Saturday, 28 September 2013

It started with a beer

Like so many of my best tales. But with a book, too. I'm not a total pisshead philistine. Love of beer and literature. That's how it all started. A book and a beer changed my life.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We need to start at the beginning, when a putative programmer arrives in London. It's January 1983.

I hated London. Hated it the way only someone aspiring to be a Northener can. With a blissful bias and a will to lose. And because there was no Mild. (Something very important to me, at the time. I can remember travelling halfway across London to a Thwaites pub that had Best Mild.)

I wasn't even a real Northener. Not accent-wise. My voice was rooted in the unrecognised tones of the East Midlands. Britain's least known region. Can you spot an East Midlands accent*?  Thought not. No-one I ever met could. Perhaps mine was too slight.

I was having so much fun in London, learning Czech seemed the perfect entertainment. If you have any idea of the complexity of Czech grammar, you'll understand the depth of my desperation. A proper mental challenge, to keep the gears of thought oiled after hours of idling at work.

There was a reason other than mental stimulation. One tied to my lifelong passion: beer.

Michael Jakson started it off. In his World Guide to Beer. With its romantic pictures of Prague pubs and loving descriptions of Czechoslovakia's classic beers. Budvar, Urquell, Krusovice. I wanted to be there, taste those beers, inhabit the world the text and images had animated in my mind. Then Henry went.

Henry was in my class at Magnus Grammar School. "The only thing they taught me was French grammar." is what I usually say. I'm doing the school an injustice. They impressed ancient Greek and Latin grammar on me, too. All knowledge that would be invaluable in later life. Not really. I didn't even believe that at the time. I just enjoyed learning difficult languages, for whatever stupid reason. (Who can satisfactorily describe the reasoning behind their pleasure? I can't).

Henry and his girlfriend Sandra worked at an American airbase close to Nuremberg. Prague was just a train ride away. So they went, obviously. Well, obvious if you know that Henry is almost as fond of his beer as me. And almost as nerdily enthusiastic.

"No-one speaks English. You can get by with German most of the time. But a bit of Czech for ordering shit is handy."

Said the man who'd chosen German rather than Latin at school.

Right after I queued up for my Czech visa, I bought a copy of Teach Yourself Czech. Jedno pivo. Was that in there? The most important phrase in the whole language? Though if you're a polite bastard like what I am, you'd probably thow in a "prosim" at the end.

I already knew the Czech word for beer, even before investing in the book. It had stuck because it so resembled the Newark word for booze: peev. (Not sure that's how you spell it. As a dialect word it has no official written form.)

After a few weeks' preparation, I boarded the train which, along with a ferry and a couple of other trains, would take me to Prague.

It's odd how some things stick in your memory, like jellyfish coated in superglue. That stay with you across the years. Mundane, stupid images of absolutely no significance.

I can visualise the final approach to Praha Hlavni Nadrazi that day. The train rolls past a block of flats and a woman hangs something red on a clothes line. "Welcome to socialism," I think. Why has that moment stayed with me?

More surprising given how tired I was. The train from Nuremberg was overnight and crossed the border at some crazy time. Then remained in a fenced-off no-man's land while Czech border guards spent an hour or three rumbling through the carriages checking everyone's documents. No way to sleep happily through that.

Michael Jackson had armed me with one very useful fact. The opening time of U Fleku. (That's what my faulty memory told me. Until I just checked the book. It doesn't mention the opening time. I must have got it from Henry. Not quite so good for the flow of the story and it themes, so feel free to ignore the truth and live a happy fantasy.) A very socialist 8:30 AM. The stupidly early hour of the trains arrival, meant I could check into my hotel and still be there almost to see the doors open.

I'll leave you this time with that first beer. Those first greedy gulps of U Fleku's wonderful beer. Being so early, it was almost deserted. Just me and that ruddily dark liquid. A moment to treasure. And one that, this time perfectly expicably, has stayed with me.

But I still haven't got to the beer that started it all. Maybe next time . . . .

* Gary Lineker is the only famous person I can think of with a recognisably East Midlands accent.


Pivní Filosof said...

I really love living in a country where having a pint or two at 8 isn't immediately related to alcoholism

Alex Saunders said...

Oh I wish I could get into the bars at 8. I'm lucky if I can find one that opens at 11:00am.

Martyn Cornell said...

I'd suggest the South Midlands accent is pretty indistinguishable, too. From Bedford to Oxford, it's not London and it's not Brum ...

Moiety said...

Not going to take a wild guess but I almost wish the porter from Pardubice had started me off.

Stonch said...

Really yokelly Oxford accents are great. At the Union we had this long serving barman called Chris (who by the way must have done all the line cleaning and ordering and stuff because nobody else did, the bar just seemed to be stocked and the taps pouring). He had such a distinctive accent that the other staff - who also had it to various degrees - used to marvel at it.