On nurturing the gentle art of pub conversation

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There must be few more delightful yet simple pleasures, than talking bollocks with your mates in a cosy pub. You slowly shift into the classic bullshitting lean, hunkering down over the table. You glance around the area to ensure no one likely to take offence is within hearing range. You take a slow sip of your ale, catch the eyes of your audience, and begin telling the tale. There are (in the pubs that I enjoy the most) expectations that stories accompanied by beer or cider shouldn’t be held strictly to facts. Tavern legends are born not from particularly awe inspiring or heroic deeds, but from a low key adventure which has been embellished and polished by each person who has retold the anecdote. They’re the magnification of a simple deed into a heroic task, through a pint glass shaped lens. Each new recital opts for a new gasp invoking twist, over the retention of any particular fact.

Up until fairly recently there has been an honour amongst chaps and chapesses, that runs along the lines of “if I tell a yarn about an incident which you were involved in, it’s the audience enjoyment that is important, not that it was the ranger who did CPR rather than Tom from down the chippy.” And under this unwritten rule, anyone else supplying details to the story should only do so if it’s likely to further stretch the boundaries of incredulity, or will summon further healthy chuckles. But in these days of mingled drinking masses, particularly in the cities and large towns, where transients drink with old hands, there are those whose presence serves to break the storytelling spell. They’re the pub equivalent of a thirty minute wedding speech by a drunken uncle. They interrupt at a crucial point to debate whose turn it is for a round. Or they attempt to tilt the tale mid-point, towards their own underwhelming experience of a “very similar situation”. Or worst of all, they invoke the most heinous of all modern story-telling spoilers. They drag out the smart phone. “I think you’ll find Pol Pot is very unlikely to have ever shared a joint while gutting catfish with your Uncle Finnegan in Faliburt, Louisiana. Google informs me that they haven’t caught a fish there since the 1930’s…” Take that infernal atmosphere eliminator and have him beaten (gently) with broken pool cues and assailed with Eastern European curses.

It was bad enough when the mobile phone first began its intrusive cries for attention down at the White Lion. How many engaging recitals of “the one where Kevin met that girl with the electric vampire bat” or “that time Simone went surfing with that albino preacher from Delaware” have been interrupted by a Nokia ring tone? Just as we’re all leaning in, enthralled in the latest version of a timeless saga, the storyteller is summonsed to “work”, or “the in-laws for sausage and chips” or “alcoholics anonymous”. Grr technology, grrrrr.

There is another insidious trend that threatens the continuance of lager fuelled oral traditions. The pub quiz. Now don’t get me wrong, in some quarters these are a hilarious excuse for engaging banter, an opportunity for the affectionate berating of the quiz master/mistress, and a chance to earn free pints for the most outrageous but plausible answers. But in general they monopolise the aural airspace, promote the worst sorts of train spotters to celebrity status amongst their “letters to the editor” writing peers, and fill the drinking spaces with far too many facts. A pox on any entertainment which provides a platform for the village trivia hunters. There’s far more pith and wit to be found in tall tale telling and the resultant banter, than in any argument over which particular inbred monarch invented the adhesive-backed pubic wig.

The local pub is a conversation harbouring institution on which we should all keep a wary and watchful eye. People need community stories, village myths, town folklore. In a world where stories of the sexual and financial misadventures footballers wives, hotel owners daughters and celebrity chefs special sauces are displacing those about local heroes, we need to take a stand. So next time you’re down at the Shark and Octopus, or the Loathsome Minstrel, maybe leave the iphone at home, take a moment to heckle the quiz master, and tell them the one where Gnasher lost his artificial leg in that bet with the gypsy fortune teller…

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