I feel relieved, and nostalgic with it. You can be under the impression, while living away from the place where you grew up, that things have changed since you left and that people are no longer doing the wild and crazy things you and your friends did in the good old days. Today I had that romantic notion swept swiftly aside, thanks to a visit to a Highland Gathering a few tens of miles up the coast.
It was pissing with rain as we slipped around the sodden field looking for a place to park. It didn’t take long, given that there was barely a handful of people standing around the track-and-field arena and just one kilted meat-head lobbing a 16lb hammer around his head in the centre. Or so it seemed. On closer inspection it became obvious that everyone was in the beer tent, getting fucking rubbered. As I walked passed the entrance my heart almost fluttered at the smell that wafted from it, a sweet mixture of grass, rain, whisky, fags and warm Tennents lager. It was heaven. I had to go in to soak it up, and then I remembered what this sort of drinking looks like up close. The faces, purple and glazed; the eyes, focussing for too long on each object and following just a fraction of a second behind every movement of their host; and the defiantly proud “fuck it” stance achieved by leaning slightly backwards with a cheap plastic shot-glass full of rum, vodka or whisky in one hand, the obligatory Can in the other and a maddened, glassy leer. And the under-agers, huddled for shelter under the amusements with bottles of Stella, were everywhere you looked, fresh-faced but ultimately fucked.
It all seemed so blatant. It was two in the afternoon. You just don’t see this sort of abuse anywhere else, so engrained in the community. And it was strangely warming to see that the craic is every bit as head-banging as it ever was. Nothing has changed, except the people I remembered from high school. They looked like the scary blokes that kids tend to avoid, and thankfully were far too gone to recognise me.
And then, after arriving back home to my pan of boiling beef bones, I walked past the neighbour’s house to hear the back door open and a sharp, gritty female voice shouting: “YOU COMING IN FOR A DRAM”. It wasn’t a question, it was a demand, and the urgency with which the tiny little septegenarian figure in the doorway delivered it struck a resonance. They were getting fucking wrecked in there on cheap whisky and, as has been customary every time I come back here, I was being invited to join in. My immediate gut-reaction was one of sheer excitement, like suddenly seeing the girl you are besotted with at school appear ahead of you in the corridor. But then almost simultaneously you remember that she is not your girlfriend and has, in fact, never spoken to you. So I went inside and muttered mutterings about being off it and they took that on board easily enough. They looked far more concerned with the job at hand -- sitting in their bricked-up caravan in the middle of the Highlands, where they will both die, getting ripped to the tits at four in the afternoon on dirty glasses of drinking whisky. It’s a warming image, and one that transcends my stressed and self-obsessed life in the south.
Speaking of which, I now have that smug feeling of having tomorrow’s finale all in hand, with a bowl full of fine flageolet beans soaking; a heavy disk of best free range pork thigh marinating in a dry spice mix of star-anise, cloves and Chinese fivespice; and, best of all, a tall thick pan full of silky brown stock that I have just turned off after 9 hours of skimming.