A frosty moon glittered behind the dizzy granite spires of Marischal College, as Alan Simpson crunched his way over the snow-crusted pavement, before swinging left through the narrow doorway of the Kirkgate Bar. Aberdeen at 6.30 p.m. on a Wednesday night shortly before Christmas. He was early for the Road Runners’ pub-crawl.
Alan was aware that at this time on most Wednesdays he would be in the sweaty heat of a dressing room, preparing to creak round the track a few times. Then, just after 7 p.m., he would set off with the pack on the usual circular route along the promenade, up the hill and back – a distance once thought to be ten miles. However the record breakers, Alastair Taylor and Graham Fraser, had made clear to lesser athletes that the run was no more than nine and a quarter miles long.
Since the holiday had almost begun, a brisk lunch-time five had seemed sufficient to prevent loss of fitness and to develop a thirst for the evening’s strenuous elbow-bending.
Having abandoned the car at his parents’ house, he had wandered down the road an hour before the official start-time of this non-competitive event. A gentle warm-up seemed desirable, although Alan was determined to pace himself steadily and to avoid becoming a post-crawl cripple. This might turn out to be a marathon in which the refreshment stations were likely to worsen his performance! He surveyed the possibilities and invested in a pint of Belhaven 80 shilling ale (real, of course) and a dram of Bowmore Islay malt.
The smoky pungence of the whisky went well with the heavy full-bodied bitter beer. Having savoured both, Alan leant back in the battered cane chair and took in his surroundings. ‘Basic local bar, popular with students’ (the CAMRA Guide description) was fairly accurate, he supposed. Yet the poky little pub, with its scratched lino, cramped tables and single unstable-looking pillar which was meant, in theory, to support the ceiling, had considerable nostalgia for him. The walls were covered with cracked brown and cream paint and fading photographs of university sports teams from the past. Athletes long retired or gone to seed, no doubt. Just round the corner from the Students’ Union, it must have been a goldmine over the years. Alan smiled wryly. It looked as though the owners had increased those profits by a thrifty refusal to indulge in pretentious redecoration. Of course the main source of income had been the many spontaneous attempts to create a record for cramming drouthy young people into a very narrow space. Superman would have been hard-pressed to find room to pull his underpants over his trousers on Saturday nights in the Kirkgate!
“Daydreaming again, you dozy old has-been?” A friendly hand shook Alan by the shoulder as Tony Harris greeted him with the inevitable (and partly accurate) insult. Alan looked up and watched the lads begin to limp in. Nobody walked more awkwardly than cooled-down stiffened-up runners. Slicked-back smoothy hairstyle, elegant black leather jacket and jeans with cute designer holes: the self-styled expert chatter-upper, Tony Harris. Oxfam cast-offs, geriatric stoop and cheerfully half-starved appearance: Jim Alexander. Casual Frank Bruno label gear, carrot-coloured hair and an outsize grin with a mouth to match: Charlie Middleton. The tall quiet youngster, Kevin Carmichael, his gold-rimmed spectacles glinting surreptitiously at the barmaid. That deadpan wit and over-trainer with hair like an ageing loo-brush: Gordon Bruce. Brian Mackay, whose legs moved almost as fast as his Lada car-salesman’s patter. The balding intellectual in crumpled slept-in free running gear: Alastair Taylor. And last of all the lean figure of Graham Fraser, his streamlined forehead shining in the lamplight. Looking at Graham’s and Alastair’s hairlines, Alan wondered whether running fast and drinking faster tended to accelerate hair loss.
Of course it was Graham, as usual, ever-generous and delighted to bring pleasure to his mates, who first offered to buy a round of drinks. Gratefully but firmly ignoring his desire to spend most of his hard-won trust-fund on the venture, the others swiftly organised a kitty and the crawl was underway.
After a rowdy game of darts in the Kirkgate they plodded cheerfully on their way through a light snowfall. Tony complained about the weather conditions but Alastair dismissed the flakes as ‘Mere spindrift’. Charlie blamed Tony’s dandruff. Their destination was ‘The Prince of Wales’, a long-established haunt with its rare example of a traditional Scottish long bar and tasteful redecoration. There had been no doubt that ‘The Prince’ must feature in any tour – but where else would they visit?
“How about that new Café-Bar on Union Street?” suggested Tony, “It’s really smart, plays the latest music – and we might just meet some chicks.”
“Control yourself, you big stud,” growled Charlie, “This is a stag do.”
“It certainly is – and I’m not going near some over-priced fashion-spot like that. Fizzy lager and deafening disco sound pollution!” added a horrified Graham.
“Better stick to the traditional pubs for a start,” advised Alastair, “Better beer and more peace.”
Lacking support, Tony backed down. “All right. Just thought it would make a change. Probably wouldn’t have let you scruffs in anyway.”
“Belt up, poser,” laughed Charlie, “You’re lucky it’s too early to chuck beer over you.”
So the next halt was the ‘Snug’ of ‘Ma Cameron’s’, the cosy original part of the city’s oldest inn. While the barman poured the beer, Alan noted that the gantry displayed ten different types of malt whisky. Quickly he memorised the brand names and called across to the rest, “Hey, you lot – fancy a ‘Whisky Connoisseur’ contest?”
“Good idea,” replied Jim, who was keen on all things Scottish, “But get Kevin to choose the whisky or else you’ll win again, as usual.”
Alan returned to his seat with the beer and young Kevin was persuaded to ask the barman’s advice on which five varieties to select. The drams were brought across on a tray and Kevin numbered them one to five. He seemed particularly pleased with himself, for some reason. Solemnly, the others sat round a table, and took their turn at sniffing, sipping and even gargling the small measures of spirit. Words like ‘peaty’, ‘robust’, ‘flowery’, ‘subtle’ and poisonous’ were bandied about with what was meant to be a knowledgeable air. Then an attempt was made to name the origin and brand of whisky. Mistakes were greeted with gales of ridicule. Alan, with the unfair advantage of knowing the possibilities, managed three correct: Glenmorangie, Laphroaig and The Glenlivet. But the general standard of judgement was more typical of Charlie, who proclaimed number four to be ‘a fine Highland malt’ when it turned out to be ‘Old Cameron Brig’, the only Lowland straight grain whisky. Tony spoiled his ‘cultured’ reputation by naming number five Glenfiddich. Kevin was delighted to reveal that it was in fact a brandy.
By the time the company were settled into a corner of ‘The Grill’, the alcohol was taking the desired effect. The Good Beer Guide (an essential part of Alan’s pub-crawl equipment) described the place as ‘a superb Edwardian pub with magnificent loos, a twenty-four hour clock and splendid wood panelling’. Although Tony was drinking bottles of fashionable Becks Bier, and Kevin preferred orange squash, the rest enjoyed cask-conditioned McEwan’s 80 shilling. Alastair had switched to student mode.
“I wish to pose you a question, gentlemen, in the interests of research.”
“Go on then. We’re all fascinated. Don’t keep us in suspense,” commented Gordon.
“The question is, why are we here?” and then, while the others groaned loudly, “I mean, why DO distance runners enjoy pub-crawls so much?”
“Because we like getting drunk – like everybody else,” answered Jim scornfully.
“I just like the taste of a decent pint,” added Alan.
“And it’s good to get away from the wife and have a night out with my mates – and Tony as well,” said Charlie.
“Well I think there’s more to it than that,” Alastair stated.
“Could be,” Brian agreed, “Perhaps we all train hard – and it’s a special pleasure to relax and feel half-cut, you know, muzzy, instead of concentrating and trying like hell.”
“I’m sure that’s part of it, “ declared Alastair, “And then there’s the Thatcher factor.”
“What on earth do you mean by that, professor?” asked Tony.
Alastair replied in rapid detail. “Well, the Tory government want to control everything and everything, don’t they? Make us behave in a so-called ‘normal’ way. Stamp out the difference between us. Turn us all into good Little Englanders. And many Scots like being different. Enjoy their local traditions. Not only that – distance runners are eccentrics, thirsty ones too. Real ale and malt whisky are unusual too. So it’s no wonder we all like pub-crawls!”
“I think we’d better agree, lads, whether we understand all that or not,” responded Gordon.
“Yeah, and buy him another pint before he thinks up any more theories,” Charlie insisted, “But let’s stagger on to The Bridge Bar first, and then up the waterfront..”
Amiably they continued their expedition, battling against a wintry climate. Pubs loomed out of the dark like sheltered oases on a cold windswept desert night – the more bitter the weather, the more welcome the refuge. Each had a friendly yet formal atmosphere and even honoured customers realised that convivial behaviour would be permitted only within certain limits – ‘The Management reserves the right etc’.
The runners cracked jokes, spun tales and explored their mutual athletic obsession plus the usual masculine topics. Even the arguments were light-hearted. Alan was aware that, despite the satirical backchat, there was a strong bond between them all. Shared experiences of successes and suffering leading to understanding and camaraderie. He recognised that alcohol only served to increase the group identity. Singing in the bath always sounded more tuneful; talking in the pub seemed wittier and more profound. Runners were geared for flight, not fight – and booze seemed to produce mellowness.
By now immune to the chill, they reached their last watering hole at ten p.m. ‘Peep Peep’s’ – weirdly named and notable for a tough clientele and three kinds of draught stout. An elated Charlie insisted on drinking his next pint while doing a headstand against the wall. Alan made the cautious decision to switch to half pints. He was of course mocked for having no male pride – but was not persuaded to change his mind. Kevin, by contrast, was induced to sample a pint of Murphy’s. Then Charlie and Tony made unsteady but determined tracks for the pool table to continue their friendly rivalry, while the others flopped happily onto a collection of warped wooden chairs and chatted their way to chuck-out time.
The subject of discussion became ‘Best Pubs I’ve ever drunk in’ – a favourite preoccupation.
Graham tipped a time-warped Edinburgh institution, officially ‘The Athletic Arms’ but nicknamed ‘The Gravediggers’. “It’s a Hearts pub – so you mustn’t wear green in case they think you’re a Hibs supporter. The place is mobbed – standing room only – but as you squeeze inside a wee barman in an apron will always catch your eye. Hold up a finger and nod – and he’ll start pouring you the best pint of McEwan’s in the world. The perfect blend of sweet and bitter. Just glides down your throat. You HAVE to order another.”
“A good place but hardly ‘athletic’,” scoffed Gordon, “Now I’ve been to what must be the finest runners’ bar anywhere – in Boston, USA.”
“Oh yeah. You did the marathon, didn’t you?” asked Jim, “Is it the pub in ‘Cheers’?”
“No. The real name for that is ‘The Bull and Finch’,” Gordon explained, “On the outside it’s the same as the T.V. one, but I believe it’s quite different inside. Anyway, there was a queue so I didn’t bother waiting to get in.”
“So what about this runners’ bar?” inquired Brian.
“’The Elliot Lounge’,” replied Gordon, “Just half a mile before the end of the Boston Marathon course. Inside the place is covered with photos of famous athletes – and behind the actual bar are the national flags of all the marathon winners, male and female, from the 95 years of the race. Not only that. Along the floor the current World long jump record is marked out. And up the wall, the high jump record.”
“If Charlie had been boozing there,” laughed Graham, “He would have marked the wall for them – probably puking for height!”
“Newspaper headline – ‘Marathon drinking runner hits the wall’,” added Gordon.
“What do you mean?” exclaimed Charlie, returning from losing at pool, “I can hold my drink as well as anyone!”
“True, true,” Gordon soothed, “But you can fairly let go of it too.”
“Calm down, lads,” Alan advised, “Have a seat, Charlie, and I’ll tell you all where the best pub in the universe really is.”
Once they were settled, he continued, “It’s a Victorian pub, not more than two hundred yards from the gates of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. The name is ‘Ryan’s, in Parkgate Street. Alastair will know that it’s mentioned in the play ‘Juno and the Paycock’ by Sean O’Casey. The exterior is painted black and gold. Inside it’s just beautiful – mirrors, mahogany, brass, stained glass. Even a couple of four-seater snugs like old railway carriages – you just slide the door shut! Excellent home-cooked food, not too expensive. But the stout is unbelievable. The elixir of life, the ambrosia of the gods. Pouring the stuff is an art. You wait for ever before it settles. The Irish don’t mind – time moves slowly there. Eventually you get your pint. Dense black beer with a rich creamy head. Apartheid of the only acceptable type. I swear that the top of the pint arches not only above and across the glass – but actually curves outside it. And the cream is so thick that it won’t slide down onto the bar! Tastes magical – dark, cool, delicately bitter, refreshing. I tell you – if there is a heaven, it will have a Ryan’s!”
The silence broke. “Ah,” breathed Charlie, “Time for the last round. Guinness for everyone, I believe?”
Once they had been served, Kevin surprised them by claiming, “Robert Burns described it best, you know. Drinking, I mean.”
“It speaks!” gasped Tony, “And what quote would you be thinking of, oh wise youth? Perhaps the one about the state Charlie’s in – ‘bleezin’ finely’?”
“No,” Kevin stated, “Burns wrote ‘Freedom and Whisky gang thegither.”
“And he meant the same as I was trying to tell you all earlier,” Alastair butted in, “Freedom, Beer and Running go together!”
To a chorus of Slainte! Lang may yer lum reek! Cheers! Prosit! Sante! and any other toast the runners could think of, their glasses tilted.
Shortly afterwards the company dispersed, most pouring themselves into taxis. One or two, who lived nearby, meandered off into the icy gloom. In the back of his cab, Alan lolled comfortably, sated, tired and content. He looked forward to dreamless sleep in his parents’ spare room bed. And from the first genuine refreshment station, the essential two pints of water, which might prevent dehydration and prepare him for a mildly hungover lunch-time jog.