Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where it's always Arthur's Day

All Back To The Local - as printed in Day and Night magazine last Friday...

SOMETIMES you know something has happened before you see it. There’s a thump, a stifled giggle and a frisson of energy from a corner of the pub.
This forewarning never fully prepares you for the sight of a fully-grown man upside down with his head trapped between the wood panelling of the bar and the copper foot rail running around the bottom.
The soles of his shoes pedalling furiously in mid-air. His face turning purple with impotent fury and the rush of blood to the head. His friends alternating between collapsing in hysterics and trying to extricate him.
The barman intervenes with a weary ‘Fer Chrissakes, lads, take him home’. The rest of us turn back to our drinks. Just another Saturday afternoon in the local.
Only a certain class of pub can breed those little moments of weirdness. It needs staff who are intimate with the eccentricities of their regulars, and regulars who appreciate that sometimes a man will end up on his head because he’s too tired and emotional to stand on his feet. We’ve all been there. (Haven’t we?)
The upside-down man was one of a group of early-shift workers whose day finished at noon. They were always to be found at one end of my old local on a Saturday, easing their transition from work to the weekend with a few pints. He was the new guy and had yet to perfect the art of daytime drinking.
He was back the following week, pacing himself a little more carefully and looking sheepish. The barman never said a word, just laid his pint on the counter.
That’s the kind of unspoken tolerance that cultivates loyalty. At the risk of sounding like Dara O’Briain in those Vintners’ Federation ads, there’s nowhere like your local.
I wonder if many of us will start rediscovering ours now that the era of the superpub appears to be over. The financial death grip of the past year has closed several of them. Others remain on life support, looking for help from the courts to stay open.
It has been difficult for small pubs too – I guess more people are staying at home with cheap slabs of beer from Lidl. But if it came to the crunch and we were all required to go to the pub at least once a week (come on Guinness, surely a better marketing wheeze than Martha’s Day) I know which till I would rather put my money in.
If it doesn’t sound too pathetic to say out loud, I felt bereft when I moved to a different part of the city some years back and had to leave behind my old home-from-home, Slatterys of Rathmines. It was the place to call into on the way in or out of town on a weekend afternoon.
There would always be one or two of a bunch of Cork lads at the table by the side door ready to pass on a racing tip or the bits of the newspapers they didn’t want (everything but the sports section). Table service came later, but in my time the three laconic barmen could interpret an order from a raised eyebrow.
Maybe it’s an expat culchie thing but the sense of community is seductive. To know that when the elderly blind man comes in to the front bar for his nightly tipple, whoever is sitting in his habitual seat will stand up without being asked.
To know that conversation is king and the telly only comes on for big matches. To know that only a privileged few on the high stools get control of the remote.
Locals have snugs and diamond-patterned banquettes. The floor will have a bit of an ancient slope on it and a quartered beermat will be needed to steady the legs of the table.
Toasted sandwiches may well be served, but they must be inserted in magic plastic wrappers and rotated through the kind of giant open toasters that Buck Rogers thought would be the future of cooking.
I know I’m not the only ‘old man pub’ enthusiast. My Donegal friend spent so much of his spare time in The Stag’s Head that he ended up working there for a while. Another one is practically bolted to a chair outside Grogan’s every Thursday night.
Babies and spouses who insist that King crisps are not a fully-rounded diet eventually play havoc with the devotion required to make your pub a local. But until then, may I recommend a little place on Haddington Road…

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