Sam Smiths. The Royal Cottage pub. The Fat Cat, Alma Street, Sheffield. Three great examples of redoubtable institutions that I can rely on to deliver, in their own inimitable way. Thus.
Tuesday night I had rashly organised to visit the pub with a friend. Having confirmed my intention only Monday afternoon it was almost impressive that I hadn't remembered until telling a mate what I had lined up for the evening "I'm going straight home to make my tea, because I don't want to..oh sh*t! I'm going to the chuffing pub!" I swear no-one gets my pain. Sarcasm abounded.
So it was I escaped at a sensible time and went to the Fat Cat. Whilst the Heavygate may have been the birthplace of my pub visiting, the Cat is the birthplace of my drinking pints of real ale. It became so at a momentous time.
In one weekend in 1993, I left home, I drank my first ever Kelham Island brewery beer, bought two bottles of Thomas Hardy Ale, visited the Wellington and drank Hanby Black Magic Mild and Ryburn Coiners, and led my mates on a dubiously ill thought out ramble through back streets to the Fat cat (studiously avoiding the White Hart, with its "reputation"....)
It was rammed inside, bloody boiling, and the only seat left was by the fire. I had a pint of Buffy's something or other (this was 20 years ago, go easy on me!) and a pint of Youngs Winter Warmer - pints six and seven of the night. As the roaring furnace burnt my skin I moved to get some fresh air - I went outside and the cold felled me like a tree.
Like any mature sensible adult, I sought solace and respite from the warmth by laying against the wall outside with my head pressed on some lovely cold bricks. I figured someone in the party would be concerned about my absence, and then, after about twenty minutes, I got up and walked back inside to reassure people I was OK. Sarcasm and a lack of concern is a response I have encountered for some time now it seems....
Back to 2013 and I had a pint of Salopian Divine Comedy, a fruity 3.9% mild. It was very tasty, and I followed it with a pork pie and a pint of Derby Brewing Co Back to Black, with a further half of the Salopian brew. My companion, Mr M, was onto soft drinks alas, but that this was the first time he'd visited since we worked together years ago probably meant it didn't matter.
Cue reminiscing about our weird employment experiences at the NEAB - a sort of rest home for the unusual, the unemployable, the not easily understandable and the drunk - plus a gaggle of young uns and students and some genuinely great people like George and Howard. This may have only been a short session in the Fat Cat, about 90 minutes, but it was, and inevitably continues to be, one to enjoy.
And now to where it all began - in terms of drinking this weekend.
I was nearly home, awaiting a booze free night in preparation for overtime when Wee Keefy rang. Did I want to go the Royal Cottage? Well, yes, come to think of it I did. I spent a goodly amount of time thinking about how I was letting myself down after nearly a week of abstinence, mind. But eventually reassured him I'd attend. That quandary took about 2 seconds.
We picked up Wee Fatha en route, to join us and, as WK succinctly put it "yer having a bloody drink" since he was on driving duties. WF is strictly a washback or evaporation drinker. A pint can last days. Its an impressively stoic undertaking.....
Cliff was pleased to see us, as was Jesse the Rottweiler, who had an injury that was largely restricting her to sitting by the fire indoors and fussing and being fussed by customers. Must have been a bloody nightmare for her! There was one guy in already when we arrived but I think we spooked him so it was business as usual - updating Cliff on Sheffield news, me and WK on Old Speckled Hen, and WF, for a change, on Newky Brown. One assumes this choice is as ironic as my buying a Greedy King beer.
Pretty soon the place was rammed - with the arrival of regular visitor Sam meaning there was 5 of us. We can never work out how he gets to the pub - there's never lights or the sound of a vehicle pulling up outside, yet he wears proper smart dress shoes. Surely he doesn't walk? Straight away the conversation got onto the topic of the moment. I assumed the Woolwich subject would hasten an orgy of bar theologist protestations but I learned something about the Royal Cottage. Its not an angry man's pub.
We sat and drank, and discussed, with a mixture of resignation, bewilderment, thoughtful questions and reassuring flights of fancy, just about everything and anything, for what seemed ages. No one lost the plot. No one tried to counter anger with anger. It was just 5 blokes talking about a subject that was too vast to cover but too poignant to ignore.
Before we knew it, half eleven came and went. Normally we would have sloped off to find real ale at the Quiet Woman or Packhorse but this time WF had wanted to stay, and although I confess to having the titty lip on at first, I'm glad we heeded his request. Because that was my first, and for so many reasons perhaps my only, session in the Royal Cottage.
Meanwhile I've just cracked open a bottle of Sam Smiths Imperial Stout. This completes a trio of old stagers in my drinking world, especially since I used to buy lots of Sams bottles in the nineties. It may be full of crystal malt or overtly "bretty" for all I know, but it tastes exactly like the strong beers that every regional brewery seemed to produce when I stated supping. You know, when you could still find dusty bottles of Courage Imperial Russian Stout on bar shelves that were brewed in 1991.
The combination of which unchanging emblems paints a reassuring picture for me. Of friends and family, and pubs and beers of character.