Monday, September 18, 2006

The Time Warp

Another of the great, dark bars that have a special place in my heart - a bar that perhaps had an especially potent formative influence on me in that it was, I think, the first bar I ever drank in on my own, rather than accompanied by my dad or my older brother - was a place called 'The Nag's Head', in my old home town of Monmouth on the Welsh border.

Back in my schooldays, it had the reputation of the being the town's leading pub for underage drinkers. Indeed, it was pretty much the exclusive preserve of underage drinkers; even older teens were often reluctant to hang out amid such proliferations of 15 and 16-year-olds, and the only people older than their mid-20s were usually the bar staff. It's amazing that the landlord got away with it so cheerfully, for so long. Then again, it was a very small town, with probably only one or two policemen permanently stationed there; and they, no doubt, could find better things to do with their time than fret about how strictly local hostelries were observing the drinking laws.

Nowadays, it seems, all that has changed. Today The Nag's is enjoying a period of comparative respectability, even trendiness; it is the favoured hangout for most of the regular drinkers of my brother's generation (although this crowd is constantly shifting in its composition, and in its tastes and allegiances, and no one pub seems to hold sway with them for more than a few years). Changed, yes, in its clientele; but in its decor and atmosphere, time has stood stock still. It is very nearly identical to the gloomy little rabbit-warren of a bar that I remember having my first illicit drinks in, long, long ago.

I went in there on one of my last trips home, a couple of years ago; my first drink in that pub in perhaps twenty years. It wasn't long before nostalgia was washing over me, and my eyes were prickling with emotion - partly the gratitude at finding a fragment of my childhood so perfectly preserved, partly a sharp regret at the sudden realisation of the passing of so many years, and partly a surfeit of strong Welsh beer (I suspect, although my memory grows shaky on such details, that it was the rather fine Felinfoel - always jocularly but unfairly referred to in those parts as 'Feeling Foul').

The only detail (apart from the prices - oh god, the prices!) that didn't conform to my childhood recollections of the place was the barmaid: I don't think there was ever such a devastating beauty behind the pumps in my young days. And perhaps just as well too, or I might have spent even more time in there than I did, and completely ruined my life. The loveliness of this girl no doubt accentuated the strain of melancholy in my surging emotions that night. It was not just the recognition of the fact that I was far too old for her to fancy, or that she was far too young for me to fancy, or that I had very little chance of even gaining her attention when there were half a dozen smitten 20-somethings buzzing around her. The frustrations of being attracted to a woman who is, for one reason or another, "out of my league" are all too commonplace, and most of the time I can dismiss them quite easily. No, the problem was that on this occasion the disparity in our ages served to effect a sudden, whooshing shift in my perspective, a vertiginous readjustment of self-perception. For many years now, I feel as though my life has been standing still; and, luckily for me, the physical processes of aging seem to have been biding their time as well: on a good day ("in the dusk with the light behind me") I can usually pass for at least 5, if not 10 or more years younger than I really am. And, most of the time, that is how old I feel. I genuinely struggle to remember my true age, since I hardly ever think of it (never a big fan of birthdays!); in fact, if pressed on the issue, I usually have to go through the laborious rigmarole of recalling my year of birth (thinking back, sometimes with difficulty, to the last time I had to fill in a form for something) and then doing the maths. But on that evening, in one instant, one giddying instant, I came to recognise how ancient I have become - in the instant when I carelessly thought to myself, "Hell, this girl probably wasn't even born the last time you drank in here. She certainly wasn't born the first time you drank in here." And with that uncharacteristic acknowledgement of the size of the gap between my childhood and now, the floor (metaphorically) opened beneath me and I gazed momentarily into the abyss of my mortality.


That will teach me to go revisiting my childhood home. Speculating on a girl's age is probably a bad idea too.

I'll know better in future.

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