A pub crawl worth toasting

29 July 2006
The Times and The Sunday Times

IT IS A SUCH A beautifully simple idea that I am surprised no one has thought of it before — to travel from the southern-most point of Britain to the most northerly sampling as many pubs as possible in between.

Ian Marchant has written a digressive diary describing a delicious, drunken romp across Britain during April 2004. Along the way he drinks at some of the most notable pubs in the land — and some of the worst.

It is a mixture of memoir, travelogue, diatribe, polemic and lament. There is not a page that does not have some fascinating snippet of information. Marchant is a stand-up comedian, so each event has the quality of an entertaining joke. He can make interesting even relatively mundane “touristy” visits, such as sipping a free cup of beer at St Cross, Winchester, where Trollope set his marvellous Barchester Chronicles, because he combines a flair for concise history and humorous observation.

Once I had got to know Marchant through his poetic explanatory first chapter, I became hooked on his meandering, shambolic travels with his friend, the photographer Perry Venus, whose pictures are in the book. By his own admission, Marchant is an overweight, middle-aged devotee of “real ale” and late 1960s folk rock, out of tune with mainstream British culture — which makes him all the more loveable as he shambles from one corner of Britain to another.

The reader cheers his every triumph; down South, I felt relieved when he had his bad foot healed at Chalice Well after a heavy night in the historic local guest house. I was intrigued as he downed pints in Surrey where his grandmother had endured an unimaginably horrible poverty-stricken childhood at the hands of a brutal, alcoholic father.

In London, I marvelled at his foolhardiness when he started drinking at 7.30 in the morning — despite a queasy stomach — at Smithfield Market. Outside the capital, he offers a unique insight into the nightmarish life of a publican when he seeks out the pub that his late father used to run with expert incompetence. The section about his father is particularly poignant when Marchant describes him singing in The Kicking Donkey, which he convincingly portrays as the perfect pub with its spontaneous bouts of bar songs. It is now gone.

While Marchant is a bit of a rebel, he is no lover of yob culture; he doesn’t enjoy the vertical drinking establishments of Burton upon Trent and he feels that some “rugger buggers” are ruining the atmosphere of a lovely, antique rural cider house until they depart.

For all his pronouncements about wanting liberalisation of the licensing laws, he loves the more arcane, secretive world of drink. In one memorable sequence, he gets wrecked on illegal hooch that his wasted, hippy friend Ash has distilled and hears about how the pop group Procul Harum were named after Ash’s cat.

Marchant revels in drinking pranks, the greatest of which was perpetrated in Melton Mowbray in the 19th century; the town was literally painted red by some drunken aristocrats — hence the expression.

On a more personal, revelatory note, we learn about his breakdown when he lived in Lancaster with his daughter and how participating in pub quizzes saved him from mental collapse and a hefty fine.

As Marchant heads into Glasgow, intriguing symmetries began to arise. Having visited the soulless brewery where Buckfast tonic wine is made in the South West, he comes across the drinkers of this foul fortified drink on the city’s streets. He makes a detour to the most remote pub in the British Isles, which has to be reached by boat. It is surprisingly trendy with its espresso machines, and is described as being like a pub in Crouch End except with a view of Ben Nevis.

Marchant and Venus make a final heroic push for the most northerly drinking establishment on Unst in the Shetlands, for which they have to breach national security. It is a bleak and lonely place, but a fitting end for an epic journey.

This is one of those marvellous books that is not only hugely entertaining but also moving because it is veined with self-deprecating humour. Marchant claims to be a sentimentalist but I don’t think that he is at all: there is no trace of self-pity in the book.

In many ways, it was a huge relief for me to read. Having toured Britain’s town and city centres observing the binge drinking culture that pervades our land while researching my own book Yob Nation, I was grateful to read about places where drinking isn’t an excuse to be antisocial and aggressive.

With one or two exceptions, Marchant avoids these ghastly, soulless venues and I am pleased he did; he lifted me out of my depression and persuaded me that some British people can have a few drinks without wanting to smack each other in the face.

by Ian Marchant
Bloomsbury 403pp



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