On community and the lost art of real life conversation
1963 – the year Kennedy was assassinated – was memorable for me because it was the first time I went into a pub. I was eighteen years old. In Scotland, where I had been brought up, respectable women did not drink in public houses.
When I moved South to the strange new culture of England, there was a pub on the corner of the street where I lodged, built in the Victorian fashion, on the corner of a little street of terraced houses.
It was a “local”. Neighbours dropped by on their way home from work, or just for an evening chat and a smoke, or to escape the children (quality family time not having been invented then).
It had a coal fire in winter, a faithful clientele – the ” regulars” – and it didn’t serve wine. Ales and spirits were what you got. Women drank a half of lager and lime or a gin and tonic. The bell rang for last orders just before half past ten. Perhaps it was eleven at weekends. I seem to remember it was bit later then.
And anybody from the nearby streets was accepted there. A few had their own particular seats (a bit like Sheldon’s spot) which nobody else could sit in at certain times. If you wanted somewhere to take your arthritic old grannie in her wheelchair or your 40 year old son with learning difficulties, somewhere they wouldn’t be stared at or made to feel uncomfortable, you went down the local.
Over the years, however, the area was gradually gentrified. The pokey houses, originally lived in by locals or bought by hard up young couples because they were cheap, became highly desirable. Within commuting distance of the City the prices shot up, the upwardly mobile moved in, raving about the quaint village atmosphere – “So lovely for the children, growing up in a proper community!”
The pubs had their carpets torn up, their floor boards sanded, their dartboards banished along with the few remaining regulars, who spoiled the ambience.
All but one.
We were told about it by a neighbour who had come across this relic of the past in his ceaseless quest for real ale. Hidden away in a back street, next to the last untrendified area of social housing, was the pub that time forgot.
We went the first time apprehensively, ready to be disappointed. But as we opened the door the years vanished.
The first thing that you noticed was the noise, or rather the lack of it. All you heard was people chatting companionably, the sound of their voices absorbed by the swirly 70s carpet. No loud music, no television screens, no shrieking young professionals showing off to their colleagues.
And looking around we gradually recognised familiar faces, other refugees from the gastropub, the sports bar and the echoing scrubbed wood standing only spaces, brewery designed to discourage leisurely drinking.
I went towards a comfortable looking seat by the fire, but then I hesitated. I sensed an atmosphere and felt a discouraging stare. I read the signals. I moved away. The man collecting his drink from the bar appropriated the inviting space.
Of course he did. He was a regular.