long shadows

Before the long-witheld chalice of adulthood, pub gardens were the size of national parks. I’m reminded of this when I see young children frolic across them in summer. 

At the threshold of memory, the garden of the Dolbadarn Hotel in Llanberis represented acres of grassland and gravel. I chased siblings and cousins along its hedges – from them, gossamer reached out like strands of peroxide hair backlit in the evening light.

The adults were encamped at a table – tranquilised, defeated and inert from the kids’ perspective. Looks of scorn were shot across the pitch when rascals squirreled too close to customers’ legs. The convoy led them under seating and around the trunks of men. In extremis, a voice was raised but there were limited prizes to lure this bold scouting party back to base. 

Amidst swigs of dandelion and burdock, the only draw was to salt and vinegar crisps from disemboweled packets splayed out over the table top. These crisps later swapped colour with cheese and onion. Fundamental pillars fell. Society’s collapse started soon after….

Looming in the background, the steeple of Eglwys Sant Padarn (St Padarn’s Church) which had no working bell in its belfry. Every hour, an eerie recording of a bell tolling was broadcast from a record player and amplified through loudspeakers. The sound reeled from distortion and feedback, but at the time, it was the mundane furniture of the everyday.

No – I didn’t make that last bit up, but it always pays to confirm with those a generation above.

Though the pub garden is there all year round for quivering smokers to hack into, it’s only invaded by the other customers in summer. It becomes inundated with bare legs and Hawaiian print; the coffers of TK Maxx and Primark overrun.

Benches’ weatherbeaten joints are tested under the aggregate tonnage of British bottoms. Those wooden seats sway.

I watch people in pubs.

The young nineteen year old who timidly chews his lip. His movements, self-effacing body language and the way he removes himself are still symptomatic of a school pupil in the company of adults. He’ll give way to people arriving after him at the bar so they can order first. But just as it should be, they in turn insist he puts his order in. That’s how pubs work.

I’ve been him with an A5-sized birth certificate folded so many times over in my inside pocket it could’ve stopped a bullet to the heart. It’s good to be young in a public house. It teaches you respect for the institution.

Then there’s the young couple that look at eachother like they’re scoping a stretch of Mediterranean coastline for the first time. Everything about their partner is new. Each spoken word is a further footstep on foreign sands. All is hungrily digested. The whites of the eyes are open skies – the pupils harpoons drawing their new love in.

I’ve been them a few times.

Nearby is another couple that share nothing but current geography. They stare at their smart phones – thumbs swiping – two seperate viewers sinking indifferently into their bespoke scrolls. And yes, I’ve been them too.

In the garden of the White Lion, folk donning white shirts with diagonal sashes congregate. The livery is blue and yellow – the colours of St Alban. I see that on the outside tables, pewter drinking vessels multiply as the group trickles in. They must have brought these tankards with them as there aren’t that many hanging over the bar. At least there are no ibex drinking horns.

It makes me dwell on tradition and I have this thought: sometimes traditions are kept alive not because people understand their backstory, enjoy them or find them particularly useful, but because they fear losing something of unknown purpose or value forever. So they keep them aflame. 

And so it seems with Morris dancing. The theories about how it started and where vary. They go from an ancient practice of martial arts designed to overthrow the ruling elite, to the ritual of moorish blackface to fertility dances and combinations thereof. If the original purpose could be affirmed, it might die out or even be banned through today’s prism of political correctness. 

At least this folk tradition, unlike hundreds of others, does actually predate the 1970s. As a spectator, I think its appeal is precisely because its origins have been forgotten in the miasma of history. You can overwrite what you will.

I’ve worked with two ex-Morris dancers. The first was in the N.H.S – a woman called Dena who once confided that the best surface to “Morris” on was horse manure (not the term she used) and I’m afraid she didn’t elaborate much, save for the fact it concerned traction. 

Years later, I knew Dave – a parking manager for Westminster City Council who was on permanent night shifts. Responding to challenges to parking fines in the wee hours, his job entailed patiently absorbing verbal abuse without returning it. He’d get up from his swivel chair every morning around three to walk around – wincing as his legs had gone to sleep.

He recounted to me the time his Essex troupe had decided to mix things up by dressing as greasers. Instead of shirts, they’d worn jeans, Travolta biker jackets and applied Brylcreem to their hair. Rather than clashing sticks, they’d brandished spanners and “tweaked” eachothers’ noses. His temprament changed as he related the trouble this had earned them – in the lenses of his glasses, the ceiling strip lighting replaced his steady blue eyes – and his voice dropped to a whisper. They’d almost been excommunicated by the Morris elders for that transgression.

Tonight in the gents’ urinal of the White Lion, I stand adjacent to a Morris man. Fortunately, tiny bells don’t chime when he shakes himself dry, but his ankles jangle as he turns and walks out. I’m left grinning like an imbecile into my porcelain trap.

When you’re young, each July evening is an epic movie that doesn’t end – a whole chapter in your life where the night never comes to rob you of the day.

The term halcyon is perfect – the kingfisher. It’s the optic illusion silently shooting past, a magnesium dart outglaring the sun. It shines like the embellishment of a memory. It’s eternal – forever in the moment but fleeting in the long wade through maturity – a blazing memory of youth that carried wonder in its plumage.

I watch two boys and a girl charge around the beer garden of the White Hart Tap which is almost completely enclosed by brick wall and fencing panels. The children roll against these borders shrieking gayly as if they’re tumbling down a never-ending dune. Whatever’s going through their minds, they’re each there in the moment and in the same tale.

I hope that when they grow up, this pub garden is still here. I wish that when they graduate from adventures in the undergrowth, this pub is still trading. I want their own children to gamboll around these tables in summer just as they do now, and as we did back then.

And by the way, salt and vinegar crisps will be blue to me ’til the day I die.

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