For a while I’ve been wanting to have a go at doing pub reviews a little differently, trying to evoke the atmosphere and character rather than rigidly evaluating the food and drink selection. After all, ‘atmosphere’ and ‘my kind of place’ are, in survey after survey, the main reasons people give for choosing a particular pub. Paul Ewen, author of the deceptively dull-sounding London Pub Reviews has beaten me to any notion I might have had about reinventing the pub review. If the dull, plodding, workmanlike-yet-practical Good Beer Guide exists at one end of a scale, Ewen, a Kiwi living in London, has pegged out the other extreme.
According to the blurb, ‘although wanting to follow the Kiwi tradition of working in English pubs, he was thwarted by a complete and utter lack of social skills, forcing him to write about them instead’.
And how he writes about them.
His warped vision often nails a pub’s character completely: the Dublin Castle in Camden reminds him of the alien bar in Star Wars, an observation affirmed by “the pierced faces, weird clothes and outrageous hair styles of the Camden locals”.
Each review ends with him being forcibly ejected from the pub. In the Holly Bush in Hampstead, this is precipitated by Liam Gallagher walking in, inspiring our hero to climb on the table and shout “I’M ON STAGE, I’M ON STAGE, I’M ON STAGE NOW!”
In the Jeremy Bentham, a university pub, he approaches the blackboard advertising the day’s specials and begins an impromptu lecture, attempting to keep order by yelling and hurling beer glasses to the floor.
For the first few reviews, you’re wondering if this man, Dom Joly-style, really did go to these pubs and do these things. He was in there, as his descriptions attest, and he does enjoy his real ale. (And the Bentham piece was originally commissioned for The Times Higher Education Supplement by my mate Steve Farrar. When Paul sent Steve the invoice, it included the itemised cost for the smashed glasses.)
But as the book progresses, we take off through the beer glass and into a world that Alice would recognise if she had been a Camden bag lady on a Tennents Superdiet.
In Effra at Brixton, the bar person is working the pumps “like a submarine engine room attendant, darting here and there pulling levers and plugging holes.” Paul’s small round table is “shedding its varnish like skin”, and a sign advertising the daily special – Jerk Chicken – reminds him how often he was called “jerk”, “chicken” and indeed “special” during his formative years.
In the Prince of Wales on Clapham Common, “My table was covered by a strange, grey, cocoon-like coating, as if it were soon to emerge as a more beautiful pub table.”
At the Half Moon in Herne Hill, the flowery pattern on the carpet comes to life, unties his shoelaces and empties out the contents of his satchel (yes, he carries a satchel).
A secret passage at the Eagle in Battersea Park Road leads him to the secret underground lake where custard comes from.
By the time we get to the King’s Head in Tooting, he’s carrying his disembodied head under one arm, which hampers somewhat his attempts to catch the rabbits that infest the pool table, mocking him from the pockets.
All this, and he still makes you want to visit the pubs in question.
The review on the cover, written by Toby Litt (another of my favourite writers) says it all in one brilliant sentence: Ewen has created the ‘Campaign for Surreal Ale’.
Marvellous. Buy this book. Make an unhinged Kiwi bastard happy. He deserves it.