“Cardiff’s biggest lapdancing club!” the promo girl shouts excitedly at me. Craig Heap is capering like a feral child raised by chimps that were raised by wolves a couple of feet behind me, trying to fight with all of Wales at the same time.
“He’s not fit for anything” I tell her, and she suddenly looks weirded out and pushes a business card into my hand almost apologetically.
This is Craig Heap’s Gonzo Stag Do. It’s about 8:00 at night and Craig is less of a man and more of a wild, pissed beast.
It’s not hard to see why.
It’s 4:00 in the morning and I’ve got my arms spread like Christ the Redeemer in the security area of Newcastle International Airport. My carrying of two smartphones and a video camera (who even owns a video camera these days?) must have raised an eyebrow with the doormen of domestic and international air travel because I’ve just had the most intimate frisking of my life, before my new boyfriend’s busy hands brushed the boarding pass in my pocket and he got all intense. The fact that I’m dressed like a gang of acid casualties were asked to design an outfit for a journalist probably didn’t help my case. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has a lot to answer for.
I shamble into the airport’s Eagle Bar and acquire a Guinness and a corner seat. A child instantly begins to scream and doesn’t stop. I read a Fortean Times article about vampire burials and become acutely aware that today is going to be a massacre. I finish my Guinness and neck a Leffe as I watch some planes take off to the backdrop of a breaking dawn. Drinking in airports feels weird.
Another airport, a bus and two railway stations later and Craig Heap, luxuriantly moustached, powerfully bearded, Hawaiian shirted to the maximum, greets me with “welcome to the ‘Diff.”
In about ten hours’ time he will be asleep in a little ball in the Urban Taphouse.
I go for breakfast with these Battle Apes.
The staff at the diner aren’t upset by my accent or the fact I want a burger and beer at half ten in the morning. Either this is an elaborate trick or I’m going to fucking love Cardiff.
I don’t remember the name of the pub we go to after this, but it isn’t open yet. We go to another one that I think has the word “Queen” or “Queen’s” in the name. The entire back catalogue of Feeder is playing. I drink a Lemon Ale and it is good. Doug McCaffrey, an enraged beast from Leeds, puts a load of Dead Kennedys songs on the jukebox. We don’t hear them.
I think there is another pub between this point and the Urban Taphouse. It’s taken me about an hour to realise that Best Man Chris Hall has been saying “Taphouse” and not “Tapas” and I had spent that hour all keyed up for a second breakfast.
The Urban Taphouse is remarkable. It’s the brewery tap for the Tiny Rebel brewery. It has cheap, good beer. It has a piano. It has pickled eggs and toothpicks behind the bar like A Proper Pub should. I goad the Other Craig, the one who isn’t getting married (and one third of the North Eastern contingent of this hellride) into downing one. We do our region proud.
I lose track of what both I and the stag are drinking. I remember being gleefully entertained by the fact Tiny Rebel makes a Goldie Lookin' Chain beer, Goldie Lookin' Ale. The Other Craig drinks some hot sauce and a barmaid backs up my theory that he needs to drink milk stout to deal with the burny pain.
There is a bus, and a ride to the Tiny Rebel brewery itself. Matt Curtis loses his cigarette holder and gets The Fear.
Tiny Rebel has a little bar upstairs. The pronounciation of “Cwch” is discussed over pints of Cwch, and beers are put aside for after our brewery tour.
Most of us are drunk by now. We manage to maintain our composure. Post-tour someone who might have been Matt Curtis, or a ghost, or fucking Spiderman, has set us up with a glass each of Deschutes’ party-wrecking The Abyss stout. It’s 11% abv and a tipping point.
From here everything goes shocking. At least nobody dies on the bus back to Cardiff.
We return to the Taphouse, where we have a room booked. I pass out. So does Craig but I wake up first, so I win this particular Pyrrhic victory. I’m reaching beer saturation point. I buy a pint of some German thing that is 4% abv and someone says it’s basically posh Beck’s Vier and they could be right but I don't even remember finishing it. There is a buffet and I monopolise the fuck out of breaded cheese sticks.
I leave the pub to ferociously neck two Greggs’ pasties, doing the North East no favours in the stereotype stakes. I go back out to neck an energy drink or six. Then Chris Hall tells me that the stag wants to fight everyone and I’m the only one he won’t start on and it’s Ruari’s time to shine.
Craig is all radged up. We walk him around the streets of Cardiff. He has his fists up like a Victorian prizefighter and it’s a credit to Cardiff’s collective temprament that nobody lamped him. It’s utterly and perfectly hilarious. Every time his radge factor reaches critical mass Chris spins him to look at me and with words to the effect of “awww, I can’t be mad at you” the balance is restored and a pagga is avoided.
Craig’s composure doesn’t last long and soon he returns to his flat to die. Chris returns cresftallen at losing the stag. We soon perk up and someone says “let’s go to Brewdog”.
Brewdog Cardiff’s bouncers aren’t impressed with us. The pub is that special kind of full that happens when a bunch of guys dressed like an explosion in a Hunter S Thompson factory appear from out of nowhere.
“You should go to Walkabout”.
In my time I’ve been thrown out of a few bars. I’ve been denied entry to many. One time in a case of what I assume must have been mistaken identity because how could somebody not love me dearly I was yanked out of a Newcastle nightclub by a bouncer who told me he was going to break my fucking neck if I came back.
This is the first time I’ve been told which pub to go to by the people refusing me entry. This is a red letter day.
There is grief and anger and then we go to Wetherspoon’s, wherein other bouncers entirely are unimpressed by my elegant besting of Matt Curtis at arm wrestling with my non-injured arm, and my holding of the powerhouse that is Steve Crotty to a stalemate. Someone says we should go to a bar called Kiwi, and everyone is excited.
Our excitement about Kiwi is short lived.
The bouncers at Kiwi turn away our group of boozehounds wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts, safari jackets, sunglasses at night, fisherman hats and knee socks on a dress code violation.
Because one of us is wearing white trainers.
“They’re hi-tops” says Craig’s brother Darrell, but by then the Kiwi war is over. We go back to the bar that had a load of Feeder songs on earlier in the night. It all gets hazy. A guy tells me how seeing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was pretty much a religious experience for him.
The wheels fall off. Whether we have been advised of Craig’s return to life or whether we just sense it we head back to his flat.
This is where I sign off. I’m road-worn, cored out by constant streams of alcohol, and have a pill to take. I pass out in Craig’s office while the living room (apparently) turns into the last days of Rome until 4:00 in the morning.
Morning rain and coffee wash away the weird. I have IPA for breakfast and go home.
Craig Heap’s Gonzo Stag Do was a drunken clusterfuck, a shambolarious disaster party which will live on in our hearts as a memory we aren’t quite sure really happened. It was wondrous. We may never see its kind again.
We salute you, Craig.
***To round off this story I have to take the tone down a little, and I’ll keep this as brief as possible but it’s time for REALTALK. I almost missed the stag do bcause I recently had a flare-up of my mental health problems and it was touch and go if I'd feel safe enough to travel.
I have depression, and I've had it since I was 12. It's probably going nowhere by this point. Not everyone knows this.
Even though I made it to Cardiff the old black dog travelled with me from Newcastle and I had to explain to a bunch of people on the stag who I barely knew that I had to be somewhere safe to take my night time antidepressant because it would knock me out cold. I fucking hated doing this but the next morning I felt a huge sense of relief, and after about eight years of rarely talking about my mental health I’m resolved to do it a lot more. Just not on this blog to any great extent, because this is a place for beer.
Depression and anxiety don’t sit well with the whole beer writer deal. I’m Doctor Funtimes, the guy who gets asked to recommend beers by strangers at the bar, who is expected to have the constitution of an iron boar, and always be the last man standing. It jars a bit when King Party has to slope off home and take his night-night tablet.
Most of the time I’m this cocksure, swaggering guy with a line for everything and a charisma pipeline running into the back of his skull. Now and then I’ll go an entire weekend without being able to eat, or break into fucking tears when someone gives me a compliment because my brain just isn’t stuck properly together that day.
I spent the longest time not talking about my mental health which was stupid. One of the most dangerous phrases in the English language is “man up” and trust me, manning up about mental illness and acting like it isn’t there makes it so much worse. Telling my story to a bunch of drunk guys in fisherman hats and Hawaiian shirts was more therapeutic than I ever expected it to be.
I’m not well, but after telling you fucking louts a bit of my backstory I’m feeling better.