A Guide To The Pubs Of Britain #1: Hagen & Hyde

In the introduction to this irregular series, I wrote about the importance of pubs for creatives as conducive environments for thinking and dreaming, disconnected from the real world.  And so I thought it only right that I begin this meandering tour of Britain’s finest pubs for writers and artists on my doorstep, at Hagen & Hyde in Balham, South London, the place where I wrote a significant chunk of my forthcoming novel, Pendragon.

I’ve never understood why some writers go to an office to put down words, or always sit in the same corner of the back room.  If you’ve given up on the nine to five, if you’ve gone for the freedom that the writing life entails, why not work anywhere and everywhere?  Why not work here?

Hagen & Hyde has just the right amount of studied quirkiness to spark the imagination.  A 1930s radio, a shelf of old shoes, a sewing machine, and, importantly, bookshelves with actual books on them.  That’s a sign.  The main bar is nice and airy – high ceilings, long bar, with an industrial aesthetic of oak walls, brick floors and iron girders.  Pretend you’re doing actual work, like they used to do in the old days.

It’s a rabbit warren, with a lower level bar where they put on bands and DJs at the weekend, a balcony, an outdoor balcony and a beer garden (which has some actual vegetation around it so you can ignore the Sainsbury’s loading bay beyond the end wall).  Always somewhere to hide.  Pretend it’s a memory castle, with a new story prompt in each drinking space.

I don’t like those big atmosphere-less pubs designed only to serve cheap beer to the masses until their legs buckle.  You know the ones I mean.  This is an independent with a neighbourhood feel.  Here you’ll encounter people of different ages, different ethnicities, different social classes.  Modern London, just as I like it.  Too many pubs in Britain are monocultures these days, and they’re dying because of it.

It’s a pub for beer-lovers, with an ever-changing selection of craft beers – today Squawk BC session IPA, Gipsy Hill Southpaw and Beaverton 8 Ball Rye – and okay food – deep fried squid, pulled pork, halloumi fritters…

On this journey, in life, in the pub, you mark your time with stories, both in the world around you, and in your head.  The old man singing to himself in the corner.  The woman carrying the armful of champagne bottles up the stairs to the balcony bar, each teetering step one wrong move from disaster.  Writing The End on the last page of my novel.

This is a good place for stories.  And a good place to start this quest.

A Guide To The Pubs Of Britain

I like pubs,and not just for the amber stuff.  Map out any history of writing in Britain and you’ll find pubs woven into the heart of it.  Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London has entertained the likes of Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, Alfred Lord Tennyson and P G Wodehouse since the first iteration appeared on the site in 1538.  The Cheese is not alone.  Any pub tour of London is a tour of creativity.

Although writers have always looked for ways to bypass the conscious mind to get to the unconscious where all the creative heavy lifting is done – drink, drugs, shamanic drumming and dervish dancing – it’s not really about the booze.  It’s the space itself that’s important.

In the 1970s, Japanese architects turned away from the concept of a house as a machine for living.  Their new abstraction was that it could be a space of alternate reality, protected from the harshness of the outside world.  Kazuyo Sejima, for example, has designed living spaces that she sees as both introverted and extroverted, virtual and physical.

And this has always been the value of pubs to the creative.  They are liminal zones, dream-spaces, both a part of the world and set aside from it.  The unconscious adjacent to the conscious.  Stepping across the threshold, you accept a new set of liberating rules.  Hedonism is acceptable.  Quiet reflection.  Volubility, free of constraints.  A place of both solitude, where thoughts can arise and take form, and connection with other human beings from all walks of life, free of social rules.

The sensory aspects are important – the gloom, sometimes, or the points of light, the ale-smells and rumble of voices.  Drift in this circumscribed ritual space detached from the mundane world and the shackles reality imposes fall away.

There’s a reason why George Orwell felt driven to write a long essay about his imagined ideal pub, the Moon Under Water. Why Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys before him hung out at The Grapes in Limehouse.  Why Dylan Thomas left his manuscript for Under Milk Wood in The French House in Soho and why Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes all socialise in the Pillars of Hercules, also in Soho, where Dickens also used to drink.

I went to my first pub with friends from school when I was 16.  A pint of fizzy lager, a rite of passage, the feeling of transgression that all creators need.  Since then I’ve drank in pubs all over Britain, created stories, written novels, dreamed up TV shows and film scripts.  They’re vital places – not just for us creatives, but also for the communities they serve.  These days they’re under threat.  In the UK, twenty-nine pubs close every week, driven out of business by shockingly poor management by the industrial pub chains, and by social changes.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The flagship Wandsworth Council has brought in new planning rules to protect important pubs.  All councils could do that if they were so minded.

But in the meantime we need to celebrate what we have.  I plan to write a regular guide here to the pubs that matter, to me, to us all.  Ones that have a weight of history and tradition, that are doing something different, haunted pubs, unique pubs, but most of all those Dionysian pagan temples to creativity.

Some of the early ones I’ll be writing about will be in London, but I’m always travelling so the aim is to cover pubs in all parts of the country.  If you have any ones you think are worth checking out, mention them in the comments and why you think they’re special.  I don’t need much arm twisting to have a pint in somewhere new.

The first entry in the Guide to British Pubs really has to be my local.  It’s the place where I wrote a big chunk of Pendragon (available now for pre-order, drinking buddies).  Watch for it here soon, and then others at an irregular pace in the weeks and months to come.  These will be the best of the best, ones worth visiting, somewhere you can conjure up your own stories.