Friday, 15 May 2020

Pub Tales: First Encounter...


Childhood memory is a curious thing...

For most of us it's full of the selective memory of summer sunshine, the smell of hot tarmac or freshly cut meadow grass, and snatches of possible misremembered events which, for some obscure reason, have become lodged in our psyche. I often wonder why we can clearly remember the banality of the mundane but can't quite precisely remember the funeral of a grandparent or some seismic world event. Perhaps the answer lies in markers left by our senses in our memories, where touches, smells, sights and tastes combine to form a half remembered puzzle of a particular moment.


My first memory of being in a public house was in the very early seventies when I was five or six years old. We lived in the rural hinterland and travelled each Saturday morning to the local mini-metropolis to do our weekly shopping. This task in itself was carried out efficiently by my mother but we would all make the journey in to town anyway, for moral support and a chance to walk paved streets for a change I guess. I was the youngest of four and being the only boy I was probably watched more closely than my sisters, especially as my parents had lost twin boys some years before. This perhaps explains the tight hold my father held of my wrist as we walked down the main street with my older sisters in tow, having been shooed away by mother from helping with the shopping. I can still recall that almost too tight grip of his left hand and the warmth and security it provided.

I looked up to see a man approach my father with a huge grin, hands were shook and greeting exchanged, garbled and unclear in my head now but genuine and heartfelt. I vaguely remember a mention of long nights travelling and music so I assume this stranger to me was a member of one of the showbands from the fifties in which my father played before settling down to have a family, and sadly having to pawn his trumpet. A drink must then have been mentioned as I can recall being led through a clattering swinging door and into a dark, smoky place - cooler and quieter than the street outside.

I can remember being hoisted by the armpits on to a bar stool, and a well dressed man behind the counter looking sternly at us, a somewhat scary authoritative figure to my young eye. I have no recollection of what my father drank but my best guess is a small bottle of Guinness, as he wasn't a big drinker, preferring ludicrously strong tea to alcohol at home. I can recall the cold counter top but could not tell you what it was made off, although when I close my eyes now I imagine it to be grey speckled marble with shiny brass fitting and twice as deep as any bar counter today, but I do remember we were surrounded by dark timber that clad most of the surfaces in the bar. As my ears and eyes became used to the space I could hear the low murmur of others around us and how bright the outside world seemed through the huge, glass windows that looked out on to the busy street. As romantic as it might sound I can see specks of dust floating in that light that shone in on the tables by the windows, tiny stars drifting dreamlike in slow motion.

Next there was a clink - so perhaps it was a marble counter top - as an orange mineral in a glass bottle was plonked in front of me, the image of a castle on the label rotated to face me and a straw dropped in, with the same ritual being repeated for my sisters as we perched on those stools legs dangling, with my father's voice droning beside us as he reminisced with his long lost friend. We sucked on the straws and the sweet taste of over-sugared orange nectar coated our tongues, as we sat quietly making no sound until we eventually found the bottom of the bottle and that final slurp marked an end to our treat.

There was a sense of contentment there and then that I've found hard to recollect in any other youthful experience. I am not sure why that would be as I had a very pleasant childhood when I look back on it now, uneventful more so than boring. Perhaps it was just that shared experience of being in a bar sitting quietly as the voices of others washed over us, or perhaps it was the coalescing of remembered sensations of pipe smoke, those motes dancing in the sunlight, the sweet taste of our drinks, and the cold counter. Maybe it was the ritualistic experience of sitting at at bar with our legs dangling over the stools, the stern look and the clink of glass and its ceremonial placement.

Or maybe it was the combined affect of the whole experience along with the fact that it was a rare treat...

I don't remember leaving that pub but it would have just been a short visit before meeting up with my mother and making the trek back home, laden with shopping bags and what I presume was the disappointed feeling of that lost contentment, as unappreciative as that may sound.


That same ritualistic feel is what still appeals to me about the pub, like some transferred religious experience for a non-believer. It's not just a place to procure a drink, as that makes a pub sound too functional and clinical even though that is a part of it of course. Good pubs are a triumph of the whole experience over the sum of its deconstructed parts, and any misspent afternoon in one still for me relives part of that first contact from so far in my past. The sounds, smells and sights are not quite the same for sure, and that childhood version is probably embellished by misremembering and tainted by nostalgia but even if my mind has made some of it up, to me it was true and is still true today.

I wonder was the seed for my love for a good pub sown on that day?

By the way, I'm fairly sure that first pub I visited all those years ago is the same one I call my local now ... so perhaps fate - if real - is a curious thing too.

Liam

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