The people come and go talking about Michelangelo, except they don’t when they go to the pub. Here we tell stories, weave a web of tall tales and low occasions, sometimes told in whispers about so-and-so and what they did and how they did it, but at other times our stories are bellowed out and butted up against the hard surface of the occasional lie and conspiracy. Did you know about what he was doing when he went into that house, or whether the money that changed hands was legitimate or as dirty as the mind of a person who longs to bring the dreams that torment into full view? Or in between pints, the man whose wife left him for a religious cult when they were on holiday in Tenerife repeats his loss with additional tears and when finished gears himself up to tell the couple over there, minding their own business, of how low and lamentable his wife’s behaviour was (a true story, believe it or not, that happened to me in a pub many years ago).
So this is what I miss during this (hopefully brief) interregnum of pub life — the stories, the gossip, the laughter, the exaggerated tale and the overheard adventure that drifts in from the next table, fragments of words, which when patched together give a glimpse into a stranger’s life. The young man, I once heard in a London pub, who had just arrived in the city, and was sitting with an older man, a mate of his late dad, who was drunk but telling him that he had a room where he could stay; the self-proclaimed beer expert from somewhere in the North of England in a Munich pub whose three (or was it four?) friends sat reverently at the table as our hero explained the difference between cask-conditioned beer and the lager they were drinking; or the 20something couple who somehow engaged me in conversation at the bar with the man explaining that he was enjoying his first pint since coming out of jail and then seeing the expression on my face adding ‘it was nothing serious’.
But for the moment the pubs are closed and our stories are on furlough, waiting for that moment (which will come) when with the scrape of a chair on a stone floor and the whoosh of sun-flecked or Bible-black beer into an empty glass, we can start our lives again.
I have a pile of books to read during the lock-in, I mean lock-down. Beer and pubs are represented by the1946 edition of Old Inns of Suffolk (finished yesterday), while Niki Signit’s The Flavour Thesaurus is the food entrant. Everything else is eclectic — history, topography, myth, semiotics, short stories, crime novels and ordinary novels. One of the latter is Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield, which as soon as I started to read I knew what I wanted to write about. It begins at The Swan in Radcot, where according to the author, ‘was where you went for story-telling’.