One night, a few years ago, I went to meet a friend in a quiet country pub I had never been to. As soon as I opened the door the barman extended his right arm, pointed his finger at me and asked, “Patsy Cline, car crash or plane crash?” I looked behind to see who he was talking to, but I was the only person at the door. Four men perched on high stools along the counter stared at me, waiting for an answer to the question. I thought it was a rite of passage I had to go through to gain entry.
The barman resolved my puzzlement when he explained that the topic of conversation at the counter before I arrived was the tragic deaths of famous musicians and singers. The participants had established how Buddy Holly, Jim Reeves, Jim Croce and a few others had met their ends, but were stuck on how poor Patsy Cline died. They hoped I might have the answer. I admitted my ignorance on the matter, called for a pint and waited for my friend.
The conversation continued and all kinds of theories were put forward as to why so many celebrities died in car and air accidents. The speculating and theorising lasted for at least another hour, long after my friend arrived.
I remember another encounter with the universal and all-embracing nature of pub conversation. At 11 o clock one morning, having arrived early for an appointment in a small town in the West, I passed the spare time in a licensed premises among pre-noon drinkers. I ordered a mug of coffee and as I grimaced my way through its thin and scalded contents the scintillating conversation at the counter more than compensated for what I was trying to swallow.
The topic was informed by the television, suspended from the ceiling over the counter and tuned to a news channel. It must have been the month of June because the pictures on the screen featured footage from the Normandy invasion of 1944 and live coverage from commemoration ceremonies at the graveyards near the beaches.
“Do you know,” said a customer propped up against the wall at the end of the counter, “that the Irish played a fierce important part in that invasion.”
“How could we,” asked his neighbour, “weren’t we neutral?”
“Ah, but we were neutral on one side,” said the expert. “There were three ways in particular we helped. Firstly, a woman working in a post office in west Mayo gave General Eisenhower the clearance to go ahead when she sent him a forecast for good weather. Secondly, hundreds of Irish men went ashore with the allied armies.And, thirdly, Irish mountain goats were used to clear the minefields.”
“Is that a fact?” asked another, “the poor auld goats must have been killed in their droves.”
“They were not indeed,” replied the expert, “hardly one of them was lost.”
“Erra how did they manage that?” a sceptic at the other end of the counter demanded to know.
“I’ll tell you. These mountain goats were trained to smell out explosives buried under the ground. What’s more, as soon as they’d stand on the buttons that triggered the devices they’d leap into the air and would be gone before the things exploded. Those goats got Victoria Crosses, Purple Hearts and all kinds of decorations. Look it up.”
The man finished with such authority and threw down the challenge to ‘look it up’ with such confidence that no one dared question him. Even the sceptic nodded and returned to the dark depths of his morning pint.
Alas, these conversations can never happen nowadays. The wild theories and tall tales told by the men of the ‘counter culture’ are killed at birth by the search engines. These engines are at the beck and call of every mobile phone carried in almost every hand in the land. They give immediate access to the Smithsonian, the Imperial War Museum and every other authoritative source on the planet. Any story you tell can be checked out immediately as the tyranny of fact smothers the wild wonder of speculation.
Of course, there is the ‘dark web’ and a myriad of sinister rabbit holes down which one can go to prove or embrace any theory. But, in general, most things can be checked out by scrolling down a screen.
Pub counters and pub conversations have lost much of their wonder and the unpredictable contours of speculative discourse have given way to the steel and unyielding symmetry of hard fact. As we prepare for the full return of the ‘wet pub’ is it time to contemplate the ‘fact-free pub’, where wild speculation is encouraged, wi-fi is banned and the very utterance of the word ‘Google’ will get one barred?
By the way, poor Patsy Cline died in a plane crash, and there is no mention of Irish goats in action on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. I looked them up on you-know-where.
First published in the Farming Independent, Tuesday, August 24th 2021