As a child-bordering-on-teen, it was my weekly Friday night treat to be allowed to stay up and watch "Cheers". How this routine established itself, and how "Cheers" became a staple part of it, I'm none too sure. The fact that each series seemed to run for something like 22 episodes and they always repeated it doubtless gave the impression that it was a regular weekly event. So I'd sit with some crisps or peanuts and a glass of pop (Ginger Beer, I'll warrant) and watch as Norm, Sam, Cliff and the boys wisecracked their way through another evening in the Boston bar.
And I swear "Cheers" warped my view of the world and my idea of what Friday nights outside on the adult planet were like. I grew up genuinely believing that as soon as I was old enough, I too would venture into the world of pubs and bars and meet regulars who would joke, jostle and share their worries. Some members of my family probably did a lot to cement this idea by feeding me exaggerated stories about their own local drinkeries. The trouble is, it's not like that. Pubs are frequently just pubs, not extensions of your own friendship circle. The good old boys on their barstools have never greeted me enthusiastically as I've entered any pub, and I've never actually chatted to a psychiatrist whilst sitting in one.
The closest I ever came to frequenting a pub on a par with "Cheers" was during the years 1994-1995 in Portsmouth, when I was a regular at "The Old Vic". "The Old Vic" was something of a knackered little institution when we found it, but that's precisely why we loved it - the upstairs room looked as if it hadn't been decorated since 1975, having mosaic mirror tiles all over the walls, a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, lots of twinkling lights, and a bar area straight out of some bachelor pad fantasy from the same decade. They had The Fall and Pulp on the jukebox downstairs, and a jovial landlord who genuinely did seem interested in everyone who frequented his establishment - and that enthusiasm was infectious. A close friend of mine puts his heavy drinking during that same period down to the pub itself. He said that he had never experienced a place in his life where his drink would be poured for him as soon as he walked in through the door, no questions asked, nor somewhere where he would be greeted jovially by the bar staff. And once, when one of my other friends was having a relationship crisis, one of the middle aged barstool proppers patted the unfortunate young man on the back as he walked past, adding that he hoped everything was OK. True, it was none of his business strictly speaking, but it was a well-meaning gesture - infinitely preferable to the ghoulish fascination most bar-room acquaintances seem to have about couples arguing.
We loved the place so much we started hosting poetry nights upstairs (with the mic placed directly beneath the mirror ball, naturally) and so the pub could also rightfully claim to be the place I popped my spoken word cherry, and not The Poetry Cafe as you might have suspected. Sadly, it couldn't last, and it didn't. As wise as the landlord appeared to be, he eventually decided to spruce the place up, and turned the retro-fag-end mess of the upstairs room into an oak pannelled nightmare. It ended up looking like every other modernised pub in the area, and he'd eradicated the very thing that had attracted us there in the first place. Not long after that the ownership changed hands and it became a gay bar - this wouldn't have been a problem, but some of the homophobic locals began hurling bricks through the windows and hassling the clientele, leading to a bunker mentality amongst the new gay regulars. We weren't actually ever asked to leave the place, but after we seemed to spend half our lives trying to get served at the bar one evening, we all got the message and never returned. And anyway, the Fall certainly weren't on the jukebox anymore, and the pub had changed in all but name.
Ever since then, I've drifted from pub to pub. Some have been considerably better than others, but I've never felt the same sense of loyalty or belonging. It seems to me that finding a bar that becomes an extension of your lounge, filled with characters you're genuinely pleased to see, is a rare thing indeed, harder even than finding a really good restaurant (or, dare I say it, a long-term partner). The factors in what makes a pub work are so variable that it only takes one slight change to tilt the whole establishment out of your favour, whether that involves getting rid of your favourite records from the jukebox, or suddenly deciding to screen sport on the television 24/7. Looking back, I think my friend may have been right - a period of heavy drinking while the goodness of "The Old Vic" lasted probably would have been a fantastic idea. As things stood, it was perhaps enough that it was the first place I performed poetry to an audience - you can't ask for a gentler break than to begin in the place you almost think of as a second home.