KITCHEN SINK DRAMA
The publican-in-the-street has been pointing out portents of doom for years, but as far as I’m concerned, the day that Charlie Chawke declared that he will only hire Irish staff to meet and greet customers in his licensed premises, was the day Irish pub culture died. Proper Irish pubs, as I recall them from my gloriously misplaced youth, had no truck whatsoever with this meet and greet malarkey. In fact, the measure of a truly great Irish pub was its landlord’s obvious displeasure at being interrupted from reading his paper at the counter by an impertinent customer demanding drink. Two stories of legendary Dublin barmen immediately spring to mind: the man who, upon being asked if there was an ashtray, replied, “you’re standing in it,” and the wonderful character who responded to a request for ice and lemon by asking the customer if he thought he was in a restaurant.
Ah, stories. That, above all else, is what we are losing with the demise of pub culture. British pubs might be devoted to juke boxes and slot machines, but the Irish version has always been about talking. Talking rubbish, for the most part, but somewhere in between the thousands of conversations about whether Keane or Ferguson is a better man and how much the house around the corner went for, there were nuggets. I have no idea how many of them I have polished up and put into plays and stories and columns, but just the other day, I summoned another one up and fitted it into the play I’m writing about this summer’s Garth Brooks fiasco. It’s a story, since you asked, about somebody who owned a tortoise which had the run of the front garden; a garden into which, one night, a passing drunk did what we shall call – since it is Sunday – a number two. Unfortunately, the aforementioned number landed on the tortoise, who then ambled off, leaving a very shocked drunk to discover that his motions had apparently been fruitless. Now obviously, this story has nothing to do with Garth Brooks (though it does now) and is also, most likely, completely untrue – but I heard it in a pub once and many years later it
I heard it in a pub years ago. That’s what happens with pub talk: the really good stuff finds a life and a home beyond the bar
has made its way into a play. Because that’s what happens with pub talk: the really good stuff finds a life and a home beyond the bar.
I have always believed our rich literary culture and our pub culture were linked. Simply, if you are in the business of telling stories, then you will find no richer seam of inspiration than from the company of people shooting the breeze over a few pints. Perching on a high stool at the counter with the newspaper simply won’t do: you need to be crouched around a table, in dubious company, listening to the tall tales and nonsense that meander through every pub that overlooks the meet and greet detail. Think of the best stories you have heard and I’ll guarantee you at least half will have begun their lives in a pub. Think of the biggest, best laughs you have ever had and again, you will find yourself back on that stool.
But no more. There are a million reasons why pubs have fallen out of fashion – the (understandably) embittered publican will probably cite the smoking ban, the drink driving laws, rural isolation – and as we have witnessed over the years successive ministers for finance and their greasy annual ten cents on the pint clearly don’t help matters. But whatever the reason, the sad fact is that these days, most of us spend our nights at home, drinking wine and watching The X Factor. And I’ll guarantee that you will never hear a story worth putting in a play on The X Factor.
I have a feeling that our literary output will suffer from the demise of pubs. If not from rambling conversations over pints, then where will we find our stories and our nuggets in the future? If we are serious about protecting the arts – and obviously the current administration is anything but – at the very least we should start reducing the price of the pint in budgets. By the time publicans are giving the beer away for free, our literary future will be guaranteed. In the meantime, we will all have become hopeless alcoholics – but honestly, when it comes to a choice between a story about Simon Cowell’s house or an innocent tortoise being defecated on, surely that’s a small price to pay.