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Sunday 7 January 2024

My Best of 2023

 I haven't written much cheerful content (or much at all) for a while, and there will I'm sure be plenty of unhappy events to comment upon in 2024, so as is customary this time of the year, reflection upon the previous 12 months can be allowed to include happy times spent in pubs/bars and any other licensed premises. 

So, here's a short list of the most memorable joints I enjoyed in 2023 for the first time. 


 Rightfully regarded as a must-visit for any self-respecting pub afficionado. On my first visit to Manchester since my stag weekend 15 years ago, it was first on the list and from the broad front bar to the corridors and rooms behind, it does not disappoint.



Another pub high up on the list of the UK's most renowned. Whether on not you believe its claim to be the oldest tavern in the country, the manner in which it burrows into the very walls of Nottingham Castle is worthy of wonder, as are its many nooks, crannies and singular hole in the ceiling. 

COUNTRY PUB - WALNUT TREE, Broads Green, Chelmsford

The closest place I've recently encountered that brings one back to a 1930s British pub experience, or should that be 1950s? Reading the history of the pub, and its many redevelopments since Victorian times, it's hard to pin down which decade it's most reminiscent of. However, you can ignore all that and just enjoy its quiet charm complete with bench dedicated to a regular and its sign that creaks in the wind blowing gently across the village green.


Its not often that a pub can properly be described as sumptuous, but The Salisbury deserves such an adjective. And its location in a relatively unheralded stretch of North London adds to its allure. As does its use for an early scene in The Long Good Friday, surely the finest gangster movie set in the capital.


OK, not the most imaginative of names, but a great location on the exceptionally well-regenerated Birmingham canal system. Its interior is reminiscent of a narrow boat, ensuring cosiness any time of the year, and outside tables to enjoy in the warmer months. 


In one hundreds of British urban districts allowed to unforgivably decline into near oblivion through decades of neglect, little corners fight to retain dignity and a sense of community. The Stork, run by a formidable matriarch, is a buzzing hub of fun and fraternity in all weathers - economic and climactic. The pub's beautiful Art Nouveau interior, fittings built by local industry (when such still existed), corridor hatch and tiling, bell pushes and other delightful details, enhance the welcome to any weary traveller, regular or bar blogger.

Honorary mentions in this category -

The nearby Crown is well worth a visit, especially when they turn up the heating...

The Anchor Inn, Digbeth, Birmingham, is a well-run oasis near the bus station, characterised by period-fitted back rooms and corridors. 

Monday 15 November 2021

Return of the Snobs


                                                 Snob screens at Leslie's Bar, Edinburgh

A couple entered the pub. A man and a woman both in their mid-30s. Trendily dressed, stylish, even elegant. Masked, they approached the counter. The man did the ordering and paying without removing his face covering. Drinks in hand, they moved through the front saloon without pausing to look for standing room or even a couple of chairs; their destination the three or four sitting rooms/snugs at the rear.

I observed this occurrence, standing at the bar in the estimable Bull Inn in Paisley, only a few days ago. Hardly worthy of note, one might say, but it is perhaps an example of the new way of things in and around pubs across this island and the wider world. There would be seats in the sitting rooms for the couple to ease the weight on their feet, but I sensed they wanted something else, too: to be separate from the relative busyness of the main bar area, not have to mingle with us populating the public/saloon bar.

Everyone, of course, is entitled to do their own thing, sit or stand where they want, talk to who they wish but commentators are also free to draw attention to behaviours indicative of general trends, and the trend here is of the bourgeoise sipping their drinks, always seated, in the comfortable back rooms while the plebs drain their pints on their feet at the bar. Each to their own, as I said, but it is a fact that the former, have sought to prohibit the latter exercising their own particular way of life and way of drinking over the past year and a half and into the grim future.

The title photo of this blog shows the “snob screens” of Leslie’s Bar in Edinburgh’s southside (an even more magnificent pub than the Bull Inn). These features of late-Victorian/Edwardian pubs allowed the better-off, the bosses, the professional classes, to partake of drink hidden from their social inferiors. In essence, to indulge in pleasure without having to admit such pleasure.

Today’s new “snobs” would laugh at such artifacts of less enlightened times, and be shocked if their conduct was regarded as similar. After all, they would say, “We are progressives, we believe in inclusivity, diversity, community, society.” But are they, in fact, practising the modern equivalent? As always, it is wise to pay attention to people’s actions, not their words.

Confined to the snugs and private areas of a selection of traditional pubs, this resurgence of segregation and associated attitudes could be written off as just an interesting side-note, but it is not just emerging in hostelries’ internal architecture, rather, whole bars are changing their operating methods, and limiting access.

                                                        The view from the back of The Bull

The same weekend as my enjoyable visit to the Bull Inn, a pal and I were on more familiar territory, along the Gallowgate. After a first drink in 226 Gallowgate for many a long month, we crossed the road to The Gate. At the end of its close entrance, a red velvet rope barred our way. As I attempted to unfasten the rope, a staff member hurried over at a speed only suggestive of some bonus exclusively reserved for the knocking back of customers. He asked if we had a table booking. With barely a word, we shook our heads and left. A few yards further east sits Van Winkle. Here we managed to reach the actual bar within the joint. But as we got ready to order our drinks, an employee enquired if he could help. Our simple reply that we would like a drink had him a bit flummoxed. After a pause, he stated he would see if he could find us a table. After an achingly slow 60 seconds, we saved him the trouble.

In order to retrieve some sanity, we crossed the road to The Cabin (only recently reopened) and had a Guinness and a chat with proprietor Donna. In order not to spoil the mood, I didn’t mention our recent experiences the other side of the Gallowgate.

Now, I have nothing against cocktail bars; bars that operate, primarily, around table service. Nothing at all, I’ve drunk in many of them. But the best of them emerge organically, not through a desire to be painfully on-message with public health diktats. And they will find you a seat or allow you to stand near the bar, the only exception; you are an obvious reprobate.

But these two establishments, and others, were previously thriving bars offering a mix of standing and seating. However, despite a seeming return to normality, they have chosen to enthusiastically embrace the ‘new-normal’, and stand ready to eagerly follow each and every restriction imposed on them by their government, just to appear right-on, virtuous.

Only a few weeks earlier, in The Finnieston, (one of my previously favourite bars of the last decade) the Muse and I were seated at the bar late on a Saturday evening. We had taken the chairs only because they were vacant, comfort our only motivation. It soon became apparent, as other people attempted to approach the bar, that standing was no longer tolerated. The manager, just like the staff in The Gate and Van Winkle, was extremely keen to enforce this rule, informing every entrant that there were no seats left, sending at least 20 people back out into the rain.

As we sat drinking our next and final round, I asked the guy why they had adopted this policy. He immediately mentioned Covid, under the impression that this would end the discussion. But those Covid regulations are gone, was my reply. After a few management-speak banalities, he seemed exasperated I wasn’t buying his line. His last attempt was that we had the best of it, comfortably seated, able to order without the hassle of crowds. I nodded – “But if we had been three minutes later, we’d be outside with the rest of those unfortunates you have dispatched.”

I forget his exact response, but that and their reasons for imposing table-only are immaterial, the damage is done, will be done. Pubs and clubs are one of the few remaining places in modern life for people to meet and talk to folk outside of their immediate circle of friends and family, eclectic melting pots of discourse and fraternity. Table-only establishments allow none of this. For a society already profoundly atomised, we can ill afford the demise of any such meeting place. The resultant fractures will lead to consequences that may even affect the new snobs, wherever they’re seated.




Saturday 20 February 2021

The Eternal Whipping Boy


So here we are, 11 months in, and a few days before the UK government’s announcement of their “roadmap” out of lockdown. Amidst the mountains of speculation, one thing is pretty much agreed upon by all observers, pubs will be at the back of the queue for reopening. What is also widely acknowledged is that such a decision has no scientific basis. But that doesn’t matter to politicians, academics, journalists, social media commentators and all the other influencers, large and small. That the licensed trade and night-time economy occupy the lowest rung is more about worthiness than rates of transmission.

Going to the pub is frivolous, they say, and we must prioritise other sectors before we can even consider bars and nightclubs. So non-essential shops will be back first, followed by every other business you can think of and then pubs, maybe, and probably with restrictions for months, even when most of the population are vaccinated. Because going to the pub is just a luxury, they tell us. Completely ignoring the benefits socialising brings to all of society; relaxation, improved mental health, combatting loneliness and isolation, community spirit, spending time with strangers, old-fashioned fraternity.

In comparison to pubs and clubs, restaurants and coffee shops will be treated far more favourably. These activities, eating and mainlining caffeine, are respectable. You can be productive on coffee, you see. This is to be encouraged in the brave new world of work and achievement. Popping into a bar for a few drinks, just to see what happens or who you might meet, is such an alien concept to our rulers (official and unofficial) that the arguments over a substantial meal with a drink went right over their heads. And an extra bonus is that subversion – social and political – is a phenomenon rarely seen in cafes.

The roadmap of Monday 22nd February is likely to be guided by all the above “considerations” and hospitality – Britain’s vice, don’t you know? – will have to stomach the gruel it is served. Pubs in Scotland will face an even less palatable menu, with Nicola Sturgeon set to look at the schedule set out by Boris Johnson and mirror most of it, particularly its sequencing, but add on five or six weeks for Scotland.

That’s because the SNP has an unwritten motto, as do a chunk of the population, “never knowingly less righteous (ie authoritarian) than the next country”. Seemingly more in thrall to public health experts here than in any other part of the UK, if not Europe – without seeing any actual improvements in population health.

 We have academics such as Professor Niamh Fitzgerald of the University of Stirling whose team recently produced a piece of research regarding conduct within licensed premises across central Scotland during the time they were actually allowed to open and sell alcohol. I mentioned this research team and its intentions way back in my last blog. According to the researchers, there was not 100% compliance with the required social-distancing and other measures. When I suggested online that this survey was commissioned by the Scottish Government, she replied that it was not commissioned by the government, rather the CSO (Chief Scientific Officer) had solicited for research and then accepted their proposal. I thanked her for the information but it took a few more messages on Twitter before she actually admitted the research was funded by the Scottish Government. Quite a crucial fact, one could say.

The professor has made a career out of demonising alcohol, so doubt must be raised about the impartiality of her and her team of researchers. They visited 29 premises and spent around 2 hours in each. With all due respect to their skills and commitment, I visited far more than that amount of pubs across Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales in the period July to October and found a remarkable level of industry adherence to the rules, not to mention a serious and probably crippling amount of money spent on screens, PPE, outdoor seating etc

In those many licensed premises I can recall only one joint which did not take my name and address. In comparison, in the same three months, I visited a similar amount of different coffee shops, and in at least 10% of those premises there was no recording of my name and address. But as we know, coffee shops, cafes and restaurants, supermarkets etc are not put under the scrutiny experienced by pubs.

As if to add to our joy north of the border, Sturgeon and colleagues appear to now be intent on following the advice of zero-Covid zealots like media darling Professor Devi Sridhar. One of the main outcomes of this tack will be the banning of all foreign travel from Scotland for an indefinite period. That this may be accepted by a sizeable amount of the Scottish electorate is perhaps down to the quite extraordinary (in peacetime, anyway) amount of psych-ops employed by all UK governments, a task which has been taken up with glee by psychologists such as Professor Stephen Reicher of St Andrews University (yes, another Scottish-based professor).

When one observes this panoply of concerted action by many professions, one does wonder if lockdown has presented an opportunity for the professional and laptop classes to once again examine and dismantle the lives and passions of the lower-middle and working classes. And perhaps even exact some revenge for Brexit (I speak as a Remainer, btw).

“So you voted for Brexit, eh? Well, because you have jeopardised the chances of students undertaking an Erasmus, you can forget about that cheap week in the sun in Benidorm. And see those few quiet pints in your local midweek, or a booze-up in the social club or nightclub come Saturday, that won’t be allowed until at least summer 2022. And, by the way, keep delivering those Amazon packages and serving me at Waitrose. That’s your place, and don’t forget it.”

Yes, eventually the pubs and social clubs will re-emerge in the UK, maybe even nightclubs and casinos. But the landscape will have changed dramatically, independent operators even more an endangered species, chains such as Wetherspoons ever more dominant. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is the inevitable outcome of the UK establishment once again casting the licensed trade as the whipping boy.

Thursday 14 May 2020

You're On Your Own

Davy has been at his bedroom window most of the day for the last eight weeks. He goes out for a walk sometimes but can’t be bothered others; there’s nothing happening, nowhere open. Of course. But still he stands there, looking out from his second-floor tenement flat.

The main reason is maybe because he can see both the Alexandra Bar and The Crown Creighton from there. His real favourite, The Duke Bar, is just out of sight but two out of three isn’t bad. In normal times, he pops in to one or more of those bars most days. Just a couple, mind, he’s not a heavy drinker. He goes for the chat, maybe some dominoes. Not too many folk frequent both the Alexandra and the Creighton but Davy is a non-denominational socialiser; for him, the thing is to get out and about, for its own sake.

Jean, his wife, is gone three years. His family now consists of two great nieces and their mum and dad. They only visit him occasionally during the best of times, so… Most of his pals are in the same boat. He doesn’t know though if they stand at their windows too.  Maybe they’ve got a chair they bring over.

He’s one of the luckier ones, he thinks. Some of his friends, living in hollowed-out areas such as Dalmarnock or Haghill or Ruchazie, don’t even have a local Post Office or general store, let alone a decent pub. His pension is lasting not too bad and his health is reasonable too, a couple of stents inserted half a decade ago the only real issue.

So he is well able to stroll down to the Gallowgate for a visit to The Drover and/or Hielan Jessie, maybe even as far as The Braemar, beyond The Barras. On his way back home after a few pints he often gets to thinking on his luck and of people he has known over the years, people less blessed than him. And of course, he has regrets. Drink brings these thoughts out but somehow he knows it’s right that he does revisit his past; contemplating is just something you should do, with or without booze in you.  

Other times, especially weekends, his mood takes him further into town, around and about High Street. It can be MacKinnon’s or The Old College Bar; even better, karaoke in The Old Ship Bank or The Black Bull until midnight. Then a taxi home – he never has done chips or kebabs after drink – or a long walk. More thoughts. 

And at his window, some of those thoughts are returning to his fortune in life compared to others, wondering whether he has taken what he has, what he had, for granted. The friendships; his time with Jean; their holidays to the Dorset coast, or to Spain every couple of years; his youth. All things receding, long gone, of course, but maybe there is still life to be lived. And maybe it won’t be too long until the pubs reopen.

Those who follow the news assiduously will realise I could not possibly interview “Davy” or anyone else face-to-face in these strange times, so they can cheerfully disregard all that I’ve written above. However, there are many people like Davy and some will perhaps share his optimism regarding pubs and clubs and their future. In that regard, a dose of realism is required.

Leaving aside questions of R rates, PPE, care home neglect, the pitifully low capacity for test, trace and isolate; the fate of the hospitality trade in Scotland depends largely on political will. So let’s see where the large political parties in Scotland stand.

To begin with, years of legislation, disparaging statements and general public policy in this country have demonstrated what politicians and their advisers think of Scotland’s bars, social and nightclubs: for them, pub-going is the country’s dirty little secret. They may pay lip service to some restaurants/bars that bring in tourism money but for the kind of pubs Davy might go to, there is nothing but ignorance and disdain. 

In the last few years, there has at last been recognition that home drinking is far more damaging to public health than that in regulated environments such as pubs, but this has come far too late to arrest the decline in the numbers of pubs seen in Glasgow and across the country.

As for the Tory party; unless people haven’t been paying attention for at least the last 40 years, the Conservatives only care about their own. I will leave you to decide what tiny percentage of the population that actually is. And as for the party in Scotland in particular, any party/organisation/piss-up in a brewery/menage that has Jackson Carlaw at its head is in deep trouble. Needless to say, the plight of ordinary, traditional pubs in areas of Glasgow beyond the tourist or Instagram circuit is not at the top of the Tories’ priority list.

The Scottish Labour Party has always failed to deliver on its rhetoric claiming to represent the less well off. The party has more represented the interests of public sector professionals and a slice of their counterparts in the private sector, rather than bus drivers, cleaners, the unemployed. And its record over decades of hegemony in the GCC is a rather shameful one, consigning the city to life under the twin blights of neglect and corruption, especially with regard to Glasgow’s built heritage.

In Glasgow and the wider nation, the SNP has now been in charge for a sizeable amount of time, and can no longer point at past failings of other parties as an excuse for outcomes today. They share the general political distrust of pub-goers and pub and club operators, and may indeed feel it even more keenly, given the deep strain of puritanism and self-righteousness embedded in their DNA.  

And a recent announcement that they have commissioned a Stirling University-led study into how pubs in Scotland could open has raised fears amongst industry insiders that this academic-led work is designed to achieve the exact opposite, namely keeping pubs shut for as long as possible, not as long as is necessary.

There has been talk of the first bar reopenings comprising of outdoor service only, but this will surely require councils to ease their draconian policies affecting outdoor drinking. Going by previous actions of GCC, this kind of flexibility seems unlikely, killing stone dead any early hope of even limited trading. 

Indeed, it is suspected, if council offshoot City Building has its way, the eventual closure of pubs such as The Old College Bar and The Black Bull will be welcomed, allowing them even more scope to facilitate developers’ greedy plans for more and more identikit blocks of student flats.

No, the prognosis for the bar, club, hotel trade is not at all good (I claim the prize for the understatement of the decade) and pub lovers – whether punters or licensees – are on their own. Don’t expect any help from politicians, Twitter’s circuits of self-congratulation, the Edinburgh-based lobbyists, and most academics. The only way they will bend is under sustained pressure.

My prediction – and I fervently hope to be wrong - is that, as bars across Europe gradually open their doors again, those in Scotland will be at least 3-4 months behind, and probably the last in Europe to reopen. And with restricted trading likely to continue for a while after that, a reasonable estimate is that more than half of Glasgow and Scottish licensed premises will be gone for good by the end of 2021.

Pessimistic maybe, but that is where the present evidence points. Who knows how long Davy will be standing at his window?

Tuesday 7 January 2020

Favourite Bars of the Last Decade

No unnecessary preamble; this particular stuff requires no explanation.


Favourite Bar - Town of Ramsgate - the most atmospheric of the many great Thames-side boozers, the proximity of the historic Wapping Old Stairs adding to the air of the place. Hopefully the latest refurb won't change things too much nor preclude a good old London singsong.

Runners-up - The Boleyn Tavern (East Ham's finest on a grand scale).
                    - Boisdale Belgravia (nowhere better for whisky and cigars).
                    - Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (if it's good enough for Dickens it's good enough for me).
                    - Dog and Duck (ditto Orwell in this slice of Amsterdam in Soho).
                    - Windsor Castle (a mahogany gem of an interior ingeniously compartmentalised).


Favourite Bar - The Central Bar - a living example that a working-class bar can be just as grand as its more upmarket cousins. Situated beside the site of the old Central Station in Leith, the interior's use of tile, stained glass and mosaic flooring, not to mention a remarkable wooden gantry, can render a first-time visitor speechless in admiration; while the more regular punters just get on with their drinking.

Runners-up - Leslie's (a southside treasure trove of snugs, elegant woodwork and snob screens.)
                    - Jinglin' Geordie (superseded The Halfway House as the best fun to be had down Fleshmarket Close).
                    - Devil's Advocate (a more modern take on how to feel at one with the Old Town and its back closes,coupled with a huge whisky list).
                    - The Shore (restrained elegance down by Leith waterfront, its dark wood best enjoyed by candlelight).
                    - Bramble (led the way in the capital's cocktail renaissance).


Favourite Bar - Boadas - it's not just that it's Barcelona's oldest cocktail bar and that you are drawn back to the '30s as soon as you enter this wood-panelled sanctuary that from the street offers no obvious signs of the delights inside. No, add the impeccable bow-tied service, the gentle atmosphere, the exemplary cocktail expertise. On my first visit, I sampled the barman's latest creation - Blackpool Rock - one of the 365 they have to learn and perfect for every day of the year. And he threw in hand-drawn directions to a hard-to-find bar next on my itinerary.

Runners-up - Los Caracoles (a labyrinthian grotto of a restaurant dedicated to Barcelona classics,                            made even better by its beautiful front bar, or vice versa; take your pick).
                    - Alternatiff Area Comix Gallery Bar (how Prague does a dive bar, complete with
                    Tony Montana mural).
                    - Tynska Bar and Books (booze and literature, literature and booze, booze and...)
                    - Black Swan (service and cocktail knowledge to rival the world's best, at a fraction of                        the cost, in this backstreet Budapest joint).
                    - Szimpla Kert (Budapest's best ruin bar; quite an accolade).
                    - Lo Scalo (hacked out of a Riomaggiore cliff. The view alone...)



Favourite Bar - The Philharmonic Dining Rooms - a lot of pubs are described as palaces. This place is one. A Liverpool institution for decades, it brings the city's people together in drink and food, whether they notice the countless Victorian extravagances in glass, copper, mahogany and tiles or not.

Runners-up - The Pheasant Inn (in Cumbria - great food, pleasant gardens and an even                                           more impressive public bar).
                   - The Corn Mill (how to do a riverside pub, here by Llangollen's fast-flowing River Dee)
                   - The Hand (a Welsh village local near the superb Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall. Plenty of                          chat, most of it in Welsh. Limited craft beer selection - who gives a ....?)
                   -  The Boot Inn and The Duke of Cornwall (both in Weymouth. One for heritage                                  overlooking the harbour, the other just for a good time).


Favourite Bar - Kintail Lodge Hotel - it may not be the most illustrious of bars but is situated in the heart of one of Highland Scotland's most spectacular areas. Good food and drink and an eclectic mixture of locals, climbers, walkers, and tourists from far and wide. If you're lucky, you might even get an impromptu performance from a local piper or accordionist.

Runners-up - The Old Forge (community togetherness and intrigue all in one building. I recommend the long walk in through Knoydart, as long as you are prepared for the Rough Bounds).
                    - Feuars Arms (it is very rare in Scotland to have such flourishes of style outwith the
                     the big cities. And that!)
                    - Monteiths (Untouched with limited-edition mirroring. Shore Road, Gourock).
                    - Black Cat Bar (just along the road to Greenock and this bar also has a terrazzo                                   spittoon. Slightly more detail than in Monteiths and with an archetypal island bar).


Favourite Bar - Cleary's - to pick my favourite Dublin bar is a tough ask but this place has it all; the Joyce connection - as The Signal Box- it sits under a railway bridge in the shadows, it is not inundated with tourists, and has an amazing interior.

Runners-up - The Stag's Head and Mulligan's (it says much about Dubliners' civic pride that                                  historic pubs such as these have been protected for well over 100 years).
                    - The Dawson Lounge (show me a smaller bar, go on, show me one!)
                    - Quinn's Bar (a snug, a signal box and an extensive back court in this Dungannon                               stalwart).
                    - The Crown Liquor Saloon (once seen, never forgotten).
                    - The Spaniard (a long narrow continental bar never lacking a buzz).
                    - The Morning Star (less well-known than the two Belfast bars above, an example of
                     how well the city has used its alleyways, known as entries in these parts).


Favourite Bar - The Finnieston  - if I was judging over the last couple of years, when standards have slipped here a bit in terms of bar expertise and service, it would not be top but over the piece, as they say, The Finnieston has been the best cocktail joint in the city. Its low ceiling and discerning use of dark wood create atmosphere from lunchtime till last orders, and I don't know why I enjoy feeling like I'm sitting inside a galleon but I just do. And its outdoor area out back over the old railway line is one of the best cigar spots anywhere.

Runners-up - The Grove (still holding its own amidst the Michelin-star-hunting eateries).
                    - The Old Toll Bar (best-looking bar in Glasow).
                    - The Georgic (old-school split between lounge and public bar).
                    - The Railway Tavern (Edwardian Shettleston. Blogger-free zone).
                    - Cabin Bar (you won't find smaller. You won't find more casual).
                    -  Black Bull (it's not just the karaoke).
                    - One Up (I've lost count the number of times I've...).


Areas like Gallowgate/Calton need reviving, not gentrifying. Hopefully, joints like The Gate will help to do just that. And just for its own sake, maybe it can show that there is still a future for properly thought-out wet-led new bars in this city.