There was once a devout Muslim named Ibn Jubayr who, in effect, reversed the first miracle of Christianity by converting wine into water. I thought about him while mooching down the River Lea in east London on a booze cruise aboard a boat called the Alfred Le Roy.
Eleven centuries after Jesus’s generous gesture prolonged the wedding festivities at Cana, the governor of Granada, a Moorish aristocrat of lackadaisical religious commitment, forced his young secretary to drink seven cups of wine – an act of churlishness that he immediately regretted. So he filled the cup with gold coins seven times and gave it all to Ibn Jubayr, enabling him to afford an expiatory trip to Mecca. And that is how he found himself sailing across the Mediterranean, risking drowning, enslavement by pirates and other watery evils, but he lived to write about his encounters with foreign cultures in a fascinating document that has survived almost a millennium.
We came aboard with Patricia, an old friend visiting from Canada, who had crossed an ocean into a culture almost as alien as 12th-century Christian Europe would have been to Ibn Jubayr: hipster Hackney. Patricia is 84, so she has seen plenty, but she is not old enough to have witnessed the previous era of small-batch brewing, which was squashed in the middle of the last century by the mega-breweries – temporarily, as it turned out. At Crate Brewery, which served as our embarkation point, we tried the Crate Sour, which was very sour indeed, and its IPA, a nice beer with that hoppy, bitter edge so desirable to today’s quaffers.
This airy bar, pizzeria and brewing facility, housed in a former chocolate factory, is part of a regenerating but still seedy and graffiti-covered patch of Hackney Wick, just a woozy step from the river. Patricia eyed the bar made of repurposed railway sleepers, the light shades fashioned from old bedsprings and the clientele with beards measurable by the yard, and I wondered if she was considering what is, and is not, new under the sun.
And sun there was, on this river that once divided Anglo-Saxon land from Viking territory, thanks to the fighting prowess of Alfred the Great, for whom our barge was named. In his time, this would have been the edge of civilisation. I sipped my negroni and fantasised about barbarians beyond the cycle paths, while trying to ward off the depressing thought that these days, on this part of the river, a barbarian is probably defined as someone who buys mass-produced beer.
The sky sparkled, the water shone and the hipsters smiled benevolently from their waterfront watering holes, as befits those who, like the Moors in the Middle Ages, know themselves to be the true arbiters of civilisation. A zingiber arrived – a gingery form of mojito, with rum made by the East London Liquor Company, another local factory (this one originally made glue) that has been trendily refitted to purvey small-batch booze created on site. Its rum is good and so is its gin, which even softens the kombucha, that strange tea substitute of almost biblical bitterness, when the Crate boys blend both with Cointreau and gingerbread syrup in their signature White Building cocktail.
We raise our drinks to the 21st century’s craft crusaders, who prefer to convert infidels with the pint or pitcher rather than the sword.
“I love water,” says Patricia dreamily, tipping her glass to the moorhens nest-building in the dirty river, “maybe because I was conceived at Henley Regatta.”
That put my musing into some perspective. I rattled my melting ice cubes and silently toasted all waterborne adventurers, whatever their race, creed, mating habits or preference of beverage. And then it was time to return to firm ground.
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind