area of the pub, falling into conversation with a cigarette-seeking woman in the tented section above the river. In our slightly drunken state we couldn’t quite remember which ship the Mayflower was. I had a vague idea it was the first vessel to take people from England to set up home in America. No, that wasn’t right, she said.

“It has something to do with the man with the big hat.”

“Napoleon?” I ventured, unhelpfully. Giving me a dark look she shook her head condescendingly. “No, Brunel of course.”

Ah yes, how silly of me. The 19th century engineer was obviously the person responsible for the 17th century Mayflower. You can’t argue with logic like that. So we didn’t. Nodding respectfully we backed away to consult the more dependable if less entertaining Google, and swiftly discovered that I was right – The Mayflower took the first English Separatists, or Pilgrims as they are now known, from Plymouth to the New World in 1620.

Andy on slideBasking in erudition, we continued our saunter westwards, soon stopping to wonder at the bizarre abuttal of the graveyard of St Mary’s Church and a brightly-coloured children’s play area. They were literally on top of one another; a child descending speedily down the shiny slide would be in danger of alighting on a tombstone. Of course, we had to have a go. Both Andy and I tested the slide, curiously too small for our adult frames. I have to say, it certainly made the graveyard more cheery.

Andy thoughtfulMoving on, we soon entered and immediately departed The Angel – the barman announced they were closed while pouring a fresh pint with a lively crowd behind him. In a lesser area this could have caused us to sink into deep dejection, but after a few steps we came across The Winnicott, a real find. Gloriously under-lit, we peered in to discern mock tudor fittings, an open fire, and a few small gatherings of eminently stylish folk sharing witty asides over tankards of dark ale. Jazz played smoulderingly in the background. A piano nestled against a wall. I refrained, despite Andy’s pleas for a rendition of Tubular Bells. We didn’t want to leave. If you’re ever in this part of town, you would do yourself a grave disservice to miss The Winnicott.

The remaining hour of the pub crawl is, I must admit, dim in my mind. But with Andy’s help I discovered that our penultimate pub was named The Kings Arms. What I do remember, vividly, is the following:

During a casual anecdote, Andy decided to throw into the conversational arena, without further elucidation, the following phrase: “hoist by my own petard”. I believe he was slightly sore at my superior knowledge of the Mayflower and wanted to prove his own intellectual prowess. Whatever the reason, I questioned this expression – hitherto unheard by my ears – and he, shocked at my ignorance, explained its meaning (a ‘petard’ is a small bomb, and the phrase literally means “causing the bomb maker to be blown up with his own bomb”). Andy continued to be amazed at my idiocy for not knowing this apparently common utterance and I, unwilling to accept this hole in my own linguistic arsenal, bet that surely the vast majority of people have never heard of it either. I believe I originally guessed 95%, but then adjusted that to 75% taking into account the lofty intellects of Londoners. We then proceeded to ask our fellow drinkers in The Kings Arms. I was unsettled when a young lady at the first table I accosted nodded her head in complete comprehension, but after a short while the results were in: 8/11 people had no clue of its meaning – 73%. Another victory for me, if one’s own ignorance can be claimed as such.

After a hasty gin and tonic at The Pommelers Rest, we discovered that we could make it back for our last train from Waterloo on foot, rather than bothering with the tube, if we were happy to maintain a light jog for two miles. Rising to the challenge, we did indeed jog back to the station. Andy, raring like a stallion, wanted to sprint ahead but I, better versed in the art of pacing kept us at an easy trot, and we still managed to purchase a burrito before boarding our train as champions.

Next stop: CANARY WHARF

BOND STREET – March 2015

Pubs and nuts and a desperate search for fun.

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I ushered in the evening by ordering an alcohol-free beer. Andy caught my mistake just in time and the barman recommended two bottles of Cubanisto, a rum-flavoured lager with a cloying, perfumed taste. We stood shivering outside the Spread Eagle, downing the soapy swill as fast as our stomaches would allow. Not exactly our finest hour. But I didn’t worry. I knew the evening would soon blossom into a Mardi Gras of new friendships and surprise festivities. It always did.

We moved onwards through a series of underwhelming pubs: The Duke of York, Bonds, The Loop, Coach and Horses, The Guinea Grill, The Barley Mow, Henry Holland, The Lamb and Flag. Where were the eccentric characters, welcoming us into their world and buying us drinks? Where were the hilarious anecdotes, heartwarming stories and cautionary tales? Where were the wedding parties, drunken ageing flirts, young hoodlums, magicians, pathological liars and genuinely friendly souls that we usually encounter at every turn? It is my sad duty, dear reader, to report that even the most eventful moments of our Bond Street crawl were, alas, suicidally boring. I could mention the nuts we ordered in the Coach and Horses. They were satisfactory. Or the more exotic ‘Thai nuts’ we bravely sampled at the Barley Mow. Boy, what a zing! We crunched the evening away in salty disappointment.

IMG_2555The only establishment to rise above the parapet of mediocrity was The Loop, our third stop of the night. The Loop is a subterranean club in which thirty-somethings engage in curious mating rituals, bringing to mind our experience of Patch in Blackfriars. We amused ourselves watching a besuited trio edge ever closer to a pair of dancing girls who, unimpressed, attempted to hide behind our broad, muscular frames, and then – finding this hiding place inadequate – retreated deeper into the dark bowels of the building, still followed by the smart-dressed lechers. This, ladies and gentlemen, was the high point of our evening – witnessing the eternal, tragicomic waltz of Misplaced Dancefloor Libidinousness.

Perturbed by the utter non-event of Bond Street, we began hypothesising why this area delivered such an insipid night out. Mentally recalling our previous 23 crawls, it seemed to us that the nearer to London’s epicentre one travelled, the more consistently banal the drinkers became. Why should this be? We theorised that in Central London people generally work for large, corporate institutions and their careers demand constant ingratiation to their superiors and peers, leading to the formation of tight-knit circles of influence, at every level. This environment breeds the sort of safe, homogenous, uninteresting, inoffensive groups we found drinking in every Bond Street pub. Human potpourri, if you will. Whereas, those living further out are less money-driven and more individualistic, fearing no repercussions for expressing their true, glorious, weird, unique natures. It is in these outlying lands – Amersham, Acton Town, Becontree – that we have met the most memorable individuals and had the most bizarrely entertaining experiences.

But – perhaps we were just unlucky. Perhaps we hit Bond Street on a bad night. Perhaps it was us who were in bad humour and failed to spot the charm deftly hidden in the all-pervading blandness. But, if not, to the drinkers of Bond Street I say this: cast off the shackles of corporate conformity and live a little! Celebrate the diverse aspects of your personality, sing your own song, and make Bond Street (and your own lives) the more exciting and dynamic for it.

Don’t be potpourri, man. Be yourself.

Postscript: Providence wouldn’t allow us to end the night utterly crestfallen; we stumbled across our good friends Pip and Thom who restored our faith in humanity and treated us to a thoroughly diverting train journey home.

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Next stop: BOROUGH

BERMONDSEY – November 2014

Bermondsey’s unique and varied residents welcomed us with open arms for a thoroughly unpredictable evening of politics, rock music and cycling.

“I could have been the next Alan Shearer if I’d kept off the booze and drugs.” So claimed Sonny, a fast-talking rascal who accosted us with his own brand of non-stop banter the moment we entered The Gregorian. This pleasingly-named pub was Sonny’s stomping ground and he, along with his brother-in-arms Allie, said that if we encountered any trouble, just mention their names to gain carte blanche and immediate respect. The pair were already impressively mullered; it was 7pm.

Along with almost becoming the next Alan Shearer, Sonny informed us he was a former youth leader of EDL, he earned £2k a week working as a ‘trunker’, his father was top dog on one of London’s biggest estates and was a friend of diamond heist masterminds and taught Tommy Robinson all he knew, and – most poetically of all – if we ventured too far into Bermondsey we were likely “to get raped”. If ever an iota of silence should fall, he would respond in an almost Pavlovian manner with one of two stock phrases: “I coulda gone ta uni” or the inevitable “I ain’t racist, but…”.

Before any of this, he requested to message his girlfriend from my phone, from my own Facebook profile in fact. To prove he wouldn’t run off with the device, he emptied his pockets as a deposit, consisting of some loose change, chewing gum and a few pirate DVDs. I cautiously let him use the phone and later saw that he began his message with the charming salutation “hello you little slag”. She never replied.

Despite the unflattering (but accurate) picture I may be painting of Sonny, he did welcome us warmly into his corner of Bermondsey, and provided an unprecedented level of chat for so early in the evening, not to mention plenty of material for the blog. As we bade adieu to him and Allie it felt as if we’d peaked too soon. Surely the rest of Bermondsey would be beige in comparison to a start full of such local colour?

Dirk and the gangWe were joined at this point by our friend Aniela and the three of us wandered on, a little shell shocked, and soon found the St James of Bermondsey, a bastion of calm after The Gregorian. It was full of quiet, friendly types, and a genial gesture soon bid us join a half-full table alongside the affable Dirk and his boyfriend, hailing from Germany and Italy respectively, but who’d been living in Bermondsey for several years. They were the antithesis of Sonny and Allie: modest, liberal, refined, professional. They represented another side of Bermondsey and warned us off several establishments, including the Blue Anchor, the Victoria and indeed the Gregorian. When we said we liked to experience the true nature of an area, and not cherry pick our pubs, they raised a doubtful eyebrow and wished us luck.

Back out into the night again, The Stanley Arms soon appeared, emblazoned with ‘Bermondsey’s premiere live music venue’ above the entrance. We entered to the quiet tones of nondescript 1950s jazz; both the music and décor seemed caught in a time warp, and the punters appeared not to have moved from their stools in several decades. Tonight’s DJ was Mike, we were informed; the regular DJ, Larry, was away. We nearly requested some Slayer or Cannibal Corpse but didn’t want to risk Mike’s chagrin. “Thanks, Larry”, I yelled on the way out, an accidental faux pas guaranteed to turn Mike a deeper shade of puce as he lined up yet another faded hit of yesteryear to regale the wallpaper with.

G, A and guitaristAs we entered The Blue Anchor a band by name of TNT were setting up. Would this rival The Stanley Arms’ legendary status as Bermondsey’s premiere live music venue? The answer was immediate and explosive. Over the next hour, TNT treated us to a plethora of rock classics, from Thin Lizzie to Led Zeppelin, as the three of us almost set fire to the dance floor. The guitarist played one solo with his pint glass and we were smitten. Most of the other punters continued their sad but steady guzzling of booze, hanging onto the bar for dear life, with one notable exception. A few songs in we were joined by the quirkily named Cookie, a sharp dressed fellow who memorably stated “I’m 44 and I’ve loved music since before I were born”. He swayed in and out of the pub, joining us for a few photos, group hugs and indistinct mumblings. We didn’t want to leave but felt the spirit of the crawl urging us on.

Aniela with hatWe had been utterly spoiled by the calibre of the evening thus far and the subsequent two pubs (The Old Bank and The Hand and Marigold) were, almost inevitably, somewhat vanilla in comparison. They had no Sonny and Allie, no Dirk, no Mike the stand-in DJ, no rock gods TNT and no music-loving Cookie. However, Bermondsey had not quite run out of fun yet. Aniela brought some fashion to the evening by modelling an item of industrial millinery left languishing on the roadside. Milan, take note.

MotorbikeAndy then struck on the intensely foolish idea of cycling back to Waterloo on Boris bikes. Which of course we all embraced wholeheartedly. There isn’t room here to describe our obscure route or embarrassing average speed. Only to mention that one of us took regular, sudden, spread-eagled breaks. I won’t reveal her name.

I must, however, end on a special mention of the wonderful Aniela, who has left on a Colombian adventure that makes our London ramblings seem like child’s play. And so: bon voyage! Travel safe! And teach those Colombians how to party Bermondsey style (if not to cycle). If you get into any trouble, just say you’re mates with Sonny and Allie.

IMG_20141107_223148Next stop: BETHNAL GREEN

BAKER STREET – January 2014

The Adventure of the Takimo Ten
– A Sherlock Holmes Story

Baker Street sign

It was a strange note: “Meet me in The Volunteer at 19:00”

Holmes had never been one for frequenting the local taverns, so I naturally assumed that there was some clue or other to investigate. But on arrival he seemed remarkably relaxed and – I shudder at the memory – proceeded to indulge in what can only be described as idle chit-chat. My first thought was that this was the unhappy result of a dalliance with some new mind-bending narcotic solution, so I resolved to accompany my friend until his worryingly convivial trip came to an end.

The inn was cramped with well-dressed imbibers; the tables awash with empty glasses. After a swift libation of our own, Holmes tilted his head towards the door and strode off decisively down Baker Street. A short session – thank goodness, I thought. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Holmes eagerly entered the very next public house we came across, a certain Metropolitan Bar. In this establishment the patrons were in full evening garb, whereas Holmes, in another off-character move, had opted for a dazzlingly orange raincoat made of the queerest modern fabric. A disguise, perhaps? No, his mind was far too befogged for that.

The evening deteriorated in a structured sort of way. Holmes would order us a couple of ales and no sooner had the empty tankards kissed the tabletops we would race out to the next house of debauchery. He insisted I match him drink for drink so I am ashamed to say that my memory of the evening dims slightly towards midnight. However, the final climactic event on the Jubilee line remains as clear as a Scottish loch in my mind.

Our tavern trawl took in The Globe, The Beehive and The Barley Mow, via a rather well-to-do venue that I could have sworn bore the name The Sherlock Holmes Hotel. At this point I began to wonder if I was the one under the influence of some evil vegetable alkaloid. My distinguished friend may be well known in these parts, but to have a hotel named after him? Preposterous. It was here that Holmes took up a crazed but virtuosic discourse on the art of cryptography that was so enthralling that for a moment I forgot the evening’s strange circumstances. The exorbitant bill for our brace of beers arrived and recalled to me Holmes’ exquisite knowledge of London alcohol prices, which had proved so profitable in locating Mr. Moulton in The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor. But soon we were outside again, barrelling ever onwards down Baker Street, a heavy mist descending upon my brain.

VerityIt was in the Barley Mow that I began to doubt my initial assumption that Holmes had taken too large a dose of opiates. A youngish woman – Verity, as she coquettishly disclosed – offered both of us a drink. It became clear that we had intruded upon her birthday celebrations when she brazenly invited us to guess her age. Though drunk, I assumed the usual form, and, judging her age to be thirty-one, I subtracted five, offering a bashful twenty-six. Holmes followed suit with twenty-seven. A look of frozen anguish transfigured her face as she murmured, utterly crestfallen: “twenty-two”. Now, forgetting for a moment this painful faux pas, how or why did Holmes, master of deduction, commit such an error? Unless something was seriously afoot, he would never miss a chance to show off his unmatched reasoning skills. I shot him a penetrating stare which, for a moment, seemed to sharpen his senses. But a second later he emptied his glass and hastened out of the door, leaving me to offer a weak smile of apology to the deflated Verity.

HairStumbling into the mysteriously named Bok Bar, we met a most exotic-haired woman who, according to a local, had never let the hand of any man sully her beauteous locks with its touch. Alighting on a way to impress this local, and Holmes, I cautiously approached the sylph and told her that I was a travelling puppet-maker, looking for the best hair in the land to inspire my next creation. Merely seconds later my hands were wrist-deep in her lustrous mane, flattery having won the day. For a second I thought I saw a spark of envy in Holmes’ eyes.

ElaIt was in the last ale-house of the evening, The Marlborough Head, that we met the unfortunate Polish bargirl Ela, who had been abandoned at Heathrow airport a few years previously by a flighty lover. Holmes denied her heartfelt request to track down this deserter – “Frankly, it’s beneath me, Watson. Though I think my jacket made quite the impression on her.” Meanwhile, I was now convinced that Holmes wasn’t, after all, on a drug-fuelled binge; he was acting the part of a drunk – albeit very methodically – but he had a larger plan in hand, one which he couldn’t divulge to me at present. I decided, not for the first time, to see the hair-brained scheme to its conclusion.

Midnight was almost upon us when Holmes rose for the final time, his eyes gleaming. Grabbing his futuristic orange cape, he ran for the door. I could barely keep up as he descended the stairs of Bond Street station and I just made it into the carriage behind him as the doors to the last train snapped shut. As I attempted to catch my breath, my eyes took in the fellow occupants of the carriage and breathing suddenly became all but impossible. Holmes had sat down with a strange expression on his face: half drunk, half self-satisfied. The occupants of the carriage were none other than the feared Takimo Ten, out of their minds with drink, who had been terrorising Westminster over the last three months. Holmes grinned moronically.

Another case solved by a chain of events too baffling for I to even comprehend. Holmes promised to elucidate the matter after he had slept off the night’s excesses. I am still awaiting the explanation.

Takimo Ten

Next stop: BALHAM