Of all three Lord of the Rings films, I think my favourite scene is in the first one, The Fellowship of the Ring. It's when the four hobbits reach Bree, head for the Prancing Pony (where they're supposed to meet Gandalf) and get themselves some refreshments. Merry (or is it Pippin?) brings an oversized tankard of ale to the table with an air of lustful anticipation. Pippin (or is it Merry?) asks "What's that?", to which the first hobbit replies, "This, my friend, is a pint." Second hobbit: "It comes in pints? I'm getting one!"
My first real experience of our favourite cold beverage bears a passing resemblance. It was at the reception following a friend's wedding. A lot of British pubs, especially city pubs, have a space - usually upstairs and usually with its own bar - which can be hired out for private events. It's called the function room and it can be anything from a basic bar to something bordering on grandiose. The room might even have a stage at one end for a band to perform, and quite a few of those have been turned into music venues, even giving birth to a whole music genre, pub rock.
So there we were, my parents and me, on a Saturday night after the nuptials had taken place earlier in the afternoon at a nearby church. I was 14 years old and I decided that I was going to have a beer. If I'd been in the public bar downstairs I'd haven been shown the door in short order, because the legal drinking age at the time was (and still is) 18. But since this was a private function, either the same rules didn't apply or they weren't applied so rigorously, and when this fresh-faced youth sauntered up to the bar and requested a Double Diamond, the barman asked me if I wanted a half or a pint. I considered it for a few moments. "A pint please!" I said, with all the bravado I could summon up.
I can still remember the look on his face when he handed it to me. It said "He isn't gonna finish that," and y'know what? He was right. I carried it back to my table with the same kind of anticipation that Merry (or was it Pippin?) had, set it down, looked at it for a few moments and took a sip.
And that was about as far as I got with it. How on earth (and why on earth) do people drink this stuff? I thought to myself. It's awful. Who knew that Double Diamond would become the official beer of the rebel alliance or that two years later (and still two years below legal minimum drinking age) I'd be knocking back pints of the stuff with my friends in the same pub? The pub where I played my first game of Space Invaders and heard 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" for the first time.
Is that where Queen got the idea for the "Bohemian Rhapsody" video, I wonder? Or was it the other way around? There's only five months between the two release dates, 10cc in May and Queen in October.
When I recall some of my most vivid memories, I realise how many of them are beer- or pub-related. Some people would say that suggests a misspent youth, and I would disagree (but I would say that, wouldn't I?). For instance: I was in a pub one evening in August 1977 when someone poked their head around the door and said "Elvis is dead." The whole place went quiet. Conversation stopped, pool games were abandoned, a handful of people wandered off home to catch the TV news. The atmosphere remained sombre for the rest of the evening. They say that the sense of smell can evoke powerful memories, and Marcel Proust managed to concoct an entire seven volume novel from the experience.
There's nothing quite like the smell of a pub first thing in the morning. Or rather, there wasn't before the smoking ban in pubs and bars (I'm a non-smoker, by the way). During the night-time hours when the pub's interior was shut and bolted against intruders, the aroma of a beer-sodden carpet mingled with an evening's-worth of cigarette smoke would build up to the point where it would slap you in face and make your eyes water when you walked in the next day. This dubious enjoyment was usually reserved for the pub's cleaners, bartenders and managers because they were always first in, and by the time the public was let in for the their first drink of the day the windows and doors would have been opened for a couple of hours and/or the extractor fans turned on, banishing the noisome fug (mostly) from the building, at least until it wormed its way back in after closing time.
The cigarette smoke is long since gone, but for me, that distinctive odour of stale beer is one of those things that makes a pub a pub, and the moment I smell it I know I'm home.