Welcome to Freedonia

Mask on, gloves off. As covid restrictions drop, and we head into ‘normal’ (whatever that is), we wanted to see if normal was, normal. We sent our ‘normal’ correspondent Danny Smith to see if the pubs are on track, or lost without trace.  We did not pay him billions of pounds. 

In the 1933 film Duck Soup an incompetent huckster becomes leader of a tiny country through borrowed wealth and inherited money and proceeds to bumble it into war and potential ruin.

Why mention that? 

No reason.

Welcome to ‘Freedom Day’ where the only thing stopping you acting exactly how you want is common decency, and to paraphrase Voltaire – common decency ain’t that common. 

a pub door with two posters 'Long Live Local' and 'We're Closed'
Long Live The Local

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Danny Smith: Inn Dependance day

A pint without the boys in a pub full of not much noise because loudness increases the chances of shouting and more droplets of virus in the air. Is that living alright? We send Danny Smith, the canary in our covid coal mine, into town as pubs open their doors for the first time in god knows how long. Will he get irate about the R-rate?

I’m in a Wetherspoons and things are not going well. In the Before Times being in a Wetherspoons was usually a pretty good indicator of how well things were going in general. The binary state of being in or out of a Wetherspoons nearly always correlates to ‘not so great’ and ‘going well’. But now, on this historic day? It’s both a historic and personal failure – and there’s a sheet of paper here with evidence.

To be honest it didn’t start well. I was dropped off on the Smallbrook Queensway and the first thing I see is Snobs with its windows boarded up*. It’s a sobering sight – literally – but also like the ravens of the Tower of London, if Snobs ever closes for good Birmingham falls. There is no reopening sign on the boards, just a note directing deliveries to next door.

Heading south I see the Old Fox has had a refurbishment and somehow earnt the qualifier “sly” into its name. It’s closed too, which is probably how it earned its new name. Opposite, the Hippodrome lies dormant. Stripped of the livery of show posters and lights it looks corporate and dead. As I write this the entertainment industry has still yet to receive any support from the government despite it hugely important to both the financial and emotional well being of the country. Some cunts need their names up in lights so people know who’s to blame.

The Dragon Inn is a Wetherspoons and this early in the day I was reluctant to go in. I’m here in town to cover the opening of Birmingham pubs after over 100 days closed, the longest enforced closing of public houses in this country since, well, ever. Given, the founder of The Wetherspoons chain, Tim Martin’s close ties to the government and headlines at the start of the lockdown, it’d be impossible to talk about pubs reopening without going to one, but not my first one, and not here. Before it was a ‘spoons, the Dragon Inn was an O’Neill’s, an O’Neill’s I worked at four two years before it closed. I worked the last shift: good memories dust my mind like fresh snow and are too dear to me to sully them with that ruddy faced scarecrow’s dirt wellingtons.

The bars in the Arcadian are all closed and my thoughts flash to all the lower division footballers and dental technicians sitting at home on Saturday night bereft of places to sell them mid-range wine and forgettable cocktails.

OK, I thought, I’ll start at the Bull Ring Tavern, a place notorious for being where nights end, not start. Often maligned for the perceived quality of its patrons, I’ve always found it nothing if not friendly. And the clientele is self editing: the sort of person that drinks there is the sort of person that doesn’t care about what type of person people think drink there (if you see what I mean). So it’s devoid of lower tier footballers and dental technicians.

As I get close a woman with a high ponytail, smoking over the top of a disposable face-mask, dramatically sidesteps in front of the door: “We’re full love” she says, and I become the only person in history to be knocked back from The Bull Ring Tavern**.

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Pub Timelord

I don’t have a problem. Or rather, I don’t have the problem you think I have.

I’m not drunk. I’m unstuck in time.

I slipped into the Rose Villa for a swift half. The gathering night battled with the street lamps and swooshing, the tyres scratched and the dull hum of a bus cream and blued it’s way through a puddle.

There was light behind the door, through the mottled glass. ELO playing on the jukebox. But first I needed a slash. “Ahh, that’s better,” I said to myself.

The bar looked the same, but different somehow. I didn’t recognise anyone, but I guessed I must be early. Or late. Nearly Christmas and everyone’s routines get shot to pieces.

But I couldn’t get my bearings. I searched the taps for anything I knew. No Brew, no M&B, no Ansells, no Black Label.

So I ordered pop, reasoning that it might wake me up. Half a coke. Through the heavy air I watched furry post-mixed cola, spluttering and coughing from the hose. But when the glass reached me, it was empty except ice and rough cut lemon. Placed next to it on a napkin — unsuited to the job of beermat — was a bottle. Clean, cold, open. But with a Victorian label. It tasted sweet, but so cold, so watery with the ice that there was nothing there.

A bitter. It’s Friday, I’ve been paid so I handed a fresh note over and pocketed the change without looking. The glass was tall, too straight. No handle. The beer not right.

Still no-one here. No-one I know. Everything has changed. Get me another, I’ll wake up then.

Full Tilt

Brummie directions, as you know, can only be given with reference to pubs and islands. This works for us. This is a good system, or rather it is until the thing which we need to find is the actual pub itself. It is difficult to find a pub in the same way that it is difficult to find my glasses: I need the glasses to find my glasses, and I need the pub to find the pub. Such is the chicken and egg riddle of finding one’s way around Birmingham.

I’m looking for the pub now.

It’s a city centre pub, and this makes finding its whereabouts doubly hard. Firstly because there are no traffic islands, so I can’t orient myself to those and secondly because it’s not really in a bit of town that has any pubs. I’m lost, and nobody can help me.

The pub is called Tilt.

I first heard of Tilt on a text message. Apparently it’s my kind of thing.

“Where is it?”

“Near Martineau Place. In an arcade thing that didn’t really work out.”

“Ah. Birmingham’s famous Failed Development Quarter.”

Martineau Place is one of Brum’s many mixed use developments and it’s always felt jinxed. It’s currently anchored by two Poundland stores, one on each of the corners that face onto Corporation Street. Inside things have come and gone — mostly gone.

Tilt is a craft beer bar, like the kids have now.

“So is it actually in Martineau Place then?”
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Brum’s best TV-theme pubs

An enterprising young chap has just re-opened Dale End dog-hole Saramoons as a theme bar: The Peaky Blinder. Despite now being much less likely to have any real gangsters in, it seems to have been a popular move — but did you know it was joining a proper crawl of pubs already themed around Birmingham-based TV shows?  Come with us and get smashed responsibly, in Brum’s best fictional boozers.

The Fox & Grapes, Birmingham City Centre

Coming soon: The Citizen Khan. Pic cc Roger Marks

The Boon (series 1-3 only) – Formerly Bassett’s Pole Harvester, staff at The Boon (series 1-3 only) are all dressed as has been bikers with ruddy cheeks and even more ruddy noses. There’s plenty of parking for your own motorbike outside and the country vistas offer nice sunsets to ride off into. Hi ho silver!

The Pebble Mill at One – With staff in friendly jumpers, and music on the easy side, The Pebble Mill at One is a pub from a gentler time, which will forever have afternoon closing. Open at one, and shut up again at two — just in time for your nap.

The Crossroads – actually a chain, The Crossroads is a new concept for the pubs you find inside a Travelodge or other budget hotel. “These spaces feel like you’re actually in the wobbly set of a pub and not a real pub” brand expert André De Jong, whose agency Zaphiks developed the concept, told us. “Drinking in our The Crossroads bar is more like drinking in a metaphor” he said, before explaining something complicated about the social graph. “Also they’re actually inside motels?” we asked. Andre just looked confused.

The Rosie & Jim – Genial landlord John steers this canalside boozer with a steady hand on the tiller but that’s not his real job. Ladies, try the salad. Stop laughing. Sister bar The Brum opens in 2015.

The Tiswas – The various bars at the Custard Factory have struggled for identity and solvency for many years but now one licensee is betting on TV nostalgia to keep him afloat. You can sing the famous Bucket of Water Song as you use the downstairs bogs.

The Gangsters – Themed around the ‘70s with a hint of crimplene, Benson and Hedges and danger, there has been little change since it was The Yenton.

The The One Show – Recently closed and moved to London.

The Central News – have the slops left by the other programmes a day later, round the back of Broad St.

The Hustle – a slick bar like they have in that London, but see if you can spot the tell tale Brummie signs — yep that’s a Brew XI tap over there, behind the Veuve Clicquot ice buckets. In a suspiciously empty street around Colmore Row.