Balham and the Angel
‘Fancy a bugger about in Balham on Friday?’ I said to Roxy, who lives in nearby Tooting. ‘I’ve got tickets to a gig there in the evening.’
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Did you know there’s a sewing machine museum up that way?’
‘Yeah, I’ve been meaning to go for ages.’
‘No,’ she said, looking at me as if I’d peed in her Picpoul. ‘Let’s do some pubs, you berk.’
Friday is Roxy’s day off so I knew not to arrange to meet too early as Thursday night would surely have taken its toll. Even so, when I met her at Tooting Broadway station, well after two, she was still in need of breakfast.
‘A fry up?’ I asked.
‘In Balham? You’ll be lucky. It’s been cleansed. The last trans fats moved out five years ago.’ But we set off up the A24 towards Balham, anyway.
Readers of a certain vintage may remember Balham from the comedy sketch, Balham – Gateway to the South, which parodied the bumptious travelogues of the day:
Broad-bosomed, bold, becalmed, benign
Lies Balham, four-square on the Northern Line.
Roxy, though, a more recent model, seemed less excited by the reference than me.
‘Frank Muir? Denis Norden?’ I implored. ‘Peter Sellers?’
‘Stop saying men,’ she said.
Anyway, as Roxy pointed out, from her place Balham is, if anything, the gateway to the North, wherever that is. We soon left Tooting behind and as we passed a big construction site on Balham High Road, we came across more men.
‘’Ullo, gorgeous!’ called out a builder in a hard hat and hi-vis jacket, standing on a truck. ‘Are they sad in heaven tonight, are they?’ There was a pregnant pause before he added, ‘’Cos they’ve lost one of their angels?’
‘Thanks very much,’ I said.
‘Not you, blinkers,’ replied the brute, in what I can only assume was a reference to my prescription sunglasses.
‘I suppose it’s better than “show us your tits”,’ said Roxy, when we were settled into our first stop of the day, the Bedford, tucking into a late breakfast of Scotch eggs and By the Horns’ Hopadelic.
‘It’s basically the same, isn’t it?’ I said.
‘Do you think men know that no woman has ever got off with a bloke who shouted “Ullo darlin’!” at them in the street? I mean, like, ever, in the history of romance.’
‘I suspect not,’ I said.
‘Well, could you tell them?’
‘I will pass it on to all men,’ I promised
We approved of the Bedford. It’s a grand, purpose-built pub, hotel and restaurant that is also a legendary comedy and music venue.
‘Is this where the gig is?’ asked Roxy.
‘Where is it, then?’
‘It’s a surprise,’ I said. ‘You know how you love surprises?’ Roxy grimaced.
‘No flavour more divine than that of sweet surprise? Do you know who said that?’ she asked.
‘Was it no one, ever?’ I said.
‘Correct,’ she said.
We Brought Beer
In the cute little sit-in bottle shop, We Brought Beer, I spotted a collaboration between Thornbridge and Burning Sky – two favourite breweries – called Flora IPA. It clocked in at 6.5% and I only meant to order halves but the words came out wrong and we ended up with pints. Neither of us were complaining, mind.
We sat at the outside table on the end of Hildreth Street, a short pedestrianised road filled with independent eateries that colonise the pavement. It made us feel like we were on holiday, which of course, we were.
Hagen and Hyde.
Round the corner we arrived at our first of two Antic pubs of the day, the Hagen and Hyde. Once known as the Blithe Spirit (and before that, the Eclipse) this shop conversion was acquired by Antic in 2013 and is really quite splendid. It seems to get bigger the more you move around its interiors, all decorated in signature vintage Antic madness.
There was masses of beer choice and we took ours on a little tour of the back room and the outside space, and then up onto the first floor. Here, Roxy reclined full length on a generous window seat as a familiar song played over the speakers.
‘You’re Gorgeous,’ I said
‘Don’t you start,’ said Roxy.
‘No, this song. Remember? Babybird. Classic one hit wonder.’ Roxy listened for a bit.
‘Do you think whoever thought up the phrase “one hit wonder” ever came up with any other phrases?’ she asked and I put down my beer in admiration.
‘That’s it. That’s why I come out with you. I remember now.’ I said.
‘You can have that.’
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘You are the one and only.’
Across the road, Roxy was keen to try the Cyclist, a new bar that had risen from the fetid ashes of Balham’s Wetherspoon (or, rather, its Moon Under Water sister-brand). ‘Tense, hostile, sticky, dirty and dark’ ran one review of the old place, but now it was all new furniture and smart decor featuring pictures of cyclists, old and new.
‘Why is it called the Cyclist,’ Roxy enquired of a friendly bar-person as our drinks were being poured.
‘Because the owners like to cycle to work,’ she replied.
‘Oh, nice. Do you have bike stands, then?’
‘Nah, we use the Aldi.’
To be fair, the Aldi – the UK’s first Aldi Local – is only across the High Road, and we sat and gazed at it from the covered terrace, where our two halves of lager were sheltered from the light drizzle that had started to fall.
But we didn’t stay long. It was showtime.
Balham Bowls Club
‘Shall we have a J?’ said Roxy, eyeing the Waitrose car park opposite our next destination, Balham Bowls Club (BBC). ‘Look it’s even got a bit taped off for us, like a VIP area.’
‘I’d better not,’ I said.
‘Why?’ said Roxy, shooting me a worried look.
‘Because of the gig,’ I shrugged.
‘Well, the surprise is… I’m playing.’
‘Get out! Don’t tell me Acid Reflux is back together?’ said Roxy, referring to a doom metal band of mine from some years back. ‘Good times may come and go but we’ll always have… Acid Reflux?’
‘Even worse,’ I said.
‘There’s nothing worse than Acid Reflux, especially at night,’ said Roxy.
I steered Roxy into the glorious BBC in plenty of time for my six o’clock soundcheck and we headed for the bar. We were both drawn to Ilkley Brewery’s Mary Jane – for some reason – but it tasted faintly soapy.
‘Notes of Fairy Liquid,’ I said. ‘Or maybe shampoo.’
‘There are lots of beer shampoos, actually,’ said Roxy. ‘Have you done a review of them?’
‘I have. They all taste like shit.’
Balham Bowls Club is, as the name suggests, a former bowls club made up of several stately rooms with wonderful wooden panelling throughout. It exudes bygone grandeur.
‘It was men only, once, apparently,’ I told Roxy.
‘Bunch of monocled motherfuckers,’ she muttered. ‘No wonder the beer’s shit.’
The BBC is an early example of Antic’s commendable policy of reclaiming old buildings, often the disused premises of stuffy men’s clubs, and giving them a new lease of life as pubs, later joined by such ex-Conservative strongholds as Brixton’s Effra Social and the Catford Constitutional Club.
‘Talking of Tories, have you heard about Bee’s new, erm, line of work?’
‘She’s got a new job?’ I said.
‘Kinda. You know she split up with Roger the Tory because, well, he was too…’
‘Tory?’ I said.
‘Exactly. Well, he rang her up and said he knew it was over between them romantically but wondered whether she’d be interested in… peeing on him.’
‘And she said yes, but that he would need to pay her some money for that. So he offered a hundred quid and Bee said make it two and he had himself a deal. So now, she pisses on Tories.’
‘Yes, a mate of his has got involved, too. She’s raking it in. She’s gone down to two days a week at the centre. Says she’s never experienced job satisfaction like it.’
I had a dozen questions I wanted to ask – mostly about logistics – but at that moment Dirty South wandered into the bar.
‘Well, this is a bit of alright,’ he said, and Roxy did a double take.
‘What are you doing here?’ she said.
‘Well,’ he said, pointing at me, ‘we’re on in an hour.’
‘OK,’ said Roxy, folding her arms, ‘what the fuck is going on here?’
It was time to fess up. I pointed out to Roxy a Balham Literary Festival poster which advertised the fact that at 7pm, Dirty South and I were to give a talk about our book, Today South London, Tomorrow South London.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ she said. ‘You mean I’ve got to listen to you two chuff on for an hour? I can get that any time. At least then I can tell you to shut up. I’m getting another drink. I’m gonna need it.’
But I’m sure she was secretly thrilled. At least, that’s what I told Dirts before he adjourned to the garden to do some vocal warm-up exercises with the aid of a fat roll-up.
Our session, upstairs in the magnificent ballroom, passed without incident. Apart, that is, from the on-stage electrical fire that Kitty, the stage manager, gamely stamped out while we remained seated in our armchairs, wafting away smoke and sipping our pints. In an emergency, it’s important to stay on-brand, we agreed.
Once we had finished our book-witterings, we took some questions from the floor. After a few minutes, Roxy put up her hand and was handed the mic.
‘I find the character of Roxy particularly well-drawn.’ she said, a glint in her eye. ‘Is she based on anyone and what’s she like in real life?’
‘Thank you for your question, young man,’ I replied. ‘Yes, indeed, she walks amongst us. What’s she like? Well, have you ever heard the expression “heaven must be missing an angel”?’
After some exhausting post-gig book-signing, our literary duties were complete and we were ready to let our beards down.
‘Where’s the after-party?’ said Dirty South, ‘I’m gasping.’
‘Follow me,’ said Roxy, and she led us through rain-wet backstreets towards Wandsworth Common. At the station we spotted a sign for Belleville Brewery and our hearts filled with beery joy.
We paused at some bins by the railway arches for a spliff, during the rolling of which my little ball of hash was taken by the wind and dashed to the ground. Or maybe into a skip. There is something quite splendid, it occurred to me as I sparked up and tried to find it, about hunting between bins for a small ball of hash on a light industrial estate, in the drizzle, at dusk, near a brewery. I’d never felt happier, more alive.
‘Hurry up, Raider,’ said Roxy. ‘I’m dying for a pee.’
‘I’m just looking for this hash,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you piss on Dirts?’
‘What?’ said Dirty South.
‘He couldn’t afford me,’ said Roxy.
‘What?’ said Dirty South.
Ensconced downstairs in the wonderful Belleville taproom, we gazed out at the railway line and the treetops blowing in the night. Founded by ten local fathers whose children all attended nearby Belleville Primary School, the brewery and its US-influenced beers stand as a testament to the fact that there may be life after parenting, despite all evidence to the contrary. We toasted the day with schooners of their excellent Steam Lager (Roxy) and Session IPA (us).
‘So, what did you think of the show, Rox?’ I said.
‘Put it this way,’ she said, ‘I think I prefer acid reflux. And if you put that in a book, you don’t need capital letters.’
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Image credit: Showtime by Duncan Palmer Photography