“Only occasionally, here and there, the voice of the curmudgeon is heard in the land, peeping crossly for that which has been left back there by the roadside… Go back and see what it is. Maybe it’s only a mitten some child has dropped, or a paper cup, but maybe it’s something we needed. Go back and look.” – Barbara Holland
Much of my time drinking and writing is spent looking backward, backward into the past, to an earlier era I was unable to experience myself, a time I believe was preferable to the one I currently occupy. Early last year, I put down my first thoughts on this topic, which ultimately resulted in a three part series. I consider the first post in that series my best work to date.*
I’ve been looking backwards quite a bit lately, more so than is ordinary (for me). I’m a sucker for early 20th Century history – the music, culture, and events during the First World War, the so-called Interwar Years, and World War II – and much of my tastes originate from that thirty year period between 1915 and the late 1940s.
I also understand that one’s interests tend to be a self-reinforcing, cyclical process: when I enjoy something, I look for it, and when I find it, I’m able to enjoy it again, which makes me look for it again, and so on and so on. But the process isn’t my point. No, I want to discuss a few pieces of culture – a few books and a movie – I believe responsible for this recent gaze back at bar culture of that earlier favorite era.
A few months ago, I read Tony Judt’s final book, The Memory Chalet, while on vacation in Paris. The book, an autobiographic review of his life written while in the later stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, begins with Judt’s early childhood memories growing up in post-war England. An early chapter focuses on Judt’s love of trains, during which he recalls: “In those blissful days before mobile phones, when it was still unacceptable to play a transistor radio in a public place (and the authority of the train conductor sufficed to repress rebellious spirits), the train was a fine and silent place.”
Shortly after returning from Paris, my wife and I finally watched Woody Allen’s 2011 movie, Midnight in Paris. While we had intended to watch it before traveling, we were unable; thankfully that fact didn’t make the film any less enjoyable. The film’s central themes of nostalgia and preference for a earlier days – believing that a past time is superior to the present – soundly resonated with my earlier considerations and recent thoughts on Judt’s words: many of the central characters believe a prior period was better than the present.
First, we hear Gil (the film’s main character) express his belief that 1920s Paris was better than modern day. Then there is Adriana, who argues that Belle Époque (1890s Paris) is preferable to 1920s Paris. Finally, artists Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas collectively state – at the Moulin Rouge, of all places – that the Renaissance was the greatest period. Everyone looks backward.
Finally, this past weekend, I began Barbara Holland’s 1999 book, Wasn’t the Grass Greener? Holland, a favorite author and a modern drinker extraordinaire, managed to pen an entire text lamenting modernity, her “thirty-three reasons why life isn’t as good as it used to be.” In her chapter titled “Taverns,” she articulates thoughts on technology’s presence with abundant clarity: “Television is noisy. It makes casual conversation an effort and confiding in bartenders too loud to be confidential. Even with the sound turned off, television is distracting. Images squirm around on the screen. A row of people at a bar, confronted by television, tend to ignore each other and stare at the set. The whole purpose of the tavern fades: why be here at all?”
Best of all, the aforementioned pieces demonstrate that others too – not just me – have a tendency to view the past through a rose-colored lens: the absence of perpetually chirping cell phones, even in public; a dream to reside in the past and the experience the culture, personalities, and interactions; and dark taverns without televisions, where companionship – not viewership – is valued. Perhaps it’s a part of the human condition or simply a factor in growing older to believe a time before your own was better.
Yet like Gil, who ultimately accepts the present for what it is, perhaps the better point is making the best of today, to contribute, to better oneself and one’s culture. Might that be the true sign of maturity and self-fulfillment? So I’ll continue seeking bars without televisions, with an enveloping atmosphere of quiet music and intimate conversation, where privacy, confidence, and dim lighting provide a warm and welcoming glow. And when the time comes, I’ll create just such a place to enjoy a cocktail and a quiet thought: my own personal salon.
* I was especially proud when this post, “Just Like Old Times?“ was selected by WordPress.com’s Powers That Be to spend February 10, 2011 on the blogging site’s homepage. This selection produced a great number of page views and reader comments alike, greatly expanding The Hip Flask’s readership.