Drink it in

Anthony Gladman muses on the magical spaces that can elevate a good beer to a great one


Some years ago my parents moved down to the south coast. They’ve reached that age. There must be something in the sea that calls old folks there to unwind into a quieter life. Perhaps it’s the tang of salt in the air. Or maybe it’s simply that the weather is warmer.

There’s a spot where I like to sit and have a quiet beer when I visit them in the summer. I try to manage it at least once during each trip. It’s on a balcony, or a raised deck I suppose you might call it, that overlooks their small back garden. Wooden steps run down into the garden from one corner, and at the back a door takes you into their kitchen dining room.

I like to sit there in a white plastic chair with my back to the wall, and look out to the sea, just a hundred or so yards away. Pale in the distance, the Isle of Wight rises like a cloud bank on the horizon. The wind blows; it’s always windy. The noise of waves breaking on the shingle echoes all around. Gulls and far-off wind chimes punctuate its ceaseless murmur. Somewhere nearby a rope slaps against a metal pole. Washing flutters on lines strung from neighbours’ balconies down to their garden fences. Restless shrubs and bushes sway in the constant breeze. If you time it right, this spot is a sun trap. The white noise of the sea becomes hypnotic and soothing. It’s a great place to relax with a beer.

Early evening is the best time to enjoy a beer on my parents’ balcony. Partly because that’s when the sun warms the wood beneath my feet and the wall at my back. Partly because I have had time in the day to do something with the kids and to spend a moment with my parents. I have earned my time-out, and a pinch of fatigue is the perfect seasoning for a beer. A beer you need will taste better than a beer you merely want.

I’m happy to share this spot with anyone who comes along but, to be frank, I prefer it when I don’t. Then I can lose myself in my thoughts. Better yet, I can drift in the moment and think of nothing at all, enjoying each contemplative sip. I suspect the little dimpled half-pint mugs are the very same ones I drank my first beers from as a teenager. That was too many years ago now to mention. I ponder how long my parents have had them, and what stories they held before I came along.

Eventually the hour comes when the sea sparkles with countless reflected suns and the Isle of Wight all but disappears into the luminescent haze, and I must turn my eyes inland. It’s too bright over the water, but this light looks great when seen through a lager, golden and inviting, so I hoist my glass to the sea as if toasting long lost sailors. Often a spitfire burbles overhead flying sightseers up and down the coast. Sometimes they flip through a loop-de-loop. I sit and sip, listening to the rise and fall of their engines. It’s peaceful.

Beer is full of these quiet, private rituals. We each of us hold within ourselves places, with their particular scenery and soundscapes, that we know intimately and like to revisit when we can. But it’s not just the physical place, it’s also beers we enjoy there, and what they represent: indulgence, a moment taken to ourselves amid a busy life. The restorative glass that slakes our thirst and gladdens the soul.

Most of us will amass a small collection of these places throughout our lives. The pubs where we first drank with our mates, trying to get served when we were not completely legal. The student hang-outs where we figured out who we were and who we wanted to be. The tables across which we made friends with colleagues during our first jobs. The places we met significant others and fell in love, fell out again, made up. We drink them in along with the beer and they become a part of us without us ever knowing it.

A day will come when you realise that one of your places no longer belongs to you

A day will come when you realise with a jolt that one of your places no longer belongs to you. It has slipped away into the past. The place has changed, or the people have changed, or you have. The alchemy that used to spark is somehow out of whack and cannot be recaptured. I used to while away whole afternoons and evenings in a Bloomsbury pub called the Jeremy Bentham. I wouldn’t seek it out now, though no doubt it remains a perfect little gem of a boozer. There are taprooms out there which may not survive the pandemic and its lockdown, may never reopen. Ones that have already gone and I just don’t know it yet.

You never know, in the normal run of things, that you’re having your last drink in one of your special places. Not at the time, anyway. If you’re lucky, sometimes you can pin it down after the fact. ‘Oh, it must have been when we met so-and-so with her new boyfriend. What was he called again?’ That sort of thing. It is much rarer to enjoy a valedictory drink, to choose in advance which beer will be the last to pass your lips on this hallowed ground.

So it pays to savour those stolen moments in your favourite drinking spots. Spin the beer out a bit and enjoy it more. Let it wash over your tastebuds for a second or two. Take it all in. My parents’ balcony during summer is a part of my life that, even though I had no choice in it, I have grown to love. I don’t know how long I have left to enjoy it, so I drink there while I can, and surrender my mind to nothing but the moment.

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