It was Topman who gave birth to the idea that led us to Stevenage.
There are four of us in our work team; all live quite a distance from each other so arranging an evening after work isn’t all that easy. Topman lives in Newport, Wales, Thinker lives in Beaconsfield, I live in Swindon and Sunny lives in Stevenage.
‘Why don’t we just have a night out in each of our home towns?’ suggested Topman.
We chose to do Sunny’s hometown first because he was the newest member of our team. Topman selected a reasonable hotel for the three members of the team who were playing away, in a manner of speaking…
The date decided on was the 19th July 2011. Topman played chauffeur and drove me to Stevenage just after mid-day.
Topman asked: ‘What d’you reckon on Sunny then?’
Sunny was the latest member of the team and replaced Smiler who left earlier in the year.
‘In what way?’ I asked, ever cautious.
‘I’ve got this feeling he could be a lager drinker.’
I frowned. It was a little disturbing. I’m sure a dark cloud appeared overhead.
‘Might not be…’
‘Well, when you gave him those two bottles of Black Sheep he seemed a little puzzled.’
‘I thought it was because he didn’t know much about our beer club.’
Within our team we often exchange bottles of beer we get from our travels.
‘No, he knew something about that…’
We got another fifty or more miles along before Topman spoke again.
‘I could be wrong…’
I nodded. ‘Yeah,’ I said, hopefully.
Once we got to the hotel, I took a shower and unpacked the change of clothes and bathroom toiletries. I was quite pleased with the room. It was spacious with large window, letting in plenty of light. The only problem was breakfast. When we booked in we were told we would have to have breakfast in our rooms. The dining room was to be used for a photo shoot early the next morning.
I showered and changed, then, at around 5pm, we decided to go for the first beer while we waited for the others to arrive.
Topman was dressed into casual top and shorts. I couldn’t ever remember wearing shorts except at school. Lots of blokes these days do when going drinking. Having legs like albino twiglets I always tended to refrain from wearing them…
I located a place just round the corner – almost literally – called The Chequers. We made for there and found it was a Greene King pub; which is hardly surprising in a Greene King Dominated area.
Not a bad place, large bar and plenty of Rugby photographs about the walls, it brought back some memories for Topman. Being a Welshman, Rugby featured quite prominently in his life…
We both had the IPA. It wasn’t bad. But it would never hit my top ten. Actually, probably not the top twenty…
We were there for ten minutes when my ability to attract irritating little tics kicked in. He looked about middle to late thirties. His hair was short and dark. He was wearing jeans, trainers and a shirt along with some sort of sleeveless jacket. There was a white plastic bag by his feet. From the look in his eyes I guessed he’d been there a while.
‘So where do you come from?’ he chipped in as Topman was in mid-sentence.
‘Swindon,’ I replied.
‘Newport,’ Topman said.
He frowned as he digested the information.
‘You know each other?’ he asked, again interrupting our conversation.
‘We work together,’ said Topman; to try to deflect supplementary questions he added. ‘We’re meeting up with our work colleagues. One of them lives in Stevenage.’
He took some more time to digest this latest piece of information, then piped up again. ‘Who do you work for?’
We told him. Then what did we do. Then it a dissection on whether there was any point to it.
After about fifteen minutes, which seemed more like an hour, he got up, insisted on shaking our hands and wobbled his way out.
‘Sorry about that,’ I said to Topman.
‘No need for you to be sorry, it’s not your fault.’
‘Happens all the time, dogged by it; irritating little tics seem to latch onto me.’
We put away a second pint then Topman decided we should move on. We walked on towards the old town centre. It was only about five minutes before we got to the next pub, the Coach and Horses.
I wasn’t too keen on this one. Noisy; lots of shed-building music (thump, thump, bang, bang), no clips on the beer pumps; and a barman you almost expected to do a couple of Saturday Night Fever moves before he served you.
‘Any real beer?’ asked Topman.
‘Sorry, waiting for a delivery….’
I suspected he’d been waiting for that delivery for years. I would’ve left at that point but Topman convinced me to make do with John Smiths.
We went outside with what the pub dubiously called beer and sat at a bench.
We were just discussing when we thought Thinker and Sunny might turn up when Thinker rang.
‘That was Thinker,’ he told me.
‘Is he at the hotel yet?’ I asked.
‘Um, he’s in the car park at Tesco’s,’ replied Topman.
‘O.K.’ I frowned, ‘Doing the weekly shop?’
‘He’s a little lost and I’ve given him directions…’
‘Better get back to the hotel, in case Thinker needs further help. Sunny should have arrived by now,’ suggested Topman.
Before we got any further let me explain some things about Thinker. He’s in his early thirties, around five-seven and of a very pleasant disposition. He is probably one of the most intelligent chaps I have ever met, but sometimes the minutiae of life can cause him a little trouble. Topman and I agree he has all the attributes to make a good Doctor Who.
As we’re approaching the hotel Thinker turns up in his car.
As Thinker stops alongside us, Topman leans towards the open window.
‘Found us then?’
‘Um, yes. The map I used took me to Tesco’s car park. I saw the hotel from the road but took the wrong turning.’
Topman frowned. ‘Why didn’t you use your SatNav?’
‘Ah, um, well, I’ve, er, lent it to my sister.’
‘Ok. Anyway, the hotel is just round the corner, opposite the front of this big building,’ said Topman pointing to the large building across the road.
You might think not a lot can go wrong in three hundred yards but one has to remember it’s Thinker we’re dealing with here…and to continue the Doctor Who analogy, like the TARDIS, Thinker’s car may not always end up where it should and rarely at the correct time.
We get back to the hotel, Thinker is just arriving in the car and Sunny is there, sat in the garden. He looked quite relaxed, casually dressed in polo shirt, jeans; no jacket.
Thinker tells us he’ll be about an hour, he wants to have a shower and get changed. So, rather than wait, off we went to the Chequers for the second time.
As Topman got the round in he glanced at me, then the lager pump, then Sunny. I knew what he was getting at. So when Sunny looked at the beers on offer and opted for lager, Topman gave me a ‘I told you so’ look.’
Well, no one is perfect.
It was while we were putting away the second round of a second visit to the Chequers when Londontaff joined us; Topman’s friend.
Shortly after, Thinker arrived and bought our fourth round. Shortly after disposing of that we were on the move again. Deeper into Stevenage old town where restaurants and other shops and more importantly, pubs lay in abundance…well, there were quite a few anyway.
The next pub was the Red Lion where we also ate a meal; nothing fancy just a steak and chips job for me. After this we made our way to a place called 2 Dry. For the first time that evening we got away from Greene King beers and moved to McMullen’s.
It was this pub that will always, in my opinion, be well-remembered by Topman. It was the wide-open staring eyes, not seeing, with so much sadness in them. Then the almost whispered:
‘Five pounds a pint!’
I patted his shoulder in sympathy, as did Londontaff and Thinker. We all hoped we’d move on before the next round.
‘I didn’t realise that when I asked for it,’ said Sunny, feeling a tad guilty.
The most expensive drink on the round as the beers came in cheaper, even Londontaff’s Guinness…
‘Five quid a pint,’ Topman mumbled again. He was still staring almost unseeing.
‘Anyway, McMullen’s makes a change from Greene King,’ I said, trying to move the subject along.
Topman looked at me, took me by the shoulders and shook me. ‘Five pounds a pint.’
Being a friend of long-standing, Londontaff, stepped in turned Topman around slapped him around the chops.
Topman shook his head, looked at his own beer, down to half a pint. The spell was broken.
I was feeling a little tired as the old pins for some reason were giving me a little trouble. There was a small table next our group and one chair. As the oldest I lay claim to it.
‘That’s the good thing about the beard going white, young kids give up their seats for me on the bus. I could also crap myself now and get away with it…People would just say, ‘poor old sod, getting old, can’t control his functions anymore…’ I told Londontaff.
Mrs Londontaff joined us and we stayed another half hour before the party went their separate ways. Sunny off to his house somewhere in Stevenage, Mr and Mrs Londontaff back to London – Mrs Londontaff driving, being the sober one, and Topman, Thinker and I to our hotel…
I awoke at about 8am the next morning and within half an hour was showered and dressed. I was about to ring down for breakfast when the telephone rang. It was reception.
‘Breakfast in the dining room,’ a voice informed me.
‘Oh, I thought it was to be in the bedroom.’
‘The dining room is now free. The photo shoot is not going ahead.’
I put the telephone down and shrugged. Although it might be a novelty having breakfast in my room I preferred it at a proper table.
I rang Topman. ‘Breakfast in the dining room.’
‘I thought we were supposed to have it in our rooms?’
‘The dining room is now free. The photo shoot is not going ahead’
I then rang Thinker.
‘Breakfast in the dining room.’
‘I thought we were supposed to have it in our rooms?’
‘The dining room is now free. The photo shoot is not going ahead.’
I began to get this terrible bout of déjà vu. It rather disoriented me for a while.
Unsurprisingly, as there was food involved, I was the first one down for breakfast. There didn’t seem to be anyone else. Either we were the only guests or the only ones who were having breakfast.
Within five minutes a waiter appeared and I went for the full English with coffee and toast. Well, what other choice could I possibly make?
Shortly afterwards, Topman arrived and about fifteen minutes after him, Thinker.
As soon as Thinker sat down both Topman and I thought he didn’t look all that good. But he bravely managed a full English washed down with lots of black coffee. It took him a bit of time but he got there. A real trooper.
Mine slid down rather quickly and I’m embarrassed to say I could’ve put away another quite easily….
How can you even suggest that the Regular Reader might be a she? Your cultural antennae must really be slipping if you can entertain such notions.
Hold your horses, Gloomers; don’t get in a huff. It was only designed to bring that particular cultural exchange to a halt. When will you learn to accept that The Regular Reader doesn’t want to hear about Melvyn Bragg and Robert Robinson, he – or she – wants you to air your views on the use of metaphor in ‘Fifty Shades’, and whether you preferred Take That with or without Robbie.
Blamers, your last comment was so clearly designed to bring this whole exchange to a shuddering halt that I’m not going to let it
Oh, all right then, I will.
Oh, Gloomers, you’re such a hoot!
No, I was never a wailwayman between the wars.
I’ve always thought your dislike of Bragg was another instance of that well not inverted snobbery whereby it is easier to mock the highbrow than concede its cultural superiority. There are better reasons to dislike him, from his superficiality to the fact that most of his novels are second rate. Worse yet, he knew them to be second rate and went on with them all the same. But his novels about the Tallantyre family and his more recent sequence about the Richardson’s have social realism and the authenticity of thinly disguised autobiography.
Because he’s exactly the man you might have been had you aimed squarely at success rather than failure. There’s a Bragg inside of you just waiting to be exposed… and it’s certainly not Billy.
I’m not altogether sure I would define it, because there are always going to be exceptions. I don’t think popularity is the best measure of quality, that’s for sure. And I think that since complexity often precludes popularity, much popular culture is not worthy of close examination.
What have you got against Melvyn Bragg, anyway? I can never account for the rare ferocity with which certain people seem to hate him. If not the bouffant hair, what?
Might I ask then, how you would define popular culture?
The problem with what is called ‘popular culture’ is that it Is popular but not culture.
MIght I ask then, how you would define popular culture? Are we talking pop & rock, TV, radio, cinema and recent literature here, or would you allow for the likes of Betjeman, Larkin and perhaps even Dickens, Wodehouse and Elgar?
Whoops! Given away a few of ‘me fave-ritts’ there.
No need, Blamers; Fitrambler is helpfully tweeting them by of his amazon purchases.
I’m sure there are vast, anxious hoards of regular readers out there, Gloomers, just itching to know what your Top Ten gems of British culture might be. Come on, spill the beans so we all know who, and what, we should be engaging with.
I can’t answer your query about the tractor braces, though I think old Walter Gabriel from The Archers – another gem of British culture you refuse to engage with – suffered a near fatal twang from a pair in a farming accident circa 1978.
And had you possessed Proust’s moustache and Bragg’s bouffant hair, you would have looked – well, absolutely absurd.
Had I been blessed with Bragg’s bouffant and Proust’s moustache I could have gone a long way, you know. Although, perhaps, not as far as Sodom – which I believe is somewhere beyond Gloucester, in the Forest of Dean.
But, more to the point, what on earth are tractor braces?! Is Fitter’s thinking of taking up farming or simply having problems in the trouser department? Does he really need elastic strong enough to support a suspended tractor?