Pie-eyed in Holloway

Promise was that I should homeward from The Flounder myself deliver; ask for this great deliverer now, and find him Pie-eyed in Holloway at The Whittington with misgivings.
With apologies to Aldous Huxley

Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.
W. C. Fields

In the late nineteen-eighties, early nineteen-nineties, the company I worked for, Aerial Facilities Limited (AFL), operated a scheme whereby they accepted students from Bradford University into a sort of apprenticeship scheme, for the summer. Ostensibly it was for those who wanted to get ahead in the wonderful world of RF engineering for that was what Aerial Facilities Limited did, and, did it quite well, as I recall.

In 1991 a jolly chap called Ian was amongst the intake for that year’s Uni boys and girls; I’ve called him Ian here because, well, Ian was his name and if he ever stumbles across this blog, I’m sure he’ll give a wry smile at the memory of all this…

I was in my early thirties, Ian was a little younger but we hit it off and a small group of us took to going out of an evening and drinking; staying in of an evening and listening to records and those newfangled CDs, (The Sisters of Mercy and The Waterboys featured heavily as I recall) and drinking. Going “up” to London of a weekend afternoon/evening and touring the “Firkin Pubs” and of course, drinking. The more perceptive amongst you may have spotted a common theme here.

The Firkin Pubs: do you remember those? I have very fond memories of that particular pub chain. They have been written about before but here’s a brief précis of what happened. Yes, a brief précis, you wouldn’t have a long-winded one now, would you?

In 1979 a chap called David Bruce bought a few dilapidated London pubs that weren’t earning their keep, he refurbished them and operating as Bruce’s Brewery, reintroduced the concept of the brew-pub, where the beer is brewed on-site. The chain became very successful and expanded, not all of the pubs were now brew-pubs but the bigger brew-pubs supplied the others that didn’t brew on the premises.

More and more pubs were opened, not just in London but all over the country, and all seemed to be successful, so much so that in 1988 David Bruce sold the entire chain which was then renamed The Firkin Brewery with brewing still continuing in the Brew-Pubs.

In 1999, no doubt steered by accountants who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the company who owned the Firkin chain was taken over and, long story short, the in-house brewing was stopped and the pubs were sold off and a once great chain of pubs was no more. That’s the end of brief précis, the next piece is just me waffling on, misty eyed about beer.

All of the pubs had names that ended in, “…& Firkin”, and all but one of the names were alliterative with the word Firkin: Flounder & Firkin, Phoenix & Firkin, Frog & Firkin, Fuzzock & Firkin, Fulmer & Firkin to name just a few of the London pubs that I visited in my time frequenting Firkins. The one pub that differed was the very first that David Bruce opened, in Southwark, the Goose & Firkin.

The pubs that did brew, brewed at a minimum three ales, a “Session” ale, a “Premium” ale and a “Strong” ale; all were based upon the same three recipes but there were slight variations to be found, which made it interesting when visiting a few of the pubs of an evening, trying the different variations.

The session and premium ales would all have a name with a sort of tenuous link to the pub name, and now my memory fails me so I’m going to have to dig about a bit on t’internet, hang on…

Right, got it.
In the Flounder & Firkin you could get a pint of session ale “Fish T’ale” (3.6% abv) or premium ale, “Whale Ale (4.6% abv). In the Fusilier & Firkin, a pint of “Musket” (3.6% abv) or a pint of “Fusilier” (4.5% abv) and so on, but the strong ale was always “Dogbolter”; glorious, glorious, Dogbolter.

And of course, there were seasonal specials and other brews on an ad hoc basis – they brewed Milds – honest to goodness old fashioned Milds, and inevitably they also sold some of the ‘ordinary’ brews, lager and cider, from the big Pubcos, but the main attraction was the Firkin brewed beers.

Dogbolter wasn’t an overly strong ale, coming in at 5.6% abv, but it was a lovely dark ale and by heck it was bloody tasty, and drinking one led to two, and another one led to four and… But by heck it was tasty.

One of my favourites Firkin pubs was the Friar & Firkin on the Euston Road, handily just a short walk from the Met line station at Euston Square. The Friar, was one of those that brewed on site, and their session ale, “Confession Ale” at 3.6 % abv (the premium ale was “Friar Bitter” at 4.3% abv) always seemed to me to be superior to any of the other session ales at any of the other Firkin pubs, in fact I would readily drink Confession Ale in preference to the stronger ales because it was just so good.

Back in Chesham at Aerial Facilities Limited, towards the end of the summer, in the autumn, the university guys and gals went back to their university education.

In 1991, after a summer of hard work and hedonism, it was decided that as Ian was of soon going back to Uni, we’d have a final bash, and the venue chosen was the Flounder & Firkin up in Holloway, on the Holloway Road. Easy to get to from Chesham, Metropolitan Line down to Kings Cross St. Pancras then the Victoria Line up to Highbury & Islington station from where the Flounder was about 400 m away along the aforementioned Holloway Road, the A1, if you will.

We’d been to The Flounder & Firkin before, various permutations of the AFL after work drinking gang, and we’d decided that The Flounder would be the place to go for Ian’s goodbye bash, so on the appointed Friday, after work had finished, we set off from Chesham station.

When we got to the Flounder, joy of joys, we found that one of the guest ales was Theakston Old Peculier which, like Dogbolter, was another lovely, dark and very quaffable ale which also weighed in at 5.6% abv.

The Flounder, as it was then, had a U-shaped interior, entering from the street you were faced with the bar in front of you, to the left was a seating area and a passage that led around to the back bar, and to where the jukebox was and I seem to recall that it was the selection of recordings on the jukebox that led partly to us choosing The Flounder.

We settled in to a night’s drinking.
Yes, Firkin Dogbolter.
Yes, Theakston Old Peculier.
Yes, Dogbolter AND Old Peculier.
Yes, certain of us were well and truly sloshed by chucking out time.

Ah yes, this was before the era of all night pubs, they chucked us out and we went to get the last train back to Chesham.

Now, we only had about 400 m or so to walk down the road to the tube station so it should have been a fairly easy affair. I said we were sloshed, and yes, I guess we were but we could walk and talk without falling over. Then it happened.

Someone, and to this day I can’t remember who, suggested that as the road was empty, we should engage in a piggyback race. And folks, that’s exactly what we did because tanked-up on Dog and OP we thought it was a really good idea.

Now there were I think 5 or 6 of us, four of us were in race mode and I paired up with Ian who was, at the time, quite a chunky lad and taller, by a smidgeon, than I was. So, there I was, with Ian on my back, running along the Holloway Road. What could possibly go wrong?

I tripped, I stumbled, something…
I could see the road surface coming up to meet me and I put out my arms to break my fall. I hit the ground, Ian fell forward and onto my outstretched right arm.
I laid there for a few seconds; I’d hit the ground with a bit of a slap but didn’t feel that I’d damaged myself. Somebody called out, “Hey, get up!”

I took a deep breath and pushed down with both arms, somebody screamed, something didn’t feel right. My right arm had bent at a point about a third of the way between my elbow and my wrist. I remember thinking, that’s not right, I laid down again on the road. “There’s blood!” said a panicky voice, “The bone’s sticking out!”

By now a few passers-by had arrived and I was helped to my feet, my right arm hanging limp, and let across the road to the steps of Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court. Somebody telephoned for an ambulance, pre-mobile phones mind you, somebody had to go to a phone box and call for an ambulance.

People were fussing around me, I sat there, feeling strangely dazed and not a little sorry for myself. The ambulance arrived and I was led to it, Ian elected to go with me to the hospital, the others went off to get the train back.

I don’t remember too much of that night, I do remember that Ian spent the night with me at the hospital, moral support I suppose. My arm was x-rayed and then I was wheeled into a room and they put a half-cast on my arm, and then strapped my arm to my body just to support the arm until I was sober enough to be operated on.

My intoxication notwithstanding, I also remember feeling remarkably sober and surprisingly chipper, once I was in the hospital, chatting with the medics and nurses. They told me that they couldn’t operate until the alcohol was out of my system. Ian spent the night in a chair, I at least had the comfort of a bed.

When I woke up the next morning I had the hangover from hell, after all, I had been anesthetised enough to feel hardly any pain the night before when Ian had landed on my arm (look away now if you are squeamish) breaking both the Ulna and the Radius, the latter in two places. When I had pushed down in an effort to get up off of the road, the broken end of the Ulna had poked through the skin.

Ian came to see how I was, not best I think was the answer, and we chatted for a bit before he went off back to Chesham. Someone had told my girlfriend, Linda, what had happened and later that day she appeared with a change of underwear and a small bag of toiletries.

Oh, my word, I did feel rough that day, but towards the evening I was beginning to feel a little more human. I was encouraged to drink water, which I did and when the inevitable call to the toilet came, I gingerly set on the edge of the bed, cradling my arm but as I stepped away from the bed, I could feel the ends of the bones rubbing against each other, which was odd.

I was wheeled into theatre at around eight in the evening, I remember being given a general anaesthetic and being asked to count backwards from 10. I think I got to 7 and then I woke up in a small, white room with a nurse leaning over me asking me how I was. I was impressed, it was that seamless.

I spent the next week in hospital, it was the Whittington Hospital, about 3 kilometres up the road from where I’d fallen over. I now had two steel plates and thirteen screws in my arm but no plaster cast which was what I had expected to wake up with. I had steel plates and a sling to stop my arm from moving about too much.

The ward I was in had a common room at one end that looked out across London towards The City. I remember that I spent some time in there during the nights, just staring out across the metropolis.

Fancy meeting you here:
Whilst I was laying on my bed one day, resplendent in t-shirt and underpants, who should appear but Valerie, the receptionist at the factory where I worked. Her mother was also in the Whittington and Val had come to visit her; the two of them were walking through the ward and there I was! Now, I was by no means what you’d call fat back then, but I was also a bit of a chunky lad. Val later confided to me that her mother had said to her; “I’ve never seen such a big bloke in such small knickers!”

Towards the end of my sojourn in North London, I was moved into a small room at the other end of the ward with three other chaps, I didn’t need the full-time supervision apparently so I could be put into this room thus freeing-up a bed in the main ward for somebody that needed full time supervision.

There was a chap in this room I now shared, he’d broken what was left of one of his legs. He’d lost his leg many years ago but he’d taken a bad step and fallen, cracking the bone in the stump of his leg. He was quite amused by the whole thing.

Eventually I was allowed home and I returned to work, still with my arm in a sling. Luckily my job didn’t require of me to do any heavy lifting or be very physical.

I had been advised to keep my arm in a sling and to avoid moving it too much for the first couple of weeks or so. I did this but when I was advised that I could now start to use my arm again, I found that I couldn’t bend my thumb. I could move my thumb but, as it transpired, the tendon that was used to bend my thumb had obviously snapped at some point and it hadn’t been noticed.

“Probably still up inside there somewhere” said one of the doctors I saw, “but if you can cope with it as it is, it’s not worth cutting you open again to find it.”

Just over a year later though they did cut me open again and removed the metalwork which I asked to keep as a souvenir. I’ve still got it somewhere although I don’t recall seeing it for a while now. Maybe if and when I do find it, I’ll edit this piece to include a photo.
Of course, the other souvenir I have, apart from a defective thumb, is a 14 cm scar on my forearm where they opened me up to insert the metalwork, and then to take it out again.

A lot has been said and written about the NHS just recently, most of it good.
Of experience with the NHS that night, that week, I have nothing but praise.
They picked me up and quite literally put me back together again.
It’s become a bit of hackneyed phrase lately, but, “Thank you NHS”.

The Flounder & Firkin is no more, but the building is still a pub and that pub, now The Lamb, is still open, and according to their website:
“We’re a completely independent pub and specialise in local beers…” From the few photos I could find on the website, doesn’t look like the internal layout has changed too much. Hmmm, might be worth a visit at some point, just for old time’s sake.

No piggyback races though.



Further reading:

What happened to the firkin pubs: http://www.goodbeergoodpubs.co.uk/articles/what-happened-to-the-firkin-pubs/

A photo of The Flounder and Firkin from the Brewery History Society Wiki

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