BARKING – May 2014

Barking’s reputation as a snarling, frothing, savage mutt of a town preceded it, however our crawl around its few pubs exposed a place more puppy than pit bull.

“Be careful you don’t get stabbed.”

Such was the cheerful warning from family and friends before we arrived at this, our fourteenth stop. Violent thieves dwelt here, we were told, and two floppy-haired South-West Londoners would be like lambs to the slaughter. We laughed this off, convinced of our ability to fit in with any crowd. We’d already earned our stripes in Acton Town and Alperton; we were charmers, shape-shifters, conversational chameleons, confidence tricksters extraordinaire. Don’t you worry about us, bruv. [‘Bruv’ is a colloquial urban term, deriving from ‘brother’, meaning friend or ally. We do the research so you don’t have to.]

I arrived early and settled down in The Barking Dog, flicking through Foucault’s Pendulum and waiting for Andy to turn up. This was a bustling Wetherspoon’s, the patrons of which were uniformly white and almost entirely male. Football-watching and tabloid-reading were the main exploits of this diverse collective and after an uneventful first drink we moved next door to The Spotted Dog.

A talent show was about to begin in this tragically empty venue. We briefly considered entering Casio 500 – our genre-busting improvised music/comedy duo – into the competition but thought better of it. Barking just wasn’t ready for such ahead-of-its-time artistry and we didn’t want to pull a Stravinsky and inspire riots redolent of the Rite of Spring premiere, fun as that might be.

Much to our surprise, two drinks in and we still hadn’t been stabbed (apologies, readers), so we thought we’d better find somewhere to enjoy a hasty Last Supper before the inevitable disembowelling eventually occurred. We soon encountered Gurkha’s Namaste, a Nepalese restaurant, and hungrily entered only to discover it had recently been turned into a bar by the talkative and welcoming Dashun who had neglected to replace the outdoor signage. No matter – Andy got us a couple of cool ones and Dashun chatted to us like we were old friends. Originally hailing from Albania, he’d been in London many years and regaled us with stories of his renegade youth. If it wasn’t for our rumbling stomachs we’d have happily conversed with Dashun well into the night but gastronomic necessity won the day and we found ourselves in Nandos.

Fuelled by Peri-Peri sauce and ready for fun we entered The Barking Arms – a venue as devoid of character as it was customers – and bled money into a diabolically difficult quiz machine. Where were the brawlers and knife-fighters? Where were the broken ribs and black eyes we’d been promised?

Greg, Andy and AbdulWe moved on, disappointingly uninjured, and finally espied Kings Lounge & Kitchen. Kings was pleasantly full with a laid back atmosphere and, until we walked in at least, an exclusively Afro-Caribbean clientele.

We settled ourselves at the bar and were soon deep in conversation with Abdul and Tim, two friendly locals who were keen for a rare chance for discourse with a couple of intrepid urban travellers such as ourselves. Before long a business associate of Tim’s arrived and they retired outside to hash out a deal in privacy. Andy later informed me, innocent bumpkin that I am, that ‘business associate’ is urban slang for drug dealer.

Another drink, further chat with Abdul, and the time arrived for our last tube. We made it to the station unscathed, waving goodbye to Barking after a quietly placid evening, one destined to settle calmly, without fanfare or furore, into the ULPC archives.

Like The Barking Arms, our tube carriage was empty, and so I performed a short guitar improvisation to an enthusiastic audience of one:

Next stop: BARKINGSIDE

ARNOS GROVE – November 2013

Gesamtkunstwerk. This lofty term, usually reserved for Wagnerian opera, has been used to describe Arnos Grove tube station. It means “a total and entire work of art”. Such high praise seemed to us utterly misplaced on this brick and glass banality. Perhaps the critic responsible had learnt it from his word-of-the-day loo roll. We needed a drink just pronouncing it.

Arnos Grove sign“You can’t be serious” I said to an ashen-faced Andy. “We’ve actually managed to gatecrash a memorial service?” This did indeed seem to be the state of affairs at The Cavalier, our fourth pub of the evening. After brazenly intruding upon a wedding party in Amersham back in August, perhaps this was the conclusion of some twisted universal symmetry.

We had arrived at Arnos Grove without much in the way of expectation. Our modest but knowledgeable gang of Twitter followers had provided precisely zero clues for the area’s pubscape, and the friendly barman in our first pub, The Arnos Arms, claimed of only one other nearby establishment: “Molly’s Bar, and that’s a dive”. We headed there regardless and found it not without a certain parochial charm, thanks to the loyal clutch of locals, found swaying on their stools and immortalised in hundreds of photos tacked above the bar and on most other surfaces of the pub. One of these faithful patrons advised us on how to continue our evening:

“Get tanked up at The York Arms, then head to The Cavalier. You’ll be able to get your end away, there’s a disco night on.”

G & A with signInspired by this insider knowledge, we left the quaint Irish boozer for the mile-long trek to The York. There was a disco on here too, celebrating Teresa’s “10 years above the door”. After grooving awkwardly in our seats for a while, flipping beer mats and chatting to the DJ-cum-iPod operative, the sound of feral grunting drew our attention to an arm-wrestling competition that had just started up. We would have loved to partake in this historic pub-sport, but beating local drinkers at their own game (especially those of the tattooed brick shithouse variety) just isn’t good sportsmanship. So we contented ourselves to be spectators. After the second bout, the winner rose manfully, bellowing “English and proud”. This jingoistic outburst motivated our hasty departure.

The Cavalier gleamed brightly from within, enticing us with the promise of warmth, company, and conversation. We entered to find a booming but empty disco to our right, and a welcoming, well-dressed crowd of drinkers to our left. Naturally, we joined the gathering and ordered a couple of tall cold ones. The crowd included a strange mix of children and pensioners but we thought nothing of it. A hardly-touched buffet kept catching my eye, but Andy sagely advised me it was not the ‘done thing’ to help yourself to the food of others. I grudgingly agreed. It wasn’t until the bottom of our pints that a barmaid informed us that this was a private function: a memorial service for a local lad. Pale-faced, Andy and I shared a solemn look and swiftly got our coats, silently cursing the doddering local of Molly’s who sent us here to “get our end away”. Never have I been more glad of resisting a buffet.

Stepping out into the cold night air, we stalked along the empty streets, benumbed by the bitter temperature and our inadvertent wake-crashing. We recovered somewhat in The Osidge Arms, diverted by warming bowls of chips and a selection of international beers that would intrigue all but the most well-traveled drinker.

Haunted HouseWe were now in the vicinity of Southgate, Arnos Grove having ran out of pubs long ago. Heading onwards along Chase Side we stopped in our tracks beside a seemingly abandoned property, complete with smashed windows, mouldering masonry and triffid-like vegetation. It begged to be explored, but as pub closing time was fast approaching we childishly promised to return with a band of friends next Halloween to investigate this deserted House of Usher.

Our final drink was in The New Crown, a Wetherspoon’s near Southgate station. This impersonal and unappealing space seemed designed for the sole purpose of serving and seating as many patrons as physically possible. We drank quickly and jumped on the last tube home. Anthony Head, or Giles from Buffy as he is perhaps better known, joined our carriage a few stops later. We considered inviting him along to explore the haunted house, but thought better of it. Instead we tried out our impeccable French on a new tube-friend, Yaourou, who spoke five languages. After much discussion of bibliothèques, baguettes and grandes maisons à la campagne, our new copine asked us how our night in Arnos Grove had been? There was only one response.

Bof. Très bof.

A, G and YouYou

Next stop: ARSENAL