Time is never called in my recurring dream of pubs. — Ciaran Carson in Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music
It is a hundred different late evenings in the deep of a hundred different winters in a hundred different cities.
What little light we’ve had today is fading from the lowering clouds, the wind blowing ever more bitterly cold. The few birds left scavenging the sidewalks in the late afternoon gloom sound small and worried as they speak in tiny, short notes. Even fewer people, muffled and featureless in scarves pulled high and hats pulled low, move quickly through the streets on their way to somewhere warm. Everywhere there are grey shadows and deeper shadows growing together into dark. Rain and snow and sleet fall in intermittent spurts, adding a baffling reflective quality to the deepening, developing night.
Frozen moments of different winters layer themselves into the same winter, the same dark, the same gloom, the same scurry for warmer spaces, like one of those flip books with the sketches slightly off-kilter.
Inside the pubs, the bars, the common rooms, it is that same moment of afternoon moving into night, too early for just-laid fires in the clamorous grate to have any effect at all on the loneliness of the room. You’re still waiting for the space to be warmed by others like you, your footsteps clunking noisily over wooden floors with no company but the ghosts of other feet stomping over the planks. The people have not yet arrived to make the room alive, they’re heading home to get ready for the evening to come, they’re at the shops laying on provisions for dinner, they’re trapped in the Tube, the buses, in the cars, in the trains, but you can’t see them, you’re still waiting for the session to come together, the musicians still somewhere out in the cold, with only the potentiality of the session to come.
The winter solstice has come and gone, and the nights are supposedly getting shorter while the days lengthen, but the dark comes far too early for real comfort, making the days feel stunted, aborted.
You hold cold fingers out to the infant fire, to the hundreds of fires that came before and will come after, the coal, the wood, the peat, piled up in a lumpy pyramid in the grate, thin young flames licking up in quick flicks and leaps; the fireplace, the stove, the firebox actually seeming colder than before the fire was lit, in that strange, backward way of the swept fireplace and a new fire.
You tacitly volunteer to feed the new fire, adding some coal, a piece or two of peat, as the voices of the bar staff echo around the empty room as they slice the lemons, stack the glasses, and check the inventory.
Perhaps not quite empty, there’s almost always that regular who seems to magically appear without coming through any doors, sometimes more than one, sitting at the bar, lines sagging down beside his mouth, facing down a glass of amber liquid between his cupped hands, quiet words for the guy next to him or to the bartender as he clanks the bottles into place for the evening.
And in a hundred potential moments, you are dimly aware of the session gathered in the corner around the table, already playing in full spate; you’ve never heard Jim Donohue’s played that fast or that drive-y before, god that big-boned fiddler and that tall narrow piper are cranking through it, mighty and mighty again.
And in a hundred moments the musicians are still trailing into the pub, trickling in like drops of water gathering themselves into a puddle, instrument cases slung over shoulders or dangling down their backs, eyeing the spot they want to sit in, stopping off at the bar for a drink in the case of early arrivals, or coming over to put the goods down in a chair in the case of later, claiming a space for their own before stopping for their drink.
In a hundred quietened rooms, the pretty singer the men have been eyeing all evening has been called on for a song, and she sways as she sings of the wee girl with a dark and roving eye and bad company and love betrayed and love found and wars fought and won and lost, young men dying for love or war or the right or the wrong or for nothing at all, and maids with agricultural jobs and love on their minds losing garters to soldiers, to craftsmen, to shepherds, in unlikely circumstance; and for a hundred potential moments it’s all true and as likely as anything else that happens to anyone.
A hundred moments flash over and under each other, shifting without even the blink of an eye, and you choose the one you want and move into the moment, the space, the place where you need to be.
And, in this moment and in this time, there you are, here along with us.
And the fire leaps and crackles, as we play the tunes in the warm and crowded room, as the music shifts from reel to jig to reel to polka, from good to wreckingly horrible to brilliant, from the hotshots to the beginners to the lot of us. We toast to the new year and the cycles that bring us together and tear us apart, and to the publican and to each other, here in a hundred moments at the Neverending Session, at the Pub on the Edge, the Green Man Pub under Reynard’s watchful eye, in the kitchens of the Green Man’s building, in corners of hallways, as we launch into another set of tunes.
Outside, the night is black and unbelievably cold, the wind biting at noses and fingers, and Samhain’s ever-present ravens are croaking as they huddle under dripping, icy trees. Inside, at this moment and in this time, we are together, and warm, and happy (or, at the very least, content as only someone forgetting unhappiness for the space of a night can be).
Best wishes to you in the New Year. May it bring you peace and warmth and happiness and music. Stay with us a while.