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Pub-Consciousness

The nicotine-stained walls of The Fountain reminded me of the same greasy, beaten down pubs my father would occasionally take me to as a nipper. This sounds rather more unethical than it was in practice. For one thing he would take me along on weekend construction jobs to keep him company, finishing the day with a quick pint at whatever passed as the local before heading home. These weekend jobs were far more formative than I perhaps appreciated at the time and less exploitative than it sounds, my modest construction responsibilities limited to clean-up duty or holding one end of the tape measure. Over time I graduated to various labouring roles involving the mixing of mortar and fetching items from dad’s clapped out 1960s Bedford van, but mostly I was there to distract the homeowner from one of the inevitable minor calamities that seemed to follow us job to job.


And besides, it was nice to spend a Saturday out in this gruff hinterland of swarthy masculinity. One common repetitive task was the meticulous cleaning of bricks so they could be re-used. This thrifty practice, which I suspect was the main appeal to my father, would see me sat atop an upturned bucket painstakingly chipping away at ancient limestone mortar with a scutch hammer. As the monotony wore on I would try to convince myself that this was some form of Mr Miyagi style martial arts training, and that my father was secretly an 11th Dan aikido master. He was not.  


For some masochistic reason he would also set me up in a distressingly conspicuous position on the driveway, the ground covered with a large blue tarpauli and the chick-chick of my scutch alerting any passersby - or worse, girls! - to my presence. On rare occasions I might get a sympathetic smile, but mostly it was those judgemental sideways looks that young people reserve for cutting down their peers. I can’t be sure, but I think it was in such moments that I first began to appreciate that this was how revolutions got started.


It should also be said that I wasn’t exactly the ideal apprentice, which might explain the heavy emphasis on menial, low risk tasks. To say that I was absent-minded as a boy would be generous to the point of absurdity. So enraptured, so slavishly distracted was I by my own internal world that I would often be sent out to the van for something and instantly forget what it was, even in the impossibly short time it took me to receive instructions and step outside. It is a particularly cutting kind of self-inflicted humiliation that sees you standing there, desperately trying to remember what your father had requested mere moments ago, prompting an embarrassingly empty-handed return visit. I also made the most incredibly mindless mistakes, quite a lot of them in fact, that would test my father’s limited patience to the extreme. He once asked me to step onto the lower rung of step ladder and pass him a hammer. Quite how such a seemingly unremarkable act could end in disaster is difficult to comprehend, so imagine our combined shock when, having passed him said hammer, I chose to inexplicably leap backwards off the ladder and in doing so swipe the recently installed bathroom sink clear off the wall. At any other time my father rarely swore, but when out on jobs with a recently plastered bathroom rapidly filling with water, no such filters were in place and quite often the post-work pint was more necessity than guilty pleasure.


Once he had either finished the job or his patience suitably spent, we would decamp to the pub. Most of these jobs were located in and around the East and West Midlands of the late 80s early 90s, meaning the quality of local pubs was a lottery in way that is difficult to appreciate now given the ubiquity of chain pubs and improved hygiene standards. Plus, our clothes were so comprehensively dotted with scabs of dried cement and faces pancaked with plaster dust that we could only feasibly darken the doorstep of those establishments without a formal dress code or, more often than you might think, a toilet seat. Here I would be plopped on a stool with crisps and a coke while dad chatted with the other, similarly bedraggled men at the bar. It was from this vantage point that I would eavesdrop on stories and watch them roar with beery laughter, appearing to my naively youthful self the coolest, most entertaining people on Earth. The jokes were filthy, the language equally colourful, and I quite frankly loved every forbidden second of it.  


The very best, but also the very worst of these occasions were those when I would be included in the circle. The men, who had been strangers barely an hour ago, would tease me about having a girlfriend or enthusiastically warn me against any kind of matrimony-based entrapment. This was almost always a feature of the standard banter aimed at the youngest member of the group, passing as a kind of universal script because I was forever having to explain that no, I didn’t have a girlfriend thank you very much, on account of being nine years old, and really wasn’t interested in being sent over to the long-suffering barmaid to ask her for her phone number. Only you couldn't refuse and were duty-bound had to perform whatever mortifying social sacrifice was asked of you because that was the price of admittance. I couldn’t tell you how many times I was sent over to a table of unknown women minding their business with a bawdy message guaranteed to produce another gale of laughter from the guys at the bar. You wouldn’t stand for it today, and rightly so, but at the very least I would get another bag of crisps out of it.


This isn’t to suggest that these were terrible or otherwise unsafe places, but neither were they entirely safe or in any sense conventionally wholesome. These were drinking establishments much frequented by anyone seeking a mid-day top-up at a reasonable price. I actually came to realise that the permenant fixtures at the bar seldom actually asked for a pint, the barman would sinmply replenish their drinks every fifteen minutes or so ubidden. Some of these places didn't have much in the way of furntiture, so standing in or around the bar was the only option. If the bar had any tables at all these were small, distractingly sticky wobbly affairs. Allow a shirt sleeve to rest more than a few seconds on the adhesive-like surface and you risked tearing off strips of actual flesh when called upon to carry another message between tables. The men (almost exclusively men) preferred to stand around in cloistered little groups, a localised mushroom cloud of cigarette gently smoke rising above them.  One irony that never escaped me was that there was always a prominent sign pasted at the bar declaring that children were, on no account, to be allowed in or near the bar, and yet should anyone look up and glance around there was a good chance that they would spy a small person ferrying someone’s pint across a busy room. This would inevitably happen once you'd been accepted into the group, with the barman leaning over and pushing a recklessly overspilling pint in your direction.


“Take this over the ferocious looking man by the fruit machine will ya, and mind you don’t spill any, cos he won’t like that!”  


In such moments I recall nervously looking to dad for help I knew wasn't forthcoming, settling intead for a little affirmative flick of his head to say, “do as you’re asked,” and off I’d trundle. The sudden introduction of a little barroom drama would cause a momentary lull in conversation as people watched you weave your way over to the neanderthal. Naturally it would be a pint of larger filled to the point where if you looked closely you could see it actually bulge above the rim, held there by the miracle of water tension. The slightest knock, the slightest rivulet of Stella Artois running down the glass and folks would start whistling and cajoling with mocking cheers. If you finally made it across the roome, the ape-man would hold up the glass like a forensic scientist scrutinising a piece of critical evidence, and then bellow over to the bar, “what the fuck is this, Frank! HALF-FUCKING-MEASURES!”


Whatever they were, these places were also home to a particular kind of alcoholic. Anyone who has spent time around severe alcoholism will be familiar with the sickly-sweet smell of despair, 11am acetone breath and the zombie-eyed stumbleabouts who bind themselves to any unsuspecting stranger before pulling up anchor and drifting mumbling into the crowd. In every town you’ll know a place, probably more than one, that provides a dubious form of self-destructive refuge to those in thrall to the unending lash. Some radiate a baseline forcefield of personal tragedy that feels almost contagious, causing others to automatically pull away without being told.


One such pub was the Peacock, long since shuttered, that would open secretly out-of-hours to cater to the night shift crowd, giving it an otherworldliness that seemed to exist outside of normal time. I visited on several occasions while working the graveyard shift at a tyre factory the summer before starting university and was easily seduced by the low-key speakeasy quality of what was otherwise an uncompromising dive. The entire staff amounted to a single person, the owner, a stout, chain-smoking woman called Marge, who I only learned wasn’t her real name some years later after reading her obituary in the paper. Wall to wall it couldn’t have been more than six or seven meters across, meaning that pretty much everyone had to stand or lean against a wall or each other. At 6am it was packed with shift workers enjoying a post-work pint and bacon sarnie courtesy of Marge. On my first visit I was informed by a coworker that the police would occasionally raid the premises, and should we hear the tell-tale knock we were to leg it out the back and vault over the redbrick wall beside the outdoor toilet, after which it was every man for himself. The last thing I wanted or needed was to have to explain a recently acquired criminal record to my first year university tutor, but I must say that I wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea either, thinking that it might give me some much-needed social credit. Fearing reprisals, I didn’t tell a soul about my early morning Peacock visits, and would only stay for one since I had to cross town on my temperamental Honda C70 moped and frankly couldn’t spare the stability.


Imagine my surprise, then, when one morning it was my name being bellowed across the room by Marge and I saw my dad, standing at bar in his bright red anorak shooting a look of burning disapproval in my direction. No stranger to the habits of night shift workers himself, my father must have immediately understood why it was taking me an extra hour or so to get home at the end of my shift. When I later asked how he knew where to find me he just fixed me with a look and said, “give your old man some credit.” He never did elaborate, but then didn’t need to because his knowledge of local pubs was so complete that he always seemed to know, no matter where you were in or around the town at any given time of year, where the nearest one could be found, and what ales were on tap that day.      


It had always been thus. As a child I remember us visiting a family friend in the Black Country who would feign a fishing trip, claiming that a benign fatherly pastime was in the offing, only to then immediately relocate to the pub. And what pubs they were back then in this corner of the world – tiny, single room bars visibly bursting at the seams tucked away in Victorian buildings with stained glass frontages and outdoor toilets that would put the fear of god into even the most seasoned of festival goers. One such memory is sitting on a stool surrounded by loud beery men, every one of them busy trying to outdo each other with jokes and meandering tales made all the better for the addition of a Black Country accent. It was a treat to be privy to this secretive world, and how I positively ached to be able to be part of it. In some small but significant way it was the start of my apprenticeship in masculinity, as I imagine it was for many of the kids I knew growing up. It wasn’t so much drinking culture as the culture, the default culture. And how much of our fathers’ repressive instincts, I wonder, could only be unknotted with a beer in hand in the presence of other survivors of growing up poor in the 1950s? In was in its way a form of group therapy, where the underlying intention was always to try and find a punchline and raise a few laughs regardless of how bleak the situation might be. I think that it was from these early outings that I learned that the best response to the absurdity of human existence is to lean into it and, whenever possible, find a laugh. Ask any stand-up comic and I’m sure they’ll tell you the same. Humour was born in the tavern.


Because of how these experiences line up behind me I tend to view places like the Fountain and the Peacock as doors to the past. This is an overly romantic view I know, but isn’t the pub a space for reflection, storytelling, and exaggerations? I’m tempted to say that social class is something that lives within you even though your circumstances may change. Spiritually speaking I think some vital part of myself will always remain those smoky old dives. The best pubs retain some of that darkly lit romanticism, whereas the worst of them now make me uneasy and even a little afraid. I sense as much in The Fountain, which is why I found it uncomfortably familiar. Some of this I think speaks to that old gremlin imposter syndrome, which really is the uncanny sense that you don’t belong anywhere and probably never will, old versions of yourself, old lives, blocking the exit.



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