‘Fancy doing some galleries, later?’
A perfectly natural response to such a suggestion (though not necessarily one you say out loud) is, ‘Sure, but afterwards where can we get a lovely little big pint?’
Deserter chum and part-time art-lover, Half-life, has more urgent requirements, however, and he stood upon no such ceremony as his thoughts bubbled directly to the surface.
‘Only if we can get a pint on the way,’ he said. ‘I’m fucked. Didn’t get any sleep last night.’
‘What were you doing?’
In this first of an occasional series of art crawls I am stringing together a walking tour of art galleries and associated watering holes, and having invited Half-life along for his ready wit, expert analysis and keen interpretation, this wasn’t the best news.
We arranged to meet at Zeitgeist at the Jolly Gardeners, the German pub on Black Prince Road, but I hardly need add that Half-life failed to materialise so I pushed on alone to my first allotted gallery, the Beaconsfield at Vauxhall, housed in the splendid former Lambeth Ragged School building.
I was pleased to find Monmouth coffee on offer in the charming Ragged Canteen which I took in the sun-filled, flag-stoned cafe before heading through to the darkened Arch Space, which I had all to myself. I closed my eyes and got wonderfully lost in a mesmeric ‘sound performance’ by resident artist, Sean Dower.
‘Art cunt,’ said Half-life in my ear, freaking the living daylights out of me.
‘For fuck’s sake, what’s the matter with you?’ I said.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ he replied.
‘Where were you?’
‘Where were you?’
This conversation was clearly going nowhere so we fell silent and listened some more to the throbbing bass tones echoing through the railway arch…
‘Pint?’ said Half-life.
My plan was to head next to the Hayward Gallery, via Waterloo’s Hole in the Wall pub, and so we headed north up Newport St, keeping to the shadows of the overground railway arches which we knew would lead us to the Holey land.
We could have walked by the river, and often we do, but sometimes the backstreets offer more stories, more grit and more tales of the unexpected. And as if to prove the point, halfway up Carlisle Lane we chanced upon a sign for something called ‘I’klectik’, promising ‘music, art and sandwiches.’
‘Let’s duck in and have a look,’ said Half-life,’This wind is freezing me goolies off.’
‘Which is possibly why men don’t usually wear dresses,’ I offered, referring to his Japanese style gown, trench coat and hobnail boots combination.
I’klectik turned out to be a wonderful cafe/bar/gallery/music venue, part of Old Paradise Yard, a ramshackle collection of galleries and studios in an old school house tucked away between Lambeth Palace Gardens and St Thomas’ hospital.
Over a glass of wine, we chatted to Eduardo, the director, who was in the midst of overseeing the painting-in-situ of their new exhibition by street artist, Marc Craig.
Having warmed up, we repaired outside, sat in the old playground and gazed at the school building. Half-life took a gargantuan draw on his spliff.
‘Takes me right back to primary school, this,’ he said, exhaling a cloud of toxic waste.
Back on Carlisle Lane, heading north, the road runs beneath the dozen or so railway lines that terminate at Waterloo. Hanging on the walls on either side of the road were the most wonderful framed mosaics, which turned the street into yet another gallery. Did they know we were coming?
Continuing the street art theme, when we reached Lower Marsh we remembered Leake Street, another subterranean street given over entirely to international street artists and we stopped off to take a look and get happy on spray paint fumes.
Last summer, I’d enjoyed evening visits to The Vaults, an underground performing arts space beneath Waterloo Station and I was surprised now to see the doors open in the afternoon. Radka, one of The Vaults stage managers, explained it was thanks to Vaults Gallery, a new permanent exhibition place that opens all day, Tuesday to Saturday.
Giddy with serendipity at this latest discovery, we were saddened to learn that the giant re-vamped bar area remained closed until 5.30pm, so in order to toast our good fortune with something stronger than coffee from the gallery cafe, we were forced to press on to the Hole in the Wall, where we fell greedily upon an all-day brunch and pints of TEA, the ale it’s OK to have with a fry-up.
The Hole in the Wall, a local institution in another railway arch – our third of the day – is a pub of many facets.
The main bar, given the pub’s proximity to Waterloo, can at times feel like a busy waiting room but the front snug bar is a cosy throwback to the inter-war pubs of Patrick Hamilton novels. Our favourite spot is out back in the yard, with a couple of heaters, a partial roof of corrugated iron and two TVs showing fuzzy sport. Here, shielded from the world, you feel that even in the event of a nuclear holocaust, you could continue to natter to strangers on the bench tables while keeping an eye on the handball on Sky Sports 9.
Finally we made it to the Hayward Gallery where we baulked at the entry price for the main exhibition (£12) and instead headed for Bruce Asbestos’ A/B Testing, a video installation which, splendidly, was showing in Concrete, the saucy little cocktail bar next door.
With another beer in hand, we were now firmly of the opinion that all art is tremendous, a feeling which gradually left me when Half-life disappeared to the toilets for what seemed like an age and I watched, with creeping nausea, Mr Asbestos’ piece, which seemed to mainly involve Alan Freeman winking at me over and over again.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ I said to Half-life when he eventually returned. ‘Where have you been anyway?’
‘Grinding,’ he said, mysteriously, and which only made matters worse.
While Concrete would be a lovely addition to any arts crawl (and I included it in an earlier run-down of Southbank delights) it pales into insignificance beside our next stop-off.
Heading back towards Waterloo, east onto Stamford Street and south onto Cornwall Road, the heart lifts as you turn into Roupell Street, partly because of its charming late-Georgian terraced houses but mainly because halfway down it is the area’s finest boozer, The King’s Arms.
It features up to a dozen constantly changing well-kept and well-chosen ales and ciders, served in classic pub surroundings. It can get very busy in the evenings but if you get there in the afternoon, like we did, you stand a reasonable chance of getting the alpha tables in the side bar, with built-in seating and sight of the fire.
‘Fuck art, let’s drink,’ said Half-life, wafting warm air up his dress.
A nearby summer alternative to The King’s Arms is the lovely garden-cum-cemetery of the Rose and Crown on Colombo Street, but on a cold winter’s afternoon, the King’s Arms is unbeatable.
After tearing ourselves away from God’s very teat, we headed across Blackfriars Bridge Road to Tate Modern.
The first thing that strikes you as you enter Tate Modern is the tourists, and I mean this quite literally as you are buffeted by backpacks and poked by people from sunnier climes who have never before used an umbrella in anger.
Fortunately, the Turbine Hall is large enough to feel spacious with any amount of people. It’s the kind of space worth dropping into even if you are not looking at the exhibitions, just to feed the soul.
We wandered around the free exhibition rooms until Juan Gris’ Bottle of Rum and a Newspaper reminded us that there is a licensed bar and restaurant on the 6th floor which has magnificent views over the Thames to St Paul’s. However, being entirely enclosed, no smoking is permitted so at Half-life’s insistence we rejected it and headed instead to the 5th floor Members’ Room where Half-life was certain we would be welcomed.
‘Here, have some of this,’ said Half-life in the lift and tapped out a small pile of what looked like compost into my hand from a 35mm film canister. ‘Dutch.’
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Ground mushrooms,’ he said, as the doors opened.
‘Shit just got real,’ he said and we approached the entrance desk where Half-life handed over his membership card.
‘I’m afraid this card is seven years out of date, sir,’ said the young man at the desk.
‘As if!’ thundered Half-life, attempting to defy reality by sheer force of personality, which is one of the reasons I like him.
‘I know that voice,’ said one of two impossibly attractive women leaving the Member’s Room.
‘And that kimono’, said the other.
London has recently become the most populous it’s been for 80 years but in the company of Half-life it’s hard to believe as rarely an hour passes without him bumping into someone he knows, or in this case, two people he knew. When they’d finished a group hug he turned to me, beaming.
‘Meet Rachel, my ex,’ he said, ‘She’s an artist. And this is Rachel, another ex, she’s a youth drug counsellor.’ Rachel Two extended her hand.
‘Hi,’ she said.
‘Hi,’ I replied, weakly, with that sinking feeling you get when you realise you are unable to shake the hand of a beautiful youth drug counsellor because you are holding a fistful of illegal hallucinogenic mushrooms. I just about got away with a sudden proffering of my left hand and a little bow.
‘Interesting,’ said Rachel One when I performed the same manoeuvre on her.
‘He can’t use the other hand,’ said Half-life. ‘It’s full of drugs.’
It’s only February but I shall be surprised if I reach a lower point this year.
The four of us left the Tate and headed for a sharpener at the Founder’s Arms, a Young’s pub on the river. Not ordinarily a pub that figures large on our radar – it gets too crowded in the summer months – on this winter’s afternoon it was surprisingly pleasant, with great river views and a decent selection of bottled beers. Figuring it’s got to be one of my five a day, I used one of the latter to swig down my compost out by the river and re-joined the table inside where Half-life was recounting a story about how his uncle had invented platform shoes.
‘Though I should say “re-invented” because the Ancient Greeks wore them to keep their feet out of shit.’
At length, we bade the lovely Rachels goodbye and headed along Southwark Street to our next stop, the Menier Gallery at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
‘So you used to go out with both of them?’ I asked Half-life.
‘At the same time?’
‘Of course not at the same time! What do you take me for, some sort of pervert?’
I kept my counsel. Instead I made a joke about living in a multi-Rachel society, which he ignored, but at which, oddly, I couldn’t stop laughing.
‘You know, I’ve never noticed how beautiful this street is,’ he said, gazing upon four lanes of rush-hour traffic.
At the Menier I went to push open the door to the gallery when Half-life demurred.
‘You go ahead,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay out here in the garden.’
‘What garden?’ I said.
‘I mean the road.’
And you know what, the road did look strangely beautiful. Like art.
UPDATE, March 2016: The Haywood Gallery (including Concrete) is closed for refurbishment until Autumn 2017
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See also: South London Arts Holes 2 for more boozy art in Dulwich, Camberwell and Peckham.