The Night of the Hand Grenades

Now that I think about it, ‘Hand Grenade’ isn’t the most reassuring nickname for a cider-based drink. This hadn’t occurred to me back in 1984 during my first term at Surrey University when I first heard about a cider house in Godalming called the Ram that sold these things, part of student lore, passed down from year to year.

The discovery of the Ram is shrouded in mystery – it wasn’t somewhere a Surrey student would happen upon on a standard pub crawl. You had to catch a suburban stopping train south out of Guildford and get off at the next stop, then walk for a quarter of an hour or so through a housing estate until you reached a T junction at the end of a particular road, then swing left down a track at the end of which was The Place Of The Hand Grenades. It was a rather nice 16th century thatched cottage with flagstone floors, a log fire in winter, and a large beer garden that was actually a garden. It did nice homely pub food too, such as macaroni cheese. And I’m pretty sure the word ‘gastropub’ didn’t exist when we used to go there. No quasi-‘authentic’ fripperies served on roofing tiles. Alas, it was converted back to residential use in 1999 – a sad fact I only discovered when I was floating the idea of going back for just one Hand Grenade for old times’ sake with a friend.

Which brings me to the next thing about these mysterious and powerful drinks – the usual maximum in one session was 2. I was of course a massive pisshead in my first year at uni (and to be fair, my second, third and fourth years too) and didn’t quite understand why this might be so. A mere 2 pints on a night out? I found out why quite early on when a group of us were taken to the place of legend by an initiate. It wasn’t a tale of grim drunken excess either – it was simply that 2 was indeed enough for a hugely entertaining night out, even for booze-hardened 18-year-olds.

And it wasn’t because they were massively strong either – a key counterintuitive feature of this particular charismatic admixture of zymurgically enhanced liquids. The Hand Grenade consisted of a Bulmers No. 7, a still cider that came in small bottles that looked a bit like a kind of monochrome Victorian Babycham complete with foil around the cap, topped up to a pint by an on-tap fizzy Bulmers. That’s it. That’s all it was. The No. 7 was pretty strong but not that strong, somewhere around 8% ABV. The topup was the green brand draught Bulmers at the bar, probably around 6%. There was a red branded one but for some reason that wasn’t the required ingredient. I can’t see that the ABV of a pint of this stuff would’ve been any more than say 7% tops, but clearly in the Hand Grenade there was some kind of synergistic molecular interaction in a previously-undiscovered way that created novel effects not normally associated with alcoholic inebriation. There was an exalted exhilaration, a joyously disinhibited flight into higher, undefined states of consciousness that could be accessed by no other means. I wish scientists had done some research on this – I feel it could’ve resulted in a great boon for mankind in some way that I can’t quite describe right now.

After a few visits to the Ram, I found that in fact I could in fact handle 3 in one night. I was perhaps helped in my confidence to do this by the incredible fact that I never had a hangover after a night out there. Actually never. Even though my liver in those days was but young and fresh, my first year at uni introduced me to some of the most supremely putrid alcohol comedowns of my life, and there’s a long list of drinks I haven’t touched since the mid 80s purely because I fucked myself up on them so totally and was so devastated by the aftermath, even just thinking about the smell of them still makes me feel queasy. But I had no hangovers with Hand Grenades. Strange but true. Truly this is a mysterious world.

A key aspect of being human, of course, is that urge to go further, to explore and experiment, to take things to the next level. It’s why Everest was conquered, why the atom was split, why people put videos of themselves eating 100 mini chocolate swiss rolls in under 3 minutes on Youtube. And part of the legend of the Ram was that a couple of years before we came to Surrey a postgrad music student, a Scottish (church) organist no less and definitely fond of his booze, had managed to down 9¾ in one session, a record.

This is where Davie comes in. Davie was Scottish too, a Glaswegian trumpet player from the schemes doing his MMus and interestingly also quite fond of a drink. Which is apparently a bit of a thing about Scottish people, and musicians in general, and in particular brass players. So they say. So perhaps it was no great surprise when the idea appeared that Davie might well have a go at breaking the record.

A plan was drawn up. Phil (nowadays the CEO of a well-known Scottish ultra-high-level hi-fi company) was to accompany Davie and stay sober, drinking only unfermented apple juice in order to keep a true tally for the records. There was a timetable, starting with 4 HGs in the first hour, then one every 30 minutes, then one an hour, until 10 had been achieved.

(Phil was from a strict Scots Presbyterian background and his mother just happened to work at the bank where he held his account. One day on the phone she mentioned that there seemed to be an awful lot of cheques he’d written out to ‘Unwins’ and asked what that was. Phil told her it was the name of the university bookshop, and she believed him. But anyway…)

This was all quite exciting, and a few us decided to tag along. One of whom was an, erm, Scottish trombonist called Grant.

The summer of 1985 was pretty grim, more like late September most of the way through, and it was on a cold, grey afternoon in June that we made our way to the Ram. This was still in the days where pubs shut between 1 and 3, so we got there around mid-afternoon. This would allow Davie plenty of time to reach the summit – a sensible move no doubt.

Davie had a classic way of drinking where decorum was maintained at all times, no matter how much alcohol had been consumed. A long-standing habitué of schemie pubs, he did an incredible pub singer impression, but only when sober. I never actually saw him drunk as such although if you looked really closely certain subtle signs could be seen, like a tinge of purple to the face. The dry Glaswegian humour would remain intact, as indeed would Davie’s general sociability, throughout the night. Usually.

I remember Phil with his small flip-top notebook, pen in hand, as we sat indoors, out of the cold. And I remember Phil asking Davie, who’d gone a bit quiet, if he’d perhaps like something to eat. Davie had finished HG number 6 at this point. And I remember a very nice homemade macaroni cheese being brought to the table in an oval earthenware pot. And I remember Davie, sat upright, silently staring into space, most of the macaroni cheese uneaten, placidly hiccupping some of it back up, a long slow drool of saliva dangling from his chin. This is when we realised something had gone wrong. Davie remained silent when asked if he’d like to go home. It was decided to treat this as a ‘Yes’. Phil, not a man of bulky stature, now had to get a suddenly catastrophically drunk Davie home, which proved tricky as his charge was having difficulty staying upright, which in turn made walking a bit of a challenge. Their journey back to Farncombe station was by all accounts (i.e. Phil’s) a bit of an ordeal, and took far longer than it should.

So there were were: me, Grant and my friend James, around teatime, not too pissed, still up for a night out. Which is where Alfred Hitchcock comes in. Back in the 1920s his screenwriter Angus MacPhail invented the concept of the MacGuffin – “an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself” (it says here on Wikipedia), and Hitchcock adopted it for his films. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to refer to Davie as an object, device or event – he’s all of those things of course, but he’s a unique human being, greater than the sum of his parts. But he’s nonetheless the MacGuffin in this tale.

Grant now takes centre stage. Six foot two and no doubt tidy in a fight, very physically fit with plans to become a firefighter, Grant, like the rest of us, was having a great time. Grant was very happy indeed. Really having fun. We all kept drinking. More Hand Grenades. Things became vague. At one point Grant was out in the beer garden wandering about asking other people for sips of their cider. And he got chatting to a group of road workers from Guildford. Of course it’s nice to get chatting to new people. Usually.

I don’t know why – Hand Grenades I suppose – but Grant told these guys there was a rugby club drag disco happening that night on campus. I also don’t know why – but again I suspect Hand Grenades – the roadworkers were really, really interested in going. They were quite persistent about this. No doubt they were New Men, in touch with their feminine side, and perfectly comfortable at a student disco surrounded by mindblowingly pissed rugger buggers dressed unconvincingly as women. I’d seen the Rugby Club after matches in the student bar quite often – they actually did drink piss, their own and each others’, and at least one night one of them shat in a pint glass. I know this because I was there when it happened (though not for very long, as we all ‘made our excuses and left’ when we saw what was happening). These are the sort of people that I strongly suspect are not that good at being ladylike.

And so it came to pass that throwing out time came. I’d had 4 HGs by this point. Grant had had about 7 or so – more than Davie. And the roadmen were coming back to campus with us of course, for the drag disco they were so excited about. What could possibly go wrong?

What indeed. As we tottered back to the station, I became aware at some point that my chin was in contact with the ground. I’d apparently said something to one of the roadworkers, and got a slap for my troubles. I think. What I do remember, because it kind of stood out, was Grant alternating between full-on Glaswegian ‘I’ll fucking take yers all on ya bastaaz” then “Nah, you’re me best mates, you’re alright” when our new friends geared up to beat the shit out of him, over and over again, all the long, long road back to Farncombe station. I think there were about 4 or so of them, and one Grant. And of course me and James, definitely not tidy in any sort of fight, and just starting to feel a little bit concerned.

As it would appear, was Grant. We were on the 5 minute train journey back to Guildford complete with frightfully rough sorts who worked with tarmac when he realised what he’d got us into. Luckily he came up with a plan, and leant over to whisper to me and James “When we get out at Guildford, when I say run – run!”. A simple, and to be fair, the only possible plan. It needed fleshing out a bit on detail, perhaps, which is why when Grant shouted “Run!” me and James followed his lead without hesitation and jumped off the platform at Guildford station to run over the tracks to safety. I actually remember quite clearly watching out for the third rail, and gingerly stepping over it before pegging it to a chicken wire fence by the carpark which somehow I got over in a flash with no bother before running all the way back to campus without looking back. Given that chicken wire fences certainly seem to be at least partly designed that way to be utter bastards to climb over, I do feel that this is one of the Hand Grenade effects scientists should be looking into. It could be a breakthrough in the field of anti-gravity if nothing else.

Late next morning, I got up (without a hangover of course) and popped over to see how Grant was. I was rather surprised to see him wearing a suit, but before I could ask why he explained that he’d just been to church for the first time since he was a kid. And before I could ask about that, he explained that they have overhead electrics on the trains in his part of the world – no third rails. He had no idea when he was drunkenly clambering over the tracks the previous night. So for some reason this necessitated a trip to church, I think to say ‘sorry about that and thank you for still being alive’ to God. I’m not aware of Grant going back to church ever again, mind. But it does show how shaken up he was the morning after our adventure.

(Phil later told me that after he’d got Davie to bed, Grant appeared and began throwing around the furniture in the communal kitchen, then spent some time getting various people up against the wall giving it the whole “do you want some, eh, EH?” shtick before he finally passed out, to the immense relief of all concerned.)

As if to “ram” the point home, a couple of weeks later a student who’d come back from a session at the Ram climbed off the platform when he got back to Guildford and put his ear to the rail “to see if he could hear any trains coming”. And got electrocuted. He lived, but with life-changing injuries – third degree burns, some of his intestines removed, permanent scarring, that sort of thing.

I went to The Ram a total of 10 times in my first year, and never went back. I just didn’t feel like it. Nobody else did, either. It just felt right to leave it at that somehow. I think my last ever trip was at one point after my exams when I got a few friends up from Brighton all of whom refused to believe me about the power of the Hand Grenade, and none of whom managed to finish even 2. I could happily down 4 by this point – a real achievement for sure. It took discipline and commitment, that did. In my second year word went round that the Ram had been shut down by the police, though a google search about 10 years ago showed comments on a lad culture forum from the late 90s mentioning Hand Grenades and their lethality in awed and amused tones, so it had clearly reopened at some point. Even those comments have vanished now. So this tale now takes on a certain melancholic air, as the last record of the Lore of the Hand Grenade. The Ram now is a home, no doubt worth a fortune, unlikely to ever be converted back into a cider house, and Bulmers no longer make No. 7, a key ingredient of this drink now destined to pass into legend…

A Liminal Tale

Both in man and in the universe, in the microcosm and the macrocosm, there exists the world of the Intermediate, transmitting and receiving between levels of being. It is not simply that Plato sees the universe as “three-leveled” – earth, heaven and the intermediate realm, the realm of the daimon, the link (syndesmos). It is often put this way mythically in order to be felt – in order that the idea will guide man’s conduct, rather than engage the activities of his intellectual faculties. Ideas cannot guide man’s conduct, cannot point towards meaning, unless they are felt in the way and in the manner in which real feeling operates.

Jacob Needleman, The Heart of Philosophy


And so it came to pass in June 2013 that I was made redundant. I could sense it coming, but my intuition was telling me that a lot more than just that particular shock was coming down the line. In May I’d had a short but vivid dream where I was looking through a window at a menacing jet-black sky even though it was daytime, and I knew when I woke up that the black portended death. An unshakeable fear came into my life, a fear I had to learn to live with but not cultivate.

This concept of inbetweenness… Plato called it metaxy, but I prefer the word liminal – it sounds nice, and it has a sort-of symmetry, a semi-symmetry, with the ls at each end and the i, m, n and a forming a kind of fence either side of the i in the centre.

We always have to somehow ‘try to get there’. Even if we rest, it’s just in order to gather ourselves before going back to the drive. But the mystery is that neither linear drive nor aimless wandering take us where we want to be deep down inside. And speed matters too – if we go too fast or too slow, we miss the core of it all. We still must keep going, though – we yearn to understand. Plato calls this eros, an inescapable urge, an unscratchable itch to find out what it’s all about, to seek Truth. In his Symposium he has the teacher of Socrates, Diotima, state that love is a daimon, a force between heaven and earth, transmitting and receiving between the two realms.

Music, of course, combines the objective and subjective, the rational and the intuitive, as I’ve written about here. In the West, we’ve had to (try to) go further, so we’ve invented atonality and various sorts of electronic musics, but there’s no escaping the objective fact that if you double a frequency you get the same note an octave higher. But how is it the ‘same’ note if it’s an octave higher? Well, quite.

That’s more Pythagoras than Plato though, so to de-digress… In 2013 my job was quite specialist and quite well-paid (by my standards at least) so of course I’d got used to that and lived somewhere reasonably nice in north London that was ridiculously expensive for what it was. I was able to pay off a credit card debt that had built up quite quickly in the early 00s when death and disaster first came to visit, and was enjoying the heady sensation of being debt-free. A kind of grounded stability was appearing in me and in my life for the first time in many years (or ever, really), but there was always that nagging sense of vulnerability as I knew that if I lost my job there weren’t many similar ones around I could apply for, and I had no career in the conventional sense. It didn’t bother me that much until the arrival of a new boss that gave all of us at work the skincrawls. We all suddenly developed forced smiles hiding the urge to get out of the immediate vicinity of that hard-edged energy and yukky forced positivity. Bad vibes properly began appearing in early 2013 – we all knew something was coming. And we were right.

When the shock hit, there was no particular place to look for anywhere else to work, and the normality that had been establishing itself in my life, normality in the sense of security, regular income, an ability to pay for somewhere to live, ended. It’s common to criticise normality as being something deadening, a kind of conformist flattening out of what it is to be human, but there are some basics that really do matter, that you really must have at a deep level of your humanity. But in June 2013, suddenly I found they’d vanished. And I couldn’t see a road in front of me. There was also the growing intuition that losing my job wasn’t the only harsh thing on the way.

So I’d go to Trent Park. I’d moved from south to north London specifically to be near it as I loved walking there. It’s a huge country park near Enfield, a few minutes’ walk north from Cockfosters tube at the end of the Piccadilly Line. As you walk up from the ornamental ponds at the park’s lowest point, you’re suddenly presented with a strikingly beautiful, very English pastoral landscape. And the whole place is a glory, and has a powerful Spirit of Place. Or spirits, even.

It’s a storied place, in various ways. During WW2 captured Luftwaffe pilots were kept in the country house, their conversations secretly recorded for intelligence purposes. Before the war, Sir Philip Sassoon, an ultra-uppercrust aristocrat, owned Trent Park for a few decades before he died in 1939. Visitors to the house when he lived there included Winston Churchill, GB Shaw, Rex Whistler, the Duke of York… not plebs, then. There will have been the lower orders there, of course, but not as guests.

Sir Philip apparently placed the three monuments he’d acquired for the park (the obelisk, the monument to Henry Duke of Kent and the column with a pineapple on top commemorating the Duchess of Kent) in a layout showing the proportions of the Great Pyramid at Cheops because of his interest in ancient Egypt. Which is the sort of thing you can do when you’re rich enough to buy Trent Park – no need to visit a garden centre like the common people. The obelisk is particularly striking, set at the top of a hill, at the head of an avenue of trees, facing the Georgian-style country house on the other side of the park where Sir Philip lived.

For years I would walk each weekend for a good long while through the park, amidst woodlands and meadows, pondering life and enjoying feeling better through being in nature. I’d try different routes now and again, exploring new parts of the park I’d somehow missed. But I found the most magical place there on a walk I’d made many times before, in the wooded area to the east of the obelisk. I just didn’t look to my left for some reason. Then one day I did, and there it so obviously was. Indeed, part of the mystique of Camlet is that many people walk in Trent Park for years before finding it, if they ever do. It’s a fenced off wooded glade, with two gates one each at the north and south. In the enclosure there’s a small island reached by a walkway surrounded by an algae-coated moat. It somehow doesn’t seem like the rest of Trent Park – it has its very own rather distinctive spirit of place. Or spirits, even.

Sir Philip spent time in archeological research with Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings and was present at the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. On his return he decided to excavate Camlet. The excavations were in the form of a star for some reason, which has led to murmurings about a possible interest in the occult. A huge drawbridge was discovered, out of proportion to the size of the present site, and thick flint walls resembling those of a castle. Some of the walls featured decorative tiling – not something you’d get on a building of purely functional use. Yet none of this is apparent if you go there now; there’s a different kind of feel to the place.

As I explored the island, I found altars, shrines, dreamcatchers hanging in the trees, charms, dedications, tokens of thanks, votive offerings, a labyrinth made of pebbles set into the ground. I took a photo of a particularly nicely-done shrine on my phone but when I went to show it to a work colleague it wasn’t there – I had the pictures before and after, but not the shrine.

Over time I developed a routine where when I got there I’d sit awhile on ‘my’ tree stump facing the island, soaking up the vibes and relaxing awhile. Then I’d walk round the island, ending up by the site of a well that legend has it contains a holy grail – or even the Holy Grail, some say. There was one particular bender shrine complete with a couple of small tree stump seats where I’d sometimes find a lantern still alight on the altar in the afternoon.

But it wasn’t just new age at Camlet. Back in the 80s a Hindu holy man from Kerala called Atmachaitanya had a vision of Camlet Moat, so he flew out there in the early 90s with a few acolytes to perform a sacred ritual at the well.

It’s just one of those sorts of places.

The reason I know its name is because on one visit I’d found fliers attached to the fence for a book called London’s Camelot and the Secrets of the Grail by an author called Christopher Street, an earth mysteries aficionado. Indeed, I saw him one morning on Camlet Island, stood next to a witchy woman with very long hair who appeared to be performing some kind of ritual as incense burned nearby. Somewhat incongruously, he was standing there wearing an anorak and holding a Tesco carrier bag – it didn’t seem to quite go with the general scenario. I know it was him because a few days later I went to a talk he gave and he came up to me and told me he’d seen me at Camlet the previous weekend.

I’d always wanted to go to Trent Park, to Camlet on a summer’s evening but the weather during my first summer in north London in 2011 wasn’t great, and summer 2012 was a quasi-apocalyptic washout followed by a few weeks of glowering, subfusc moodiness that resembled summer with the volume turned down. But in 2013 I finally got my chance, not least because I suddenly had a lot of spare time. After I’d been unemployed for a month or so, a heatwave hit, and I finally had my chance.

And on one scented summer night in July, something deeply Other played out. I reached Camlet as the sun was setting, silent gold painted on the bark of the trees as the dusk deepened, the only sound the rushing rustle of the trees. I sat on my usual ‘seat’, at last in this mysterious place in an ambiguous zone between night and day. I crossed over the walkway onto the island, visited the usual shrines, and walked back onto the enclosure of Camlet. I opened the gate and left, and was now between Camlet and Trent Park proper. I was in a large kind of walkway bounded by sparse bushes and ferns, one of many that criss-cross the woods in the park. As you walk back into the park, facing the country house, there are some grand old trees then suddenly you find yourself back out in the open air, looking out from the beautiful vista that you first saw arrayed in front of you on walking up from the ponds.

But before I got there, when I was still between Camlet and the open air, between day and night, between Camlet and the outside world, between jobs, and between secure places to live, between everything, I saw a movement in the ferns.

And into that gap between all the gaps walked a beautiful feline creature, 2 or 3 times the size of a domestic cat, with semi-circular ears, fur dark brown with mottled black marbling, face more like a leopard than a cat. And right there, for indeterminate time, for no time at all, we stared at each other, just a few feet apart. I looked into intelligent, alert black eyes that glistened in the half-light – eyes that were looking into mine. Two intelligences, one human, one feline… in mutual encounter. Then the ‘cat’ suddenly spun round on its hind legs in just the way that my beautiful little Jess used to when I gave her a treat she didn’t like, and casually moseyed its way through the ferns, back into the night. There was an impression of lithe, sleekly powerful yet effortlessly focused muscularity as it sauntered off – it clearly wasn’t overly bothered about its encounter with me. The ferns moved as it walked through them – this was a physical, solid creature.

I walked back down to the bottom of the hill and turned round to look at the obelisk, now silhouetted against an imperceptibly darkening post-sunset orange/dark blue sky, and a nightingale at the top of a nearby tree began its rollcall of exultations – the first time I’d ever heard its song in real life.

And then I went back to the temporary residence that I wasn’t going to be able to afford to live in much longer, which was a sort of home, for the time being