Antidote 11: A beer special. Edited by Ben McCormick. Cover art by John Richardson.
Available from the Caught by the River / Heavenly Recordings stall at the Independent Label & London Brewers Market, Old Spitalfield, London on Saturday 28 March. On general release from Monday 30 March.
The Caught by the River by John Andrews
On 9th February 1946, George Orwell’s essay ‘The Moon Under Water’ was published in the Evening Standard. It was a description of his dream of a public house, one that he claimed did not exist but which many have claimed to have since discovered. Indeed, if it did exist, its whereabouts are still unknown.
The piece was commissioned by Maurice Wiggin, later the editor of The Angler’s Bedside Book (Batsford 1965), whose contributors included Hugh Falkus, Jack Hargreaves, Oliver Kite, Frank Sawyer, Fred J. Taylor, Bernard Venables and Richard Walker.
The following is a parody of Orwell’s piece, prompted by the regular conversation struck up whenever more than one Caught by the River contributor is at the bar and opens with the line ‘WHEN is Caught by the River going to open a pub and call it the Caught by the River’? It is written as an affectionate plea by those ‘irregulars’ who are waiting patiently but thirstily for the doors to open…
My favourite public-house, the Caught by the River, is over two days walk from a bus-stop, but it is at the side of a b-road, and drunks and rowdies still manage to find their way there, even on Saturday nights.
Its clientele, though fairly small, consists mostly of ‘irregulars’ who can’t remember which chair they occupy and go there for the lack of food as much as for the beer.
If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Caught by the River is what people call its ‘atmosphere’.
To begin with, the whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly post-war and old fashionably modern. It has no blackboard with an illegible menu or other gastro miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham ‘Micro-Beers’, ‘Festival Specials’ or ‘Three Minute Milds’ masquerading as ‘Ordinary”. The grained Pete Fowler artwork, the ornamental barmaid behind the bar, the cast-iron excuse for another half before you go, the florid septuagenarian stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed pike over the mantelpiece, everything has the intangible and uncomfortable beauty of the twentieth century.
In high summer there is generally a good fire burning in at least two of the bars and the layout of the place makes it impossible to hear Elbow on the jukebox. There is a members only bar, an impromptu lager bar in the street outside, a ladies powder room for gentlemen, a bottle-and-jug for those who are too bashful to ask where the public conveniences are publicly, and, upstairs, a whining-room.
Games are only played in the members only bar, so that in the other bars you can walk about without the risk of bumping into somebody who ‘works for a living’.
In the Caught by the River, it is rarely quiet enough to talk. The house possesses a radio and a piano and both are played constantly except on Christmas Eve, when spontaneous singing of an indecorous kind can be heard from well before opening time.
The barmaids don’t know any of their customers from Adam and take a personal interest only in themselves. They are all old women – two of them have their hair dyed in quite predictable shades – and they call everyone ‘young man’, irrespective of age or sex. (‘Young Man’, not ‘Chap’: pubs where the barmaid calls you ‘Chap’ always have a disagreeable atmosphere).
Unlike most pubs, the Caught by the River sells maggots as well as casters, and it also sells flies and stamps and is unobliging about letting you use the landlord’s mobile telephone. You cannot get lunch at the Caught by the River, but there is always the snack counter where you can get out of date liver-sausage sandwiches, liver sausage (a speciality of the house), liver, sausage, and those large boilies with bits of liver in them, which only seem to exist in public-houses.
Upstairs, six days a week, you can get a good solid lunch – for example, a joint rolled by two vegetables who are completely off their boiled jam roll – for about three shillings.
The special pleasure of this lunch is that you can have ‘Ordinary’ with it. I doubt whether as many as 10 per cent of London pubs serve draught ‘Ordinary’, but the Caught by the River is one of them. It is a warm, wet sort of beer and it goes better in a pub.
They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Caught by the River, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a vase. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant chipped coronation mugs, which are seldom seen except at car-boot sales. Chipped coronation mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drinks to be transparent, but in my opinion, beer tastes better out of a chipped coronation mug.
The great surprise of the Caught by the River is its garden. You get the train to Cornwall and walk through a stone gate and find yourself in the grounds of the oldest continually inhabited house in England. Up at one end of the garden, there are swings and a chute for the adults.
On summer evenings at the end of July, there are family parties and you sit under the oak trees having beer or to the tune of delighted squeals from adults going down the chute. The Winnebagoes with the older adults are parked near the gate.
And though, strictly speaking, they are only allowed in the garden the adults tend to seep into the bar and even to fetch drinks for their children. This is, I believe, against the law, and it is a law which deserves to be upheld, for it is the liberal nonsense of including children, and therefore, to some extent, garnish, in pubs that has turned these places into mere grazing-shops instead of the watering-holes that they ought to be.
The Caught by the River is my ideal of what a pub should be – at any rate, in the London area. (The qualities one expects of a country pub are slightly different).
But now is the time to reveal something the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Caught by the River. That is to say, there may well be a pub of that name, but I don’t know of it, nor do I know of any pub with just that combination of qualities.
I know pubs where the beer is bad and you can get meals, others where you can get beer but which have been closed and knocked down and turned into Tesco Metro and others which are noisy but where the beer is often generally lager. As for smoking gardens, off-hand, I can only think of three London pubs that don’t possess them.
But to be fair, I do know of a few pubs that almost come up to the Caught by the River. I have mentioned about 10 qualities that the perfect pub should have and I know one pub that has eight of them.
Even there, however, there is no draught ‘Ordinary’ and no chipped coronation mugs.
And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught ‘Ordinary’, open fires, cheap maggots, a smoke-free garden, motherly barmaids and a radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as The Moon Under the Water.
Antidote 11 is available for pre-order now in the Caught by the River shop. Price £5.