Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Once Upon a Time There Was a Tavern

Where I used to raise a glass or two…

Well, quite a few, in fact. Your humble blogging hedgehog has, unusually for his species, always been fond of a pint. Something real that goes down like ice-cold water with the barest touch of hops. Not some stuff with bits in or that other stuff you need to dig out with a spoon, nor, God forbid, anything that looks as though it was brewed by Danes. Taylor-Walker, or Brains SA or Abbot are the sort of thing Hickory likes of an evening, preferably around a table with a few friends in a place which looks like your grandmother’s living room and where the barman and most of the regulars know your name and what to talk to you about.

Alert readers will be fearing some maudlin, nostalgic ramblings brought on by the absence of all these things over here, perhaps encouraged by too much of what we substitute it with. They would not be entirely correct. Rather than nostalgia, it is reflection, and it has been brought on not by Mahou 5 Estrellas, nor by the Hollies, but by the Eagles. The Sad Café crossing your bows at the wrong moment can do that to you, and sets you asking, ‘Where is my Sad Café?’ We all have one, just as we all have our Ilsa Lund. Or we think we should, and so we dig back into our past to find something that we can claim to have lost.

My Ilsa Lung will have to remain a secret, but a couple of Sad Cafés come to mind. Back in student days the Union bar was a hell of a place. Heaving with people, nearly all young and full of energy and fairly clever. It wasn’t very big, and the fire limit must have been exceeded every night by about 50% and much more on Thursdays which was Happy Hour. The Union, the political side of it, was run back then by a small sect of Marxist thugs who censored everyone who they suspected of not agreeing with them (they didn’t even listen much of the time; if they didn’t like the look of you, you didn’t get to speak.) They didn’t matter of course, and most of their meetings consisted of them talking to each other and then trying to tell the rest of us what they had decided we believed in.

None of this is relevant to the atmosphere of the bar. You always met people you knew, partly because you got to know an awful lot of people, and in a short time you would be involved in earnest and profound discussion of some topic, political, technical, social, philosophical, about which you all knew absolutely everything, and which was, for the duration, the most interesting subject in the world. On Thursday nights you could barely move, elbows dug into you from all sides, conversation was shouted, the stairwells were packed, meaning a trip to the gents was an adventure, and getting a round in meant shoving through gaps that didn’t exist, shouting until one of the ten or so bar staff (at a bar only 20 feet long) paid you some attention, and practising your skill at carrying six pints of beer through a seething press of sardine-like humanity without spilling a drop. Somehow, it was fun. And not only was it fun, it seemed like the centre of the universe, the best and most important place you could possibly be.

Then there was a pub I used to frequent in the mid-nineties. A genuine old pub, a 19th C building, one of many built along the road out to the railway station. The same railway station that I arrived back at every evening, tired and thirsty, the same road I had to walk along to reach what was then Hickory Towers (It’s moved around a bit over the years). This was pre-Mrs Hickory and the light in the window, the warmth that rolled across the pavement and the prospect of good beer and friendly faces was very hard to resist. The landlord knew everyone and everyone went there. It is amazing to think that I could feel joy in the company of part-time dustmen, of trade union activists, of middle-aged chancers and wide-boys, aging hippies, the unemployed and unemployable, the badly-married, the worse-divorced, the desperately-single, the failed jazz singers, lonely middle managers, angst-ridden music students and prostitutes taking a break to do their accounts. There were not many who were like me in any obvious sense, but it was a place you could always go, and, whether it was you and Don, the landlord, you and the bar-flies, you and some people who’d just got off the train, you and the usual crowd, or you and just about everybody, it was always worth being there, and everyone understood each other.

There were quiz nights that stank of cigarette smoke and had more adrenalin than the Cup Final, karaoke evenings where you could barely move and where no one cared how well you sang, only that you did it, and they patted you on the back afterwards as though you were David Bisbal. Don had little or no concept of closing time, he didn’t even bother with the bell, and the regulars (and you will have gathered that there were a lot of us) just got on with the business of enjoying each others company. I sang the first song I ever wrote in that pub, because I knew I could, and there was a procession of barmaids who someone was always hopelessly in love with. And everybody knew your name…

It lasted little more than a couple of years, Don left and it wasn’t the same, then I left and have never found anything like it. During those years a lot of people needed no more than to be in that place, there was no need for any greater ambition. Everything else could wait.

It is my Sad Café, it can never be recovered, and yes, I miss it.

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