Friday Night And The Company Is Lacking
I have a problem: I am terrible at arranging to do things. I must get better at this. I am particularly bad at arranging to do something on a Friday night. Meanwhile, everyone I know is very good at arranging to do things, particularly on a Friday night, when they often have a ‘tradition’ – special girlfriend cinema time, meeting up with workmates, washing their hair, watching a special television program that they’ve been following for some time, worshipping Satan etc.
Personally I like to spend a Friday evening in the pub, slowly curdling the weekend euphoria with alcohol. Usually I end up finding some other reprobates who are similarly minded. But last Friday, despite asking pretty much everyone in my phone’s address book (which admittedly isn’t that enormous these days after an unfortunate water-related incident), I found myself leaving work, at 8pm, with no particular direction in which to aim my bike. Heading back home, which is currently a room in a shared house filled with an indeterminate number of Italians, wasn’t an option. So I turned the opposite of home – left, down York Way, towards King’s Cross station – and headed wherever I was going.
I ended up in a pub – unsurprisingly, I hear some of you say (in your brain, I mean – isn’t thinking weird? Brains are mental), but hold your thought process horses. Turning up on one’s own to a pub on a Friday night isn’t exactly my idea of fun. Drinking alone is something I’ve never quite come to terms with. This alone may have saved me from being an alcoholic. And even the idea of spending some time in a pub waiting for friends fills me with fear, unless I have a decent book to hand. All those people, with their FRIENDS, laughing, joking, occasionally glancing at the sad ginger bastard in the corner on his own. What a Billy No Mates. Let’s hit him with this pool cue. That’s what people think. That’s what people are always thinking. When aforementioned friends finally turn up, I mentally flaunt them to the collective pub audience: “Look, you bastards”, I don’t say. “I do have friends after all – bet you weren’t expecting that.” And so I imaginarily yank victory from the jaws of paranoid defeat.
But this time there would be no imminent friends to end the internal self-belittling monologue. I ended up in a pub because that’s where my bike took me – the first pub was the Lamb on Old Conduit Street, home of MJ Hibbett’s Totally Acoustic and many a happy tipsy night. With friends. I went in out of force of habit, half-expecting to see a friendly face. Instead I was so nervous the barman thought I was underage, until I laughed. Laughing is just as good as having a driving license, by the way. So is ordering ale. No further questions were asked.
And I hit upon my plan: I’d spend the evening on a cycling pub-crawl (sticking to sensible portions of alcohol, so as to avoid death), only venturing within pubs that looked amenable to single men on a Friday night: decent beer, available seating, no shouting or music. I’d let my gonzo sense of direction do the rest.
I received my pint and looked for a corner to skulk in. I’d struck gold: The Lamb has a special wooden panelled corner, filled with high stools, lamps, and Hogarth prints that seemed specifically designed for single men to melt into and fiddle with their iphones. I don’t have an iphone but I did have a book by Paul Theroux, father of Louis, who makes tv better than poo*. Paul Theroux was a famed travel writer, and I sipped my pint and read about his traveling through Mexico by train in the late seventies, turning down prostitutes and comparing sombreros to sundials as they slowly tipped down to keep the sun out of the wearer’s eyes. I looked up to the lamp in front of me: its base was decorated with a map of the Americas. This was a sign. I was doing the right thing.
I finished up and got back on my bike, grabbing the handlebars gently, like they were a divining rod. I was going to make it to the next pub without any conscious effort. The front wheel would twitch and I would be led to water.
I cycled across Gray’s Inn Road and took in Channel 4 news’ shiny headquarters, home of Samira Ahmed**, then headed down a side street I didn’t really know and found myself behind Mount Pleasant, home of the Post Office’s main London sorting office. They were presumably reeling from the announced privatization by the Tory-Tory coalition (the third Tory party, New Labour, were also pro-privatisation). I turned right, went past Chapel Market and the quasi-American bar Dollar, where I once met someone who claimed to be from LA rather than Kentucky, to avoid embarrassment***, then headed down the hill with the Guardian’s old Farringdon headquarters looking sorry for themselves on my right. I had arrived at the Betsey Trotwood, and for a minute considered heading on in – but as the pub was the venue for our sporadic and potentially defunct club night Come Out 2Nite I decided against it. Too many memories, and didn’t want to bump into the venue’s promoter before I knew what to say to him.
So instead I found myself in the back streets of Clerkenwell, weaving in and out of waiting black cabs. I spotted a crowd of suits spilling out onto the pavement down a side street: I surmised a pub. I turned down the road – the pub was called the Jerusalem Tavern. I had heard many good things about the place from people I almost respect. It’s a St Peter’s brewery pub, and on my visit it was full of young, thrusting types taking photos of each other on their phones.
No matter. It’s a lovely little spot, with knowledgeable bar staff, lovely tiling and a few nooks and crannies like all pubs should have. I found myself a corner on a table next to two young couples. One of them was a young American man, guilty of the ancient crime of indoor hat-wearing, and he gave his companions a detailed history of the place while his German girlfriend took pictures of herself from various myspace friendly angles.
I settled back into my Theroux book, and was soon lost in the scene of a plaza in a southern Mexican town reverberating to the sound of “Land Of Hope & Glory” on a sweaty Saturday night, courtesy of a local white-suited naval band. In 1979. Paul talks to an American lady who is searching for her Mexican husband, who had, it seemed, took the money and run. When I looked back up the German lady had paused from posing for self-mocking breast-clutching photos to reveal that she was a surgeon.
“Talking a liver out takes about an hour”, she said. I thought about the beer I was drinking. I thought about my liver. It was time to move on.
Homing instinct kicked in, and I headed back along familiar roads towards Islington, which isn’t my home any more. Time was moving on, and while I was waiting at the traffic lights, a drunk girl complimented and then attempted to steal my hat. Her lunge was slow-motion, booze-addled and easily avoided. I cycled on.
I escaped the vomiting madness of Upper Street and, via some backstreets, found the officially sanctioned cycle route back to Finsbury Park. On my way I passed The Albion, a back street pub dedicated to an England that never existed. I locked my bike to the railings and headed inside. It was a classy joint, probably utilizing the prefix ‘gastro’ in its online literature. It had fancy light fittings, bare wooden tables, and young bankers downing black sambucca shots and paying with their credit cards. David Cameron’s Broken Britain.
Fortunately there was outside seating, and I sat down on an empty bench in the mild early September air and got my book out, waiting for something to happen. To my left were a pair of drunk thirty year olds, beyond the capacity for speech, slumped over their iphones. One was playing Mark Ronson tunes on the tinny speakers, in what I could only assume was a tragic example of inebriated cultural supremacy.
Two fifty something ladies then plunked themselves down opposite me. “Well, that was a bit of a pilgrimage, wasn’t it? A pilgrimage to nowhere” said one. How apt.
After a fortifying half pint and glass of water, I unlocked my bike and moved on, quickly overtaking a young lady on an expensive-looking sit-up-and-beg style bike, who was keeping to the gutter as she had no lights. From here it was quick journey back to Stroud Green: across the Holloway Road; curve round Arsenal’s Arab Airline stadium (looming and incongruous, like a crashed UFO); and then a quick scoot down some back streets until you reach Finsbury Park mosque, once infamous for its association with pirate hooked islamist shit-stirrer Abu Hamza.
Minutes later I was in the leafy back streets of my adopted home town, an area most people don’t know about because it doesn’t have a tube station. If you’re off the tube in London, you’re no-where. Stroud Green does instead have a nice nature walk / cycle path where the tube should be. There are even some spooky abandoned stations, which are popular with those filming post-apocalyptic zombie flicks (not on their iphones).
I locked my bike outside the Faltering Fullback, my local pub and de facto front room, for a pint of Guinness and some easy anonymity. I was served by my favourite member of their barstaff – a young waif who rocks the ghost-of-a-Victorian-child look. She handed me my pint with a faintly worrying smile, and I found a seat and kept out of trouble. I looked up to see a poster opposite me: “Guinness for strength”. That was my excuse.
A beautiful lesbian and her friend sat opposite me and talked about their love lives in a sweetly histrionic manner. They smiled at me whenever I looked up at my book: it was a smile of sympathy, of (I was probably imagining this due to the stout) comradeship. I trusted them with my possessions when I went to the toilet, and they didn’t steal or attempt to make a rudimentary hat out of them. For this I was grateful.
What had I learned on my trip? I felt I’d conquered my fear of alone drinking (book as psychic shield still being a necessary accessory), which probably isn’t good news for my liver but is better news for my ability to feel comfortable in my own skin.
Cycling around, I also felt a new affinity with London. I felt safe and comforted that whichever direction I took I’d find familiar sights, and pubs and places with happy or bittersweet associations (and as everyone knows, bittersweet is one of the best feelings, up there with dawning realisation or unreconstituted dread). Every venue sparked off a thousand memories, and as someone who’s spent a lot of time in self-imposed suburban exile – and who’s moved around too much to feel any sense of belonging to any one place – I felt, for the first time, that the whole city was my home. And, secondarily, that maybe it was time to leave.
*This is a reference to a song by Arrrgh Shrimpy, the pirate themed hip-hop collective that I was a member of at the turn of the century. The thing about Arrrgh Shrimpy (its exact spelling is much contested), I now realise, is that they were ahead of their time. Our rap songs were better than those of Goldie Lookin’ Chain, and our ballads were at least the equal of Maroon 5, with the advantage of their having intentionally hilarious lyrics. Our lyricist is now marooned in Washington, fixing the global economy, so a reformation currently seems unlikely
**in truth she doesn’t sleep under her desk, she goes home to her family. I like the idea of news presenters living full-time in their studio, like dolls in a house, only coming alive when the camera is switched on.
*** Having been to both LA and Kentucky, I was immediately aware that this woman was dealing in self-delusion that bordered on the openly offensive.