Monday, March 29, 2010


I’m going to start winding these up. I think I’ve achieved my quota and I’m starting to stray from my original brief, which was to emulate Bill Bryson’s style. Instead, I seem to just being me and rather than being cranky, it’s mostly extolling the virtues rather than expressing my concerns and annoyances. I’m not sure which is the better style, but in any case I’m nearly done here.

I promised you one on pub life and clubbing. One question I have yet to answer is how British women don’t die of exposure and frostbite when clubbing. We have a street in Swansea, to which I’ve alluded before, that was described to me when I first arrived as “going on holiday.” It’s called Wind Street, pronounced “whyynd,” as in the long and winding road (it doesn’t really wind and it’s not very long). It’s one of the older sections of the town that didn’t get bombed out during the Swansea Blitz, and therefore retains its cobbles and an older, 19th-century-style architecture. (One of the oldest extant buildings in Swansea is the Cross Keys pub, also in my Dylan Thomas poem, which is a medieval building and is thought to have been an inn/public house since the 16th century or so.)

Nigel Jenkins has written a very good passage about Wind Street’s contrasts in Real Swansea. At heart, for the architecture-lover, there’s a sense of sadness that such historic buildings are now being used to house humdrum chain pubs like Walkabout and Revolution. But that’s the raison d’être for Wind Street: it’s a street of pubs, clubs, and restaurants, no more, no less (there is one newsagent, ie, corner store). Once all my housemates had arrived in 2006, they all wanted to go to Wind Street. I went with them, even though I didn’t have clubbing clothes and it’s not really my thing: I thought it was worth giving every experience a try.

It still isn’t my thing. In the dead of winter, girls wear the tiniest things they can possibly find on the heels that wobble the most. They don’t wear coats; they have a small purse big enough for money and phone. They take taxis back and forth. Last year when I went to a leaving party in Wind Street (it must have been January or February) I got mocked because I was wearing several layers—I had walked and it was cold. So sue me. I haven’t developed the years of thick skin to insulate my body from the freezing temperatures as you totter from pub to club and back again, all night.

But back to the night in 2006. I think during the course of the night we were in three or four clubs. We mostly sat around drinking because it was too crowded to dance. Because I wasn’t much of a drinker, I didn’t know what to order other than gin and tonic or glasses of wine. So the girls got me on to Alkopops, which are very sweet drinks whose flavor conceals their high alcohol content and whose cheapness makes knocking back a few quickly a viable option. Which is what I did. This isn’t a story that ends in tragedy, as I didn’t actually get screamingly drunk. I just felt sick and woozy and didn’t have much fun that night. I like to be able to talk to people if we’re not going to dance (and I’m not a very good dancer so I rarely do that). If you can’t talk, in my opinion it gets excruciatingly boring (in addition to horrendously expensive). Even though, as I said, I wasn’t really dressed for the occasion, I got chatted up and even touched. I personally draw the line at being touched. “Sure, he’s just being friendly,” said Claire, my Irish housemate. Years later, I went for a night out in a small pub just off of Wind Street. The clientele was older, though my friend had taken me there because they played fabulously cheesy ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s music. For awhile, I really was enjoying myself; we were dancing quite nonsensically with each other. Then there was this slimy git who wanted to dance with us (again, singling me out . . . why?). And then there was the touching and the pawing and the squeezing and the kissing. I got out and left.

Maybe I’m a puritanical American. I know even in Albuquerque we have downtown pub crawls where a similar, though much less frenzied, civilized movement from wine bar to pub takes place over the course of a night. Maybe my teetotal background has given me an unfair view on the whole thing. I know that Wind Street is a big chunk of the city’s economy, and that it’s students who help to fund the whole thing. Without the party-hearty philosophy of the students, Wind Street would be in trouble (though weekends always see it thriving and there are always hen and stag parties*). So I suppose it’s a symbiotic relationship that has its good and bad points. But I’m not the only one who sees a disturbing trend toward alcoholism in British youth culture. They keep revising how alcohol units are measured and I often see studies come up in the news about alcoholism and violence. It’s all a bit different to the way it was in France, but that’s another story (and another neurosis).

And this isn’t to say I don’t like going to a pub with friends. I’ve had pleasant enough evenings in the No Sign Bar on Wind Street. I’ve had some very enjoyable evenings at the Uplands Tavern, especially hearing new bands play. (And being served by a guy who looked like David Tennant, but again, that’s another story.) My friend (male) Adi used to drag us to a pub quiz that took place every Sunday. Pub quizzes are another of those uniquely British institutions. They can be great fun and relieve, I find, the monotony of your average pub-going experience. They are basically rounds of trivia that pit teams against each other. Each team is trying to get the most answers to the questions right. Simple premise. You pay a certain amount to enter the quiz, and the winner gets the pot. (Or in our case, the time when we won, we got a certain number of free drinks.) They can be great fundraisers: I helped with point-recording at a village pub quiz in Rushden in 2007 when I was staying with a HOST** family. I would slaughter the competition in a Doctor Who-themed or literary-themed pub quiz, but most of the time I flounder because there are so many sport and pop cultural questions. C’est la vie.

Over the years, I’ve had the Mickey Smith taken out of me (gently) for having developed a taste for cider (though I’ve yet to be truly uncouth and have blackberry cordial mixed with cider). I like a glass of good wine (though to be fair I didn’t develop a taste for wine until I was about 19). But sometimes, especially in summer, nothing satisfies like a cold pint of Strongbow. (Oh dear, I’ve become a cider advert.) It can be quite nice to have a lovely little pub lunch in a location like Rhossili in Gower, or on the Pembrokeshire coast. I guess, like everything, it’s all good in moderation. I just can’t relate to people who want to finish every evening with a night at the pub, or spend all weekend doing a bender. Or getting terrifically sloshed at a wedding reception (I’ve seen enough results of these at work). I’m not trying to be overly critical; it’s all about the social occasion and “having a laugh” with friends and I know it has a long tradition and historical precedent. It’s just the assumption that this is all I’d want to do with my free time that irks me.

Look at that, I ended up being a Cranky Yank!

*Hen and stag parties=bachelorette and bachelor parties
**HOST is an organisation that matches up international students in Britain with host families who will let them stay en famille for a weekend, or over a holiday like Christmas or Easter. The student decides how far s/he is willing to travel (and how much they’re willing to spend on getting there) and that’s all they’re liable to pay, except for a small fee when they sign up. It depends entirely on the generosity of the HOST families. I’ve been on two, one to Shropshire and one to Hertfordshire, and made lifelong friends.

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