At 51, I know nostalgia is easier than youth
I was 51 last weekend, so I felt I was allowed a gin in the middle of the afternoon in a lovely old bar under Mount Leinster. It is a bar that resisted modernisation during the 1970s, when some decree must have been passed stating that all public houses had to be remoulded in leatherette and Formica.
The business has remained relatively unchanged from a time when it would also have served as a hardware merchant and grocery store, on whose shelves tins of Bisto would have nestled up to bottles of baby Power’s, and where sugar would have been weighed and pints pulled, and you could have bought a pitchfork or a packet of suet as readily as a glass of porter.
It is a family-run bar with brazen wallpaper and furnishing that might be described by an interiors magazine as “eclectic”. There is a big old white scales on the counter top, the kind of scales that could weigh bonny burbling babies or silent slabs of ham.
It is the kind of bar to lose a stolen hour in; those kinds of bars and those kinds of opportunities are thin on the ground.
Outside, the late afternoon sun was pushing its way through a bruised sky and mist was lifting from the big stony face of the mountain. I was 51; I had abandoned domesticity for a weekend and it looked like the sun might shine. Sitting there, sipping the bluey gin, it occurred to me that I’m happier older than I was when I was young.
Or maybe nostalgia’s just an easier place to inhabit than youth itself.
Without wishing to sound like a Hallmark greeting card, the 50s are probably a good time to recognise one’s luck (I’m still standing, albeit on knotted veins) and stop beating yourself to a pulp for all the things you didn’t achieve and the lives you didn’t live.
Maybe it takes half a century to cut the invisible ties that bind you to a culture, or a nation, or some view of yourself you don’t remember forming. Maybe it takes that long to ease the sting of all those insidious little phrases, those tics of disapproval and shame we picked up at the knee of our wimpled educators and frocked confessors.
Maybe it takes 50 years before you can kick back in your second-hand coat on a Friday afternoon in the museum-like peace of a ghost-heavy bar, and listen to the echo of the past without feeling its needle-sharp lash.
Sit up straight; don’t speak with your mouth full; an empty vessel makes the most noise; the devil finds work for idle hands; if the wind changes, you’ll stay like that; who do you think you are; where do you think you’re going; how many times have I told you; bless me, Father, for I have sinned; hail glorious St Patrick, dear saint of our isle, on us, thy poor children, bestow a sweet smile; to thee do we fly, poor banished children of Eve; there but for the grace of God; if I have to tell you one more time, one more time, one more time, one more time.
We 50-somethings were born somewhere between the Cuban missile crisis and the start of the Late Late Show. We fell out of Holy God’s pocket and landed on this green and snake-free island around the time The Beatles were slithering into their drainpipes, de Valera was visiting the pope, and our mothers were filling up their garages with tins of baked beans, in preparation for Armageddon.
We grew up in the shadows of President John F Kennedy and Vatican II and Charlie Haughey in Charvet shirts and priests in Cortinas and emigrant ships and a ravaged island and a big religion. No more than the lovely bar nestling under the mountain, a repository for wistfulness, a reminder of the way things were, we carry around our own gallery of artefacts, our own cache of recollections.
I don’t know if it was the bar or the gin or the hour of stillness on a usually busy day, but I think it’s probably a very good thing not to reupholster memory, not to cover over the cracks with leatherette, not to replace our scratched surfaces with easy-wipe Formica.
They say 50 is the new 40; they say chronological age is a thing of the past; they say that between Botox and fasting and bleaching and screeching and regressing and destressing, we may as well be 20-year-olds. But I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to be sewn into an imitation of youth. I’d just like a few more gentle hours in a few more temperate bars before someone leans over the counter and calls last orders.