Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Signs of Destruction by the Landless Landlord

The first thing I did when I woke up today was try to go to sleep. I was overcome by a sort of remorse-cum-anxiety concerning my Landlordly past and how to, if not repair it, at least forget about it. The fact I was convinced that as soon as I acknowledged that I'd woken up I'd be beset by a hammering in the head helped focus my attempts to keep all thoughts from emerging from under the pillow.

Thoughts of the pub, the old days of drinking, the wife, why she'd left, my early hopes at Mile End, all the things you could do with a pub, my friends the students of the time, what's become of them since. My decision to stop drinking, the difficulty of remembering why that was supposed to help once the wife had gone and the pub closed.

But at some point I just had to acknowledge that I'd long been completely awake and open the blinds. What I thought was going to be the first crack in a storming headache turned out to be a lovely sunny day and a strange sense of slightly dazed optimism.

Last weekend I rediscovered Utobeer and the Rake, found Brew Dog.

It's been a long time since I posted, a terrible, long time, and has had me wondering if there was any point in the present blog, which I'd placed so much hope in. Put simply, if, as it seemed, London suffered a dearth of signs, the nourishment of Pubsignstaken, the site, starved of material, would die. The sings I'd been looking for, hoping for, were visual, things that would make interesting images, but of course, as a result, I thought at first, of rising literacy, their numbers are in steep decline, increasingly boozers relying on just the letters to make the name, leaving problems for a blog, of course, premised on the picture. Normally, that wouldn't have mattered to me, but recently, with the work gone, I'd been counting on it for at least a sense, however pointless, of purpose.

I'd gone down to Borough in search of photographs, sure that, of all places, what, in Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold's day, the days of 'London, a Pilgrimmage', was known as the town of Malt and Hops must furnish something in the way of signs, still, worth recording. 

The idea that it might not, that the place might prove as barren that way photographically as elsewhere, I hardly dared allow into the back of my mind until it forced itself on the front. Perhaps I would simply have to admit the existence of a world without signs, the pointlessness of the site.

But surely, since for the time being I've got nothing else, the search would have to go on, in the absence of signs, substance of some other sort would have to be found to replace them, even if only the illustration of failure, and I made my way through the throng of visitors to what I knew from my drinking days was the nearest competition, in terms of knowledge, cordiality and character, a London off-licence could offer to the on-: Utobeer, heir that way to the hop laurels abandoned by the Beer Shop, late of Hoxton.

Looking closely, though, it occurred to me that perhaps what I was looking for, the signs in question, were there in front of my eyes: the labels on a range of bottles an extremely knowledgeable sales assistant was recommending to a customer. These bottles and many others in the place I felt to have a charm equal to that which I'd been finding so difficult to locate on the street. Just as I took out the camera, though, and started to set parameters, I noticed a sign: 'no photographs', it explained, unless you intended to buy. Here was a difficulty for a man on the wagon. I could, I had to say, understand their position. The market was so full of people photographing that it seemed to threaten even the material substance of the place. If they continued like that, was there a danger that in some way the market would be unable to continue to exist? It's hard to believe that you can just take that information away, that colour, those tones and forms, so many times and leave the residue unaffected, the colours unbleached, the objects undiminished, and then, trade: would it not at some point become, instead of a market, a photographic opportunity, only, a pretext for photographs of a market, the trading gone, no market at all? Was it perhaps the responsibility of the traders to attempt to put a hold on this, preserve at least the illusion of normality, even if only for the photographers themselves, to leave them something to take?

Chastened, I let my camera hand fall to my side, slip guiltily into my pocket, re-emerge empty. Perhaps the very will to blog was contributing to the undermining process these people were protecting us from. It was possible that my lamented paucity of pub signage in the city was directly linked to the untrammelled urge to photograph, the signs among the first victims, leached of life, colour, purpose, interest by the whirring plague of machines alighting in its devastating swarms, gobbling up anything of interest, leaving a barren waste.

Certainly that would explain the link between buying and photographing implicit in the sign that had caught my attention, photography actually itself an unacknowledged act of consumption. And certainly this explained the process involved in my transforming, then, my former days enjoying beer into now only photographing the signs. Clearly, then, to buy the bottles, to take them home, photograph them there would be the only conscionable way to continue blogging, and I was happy to be instructed to do so.

Only at home did I realise that even if it was just the labels I intended to write up, not to at least taste one just to be able to at least refer to what was behind it all would impair my judgment of the labels themselves. But then, as I did, the taste was so good it was impossible to know if that wasn't just because it had been so long, which meant I had to stick with it at least to the bottom of the bottle, which I did confirm to be of premium quality. But still, that could easily have been just the one beer or even the one bottle that had the qualities, I realised. Pop went the second top. By the time I came to the bottom of the last, Punk IPA, after a couple of photos, I was ready for bed. For the first time in my life I had personally verified the rumour that the less often you drink the greater the effect, and, though somewhere dimly aware of problems in my new project, I fell quickly into a sound sleep.

The next day I had already a slight hangover, which seemed unfair given that the bottles had all been so small. What's more, I realised that photographs of bottles, finished or otherwise, would be no answer to my problems. The idea'd been nice while it lasted, which had turned out no longer than the effect of the drink within them. However, if a blog relying on photographs of beer labels would work no better than one full of pub signs, perhaps that released me for other things. There were other ways, after all, to spend time. 

Just round the corner from their shop Utobeer also have one of the most interesting pubs in London when it comes to range. Some years ago I'd experienced Thomas Hardy's ale on tap there, the first time ever a barrel of the stuff had been cracked behind an English bar. Today, I knew for having discussed it with the man at the shop that they had Brew Dog IPA there on tap.

To be able to compare the tap to the bottled version: that would be something. And with the hangover came a dry mouth that certainly added urgency to the question. I can now say that the tap version has perhaps a slightly smoother condition, but is paradoxically still a tad more airy. It feels to drink it as though it's been kept in a place at the same time dank and fresh, still and flowing, deep and shallow, keeping it sprightly, youthful, but investing it with the melancholy of age. In fact, when you look in a well and you see the gleam of daylight on the water at the same time as the dark inside, something clean and inviting at the same time as a mortal fear of the depth of falling in. It had been a mistake to think a life on the wagon was the answer, and it was with the added zeal of making up for the months off that, after further investigations of the offers on tap, I headed back up the road to the shop for materials for further research. The loss of a blog, I told myself, was far outweighed by having at last been reunited with this other project. Now that I had little other work, what's more, I'd have more time than ever to seek out the perfect pint.

It was at the entrance I saw a sign: Utobeer, there before me, before Utobeer, under the sign; a woman taking half the head of the knowledgeable sales assistant. Perhaps, I thought, if I take some of what she's removing away less will be removed. I snapped. 

Something then made me want to show the assistant, who, interestingly, was grateful. Too many people, he said, take photographs of a person working without even asking. It was driving him mad. Looking around, I saw them everywhere. 

These, perhaps, were the missing signs of the city, these I would record. The things were so ubiquitous that just the attempt to snap them up was dizzying. If you take a picture of a person, it seems to me, recognisably central and large, especially a person at work, you ought to ask, and I do. The photograph of someone's photograph of a common space is a greyer area by far, and if sometimes I asked, sometimes I took. 

Sometimes I tried to take and missed it, or the image would disappear from their screen as I pressed and leave me with nothing for mine, or the word 'saving' alone; sometimes I saw it too late - a hand raised exquisitely above a sea of heads to capture a shot of some colourful trader, produce, sign - or I noticed just in time, for instance, the suspicious face of a friend or relative warning me off. Sometimes, overcome by shyness at having asked a man wielding an SLR, lens big as a horse's, poking my little pocket at its screen, I'd lose concentration and the focus would go. But whatever happened there were more where they'd come from. Once or twice, noticing a trader recognisable in a picture that had been given me, I located them, obtained their permission to use their image here.

These were not the signs I'd been looking for, but since perhaps of where it is they're going, the swarming maws of the plague destroying them, at least, something to show on the subject, signs, with which to keep myself one more day in images.


  1. hum hum.. or hop !
    do you know this song by the kinks ? 'people take picture of each others', etc.
    is drinkig or taking picture a sin ? and if so, which is the biggest ?

  2. I'd say it depends on the context. If you're standing in front of a Thomas Hardy pump, camera in hand, to take a photograph without ordering would be a sin, because Hardy's an extremely rare ale on tap, and soon to be discontinued. Much better to order first and then take a photo, which, as ocular proof, would be a good idea. To my knowledge, The Rake are the only Brits to have had the privilege of serving the stuff, which is much, much better than the slightly flat bottled beer, which in my opinion's overrated. On the other hand, to order an Heineken in the same circumstance would be a much worse sin than to order nothing. In that case, a photo would be the lesser evil. In a can, you'd have to be very, very far from any decent alternative before drinking pretty much any beer would be forgivable. But in a situation like in The Road, it would seem a sin to leave even a can of American Budweiser untouched. These are difficult problems, but there's usually a solution.