It will come as a surprise to few frequent readers that one of my best friends passed away last October. I feel that if I am handing out thank-you’s, one of them should be to my friend Tim Mitchell. He inspired the following piece which I submitted to the Oxford Gastronomica beer writing competition. I am not sufficiently religiously minded to assume anything of his current position. All I know is I for certain is that I miss my friend and I have not published this yet. All I can say is that I loved the man. It has been hard for me to let go of him. He hath never borne me on his back, since he knew I was actually quite heavy. He hath bought rounds of beer as frequently as he reasonably could have, considering.
For those of you who appreciate the maudlin or, y’know, some considerable fingerpickin’ skills, I submit this to listen to as you read:
A wonderful thing happens when you walk into a pub to order a pint of beer.
It’s not an observable phenomenon, but it happens as you cross the threshold; you become nearly anonymous.
You might be from any walk of life. You might be a lawyer and father of two or an ex-convict with no prospects to speak of, but as soon as you enter the pub those societal roles slough off. If it’s a pub you’ve spent some time in before, people might be able to identify you by your first name or by the beer that you’re likely to order. It’s a situation in which nothing is expected of you and it’s for this reason, in addition to the inhibition loosening qualities of a couple of glasses of beer, interaction with others is made nearly effortless.
This is the reason that so many jokes start with the line, “A man walks into a bar.” In a situation with such limited inhibition, with such anonymity, anything is possible or, at least, slightly more probable. If you can picture the fictional pub in which these jokes take place, you’d be unsurprised to see a priest, a rabbi, a Scotsman, a twelve inch pianist and a horse with a particularly long face. The bartender’s concerns would likely be mitigated by the fact that at the very least it’s not as bad as last week when that bus full of nuns and the murderous panda were in residence.
Entering a pub is a license for personal freedom on a very small scale: Not for a complete lack of responsibility, but for a suspension of certain kinds of responsibility. No one will micromanage you as you sup your pint of beer. No one will care whether you went to university. Unless you’re actually having your mail delivered to the pub, your creditors won’t be contacting you. You’re a problem free version of yourself on a very short vacation.
If you sit there for any length of time, possibly long enough to have ordered a second pint and a small snack, it’s as likely as not that someone will ask what you’re drinking and whether it’s any good. It’s the only common ground for conversation, and the marvelous thing is that it doesn’t matter what your answer is. The cask might be in great condition. It might be a few days past it. More than a simple exchange of information, this interaction is a tacit acknowledgement that you’re both sitting in a pub, drinking a pint of beer and that the situation is a vast improvement on being elsewhere.
It’s one of the very few social situations in which people are liable to carry on a conversation for an hour without ever learning the other person’s name. This is the joy of beer: you can walk into any pub, anywhere on the planet and be sure of finding some likeminded person to be your temporary equal.
In a good pub, this situation repeats between any number of people and eventually they become a community of nodding acquaintances. It all comes down to a common bond based around beer; a few stolen hours when the pressures of life are relieved. This brief respite has as much to do with the company in which it takes place as it does with the pint itself.
It might be a pint of ordinary bitter, with slight fruity esters wafting from the glass. It might be some highly sought after Belgian nectar, served in a chalice. There might be an IPA on offer, with a spiky citrus aroma and a bitter sting in its tail. The type of beer matters little, since it’s the act of sharing the experience of drinking that beer that is important. The conviviality of a pub can even redeem a particularly bad beer through mockery. Whether you’re sharing awe created by the skills of a brewer or a private joke about the abysmal quality of a beer that never had a chance of measuring up to your standards, it’s the collective nature of the experience that makes it worthwhile.
There’s a comfort in that shared experience. I have not been to my pub recently, but I can tell you with some degree of certainty which people I would be likely to find there on a given day of the week. I wouldn’t be able to tell you where most of these people live or what their last names are, but I could probably tell you which teams they support. I could tell you about the girl whose obsession with John Lennon borders on psychosis. I have listened to one of our group talk seemingly endlessly about growing up straight-laced in the early 1970’s.
There’s a canon of stories that develops as people define their niche within the group. They tell these stories over a bottle that they’ve decided to share or a round that they’ve bought. It blurs the line between the shared sensory experience of a particular beer and the development of a communal memory.
Since I’ve been going to my pub, a number of people have passed in and out of the group, some moving across the country for work, some simply eschewing the place because of the rising price of a pint.
About six months ago, my friend from the pub died very suddenly. We had been very good friends, by pub standards; he had actually seen the inside of my apartment. He was one of those figures that everyone feels immediately at home with. He was effortlessly kind and genuinely interested in everyone’s welfare. He would do just about anything to get a laugh, but he was also the first to try and head off ugly situations if he saw them coming. I vividly recall the tactics he would use to talk people out of that final drink at the end of the night. Once he even waded into a street fight to act as peacekeeper.
We had a wake at the pub. What other course of action could there possibly be in a situation like that? What else did we have in common? The astounding thing was that nearly everyone who had ever shared a glass of beer with him turned up. People flew in from across the country on short notice and took up residence at the bar for nearly twelve hours. He had been an Everton supporter, and the sheer number of blue jerseys was staggering. There were any number of toasts given. There was weeping and people held each other in some bid for consolation in the face of an unforeseeable tragedy.
The improbability of it is nearly ludicrous. That we had developed from temporary anonymity into a makeshift family because at some point we had wanted a pint of beer; that the simple act of sociably sharing a pint eventually allowed us this communal outpouring of grief and remembrance. Even in a situation that grim, we found a kind of joy in a shared pint of beer.
By way of a monument, the owner of the pub plans on brewing a beer for the anniversary of his passing. It’s a robust Porter. I’ve tried it. My friend would have liked it: A man walks into a bar and turns into a beer. As memorials go, it’s a corker.
Best of all, there will be people who never met him who stop into the pub for a pint of beer. They won’t know the story behind it, but they’ll sit there drinking it and discussing it. Maybe they’ll hate it. Maybe they’ll ignore it completely in favour of telling off-colour jokes, but by the end of that pint they’ll be nodding acquaintances and they’ll both feel the better for it; refreshed and ready to return to the responsibilities of their lives. It will have helped to bring a small amount of joy and laughter to their day. As miracles go, it is small and shopworn. Even so, this interaction, this shared grace remains one of our best features as a species.