On Arthur's Day eve, Paul Hopkins describes his long love affair with 'the blonde in the black gown'
I WAS first introduced to Arthur Guinness at a family gathering when I had just turned 14. Uncle Tom proffered me a bottle of the infamous brew, with sleight of hand, as he replenished glasses from his party pack by the pantry.
"There you go," he said, "that'll put hair on your chest.'' And he popped the cap and handed me this long and elegant, but cold and wet, bottle of stout. "And don't let your mother catch you, or she'll skin me alive.''
I knew then that Uncle Tom was my favourite uncle, but the game was long up before I had summoned the courage to ask for, perhaps, a second bottle, if that would be okay, amid remarks from older cousins and maiden aunts that "Oh look, Paul is having a drink" and I barely out of short trousers.
My first date with the Blonde in the Black Gown holds bitter-sweet memories. Bitter in that that was the aftertaste, sweet in that it went down smoothly and put the settled head on my young shoulders and made me feel, all of sudden, quite grown up, if a little giddy.
But it was to be three years before I ventured to sup again from the black stuff, when I made my journey into the measured world of the public bar, cheap chandeliers and brass fittings, peopled by young bucks and old men lost in familiar overcoats as they sat motionlessly, almost ritualistically, eyeing their bottle of Guinness and its accompanying whiskey chaser. It would be a brave man indeed who'd touch another man's drink.
These were men-only, hallowed sanctuaries in the days in Dublin before 'wimmin' journalists dared to sit in a men-only bar and refused to be moved until they had been served.
In one fell swoop we men and young bucks lost our last refuge from an increasingly frenetic world and women started holding their own.
In those early days of hanging out with the Blonde in the Black Gown, my staple diet was three pints, a couple of times a week -- I can still down a pint in less than 20 seconds if pushed -- and when I got older and braver, a rum & black (no thank you, now) to round off an evening.
Guinness, which celebrates its day tomorrow, is an acquired taste. It isn't to the liking of everybody with some imbibers finding it a bit too thick to drink very much, if any, at all. It can be a very filling drink -- the nutrient equivalent of half a loaf of bread-- but not too high on alcohol (less than most lagers), which also helps if you want to have a few pints but don't want to be going mad altogether.
The once-proud art of pulling a pint, three-quarters poured at a 45-degree angle, to let settle before topping it up and allowing it to finally settle so that the creamy head is proportionate to the black body (no bishops' collars here, please), is no longer a necessary thing as modern technology has put paid to that.
Similarly, there was a time when to drink Guinness outside of the island of Ireland was to tempt fate at the bar and have your innards pay the price the morning after the night before. The excuse was: Guinness didn't travel well.
Now, technology means a pint in Dublin, Dubai or Durban, comes down to the same thing -- a picture of perfection, a joy to behold, and there is no greater joy than to run your cupped hand down the length of the cold glass figure and watch the head slowly but succinctly settle as you consider the concerns of the closing day.
Down the years, Arthur Guinness and his sons have attempted variations on their theme in a bid to fight off the lager wars and the designer beers. There was Guinness Cold, which was far too cold for this climate; Guinness Lite, whose motto was 'They said it couldn't be done ... ' (and they were right); the widget in the can so it would pour like draught; and various tries at competing with the independent porterhouse concoctions.
In the end, the original is still the best, with 10 million pints consumed daily around the world.
My GP once told me to stop smoking, cut down on the booze and lose weight. It was around the time of all that publicity about 'if you must drink, then the white wine, the white spirit and the white beer were better for you'.
So I said: "I was just thinking, mind, if you must drink, is there such a thing as a good drink?'' -- meaning the whites. He looked up from his desk at which he was writing my prescription, looked at me blankly and said: "Are you serious?" and went back to his scribble.
Such was the shock of his dismissal of my plea for a healthier lifestyle that I headed for the nearest watering hole to steady the nerves.
It's at times like that, and the rest, that you'd miss the odd night out in the company of one Arthur Guinness.
Arthur's Day is tomorrow with live music events around the country