A Man With A Pint

 

Aul' fella with a scoop

 

Thursday evening, approaching five.  It is an entirely natural thing that a young man’s mind turns to where the next pint is coming from, and for my part, I’m eagerly anticipating trying out Dublin’s newest craft-brew venue. Before that however, I have a gem of literature that I want to share with you all, a particularly beautiful dissection of that great figure in a Dublin bar, the man with the pint. This passage is lovely enough to quote at length, and so I will. It is from a collection of writing called “I have been busy with words”, a collection of the best of John D. Sheridan, an Irish author who died some 30 years ago.

“A Man With A Pint” by John D. Sheridan

There are few things more restful than watching an expert drinking ‘a pint’. But there are one or two conditions: he must be a man who drinks regularly but never to excess; there must be no hurry on him; and he must be drinking alone.

The very manner of his entrance is soothing. It sets him apart, and although he mutters something to the man behind the bar he has no need to mutter, for the man behind the bar knows a pint-man when he sees one. It is not a matter of dress, or age, or social status: it is a sort of spiritual look.

The barman fills the tumbler slowly, taking the black stuff from several taps, and builds up a head worthy of the body. Then he sets his offering down. He doesn’t slam it down, or plant it down: he sets it down. The tempo is right from the very beginning.

But he doesn’t set it down in the right place, for in spite of his years of practice he doesn’t know the right place. After all, he is only a general practitioner, and this is a specialist’s job. So the pint-man takes up the tumbler with ritualistic care and moves it a little further along the counter. For a second or two he looks at it objectively and without desire. Then he looks away from it, forgets it, and falls asleep: and still asleep, he puts a match to his pipe and takes a few sacrificial pulls.

Nothing can touch him then. The clock ticks for you and me, but the pint-man is on an island in Time. He is no longer old or young, rich or poor, married or single. He is beyond the numbing grip of circumstance – a devotee at a solemn rite, a poet with unfrenzied eye, a man with a pint.

Presently (if you have time to spare, and can keep awake – for there is a restful, mesmeric quality about the whole business) you will see him come out of his holy trance in slow stages. First a tiny tremor runs through him, and he becomes aware of the tumbler. But it is only a tiny awareness: it might be any tumbler, and it is somewhere in the middle distance.

When his mind begins to work again, and the picture comes into proper focus, he looks at his pint disinterestedly, almost reproachfully, and turns away from it – like a contemplative dealing with a minor distraction. But even as he turns, his right hand – that ungodly and rebellious member – reaches out for the tumbler, and finds it by sheer tactual memory.

The the arm joins the conspiracy, and the glass rises five or six inches from the counter. The pint-man doesn’t know how it got there, and has obviously forgotten how to deal with such a situation. But his lips remember, and his mouth, turning traitor, comes down to meet the tumbler.

He doesn’t tilt the glass very much, and he doesn’t need to. It remains almost perpendicular, but the black stuff seems to flow out of it and in to him of its own volition, breaking the law of gravity in some occult siphoning.

When his eye meets yours across the top of the tumbler it is still calm and remote. There is no urgency in him, and from the theological point of view it is debateable whether or not there is full consent. The only sign of ecstasy you can detect in him is a slight commotion about his Adam’s apple. And it is very slight, for he can open his throat like a tenor. There is no tension, no resistance, no strain.

When the glass is three-quarters empty (the fraction varies a little with the performer – some virtuosos raise it to thirteen-sixteenths) he sets it down on the counter again and wipes his mouth. But there is no gloating. These are simply reflex actions carried out by the unregenerate right hand, which does not seem to be under the direct control of the will.

The pint-man comes to life then. He blinks a few times, shrugs his shoulders, changes his stance. He fills his pipe and puffs as if he meant it. The spell is broken.

You can talk to him now and he will answer, for he is back in the world of men. He is interested in politics and prices, and he has opinions about the weather. And you must make the most of him while you have him, for you will not have him very long. He is simply resting between two periods of deep contemplation.

Very soon the glazed look comes back into his eyes, and you know that he is on the verge of another bout of dynamic relaxation. He knows it himself, too, and just before he loses consciousness he finishes his first pint and orders a second. And this time he doesn’t even mutter – he just nods.

The barman, moving on tiptoe, sets down the second pint in almost the right place. But ‘almost’ is not good enough for your pint-man, and before he slips off again into the world of dreams he sets the stage for his reawakening.

His flight from reality is so smooth and so sudden that it almost brings you with it. The clock slows down, and a great peace flows over you. So before it engulfs you completely you finish your bottle of stout and steal out into the night

The buses seems noisier than ever, and the street lights brighter. You are back again in the world of everyday things, with its little kindnesses and cruelties, its hopes and fears. But you are ready for it as never before. You feel as refreshed as if you had just come from a musical recital or finished a great poem, for you have seen an artist at work, and you feel the better of it.

I think I’ll have what he’s having! Thanks to Nathaniel for alerting me to the existence of this passage.

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6 Comments

Filed under Beer, Uncategorized

6 responses to “A Man With A Pint

  1. Great post, we have all seen that aul fella a million times and the description is perfect.

  2. When was this written?

    I find this line particularly interesting:

    “The barman fills the tumbler slowly, taking the black stuff from several taps, and builds up a head worthy of the body.”

    It seems to describe a beer being mixed from more than one source at serving time. Mild and Sour (i.e. young and old) to make a pint?

    • stoutfellow

      Published in 79, but it’s a collection, he wrote from 34 on, so could be from any time. Good idea with blending. With the ref to building head I thought it might be to do with the old practice of a guinness head on an ale like smithwicks. It does say he’s drinking stout though, so could well be about blending young and old.

  3. Maeve

    Amazing! This is most definitely my favourite part: ‘The only sign of ecstasy you can detect in him is a slight commotion about his Adam’s apple.’

    Ha ha! Brilliant!

  4. From several taps! This was long before the era of ‘colder than ice’, before those counter-pulls encrusted with ice. There would be a tap with the ‘high’ stout, then the curate continues to the vented barrel with ‘flat’ stout. The blending of high and flat was a rare skill and if a barman with such perfect skill be chanced upon, real pint men would regard the pilgrimage thereto as equivalent to the trek to San Sebastian

  5. Ian Dunbar

    Thank you! I have been searching for this passage – on and off – for years, and did not know the name of the author. I heard it on BBC Radio Ulster, or maybe Downtown Radio, in the 1980s, not long after I’d finished university, and started work, driving home to Lisburn from some God-awful audit, of some long-forgotten business. It resonated then and it resonates now. The part that I most remembered was the reference to the barman not quite knowing where to place the pint, and the pint-man having to ‘take possession’ of it. A beautiful passage, in the finest traditions of poetic Irish prose. Off to Amazon to find “I have been busy with words”.

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