Friday, January 24, 2003

Churches of the soul

By my reckoning the trinity that enriches your soul is the family home, the place you spent your childhood, and your local pub. If your parents are like mine, these last two could well be the same place.

Ah ha, I hear you say, he's started another post with life affirming gravitas, I won't be caught out, I won't be sucked into his trifling piffle.

Schhhlooopp! Oh dear...

The church of your family home is where it all begins. It's the island where you spend your formative years, it becomes your safe house from the evils of the world. The problem comes when you leave, the Reverend Mum and Dad run a tight ministry and frown greatly on any lapse in your attendance. After you've left, it won't be long before they've turned your room into a generic themed 'guest room', tastefully appointed with stuffed toys picked up from mid-season holidays funded by the saving they've made from you moving out. Suddenly the trinkets of home are hidden or destroyed. Of course you are welcomed on every return, but their smiles are more forced, because to them you're just a hollow soulless shell now you've turned your back on the church of your family home.

The church of my home is at least where its always been. It's changed, there's Sky TV and lots of bottles of fizzy pop, a rare treat in my day, but my dad still takes the cup off you before you manage to put it on the floor, and Sunday evenings still smell of overheated tumble driers. Poor Vicky Dobscrub hasn't got it nearly so good. Her parents were throwing things into boxes and moving to the other end of the country before she could say "You will still do my washing for me." But whether they move to the other end of the country, or simply turn your room into an 'office for dad to pay his bills', this cornerstone is a flimsy edifice that will eventually crumble and disappear.

My second church, which defines my childhood, is the Manor Ground Oxford, home of Oxford United. My first visit was when I was three, I stared in disbelief at the floodlights and was so small I couldn't see anything, every time the ball appeared in the sky I'd cheer. I've been attending mass at the Manor regularly since about 1980 becoming my home every other Saturday for the best part of 20 years - it's the place that bridges the gulf between my childhood, and adulthood. Of course, 18 months ago they knocked the bloody thing down and built a hospital on the land.

So I'm a soulless fool, Christ, I have an internet site, what do you expect? But wait, was there not a third church?

Indeed there is, for me it's the Rising Sun, the Riser, a small low ceilinged pub in Thame. It could have been very different, it could have been the Abingdon Arms (the Abo or Abbey, depending on which local dialect you subscribe to). My first visit to the Abbey was after a school play. I walked through its cavernous surroundings, it felt like descending into the pits of hell, the log fires raged, mottling the walls with foreboding orange venom. I got to the back of the main bar, there was a huge table surrounded by a council of the beautiful and fashionable people from school. It was a toxic orgy, limbs everywhere, evil cackling. I'd never seen these girls in make-up or looking so, y'know, womanly. I always thought when the popular people turned up on Monday with different boyfriends and girlfriends that the constant merry-go-round was administered by a committee of responsible parents. I had no idea they were writhing in this seething cesspit grabbing and fondling each other. Thank god the pub burnt down about a week after that visit, it saved me from a life in the catacombs of Beelzebub.

Instead, we set up camp in The Riser, a pub run by the spectacularly fragrant Marion, a shapely, flirtatious, homely yummy mummy who greeted everyone who entered, regular or stranger, like a friend, or potential bedfellow. Whilst ordering your pint of Hook Norton she'd seduce you with her gentle affection, then you'd look over her shoulder and see Bob, a great Bear of a man, her husband, with a riot of whiskers and a jowly glare. They didn't fit together at all, but you didn't like to question it too much.

Bob and Marion shall always be the spiritual landlords of the Riser. They're a bit like Doctor Who or James Bond, you're favourite is always the first one you remember. They left about seven years ago in a blaze of glory, a Sunday night drink-the-bar-dry which due to the combination of copious quantities of cheap booze, and bottom of the barrel quality ale, meant the following Monday was an absolute car crash.

They marshalled many many great nights, my whole memory is viewed in a hazy soft focus. Above all it's Christmas that rush the memory. For two years, returning from University, the Mecca for celebration on eventide was the Riser. The whole school descended on the pub packing it to its low rafters. The night descended into a hazy, drunken, smorgasbord of memories and adventures. It was like Christmas, hell, it was Christmas. After those two years, people began to miss Christmas eve at Riser because they were booked to spend time away with their beau's family and friends. The crowds thinned, it was never possible to get everyone back together at the same time. Then, this Christmas, in some kind of telepathic communication, we all descended again. Perhaps we were wrestling with our First Quartile Life Crises, perhaps it was just fate, but suddenly the place was full with the same, fatter faces. It was more sedate than before, but there was a spark, a small spark.

There were other nights of drinking, but as we got older we'd start the evening with burgers, instead of beers. Big burgers, the size of hubcaps, with wedges and BBQ sauce. It was still our Riser, but it was growing up with us. Tuesdays were quiz night; Penny captained The Barker's Dozen to mid-table obscurity week after week. It's perhaps the only quiz night in the world which had a round on Heraldry. There aren’t many places outside your own home where you walk in without the slightest itch of apprehension. The Riser was one of those places.

Then a few weeks ago, on a night out with Vicky and Nobby, we ventured once more to our trusted cultural behemoth, talking as always we absentmindedly leant on the door we'd pushed through a thousand million times before. It didn't budge. No lights were on. It was closed. On a Friday. For refurbishment.

Tonight it opens as a themed restaurant pub boasting 500 types of sausage.


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