An Irishman’s Diary about bad language and bad news

Upset menu

“In fairness, the barman heroically refrained from f-words while taking our order.” Photograph:  Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

“In fairness, the barman heroically refrained from f-words while taking our order.” Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

 

I paid a first (and probably last) visit to a pub recently that was notable for having both a dumbwaiter and a barman who was anything but dumb, at least in the original sense.

He talked non-stop – into the dumbwaiter’s speaker, on the phone, to a customer sitting at the counter. He also peppered every utterance with f-words, usually in the adjectival present-continuous form.

I was slightly uncomfortable about this, being accompanied by my ten-year-old son. But we were both hungry and the pub was the only place nearby serving lunch.

So I ignored the sinking feeling caused first by the bar’s stale-beer smell, and by a menu that included things like “chicken vol-au-vent” (no harm to vol-au-vents, but combined with the dumbwaiter, they gave me a weird feeling of being transported back to 1975).

Then I tried to ignore the phonecall in which the barman was complaining to someone about various technical problems: “That effin’ light-bulb in the back is gone again, and I need a new effin’ toilet-roll holder, and the lock on one of the effin’ cubicles is broken...”

Chicken chilli wrap

After all, as I explained to the child, the rude language was essentially meaningless. Many middle-aged men used “effin” the way teenagers use “like”. It punctuated the sentence, allowed a moment in which to choose the next word, and in some cases added to the rhythm, perhaps even introducing an element of iambic pentameter.

That was probably overstating it in the barman’s case, I admit. As he called our effin’ orders down to the person on the other end of the dumbwaiter, it was hard to discern any poetry. “I’m still waiting for those effin’ desserts,” he added. But the other time he stopped using the f-word, I noticed, was when relating a piece of catastrophically bad news about someone he knew, as he did repeatedly while we were there.

I’d half caught this at the end of his first phone conversation – the one about the effin’ toilet-roll holder. But now he was on the phone again, and after the effin’ preliminaries, there was a pause. Then: “I was down in M---’s this morning and met P----. He says (name deleted)’s after bein’ sent home to die. (Dramatic pause) Riddled with cancer – they can’t do anything. (Another pause). He can drink and smoke all he wants now.”

I suppose news like that doesn’t need adjectival intensifiers. In any case, it introduced a sombre note to the bar, which somehow made me even less optimistic about the food. I thought about the man on the receiving end of the terminal condition and wondered how he was coping.

An English football match played out on TV in the background, also affecting to be about life or death issues, but largely ignored by the few customers. The barman, meanwhile, fetched our order from the dumbwaiter and managed to throw another “effin” in someone’s direction before he reached us: “There yiz go”.

As I feared, the chicken wrap was tasteless. It too was a throwback to an era when Irish restaurants were beginning to risk using “chilli” as an adjective, but not yet as an actual ingredient.

Not that I felt like complaining. The barman was on the phone again, suspending expletives: “Sent home to die. Riddled with it. They can’t do anything.”

Absurdist drama

The Dumb Waiter

The elevator is also central to Pinter’s denouement, the meaning of which is ambiguous, although it involves an obvious pun on the play’s title.

In any case, I couldn’t make much sense of the drama in the pub, except that it clearly had something to say about the human condition. I waited for the barman to finish another phone conversation (“He can smoke and drink all he likes now . . .”) Then I paid him and, vaguely unsettled by the experience, exited stage left.

@FrankmcnallyIT

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