I belong to a Facebook group whose members post old photos of my home town — school pics whose young and eager-looking pupils are now in care homes, the beach on whose promenade stroll carefree Edwardians unaware of the express train of war coming their way, and various other nostalgic shots guaranteed to make most members (even me occasionally) bill and coo.
One of the most typical comments, apart from the one in which everyone and their mother seems to bemoan the lack of sand on the beach, is about the good old days, the happy days which if only they could return to or at least bring back. People dressed smartly when they went to the beach say some (wearing a suit next to a sandcastle looks uncomfortable and slightly spiv-like to me), people behaved (really, let’s have a look at the court reports then), and the sun shone every day (it didn’t when I was growing up there).
Nostalgia runs through these comments with the sureness and rigidity of those banal welcome to so-and-so messages that trace their way through the sticks of rock still sold in my home town (bloody awful stuff, along with candy floss). To be generous, I suppose you could argue that in these uncertain and curfewed times, nostalgia is a by-product of uncertainly, fear, anxiety and a general sense of helplessness. Could you believe that you’d entertain the thought that going to a supermarket could be dicing with possible ill-health or even death?
Lovers of beer could be experiencing these same feelings of loss and remembrance as their favourite bar or pub remains shuttered these last two months and probably for the next few months. As you sit furloughed at home, cracking another can of Keller Pils or Hamburger Cavalry or Dark Arts Hazelnut you could be forgiven for letting your mind wander like a sturdy vagabond of medieval England and pick out top pubs and the equally top times you had in them during brighter times.
The Royal Oak, the King’s Head, that craft beer bar where an imperial stout stood next to a Kveik IPA, the micro pub in a Kentish town that you visited once and fell in love with — you write their names out in verse in your head and think of all these places that you used to visit and which have now developed their own patina of nostalgia and memory.
You recall the gold-amber Pilsner brewed a few miles away from your home that was your opening gambit on a Saturday afternoon in the pub, as you waited for the clock to pass 3pm and at last you could start checking the football and rugby scores; you salivate with ease at the recollection of the last pint you actually drank in a pub. For me, my nostalgia is for the ruby-red, light-flecked, foam-topped pint of Old Peculier I devoured with the devotion of a wolf coming on the fold, rich, virtuous, bittersweet, coffee and chocolate warmth, a beer whose hug was as all-embracing as the love of a doting parent for its new born child.
Then as the nostalgic memories come tumbling out like a troupe of acrobatic clowns, I shift further back in time. To the Lord Nelson in Southwold, in the middle of February, one windy evening, where the sign outside creaked as if the devil was held there in chains. Or maybe it was the overcast Friday afternoon in early January I spent at the Brevnov brewery bar in Prague (or just outside), across from the imposing abbey, diving deep into glasses of its rich and fulsome 12˚ and not wanting to leave.
Let’s go further back, and keep draping ourselves in the mantle of nostalgia. The November Sunday lunchtime in the main square of Mons, amid the silence of the just-opened Excelsior, a wooden-panelled space with a confessional-like bar at the end of the main room, while outside in the square people scurried along, dipping and diving through the driving autumnal rains that had broken the spell of the last few sunny days. A glass of St-Feuillien’s Grand Cru please.
Unremarkable and remarkable bars and breweries and beers crowd through the mind, populated by a host of characters that even Dickens couldn’t create, speaking and drinking and once more becoming as real as the sound of my fingers tapping on this laptop.
Maybe in this time of fear, foreboding and not knowing which route we should take, maybe, just maybe, nostalgia is a positive to possess, placed in the same personal cubbyhole as hope and resilience, and for that we should give thanks. But also know that we will visit these places once more and drink deeply and speak to strangers and friends alike. Our happy days are both behind and ahead of us.