BRIXTON – September 2015

“Conformity kills all dreams and pushes its victims into peripheral hibernation.” So proclaimed a message emblazoned on the wall of popular restaurant Fish, Wings & Tings. If any London district defies conformity, it’s Brixton. But does non-conformity automatically result in an entertaining pub crawl? We set off to find out.

Waiting for Andy outside the station, I felt sixteen again. I used to travel from rural Norfolk to Brixton once or twice a year to see the likes of the Mars Volta or Audioslave at the hallowed Academy. Brixton was my Mecca, my Lourdes. As I stood, buffeted by the crowds and the ticket touts – “Wolf Alice! Buy or sell!” – I noticed a distinct lack of the dead eyes and broken spirits that are often a hallmark of commuting Londoners. The people of Brixton, it seemed, don’t play by the rules. 

Andy arrived and snapped me out of my reverie with a brisk handshake. We turned right, Academy-wards, and soon found The Beehive, a busy Wetherspoons, made even busier than usual thanks to the Rugby World Cup. Tonight was England v Wales and the pub was packed out. Andy proudly showed off a new app called Untappd, in which users rate beers and check into pubs. He then spent many minutes attempting to create a profile, without success. But, just as monkeys given enough time will eventually type out the complete works of Shakespeare, he got there in the end. 

Squeezing out of The Beehive, it wasn’t long before we came across The Craft Beer Co. Their cornucopia of beverages was impressive to the point of fatigue. I settled eventually upon a Liquid Mistress and chose a Pale Fire for Andy, in homage to the dazzling Nabokov novel. Brow furrowed, Andy was still mashing his fingers into his phone, now trying to link his new Untappd profile to the ULPC Twitter account. I supped my craft beer and coaxed a few low murmurs out of Andy every now and then. Our one meaningful exchange was to place a bet on the rugby result. Andy, in a moment of patriotic zeal, chose England. The loser would buy the winner a drink. 

Swapping craft beer for bottles of Sagres (£1.75 a pop, a ULPC record), we crossed the street to the thrifty Max Snack Bar. We drank al fresco, enjoying the Brixton nightlife as it stumbled by. Ekcovision then came and went along with a cool Modelo and we proceeded to follow the sound of distant bass through Brixton Market to an impromptu DJ set outside Fish, Wings & Tings. Here we ordered Mohitos from a pop-up bar and enjoyed some light conversation with two members of the band Kings Mews before strutting down the road to Dogstar

Crowd selfieWe jostled sardine-like through the hordes of rugby fans to reach the bar. From a gargantuan screen we deduced that the game had ten minutes to go. The score was 25 apiece. Being diehard sports fans we gaped in tortuous suspense at the dramatic closing minutes. The final whistle was blown and Wales had won, prompting anger and dejection from the Dogstar audience. I directed my joy inwards and sent a disgruntled Andy off to the bar to purchase my alcoholic prize. 

Beer towerThe Lounge came next – an anticlimactic purgatorial nonentity – followed by The Wine Parlour. This upmarket establishment at least had plenty of beer mats to keep our vast intellects satisfied. Andy was on world-beating form and flipped at least twenty at once. But, alas, we weren’t in Bethnal Green anymore, where the prize for flipping even fifteen beer mats in The Marquis of Cornwallis was rapturous applause and a free round of shots.  Beer mats fell like leaves during my bungled attempts to outdo Andy but I regained some pride by constructing a gloriously precarious three-tiered tower of bottles and glasses. Turner Prize judges, take note. 

Sad Andy KFCThe Effra Hall was pleasantly buzzy, as was the Prince of Wales, but after waiting 15 minutes at the bar of the latter it was time to leave and catch the 37 bus to Clapham for our last train home. Fate, predictably, had other plans. The bus – without rhyme or reason – terminated early, forcing us firstly to grab a soul-destroying but necessary KFC and secondly to catch a grim series of night buses home. 

Brixton, while a fun evening, hadn’t quite provided the uproarious, comradely, nonconformist knees-up I’d been imagining. The only people we’d had a decent chat with were the boys from the band. Perhaps the rugby result dampened spirits somewhat. Perhaps we missed the best bars. Perhaps nothing was ever going to match being seventeen and having my mind blown by the Mars Volta at the Academy. Who knows. 

The evening was not quite over. As our final bus neared Surbiton, a young woman joined us on the upper deck and struck up conversation. Beatrice was her name, which Andy donnishly linked to Dante’s heavenly guide, drawing blank looks from our new friend. She had a penchant for pitching forward onto Andy as the bus took the slightest corner but, since she failed Andy’s litmus test of 14th century literature, he spurned her gravity-induced advances and soon alighted, leaving me to dodge Beatrice’s exaggerated falls until Chessington.

Conformity

Next stop: BROMLEY-BY-BOW

BLACKHORSE ROAD – February 2015

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you will also live.” John 14: 18-19

Blackhorse Road sign

Such was the bible verse that Kieran, an affable and pleasant 27 year old child of the Lord, recited as I waited for Greg at Blackhorse Road station. Kieran had approached to ask for directions to the nearest church and struck up conversation about my religious leanings.

“The Lord is telling me he wants you to come back”, Kieran revealed, obviously having some sort of direct line to the Almighty, after I told him I once was, but am no longer, a man of faith. “There are special places in him you have not yet experienced”.

Greg arrived and the two of us trudged out into the night, Kieran’s affirmations still ringing through our ears. We stood under the Welcome to Blackhorse Road mural outside the station and realised the suburbs mantra, “The home of people who make and create”, was a heavenly sign and Kieran a humble messenger. We had to find, somewhere on these rain drenched streets, and experience the special place of the one true Maker and Creator.

“We’re on a mission from God”, I proclaimed and we set off in search of enlightenment and refreshment.

Hymns in mind and bibles in hand, we stopped in the Lord Palmerston, Zig Zag and The Bell – where for the first time on our adventures a barmaid asked if Greg and I were twins (taking the running score to Brothers 4, Lovers 2. HurricaneMuch to Greg’s and the Lord’s satisfaction). Still unilluminated, Romulus and I paid the £2 membership fee to join the Hurricane snooker club for five minutes so not to break our own second commandment, “thou must entereth every licensed dwelling on thy mighty crawls”.

We indulged in a swift alcoholic confessional in The Olde Rose and Crown before heading into The Victoria which was hosting a hugely popular karaoke night. Men and women of all shapes and sizes ascended to the Victoria’s stage and were accompanied, regardless of whether they wanted to be or not, by Eglon King of Mohab who perched on a table and acted as backing singer and percussionist – enthusiastically tapping two tambourines on his swollen thighs. I put in a request to perform my favoured karaoke track (Touch Myself by the DiVinyls) hoping that trumpeting my self-love for the Lord and his special place would bring him forth. Alas, by the time our beers were drained my name had not been called and we had to leave – having not been touched by either the Holy Spirit or by ourselves.

Our spirituality was looking increasingly dire – our blood was flowing with booze and heathenism and our search for salvation still held no end. In The Goose, Greg and I, desperate for a conversion and inspired by the two lone girls on Dancerthe dance floor, decided some uncoordinated but rhythmic flailing may evoke a divine intervention. Even this proved fruitless. We shook and lurched all over the dance floor and received only angry glares from the leering men as we invaded the eye line between them and the duet of Virginal Marys. A group of friends, recognising our gentile plight, offered to teach us the shuffle dance step as “it’s so easy!”. But Greg and I fell into every white male stereotype and were useless, useless, pathetic dancers. Useless, useless, pathetic dancers who were no closer to heaven.

By this time we had marched all the way to Walthamstow and were still stubborn atheists. Even Greg’s in-depth chats with locals in The Chequers and Cock Tavern provided nothing in the way of spiritual guidance towards God’s special place.Old

And so, with the final tube fast approaching, we headed back towards the station only stopping en route for a last supper of fried chicken (which would promote a sit-down exodus of biblical proportions the next morning).

On the tube towards our final destination we initiated a Thumb War tournament to pass the subterranean purgatory endured by all last tube sinners. Soon a rowdy and competitive rabble were eagerly lining up in a winner-stays-on battle of digits. Greg proved a formidable and unbeatable opponent until Dave, a stoic and silent Londoner who spoke only once to offer his name and sat patiently observing Greg’s extremity command, was invited to step up to the plate.

He was an omnipotent and omniscient master of the thumb. An Archangel. A God among men. His control and power was not of this world. Was his thumb the special place Kieran had spoken of? Had we been looking in all the wrong places and finally found an all-powerful entity on the end of Dave’s quicksilver hand?

We had to leave Dave at Waterloo, genuflecting as we exited the carriage. He didn’t speak again. He only offered a single, modest nod and, of course, a thumbs-up.

DaveNext stop: BOND STREET