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DBC Pierre, December 23, 2023

Jolly Good Fellow

Filed under: Brewing Folk / My Life In Beer
Jolly Good Fellow

‘Whiskey’s too rough, champagne costs too much, vodka puts my mouth in gear…’

Tom T Hall sang this in a country classic of the seventies, and whether we agree with his choice of drinks or not, we can probably agree that it’s easier with drinking than with many other things to end up on a mule in a horse race.

Our problem is that the personal skills which might uncover better drinking practices are the same ones we seek to lose by drinking. And we do lose them, preferring to abandon ourselves to fortune. I’m not talking about the keys to moderation, I mean the keys to joy. Because there is a Nirvana up there in drinks, a high sunlit mesa, and we’ve been there, we just don’t often end up there. It’s somewhere we pass through like a gnarring freight train, despite it being the place we seek to return to every time. And since we’re not prepared to run intricate experiments while drinking, which – we can be clear – we’re not, then our only hope may lie in some species of post-match analysis.

For that it’s probably best to go back to the beginning: when I was eighteen my father went to receive an honorary doctorate at a university. He took me along, it was a family occasion, and while he was out being busy, I was in the hotel, in daytime, in a suit and tie, and I thought: here now is a man in a suit in a hotel. I can go to the bar and get a beer.

Why the hell not? I went right out and did it.

Now, I was bigger at eighteen than I am today, and I had a fledgling beard; plus those were pre-derationalised times, pre-ID culture, when they would serve anyone who looked big enough to take the recoil. Days of personal responsibility and of truth or consequences. So I rode up one floor in the elevator from reception, went into the bar. It was a small bar area without atmospheric pretensions, the upstairs bar of a hotel whose heart clearly wasn’t in the thought of serving drinks, but one that knew it had to, which gave the bar a utilitarian edge. The deal was no frills, but drinks. There were four old guys there on barstools, old from my point of view at the time, which could have meant thirty-seven. They were the kind of people who could have been drinking in that inner-city hotel for decades, and whose fathers may have drunk there in hats. People from the nearby streets, of age and position enough to call the air-conditioned bar their best kept secret, who may have felt a cut above a pub.

Their drink of choice was beer, and this chimed nicely with my program.

All fell quiet when I stepped in, although affably quiet, it wasn’t a saloon where the music would stop and a mirror would shatter. I asked for a beer, casually, stirring the hush, which is the moment you sense the quiet is pregnant with inquiry: who is this floater in the sanctuary? What kind of heretic is this who day drinks alone in a suit? Lagers and bitters were on tap, I asked for bitter and the server came back with a question: what size would I like? Now this was a city where they had different sized glasses and all the sizes had names, it was a portent of fucking Starbucks, another private-language club out to foster panic in anyone who couldn’t guess the word they used for ‘large’. I’d like a Gilgamesh, please, I’d like a Leviathan of beer, please, my good person, or whatever the hell they expected.

Thankfully in the event, my fellow gentlemen in fresh shirts had the same size glasses in front of them, and I motioned them as if it was obvious. Such a young man on the move. Inner city hotel bar. Slide me a Gilgamesh and break out some nuts, et cetera, I may have even leaned rakishly into the bar. Now, of course I’d already been drinking for years, but not so much in the vicinity of polite society like this, and certainly not dressed up like a constituent of it. There I was, an apprentice constituent of politeness and maturity, and I joined the drinking rhythm of my fellows at the bar, which is one of the unspoken life-enhancements of beer, joining in with a rhythm, a slug each, a quaff, as therapeutic as a hug or a pat with a dachshund. The beer was good and cold, although in truth all beer tastes like shit to the young, who’ve been accustomed to Fanta and chocolate milk for so long. But good at that age meant slugging enough beer down that you got an icy buzz on. Once you have the buzz then you’re good for all eventualities, so we push through for the sheer perversity it takes to attain the questionable rank of adult. It happened that my bar-fellows had a brisk drinking rhythm, I don’t know if they sped it up to test the newcomer, but I was soon on my second beer and facing the prospect of a third. We still hadn’t broken the conversational ice, but we’d tilted glasses to each other, almost imperceptibly, which I now know counts for a lot.

Just then a voice from reception broke through a loudspeaker. It called for Dr Finlay, Dr Finlay to phone reception please. Well this was my father they were looking for. A colleague must have phoned and found he wasn’t in his room. So I hoisted myself off the stool and exchanged a brow-flash with the server, who pointed me to a courtesy phone down a hall. I was able to answer the caller’s questions on my dad’s behalf, about arrangements for the ceremony to come, and I got back to the bar to find my fellows sitting quietly again, the air in the place expectant. As I settled back in, one turned to me:

‘You’re a doctor?’ he said.

And it’s here we should pause for analysis: that moment came at the border of a third short pint of beer after a previous two had been quickly drunk. I was lit up. I was warm. There was exhilaration. There had been an ignition. The mundane world, even this low-atmosphere bar, appeared in high-definition graphics. Whereas the graphics of so-called real life aren’t that great, these were radiant. The sound of voices had been remixed into silky crisp trebles that spiked up into red with laughter, and my bloodstream crackled with clean white noise. I want to propose that this state alone – two-going-on-three fast beers – is the state we try to return to whenever we drink. And we often achieve it only to blast right through that little station on our way to bigger things, fully realising without understanding that we’ve passed through a base camp of Nirvana. What’s more I want to propose that this state is a natural homeland of beer. That beer is the training wheels of drinking. That the sensation of those first quaffs, their innocence, their surprise, is everything we try to achieve every time we drink, no matter what our regular booze ends up being. 

French children might have a glass of wine on a Sunday, Mexicans in Jalisco might have a tequila, but those are for health, they’re a yoga of spirits. The gateway to the bliss we seek, that fragrant pistil of elation’s flower – to whatever degree it’s our ambition to achieve – is to be found among the first exhilarating draughts of beer.

Now the fellows at the bar seemed to warm to me.

The nearest had turned and said: ‘You’re a doctor?’

And I did the only obvious thing a learner can do:

‘Yes,’ I said.

  The good men bought me drinks until that happy valley whistlestop, its rustling visions, its alpine clarity, fell away into night. Last thing I remember is saying goodbye through closing lift doors. Tom T Hall sure knew what he was saying in the chorus of his song:

‘I like beer – it makes me a jolly good fellow.’

Throwing up in the elevator ashtray doesn’t have to change that.

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