The Amateur Drinker: Will Guinness be good for me?

After a lifetime of non-drinking, Paul Burke has decided to hit the bottle – and he’s starting with a return to his Irish roots

I’ve never really drunk alcohol. No medical, religious or moral reasons – I’ve just never liked it. Even I’m surprised by this, given that I’m quite common, half-Irish and have spent most of my working life in advertising. Mine should have been a life awash with booze, but somehow the taste for it has always eluded me. And yet, I’m not keen on teetotallers. I don’t trust them, especially when their number includes Sadiq Khan and Donald Trump. So there’s only one thing for it – I’m going to have to take up drinking. Over the coming weeks I’ll be trying a different alcoholic drink just to see whether any one of them can plunge me – better late than never – into the depths of dipsomania at the ripe old age of 54.

I’m starting at the very beginning. At a pub just down the road from where I was born. I’m in the Colin Campbell on Kilburn High Road to attempt to finish a pint of Guinness. Kilburn was always the most Irish neighbourhood in London. When my dad made the journey from Emerald Isle to this sceptred one, there were two routes. Either Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead, or Rosslare to Fishguard. The Holyhead train came into Euston, the Fishguard train into Paddington. So Kilburn, lying conveniently between the two termini, attracted more Irish settlers than any other area in Britain. I could wax lyrical – to tin whistle accompaniment – about places like Biddy Mulligan’s and The Old Bell. But in truth, most Kilburn pubs were grim, forbidding places favoured by fighty Irish labourers and sinister representatives of the ‘RA’. Just before everyone stood for the Irish national anthem at closing time, the hat would be passed round. The man holding it would fix you with a baleful stare, ‘Money for the cause, lads, money for the cause’. A very middle class girl whom I once took to Biddy’s thought he wanted ‘Money for The Corrs’.

One side of Kilburn High Road is in the London borough of Brent; the other side is in Camden. Before licensing laws were relaxed, Brent was classified as outer London and its pubs had to close at 10.30pm. But Camden was inner London so its drinkers could quaff right up to 11pm. This led to a nightly ritual. At about 10.32pm, dozens of Irishmen would stagger across from Biddy’s on the Brent side to the Colin Campbell on the Camden side to get a couple more pints in.

The Colin Campbell was always a quiet and authentically Irish pub and still prides itself in serving the best pint of Guinness in London. Ross Grady, the landlord, shows me how the glass must be held at a 45 degree angle and, when it’s three-quarters full, set down to rest for about a minute. The remaining 25%, including the famous creamy head, is then added and it’s time to take a sip. Ah yes, that almost viscous consistency – more like a black, metallic smoothie than a beer – is what people seem to love. From Kilburn’s long-departed Republican regulars to the rugby clubs from Surrey who discovered Guinness when they went to Dublin for Jeremy’s stag weekend, people all over the world have been bewitched by it.

But not me. Another sip just to make sure, but no. A pint of Guinness is every bit as horrible as I remember it. And this pint, like its predecessors, is destined to remain unfinished. But then, as I said, I am only half-Irish.

Sir Colin Campbell, 264-266 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 2BY

The continuing adventures of the Amateur Drinker will appear on Spectator Life in the coming weeks


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