Sunday 26 June 2011

The Culture Dodge

The phenomenon whereby any holiday or long weekend we take has a huge overlap with beer and/or writing (see previous posts on Copenhagen, Essex, Blackpool, Rhyl and Prestatyn - several words you never want to see in a travel itinerary) now has a name. It's officially The Culture Dodge.

It goes like this:

PB: We really need a holiday. And you really need a treat.
Me: [narrows eyes]
PB: How about I take you on a lovely break somewhere really lovely. With museums and stuff.
Me: Where?
PB: Hmm. How about some lovely sailing? 
Me: Sailing? But I've never been sailing and I can't swim.
PB: But it'll be lovely. We can go to Helsinki and St Petersburg. They've got loads of museums and stuff.
Me: Is beer involved?
PB: Was that the doorbell?
Me: Is beer involved?
PB: Oh look, an eagle...
Me: [stomps off, googles 'Helsinki, St Petersburg, beer']. So this holiday might be The Great Baltic Adventure, retracing the journey of Imperial Russian Stout then?
PB: [thoughtfully] Hmm yes, something like that.
Me: Oh for fuck's sake alright then. But only if the boat has a bar and hammocks.

At this point, a quick quiz:

Question One: Does this boat look as though it has a bar on it? a) Yes or b) Don't be ridiculous

Question Two: Does this boat look as though it has hammocks on it? a) Hmm yes isn't that a rather comfortable hammock just over there with a little table beside it perfect for putting your G&T on or b) Do I look like an idiot?

But listen to me and my moaning. Who needs a bar and hammocks when you can sleep on a shelf, share your living quarters and 2 small loos with 12 men, wear so many layers of clothing that you look like Tinky Winky, get dragged out of 'bed' every 4 hours to do another watch in the rain and listen to people banging on about beer all day? I'm just ungrateful, that's my problem.

The lowest point came at 4am (that's right, 4 A.M., the one that happens in the morning) on the second day, pulling damp oilskins on over my pyjamas and struggling not to vomit. I looked at PB with what was possibly the seed of hatred in my squinty little eyes and hissed "why have you done this to me?".  Possibly not the best thing your wife can say whilst on a holiday you paid for, but still.

Once the sea calmed down, I got my sea-legs (which weren't any longer or more tanned than my other ones, I noticed), and grudgingly have to admit that I started to enjoy it. Rumours exist that I actually admitted I wanted to do more sailing. There's also photographic evidence of me thoroughly enjoying myself.  See exhibit A below.

Exhibit A.

But it was the trip of a lifetime. We made some new friends, adopted a young Scottish distiller (not sure how delighted he is about the deal, but there you go), ate more custard creams than it's actually possible to do without causing serious health problems, visited Tallinn's only surviving Depeche Mode bar (there used to be 2 but one closed down, goddammit), laughed until we were nearly sick and managed to get through 2 weeks of high sea shenanigans without falling into the Baltic and dying. Which is always a bonus.

Most importantly, I returned home A Moral Victor. When the BBC posted the story of our trip on their website, featured it on the Today programme, put it on BBC Breakfast and The World Service and called it an 'epic beer adventure', I'd won a small but significant moral victory.

People, The Culture Dodge is official. Next time, I'm booking the holiday. Saudi Arabia is lovely in the Autumn, I've heard.

For more information on a wonderful feat pulled together by the lovely Tim O'Rourke, do click here.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

The Morning Advertiser should have asked ME....

One of the many debates at Beer Towers is the Big Party Music Debate.  Mr PBBB is self-appointed Important Pants Music Czar and by his own admission is an extreme music snob.

Our debate goes something like this:

Me: I'm putting MY party mix on this time.
Mr PBBB: No you're not I've done a new one and it's really good.
Me: No it's not. It'll be all complicated and dischordant and people's ears will bleed.
Mr PBBB: No they won't.
Me: Is there any disco on it?
Mr PBBB: No.
Me: Are there any female singers on it?
Mr PBBB: Yes, Lisa Gerrard.
Me: She doesn't count. What about Abba? [watches the special spluttering and arm waving Mr PBBB reserves for any mention of Abba]
Me: What about Erasure? [at this point only dogs and bats can hear him]
Me: What about Mika? [This is purely for my own entertainment.  Mika was actually devised by a focus group to specifically make Mr PBBB combust. Fact.]

Anyway, when asked to contribute his Pub Juke Box selection by the Morning Advertiser, you could see by the glint in his beady little eye that he was going to have quite a lot of fun creating a list.  He even chuckled as he was writing it, which always makes me nervous.  It's been published in the magazine but there's not a link I can post.  However, although I have to grudgingly admit it's quite good, I felt the need to create the Beer Widow's version that I can sneak into the jukebox when he's not looking.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Freebird - When I did my underage drinking at the Nag's Head in Monmouth, surrounded by rock stars who were recording at the nearby Rockfield Studios (aging rockstars, in a pub full of 17-year old pissed schoolgirls? Surely not?), this was on permanent repeat. I can taste the cider and black from here...
Odyssey: Use it Up (Wear it Out) - I can still remember the maroon drop-waisted dress with a gold lurex stripe running through it (please form an orderly queue) that I wore to this school party. I don't think I used it up or wore it out as I was probably trying to seem very cool leaning against a wall, squinting and, if photographic records are to be believed, looking like a 50-year old suburban housewife. Ah, the 80s...
Norman Greenbaum: Spirit in the Sky - I booked the unheard of Doctor and the Medics at Swansea Uni in 1986 simply because I loved the original track on the Student Union Bar jukebox.  By the time they played in the Union, they were No. 1. in the charts.  Result.
The Special A.K.A: Nelson Mandela - the soundtrack to my year as union activist, complete with dungarees, pixie boots, scarves in my hair and HUGE hoop earrings.  Think Bananarama then take it down a notch or two, factor in a Welsh upbringing, some of the suburban housewife we talked about earlier and you get the picture. Not really much like Bananarama at all, if truth be told.  During my tenure as Union Treasurer, I argued with Keith Joseph about student loans, was charged at by mounted police outside South Africa House and, like every student union, council and local authority at the time, oversaw the change in name of the Student Union building to 'Nelson Mandela House'. With hindsight, renaming concrete eyesores after the greatest living activist of our time may not have overthrown apartheid, but he'll always have somewhere to call his own when he's over on his holidays.
The Pogues: Sally MacLennane - I lost a huge chunk of my 20s to The Beaconsfield in Haringey which at the time really was 'the greatest little boozer' mentioned in the song. There was a dog track opposite, where Sainsbury's now stands, and a ramshackle market on Sundays, providing a constant stream of Irish regulars, visitors and ne'er-do-wells. This song distills the atmosphere perfectly.
Stone Roses: Sugar Spun Sister - from my desert island album. One of the most compelling reasons for ALBUMS not just iTunes. Every note in this album is there for a reason, and listening it to all the way through, in order, is how it's meant to sound.
The KLF: 3am Eternal - I lost the White Room cassette years ago but every note is etched into my head. It's a long way from that to Dylan Thomas's boathouse at the (wonderful, you must go) Laugharne Weekend, but I finally 'met' KLF frontman and conceptual artist Bill Drummond there this year. The conversation I had with him will forever reside in the drawer marked 'Embarrassing Encounters With Celebrities; Will You Never Learn, Woman?'. Others include Stephen Berkoff, Stewart Lee and Mick Jones of The Clash.
1 Giant Leap: My Culture - Embarrassing moments aren't confined to slightly tipsy evenings in pubs.  Oh no. On honeymoon in Zanzibar, staying at the wonderful Shooting Star, owned by the charming Tanzanian host Eli, I managed to create an entirely sober embarrassing moment. 'Gosh you speak VERY good English', I gurned patronisingly at him. 'Good,' he replied drily. 'I was at North London Poly for 4 years.' If it had been cold enough for a coat, I would have got mine and left. This was playing in the background.
Tom Jones: What's New Pussycat - when Mr PBBB's out, I crank this up on repeat and imagine I'm on stage at Wembley Arena doing a duet with the great man himself (Mr Tom Jones, not Mr PBBB who, although great in his own way, isn't allowed to dance - not even a little bit - as it gives me the fear.) In fact I did sing this on stage at the Adelphi Theatre on The Strand one night, at full pelt, complete with imaginary microphone. Luckily it was at about 2 in the morning (it's a long story) and the theatre was entirely empty apart from me and my mate Marian.
Fuck Buttons: Sweet Love for Planet Earth - this is my smartarse track ( a la Pete's Godspeed You Black Emperor choice). I discovered this band when I saw them on the line-up for this year's Green Man and fell in love with the part-Mogwai, part-Chemical Brothers sound I downloaded on iTunes. They were even better live, with a big sweaty tent full of pulsing, wild-eyed festival-goers, fuelled by scrumpy. Magic.

So, Mr PBBB, put that in your iPod and smoke it.  And at our next party, I'm in charge of the music.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Booking Marvellous

So there I was, minding my own business, making cakes, small woolly monsters and singing tra la la, when one of those ideas arrived that I knew wouldn't go away.

I mentioned it to a couple of people and they said 'ooh that's a good idea', then I spoke to some other people and they said 'ooh that's a very good idea' and before you know it, I had myself a mammoth project to pull off in rather a short space of time.

That time is nearly upon us and I wanted to formally introduce you to my new project in the hope that you'll help spread the word / buy tickets / make a note to yourself that if I ever say 'I've had this idea...', you put gaffer tape across my mouth. (Leave a little hole in it so I can suck gin through a straw).

The very first Stoke Newington Literary Festival will happen this 4th-6th June and we'll play host to some pretty astonishing writers, thinkers and rabble rousers.  Tony Benn, Jeremy Hardy, AC Grayling, Shappi Khorsandi, Iain Sinclair, Toby Litt, Phill Jupitus, Darcus Howe, Mark Billingham, Louise Welsh, Edwyn Collins & Grace Maxwell, Stewart Lee, Danny Kelly, Suzanne Moore, Monique Roffey and many others will be joining us...check out the full programme here.

Rather unusually for a literary festival we also seem to have got ourselves 3 writers who are going to talk about pubs and beer.  I have no idea how it happened. I was obviously looking the other way.  One is the astonishingly witty and obviously slightly unhinged Paul Ewen, whose London Pub Reviews was described by fellow-LitFest writer Toby Litt as "the funniest new writer I have read in years. Join him on his one man Campaign for Surreal Ale."  Another is Tim Bradford, author of Small Town England and wearer of a very strange hat (check out his photo on the LitFest website) who has a whole chapter on pubs.  The other one is Him Indoors, who's been banging on about it here.

If your other interests include music, food, gardening, football, crime (fiction, though I don't want to judge), sci-fi, poetry, politics or comedy, there's even more to get stuck into.

So, if you're around that weekend, come to Stoke Newington and join in the fun - as well as some very good pubs, we have cafes and restaurants serving pretty much every cuisine you can think of.  If you're not around that weekend, you're frankly a bit of a party pooper and no we won't raise a glass to you as we'll be having too much fun without you.

Monday 15 March 2010


What is it with me and beers in Wales? Since discovering that Wales has more than its fair share of fantastic micro-breweries, I've managed to avoid them with a regularity bordering on obsession.

The last time we were there, Mr PBBB was guest of honour at the Wye Valley Brewery which is NEARLY in Wales and as well as driving, I was detoxing.  Double whammy.

This weekend I wasn't detoxing but still managed to avoid my fair share of beer.  

On Saturday we went to Pontypridd.  Now unless the lady who lives inside your satnav is having a nervous breakdown or you've had a strange urge to pay homage to Tom Jones (nothing wrong with that, him being a demi-god and all), it's a town you're unlikely to be passing through.  I lived in South Wales for the first half of my life and I don't think I ever passed through either.  It's just not that sort of place.

However, if by some miracle you DO pitch up there, make sure you visit what was previously the Bunch of Grapes until a graphic designer got hold of it and is now the Bun Chof Gra Pe S - a lovely little boozer with a great restaurant attached.

We'd been invited by the owner, Nick Otley, who also brews some astonishing beers just around the corner, all of which have the letter O in the name: O-Garden, Columb-O, Dark-O...and some others which haven't.

Once again, my enjoyment of the evening was slightly dampened by being designated driver (between me, Mr PBBB and Captain, I'm the only one who can drive, Mr PBBB being phobic in that department and Captain having an inability to steer without getting distracted by squirrels). Anyway, it meant I was rationed to two half pints for the WHOLE evening, which was unfortunate given where we were and who we were with.

It also meant that by midnight I was the only person capable of stringing a sentence together.  Sloshed, the lot of them.  Mr PBBB had gone all fuzzy round the edges and was telling over-long anecdotes and pretending he didn't mind if we left before daybreak.  Nick was getting misty eyed and sentimental about hops in the way that only a brewer can, and his wife's lovely mate Gina (not her real name - it's better that way) was in that blurred, hiccuppy haze when you  just set yourself on a loop of rotating stories and questions in the vain hope that no-one will notice that you've got mascara all down one cheek and can't actually seem to get your glass from the table to your mouth without collateral damage.  She won't be reading this as she'll be chewing paracetamol in a darkened room until about Easter, but if you know her, please remind her that she must take her friend to the Angel Hotel, Abergavenny for afternoon tea next week.  She'll love it.

So, next time we go to Wales, I'll make sure we're furnished with the number of a local minicab firm - I'll be the one swaying by the bar with lipstick on my teeth saying 'I think you're LOVELY, what did you say your name was again? I think you're LOVELY' and ordering another It's O-kay I'm Not Driving IPA.

Iechyd da.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Wonderful, Wonderful Weekend.

Mr PBBB took me to Copenhagen this weekend for a belated birthday treat and to mark our 10th anniversary.  What a lovely husband he is, sometimes.

The decision to take me to the Danish capital may not have been as random or indeed romantic as I first thought, given the number of times I heard the sentence 'well of course Denmark has one of the most exciting craft beer scenes in Europe these days'.  However, this weekend was one of those that was entirely enhanced by the beer thing. We had dinner with the fabulous Anders Kissmeyer at his brewpub, Norrebro Bryghus and were taken on a gastronomic beery feast that included most of a cow, an unlikely dessert made from liquorice, beetroot and parsnip and a range of Anders' astonishing beers, ending up with a brandy snifter of the delightfully named Little Korkny Ale, a foot-stomping, who-needs-dessert barley wine that was so delicious we took out another mortgage for some more in the bar downstairs after Anders had left.  If you ever go to Copenhagen, put Norrebro Bryghus at the top of your list and don't have a big breakfast.

But the best moment happened entirely without the helping hand of beerage.  Mr PBBB's not fussy about his food (I know that's hard to believe given how malnourished he looks) but two of his least favourite things are cream and coffee.  I can recount literally hundreds of conversations that go something like 'Cream - I don't believe it!!  I hate cream.  Why don't they SAY there's going to be cream on it on the MENU for God's sake? It's ridiculous. Cream, yeuch.'  Then there's the equally familiar 'No thanks, I don't really drink coffee. Do you have peppermint tea instead?'

We ate at the wonderful Peder Oxe on Saturday night, and the sheer elegance of the interiors - Portuguese tiles, open fires, atmospheric lighting - was matched only by the absolutely exquisite waitresses.  Every single one of them made Helena Christiansen look like the unfortunate love-child of Les Dawson and Ena Sharples.  The most divine of them came to take our dessert order, all silky blonde hair, dainty features and skin like rose petals.  "Peppermint tea, please", I said, factoring in the fact it was nearly midnight and I didn't want caffeine jitters.  "What about you, sir?" asked the angel-like apparition, twinkling coquettishly at Mr PBBB.."an Irish Coffee?"  Long pause, possibly a twitch. "Hmm, yes I think I will", he declared, trying to look as though it was a really really good idea - one that he wished he'd had, in fact.

Once she'd gone to grind the coffee beans and start churning, I laughed so much I think I may have let out a little wee.  "IRISH COFFEE?" I hooted. "Coffee and lots of cream??  Since when?"  Apparently I think I'll find that sometimes he DOES have coffee and actually, cream is, um, you know, nice in, um Irish coffee because of the WHISKY, so there was no need for me to Go On About It.

Miss World came back and set up her tray just round the partition behind Mr PBBB's seat.  First round the partition was my peppermint tea.  Then came the bowl of thickly whipped cream.  "Ooh look, your favourite," I beamed at him.  Then came the coffee.  "And your second favourite".  Then came a bottle of Jamesons.  "How much whisky would you like?" the elfen beauty pouted. "A little one or a man sized one?"

I hope she's on commission.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Beer + Cake = Beer Cakes.

One whole month without alcohol, sugar, caffeine, wheat, dairy and red meat and the January detox is properly over.  However it did what it set out to do: I'm nearly a stone lighter and, more importantly, have proved to myself that yes, if I squint, I do have an inner core of steel and thus am not permanently a molten jelly of giving-in-ness when it comes to rich food and the demon booze.  

But what the hell, look at these babies: Chocolate Whisky and Beer Cupcakes.  I fell in love with the Guinness cupcakes at delicious cake-emporium Konditor & Cook (mercifully only a short stagger from the Rake in Borough Market), and have even been known to make one last for a whole weekend, with judicious use of a cake knife, an alarm clock and a small plate.  If these are half as good as the recipe promises, I'll be very pleased indeed, and Mr PBBB's shelf of dark beers in the cellar will come in very handy, thank you very much for asking.

My mission to unearth the alternative benefits of beer continues - it's not all barging around shouting about hops and sticking it in old sherry casks, you know.

Now I'm off to find a vicar to invite for tea.  Must be one in North London somewhere.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

The Boy Done Good.

Mr PBBB went to Brussels yesterday.  We all know what happened last time he went.  Yes, that's right, Brussels had 'run out of chocolate' and he brought me back a red pointy hat with a bell on it as a present.

So scathing was my reaction that this time he seems to have phoned in advance to double-check on the chocolate thing.

And he went not to any old sweetie shop but to Valrhona, King of Chocolate.  A whole goody bag stuffed full of les grandes crus chocolates.  Blocks of intense, powerful dark single estate Manjari, Tainori, Albinao and Guanaja, a box of assorted chocolatey delights and some decadent chocolate sauce.

His other bags are clanking suspiciously but I've pretended I can't hear. He's in the good books for the rest of the week.  Well, until Friday.