[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona]
Clerkenwell! To be honest, it's not a part of London I've needed to visit for decades. But when I initially moved here in 1984, my first job was based in a Clerkenwell office. Coming up above ground at Farringdon station in December 2015 gave me all sorts of weird flashbacks, tempered by the fact that there's been a huge amount of development in the area over the last three decades. In the course of researching this piece, I decided to check up on my old work boozer from those days - the Sekforde Arms - only to find that it closed down as recently as last July.
Still, that's not the bar I've come here to visit. I'm here with The Belated Birthday Girl to check out BrewDog's latest London opening, and then move on to another bar to see a comedy show. Which has a major bearing on the rest of this article, as you'll see.
As we get through our opening beers - Weird Beard Black Christmas for me, Brick Clerkenwell Common for The BBG - we discover there are a couple more first night hiccups to contend with. One is the bar's own problem: the kitchen isn't quite ready yet, so we have to make do with Pieminster pies as a substitute dinner (one veggie, and a Christmassy one that's basically a complete turkey dinner in a crust). It turns out to be only a short term issue, and nowadays they're serving the same menu as the Soho bar. The other problem, however, is out of their hands: Global Payments, the people who manage credit card payments across the UK's food and beverage outlets, have had a server crash just after their office closed on the Friday evening, which isn't resolved until the following Monday. So hundreds of bars and restaurants across the country, including this one, have to spend the busiest office party weekend of the year unable to take credit card payments. A quick skim through Twitter reveals loads of people complaining about this - keep scrolling down here till you hit the huge logjam of tweets around December 11th 2015 - and it's surprising that it didn't make the news.
There's one other reason why the bar is rammed tonight, on top of everything else: it's Prototype Challenge Night. Once a year, BrewDog release four test beers in limited quantities, and let the punters decide which one gets brewed on a regular basis. People still talk in hushed tones about the 2012 prototypes, which led to the introduction of long-term favourites Cocoa Psycho and Jack Hammer. None of the subsequent collections have had quite the same impact, and the same goes for 2015's. A few notes:
- Session India Pale Lager - Another attempt at a lager for BrewDog, after the failure of Fake Lager and the soon-to-be-abandoned This. Is. Lager. It's their nicest one to date, with a very interesting nose (cannabisy? resiny?), and a hugely hoppy start that fades quickly. It's possibly still got too much flavour to pull lager drinkers into the bars.
- Black IPA - It looks like this is being put forward as a replacement for Libertine, which is odd, because people seem to like Libertine loads and this is unspectacular by comparison. Like the lager, it has a big hoppy start that tails off quickly.
- Hopped Up Brown Ale - Another one whose flavour fades initially, though it comes back again with a vengeance. It's reminiscent of the Mashtag experiments of recent years, the malt almost turning it to a stout. It's lacking a little in sweetness, but has a hell of a length.
- Milk Stout - An attempt at making a Guinness-like stout. They've already tried this one out in the Camden bar, where they had to fit a nitro tap specially to give it the right mouthfeel. Its solid coffee overtones make it the only beer of the four to really stand out, and the fact that nitro taps were rolled out to all the bars just for this prototype suggests that the fix was already in. And oh, look, it won the vote, what a surprise. It turns out the whole thing was planned as the next step in their four-year beef with Diageo. (Although if this was such a definitively defiant response to Diageo, why has the accompanying spoof Guinness ad mysteriously vanished from the internet?)
So, in summary: nicely compact bar, a few problems they've already worked around, definitely worth a return visit at some point. And based on my own (admittedly outdated) personal experience, I suspect there are enough booze-hungry punters working in the offices around Clerkenwell to keep it ticking over nicely. But we can't spend the whole night there, as we have plans at the Hen and Chickens theatre bar down the road in Highbury. We go to see Brendon Burns record one of his podcast shows in front of an audience of no more than a couple of dozen - you can listen to that very show here, in fact. It's an hour's worth of chat with some comedians, which is good enough to help you forget that Romesh Ranganathan was supposed to be on the bill but couldn't be arsed turning up. (A month later, The BBG and I booked to see him at another London venue, and he pulled the same stunt on the day of the gig, so sod that guy.)
The important bit of that previous paragraph is the 'audience of no more than a couple of dozen'. Because the Hen and Chickens is a small venue. And you may remember that at the start of 2015, The Belated Birthday Girl used a couple of spare pages in the back of her diary to set up a Small Venues Project. Over the course of 2015, she vowed to visit twelve different small venues she hadn't been to before, whether they were for music, comedy or theatre. I asked her to say a bit about how that went for her, by talking about each of the venue visits in turn.
February 14th: Ian Shaw, Vortex, Dalston
This was a little bit of a cheat, because the idea was to visit places that we hadn't been to: and we had been to the Vortex before, although only to watch football matches. I hadn't seen Ian Shaw before, I thought he was really good. It was a nice venue, with the tables set up for a little jazz club - smaller than I remembered it from when we went for the football. I've completely forgotten what we had to drink there, I think it was okay.
March 6th: The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, 12 Bar Club, Holloway Road
I've also been to the 12 Bar Club before, but the old 12 Bar when it used to be in Denmark Street. We had a nice veggie meal upstairs beforehand, and saw Andrew O'Neill unsurprisingly do likewise. The gig was a little bit raucous because we were down at the front and weren't really prepared for it, and had to retreat to the back. I still quite enjoyed it, but the edge was taken off the fun a little bit by Spank being soaked with beer and being a little bit grumpy because of that. It's a shame that the venue's closed down now: all of these places are doomed because of me!
March 19th: John Otway, The Good Ship, Kilburn
That was good fun. We've been past the Good Ship a million times, and just not got around to going to it. It runs music and comedy gigs, so we went for music with Otway - he's always fun and entertaining. For a venue, it's got a decent selection of beers, like London Pride on handpump (unusual to have actual real ale in a venue) plus bottles of Ubu and the like. Nice enough place. We went back there for some comedy to see Andrew O'Neill. That was a bit peculiar - we'd claimed seats at the higher level so we could have a good view, but ended up a bit distant from it. The rest of the audience were being stony silent and Andrew O'Neill ended up telling them off, which was a shame because I really like him. I was laughing as much as I could, I was just a bit too far away for him to be able to tell.
April 3rd: Ghostpoet, Kazimier, Liverpool
This is probably my favourite, both because the venue itself was so lovely and because Ghostpoet was brilliant. We were going up to Liverpool for Easter and wanted to fit some music in - so what's on, what's a small venue that would fit in with this project? We found Kazimier, and we found Ghostpoet was playing there: we were vaguely familiar with one or two of his tracks from him being a bit of a 6 Music favourite. He was absolutely brilliant, just really really good, a wonderful performer in a lovely intimate venue. The place had good lines of sight the way it was set up, and a great selection of cans of craft beer - I think we had Founders All Day IPA, but they had other really good ones as well. It's a great venue, and I was really really sad to hear that it was already doomed before we even went there. Let's hope their new plan pays off, and it's got as good an atmosphere and as good a beer quality.
April 4th: Alex Gavaghan, The Caledonia, Liverpool
This is just a pub with a bit of space at the back for a few performers. It was free to get in. They get you in early by saying it's going to start at a certain time, and it started about two hours later than that. I'd expected that with an early start like that, he'd do two sets with a gap in between, but keeping us waiting all that time before he started wasn't great. And then his student fans who proceeded to stand in the middle of the floor, and stop anybody else from seeing him apart from them, were a bit odd. The music was all right, I think, it was slightly unmemorable. The pub itself was reasonable, with a decent selection of beers again. The beer vending machine was fun.
April 10th: Princess Ida, Finborough Theatre, West Brompton
That was really good. A little theatre above a pub, but it didn't feel like just a room in a pub, it actually felt like a proper theatre they'd put in there. The pub had an arrangement with a pizza place down the road, I guess a bit like BrewDog in Bologna. Decent pizzas, and reasonable beer as far as I can remember. The performance was great, I thought they really made the most of having a small cast - it's always one of the things I have some foreboding about when there are small productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, because he does use the chorus quite a lot. It's an opera I'm completely unfamiliar with, I didn't know the tunes at all - I think there might have been one I recognised when it came up, but I might even be misremembering that. All in all it was a fun event and a fun place.
April 19th: Harp And A Monkey, The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham
They were really great. The Cabbage Patch itself is very much a rugby pub. I know nothing about rugby whatsoever, so even things like having beers named after rugby-related things meant nothing to me. It's a nice place, it's obviously got a local following. The support act were clearly local regulars who play the pub, and I picked up a CD from them. It feels more like a pub that's got a venue in it, but they still do it pretty well. I think the main thing that sticks in the memory apart from the music itself is the neighbourhood atmosphere.
July 17th: Hank Wangford Trio, Green Note, Camden
Another strange one that I haven't been inside before, although I've been past it a million times. Given that it's a veggie cafe as well - not that we ate there, we had naughty fish and chips over the road first - it seems strange that it's taken this long to get around to it. Haven't seen Hank Wangford for years and years, it was really nice seeing him again as well. A good place, I'd happily go back again.
July 21st: Sara Pascoe, The Invisible Dot, King's Cross
Rather than being a pub with a venue in it, this was a properly set up venue specifically for the Invisible Dot - I'm not sure exactly how they work, but they seem to be a promoter cum troupe of people. Sara Pascoe was doing work in progress stuff, which is always a little different to seeing a proper rehearsed gig. I thought it was pretty good fun, and I liked the venue. Shame that the beer's only Camden, but that's better than most - a lot of places you go, the best you're going to get is Carling or something.
October 25th: Closer To Heaven, Union Theatre, Southwark
There're quite a lot of little theatres around that part of London for some reason or other. I don't believe we'd been to this one before. It's a nice size, I quite like the arrangement of them giving you tickets to go in in the order of when you turned up at the venue. The production itself was pretty good, I hadn't seen it before. It was very much a period piece. Definitely enjoyable, and if somebody were to arrange another event there I'd be happy to go back - we'll see how the move to bigger arches works.
November 21st: The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, Underworld, Camden
We like The Men! Camden Underworld is yet another venue that I've known about for a long time, and this is the first time I'd got around to going there. Andrew O'Neill was thrilled to be playing there, it being one of his favourite venues. It's a slightly strange arrangement, because there's quite a lot of bar and pub type space, but it's away from the stage, so the actual performance area feels more like a proper venue. They had reasonable beer as well - if you go to small independent venues you're more likely to be able to get reasonable drinks, you go to the big chain venues and they've tied in with the big chain beers. I think we both enjoyed this gig quite a lot more than the one where Spank got soaked with beer, and I think the venue worked quite well for being able to get lines of sight and being able to see properly.
December 11th: Brendon Burns, Hen And Chickens, Highbury
Back to places with really good beer! It's an interesting thing the way that podcasts like this and Richard Herring's have taken off, basically doing interviews. I liked the variation of opening with one of the guests doing a stand-up spot, and I thought Desiree Burch was really good. I felt with Brendon Burns' podcast that he had more actual serious stuff he wanted to say, unlike Herring. It was a good evening, definitely touching on some deep and controversial subjects, although I think some of the things he picked up and picked out may have been him misinterpreting the audience reaction.
December 27th: Geraint Watkins and the Mosquitos, Balham Bowls Club, Balham
Free, which is quite a thing. A nice lunch downstairs as well, and some very decent beers on too. Geraint Watkins used to be in the Balham Alligators: I missed a chance to see them many years ago and that was probably a mistake. Been to see him now, and he was great. It took over the whole afternoon and evening, a huge long extended show with multiple sets and God knows what. Very good fun, great atmosphere, full of people who either go to the venue regularly, or go to see him regularly, or go to see him at the venue regularly. A great way to spend a Sunday afternoon/evening.
December 31st: No Frills NYE, The Albany, Great Portland Street
We've been doing Ivor Dembina's NYE comedy shows for quite a long time now, starting off back when he was at the Red Rose in Finsbury Park. His later ones haven't worked quite as well, but this one at the Albany worked really well. They've got a really good selection of beers - I ended up spending quite a lot of the evening drinking Beavertown Smog Rocket, which is fantastic. The acts were very good as well, John Robertson was great. They didn't have any live music after midnight, but Andy Zapp took over being the DJ with his phone, and that gave us the chance to dance the night away, which we did, and that was really great. A really good New Year's Eve, a great way to spend the last night of the year, and to wrap up the project for 2015.
And yes, I know that's 14 rather than 12. What can I say? She's enthusiastic. Best of all, the amount of time she spent on the final day of her 2015 project drinking Beavertown dovetails quite beautifully into her 2016 project. But I guess we can talk about that in a year or so.