Old cars, like old bars, should be enjoyed while they last says John...
As Ted the Jack Russell and I were on our usual walk last night, we were about a hundred metres from the local social club when I was suddenly hit by the smell of an old bar. Despite having lived in this village for over twenty years and walking a dog past this spot just about every single day during that time, it was the first time I ever really noticed the smell.
The club has been closed all through lockdown, but the back doors are now open and there is a marquee in the garden where people can meet, outdoors but under cover. I guess the breeze was just right for whatever aromatics were emanating from the club to be blown straight to my olfactory nerves. It was a surprisingly emotional experience. Growing up in Ireland, I spent a lot of time in bars with my dad, as men did in the 1970s. My dad ran a chain of music shops and two in the centre of town were almost completely staffed by family: my granddad worked there, as did two of my uncles and two older cousins. We would visit the bar up the street for lunch, and again after closing for an end-of-day debrief.
Speaking as someone who spent a lot of time in bars growing up, including many years playing music across the UK and Ireland, bars are not quite the same as pubs and pub culture is not bar culture. Irish bars are hubs; they may have a shop, and most will serve food. Bars often open early in the morning if close to a market and, when I was growing up, they were meeting points as much as they were centres for alcohol. No doubt many of those in a bar were there to get alcohol, but the bar was more about meeting real people. There seemed to be plenty of fake people in churches, but no fake people in bars.
As my grandad had worked on the railways, his house was close to the train station and the bar at the end of his street was a rail-waymans’ bar. This immaculate establishment was run by Peggy Slattery and there were no shenanigans there. The rough crowd went elsewhere. My dad and grandad were both in a marching band that had its band room across the road from Slattery’s bar, plus my grandad ran the city’s musicians’ union and would meet to discuss business at Slattery’s. So, he was embedded in several communities, each of which centred on bars. I don’t remember him as a particularly big drinker, just a good man to be in a bar with, as all sorts of people would talk to him.
Bars are important to men is the lesson I took from all this. Behind those big wooden doors with polished handles and well-worn thresholds lay a welcoming aroma of porter and coffee, polished brass and smoky leather and a community of people who cared about you, who were glad to see you and who would look after you, either by feeding you or simply by listening to your troubles. I have experienced many unique moments of connection in bars with very special people and quite often with no alcohol involved.
As I strolled past the social club and was swathed in this familiar aroma, the warmth of community, childhood and thoughts of close family flooded in on a wave of humanity. It simultaneously occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced such an overwhelming awareness for decades and that, like all waves, it would come to the shore, sink into the sand and be gone. In another few steps, the spell would be broken: this sudden vivid rush of awareness, connection and emotional engagement would be over. As my stride continued, the wave retreated and my experience switched to processing the emotional flotsam.
We don’t always know when our last experience of something dear will be. I held each of my three daughters daily when they were children, but on three unknown days, I picked each of them up for the very last time. In those moments, I did not know they would be the last. When I entered a bar and sat down with my father and grandfather for the very last time, I didn’t know it would be the last. Many years later, the memories of these moments – that were once normal life but will now never happen again – are incredibly special.
For those of us who love cars, our emotional responses to powerful engines have been formative: I left my family and country of birth to follow my passion for cars. While I don’t wish to keep a dying technology alive for old times, and I believe that whatever comes next will inspire new soul-stirring experiences, it will not be the same as what we grew up with and what our minds have enshrined as a cornerstone of our individual emotional programming.
So, to all who are still driving great cars with great engines. Every time you drive your car, remember that one day, it will be the last time. There’s a chance that, on that last time, you won’t know it’s the last. Enjoy it, share your joy and remember that the experience of commanding internal combustion engineering for pleasure makes you part of a fortunate community whose future is finite. Look to the future with optimism, but embrace those moments remaining with a happy heart.