Brown's beer: Brief encounters with Michael Portillo and a very old pub

Pete Brown has a taste of the limelight and gets up close and personal with Portillo (not his favourite politician)

I’m standing outside a pub, staring deep into the eyes of Michael Portillo.

Neither of us is saying anything, but he’s holding unbroken eye contact with me and nodding and smiling that wide, trademark, face-creasing grin that disappeared only briefly before fixing in place as a deathly grimace when he famously lost his parliamentary seat in ‘97. 

In 2012, I’m closer to that grin than I ever expected to be. Michael Portillo is behaving as if I’m saying something really fascinating. But as I’ve already established, we’re both completely silent. 

Clouds scud across the sky, the light turning from golden to grey, shadows passing over our faces as we maintain our silent stare-off for several minutes – minutes that feel like hours.

I’ve done some strange and extreme things in the name of beer and pubs. But I would have run through all kinds of Noel Fielding-esque surrealist scenarios involving men in masks and peacock feathers throwing oranges at me (it happens every February in Belgium), drinking wheat beer on a slowly rotating carousel to the sound of a German Oompah band (Munich Oktoberfest), or drinking beer from a rhino horn while dressed as a gorilla (OK, I made that one up), before I would ever have imagined standing here, doing this. With him.

I cheered like a lunatic that night in 1997 when Portillo lost his seat. But say his name in mixed company now, and you can be totally confident that someone will say, “Actually, I hear he’s a really nice bloke.” 

Take a person out of politics, and the humanity gets a chance to re-emerge. 

Even people who loathed Portillo and everything he stood for in politics really enjoy his Great British Railway Journeys on BBC 2, in which he takes George Bradshaw’s 1866 Railway Guidebook and travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed Britain.

And that’s why I’m here, outside this pub, staring silently into Michael Portillo’s face.

Bradshaw’s Guide – which Portillo carries with him like a talisman, or a bible – briefly makes reference to the elegant galleried coaching inns of Southwark. In Bradshaw’s time a rank of these inns still lined the east side of Borough High Street, each a warren of yards and wooden galleries, olde worlde and Dickensian, at odds with the ugly steel bridges and redbrick viaducts which were then slicing through the Borough, redrawing it like a pointy stick on a sandy beach. 

Only one of these inns – so beloved by Dickens that he wrote about them more than once – made it as far as the twentieth century, and it’s still there. 

The George is London’s last surviving galleried inn. Owned by the National Trust and currently managed on their behalf by Greene King, it’s a pub that takes your breath away – if you can find it. 

Once it was a 21,000 square foot complex of stables, warehouses, bars and restaurants arranged around two interlocking yards. When the railways arrived in Borough, the coaches and wagons the George catered for were rendered useless, and disappeared almost instantly. The back stable yard was swallowed by Guy’s Hospital, who sold on what they didn’t want to a railway company, who in turn demolished three quarters of the George and replaced it with offices and warehousing. 

By the 1920s, rather than being an impressive inn arrayed around its own courtyards, the George was a much diminished pub hidden deep in a railway goods yard.

The story of the George’s incredible survival, both up to and after this point, and its links to the age of Dickens, have made it a cult celebrity in the pub world and a famous tourist attraction. It’s also the subject of Shakespeare’s Local, my new book, due out in November (a perfect Christmas present for that difficult to buy for man - or woman - in your life). I’ve been hanging around the George quite a bit while I’ve been writing about it, so when the Beeb got in touch and said Michael wanted to come and visit and hear some of the old stories, the pub told them to talk to me.

I tell Portillo stories about how the indomitable Miss Murray, who worked at the George from 1871 to 1934, kept the place alive by lying through her teeth in bravura fashion to all callers about its huge importance in the life and work of Charles Dickens. Then, the camera has to pick Portillo’s reaction shots. There’s just one camera here, and it was trained on me while I was speaking.  Now it films him, so they can ‘cut between us’ during the conversation in the finished programme. 

I have to remain where I was while I was speaking, so Portillo’s eyeline is correct. And so we stand silently, while he pretends to react to what I told him a few minutes ago.

Politicians are fascinating this close up. You can see his mind working – he’s memorised my speech pretty much exactly, and when he reaches the point where I gestured to the galleries, he looks up. If I made a joke ten seconds after that, he laughs on cue. Politicians – especially those who reached his level – may not be the most deeply thoughtful people, but their brains are frighteningly quick and comprehensive. 

Portillo calls the shots, ordering people out of the background, correcting me if I said something slightly different in two takes, asking me to say the same thing but five seconds quicker. He’s certainly the nice bloke everyone says he is, but he’s very bossy. No idea where he gets that from.

The shoot ends inside the pub, with us toasting each other by the fire. Afterwards, people flock towards him, asking him to pose with them for photos, and I realise that the smartphone has killed the autograph book – a picture of you with a celeb is worth infinitely more than a scribbled signature.

And then, they’ve finished with me. Thanks all round, release form signed, and I’m left to ponder yet again the power the pub has to bring together even the most unlikely people.

 

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

 

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