Perhaps the Paper Lantern itself—this suddenly strange, suddenly useless and rather sad building just off the main road in our unimportant little ‘village’—bears a bit of describing. Where to start. Perhaps the plain greyish front door on South Street, the all-important road out, the road to the big city and all that might mean, which, upon entry, leads to two bars, one to the left and another to the right. Mostly the building is from the 17th century, half-timber, two storied and with a good garden. Through the bar on your right hand side as you enter from the front lies another small room, until recently a kind of modest dining room, favoured for some reason by the elderly customers but now, chairs up on the tables, it functions as a kind of utility room. Home to a couple of bicycles my parents have begun to use again for the first time in years, a clothes horse, a couple of bags of old clothes they have culled over the past few weeks in various periods of organisation, re-organisation. The bags mean sacrifice, pruning, they are the symbols of a refreshed way of living. Of, perhaps, a new material sobriety. The news hints at the possibilities of an emergent new culture across the country. Exercise, the outdoors, birdsong, less traffic, less ostentatious travel. Wardrobes have been thinned. All things are being held to various kinds of account.
Between the dining room and the saloon bar, as we call it, is a small window framed in a little nook under the stairwell that leads up to the living quarters of the pub. To my own rather sorry little room. Through this glass pane you look down into the old cellar and above it there is a small plaque displaying a couple of bits of village folklore that I am sure any resident of anywhere comparable will find unremarkable. They are of the common-or-garden sort that abound in any village, and attach themselves to any village pub. These comprise of the story that the cellar leads to a series of tunnels that link the Paper Lantern to the larger White Horse on the High Street, and that in fact there are also tunnels that lead to the church away across the fields to the south of the pub. The tunnels’ purposes are as dubious as the truth of the architecture itself—no tunnels have ever been found, either for use in shuttling prostitutes along from the Lantern (which, if the stories are to be believed, it seems has always offered something with a little more tang than the more expensive, and these days at least, more homogenous faire on offer at the brewery-pub establishments on the high street proper) to the White Horse in its coaching-house days, or more simply to carry a beer barrel or two down to the church. The regulars tell these stories to new visitors now and then, eyebrows arched, voices tinged with something half-hearted in the telling. Then they will show them the stone that sits outside the front door, and its apparently ancient, carved female equivalent of the school boy desk-top classic cock-and-balls—in fine, deliberate lines the stone shows, through a kind of trigonometric symbolism, exactly what was once, supposedly, available at the Lantern that wasn’t elsewhere.
The bar on the left as you enter is colloquially known as the sports bar, but the presence of the TV on the far wall is really the only concession to elite-level sport. For our part, we provide a darts board, cards from behind the bar, and an antique-looking game called Tripletell I have never seen anywhere else. The game involves a small pool cue and cue ball and a long thin wooden frame marked by a series of sections of diminishing sizes. Each section has a points value, finally reaching 20, which is both the smallest section and the furthest from the bottom of the frame. The object of the game is to play the cue ball up the frame, which is slightly inclined, until it stops in the small metal gates that mark each section. There is a scoring system of ‘first-to-100’, though you must finish on exactly 100, anything ‘over’ causing the player to go bust in much the same way as darts. Sunday nights used to be Tripletell nights, where we would put the frame out on a table in the back room and Jim and Tom, two of the pub’s younger regulars, both in their mid-twenties and lashed to the village in some kind of strange inertia, would play for pennies. Unique among their peers, these two are seemingly immune to the pull of the capital, or the university towns, which after years and years of pushing the virtues of bigger, more cultural, more exciting elsewheres, of the scam of higher education that is so ubiquitous as to be both worthless and inevitable and finally cripplingly expensive, has decimated the area of people their age. Another loss to tot up at the bar, alongside the multitude of insects, certain species of birds—cuckoos, nightingales, corn buntings—healthy chalk streams, and on occasion, I find myself thinking, an understanding of any other way of living save that of the flabby and indulged comfort that infects this place and prevents us from seeing all these things that are no longer here.
In those days before all this, those social days, the days of plenty (around here at least), almost always ‘home’, as he calls it, in the sports bar, standing by the hatch which opens from behind the bar for the staff to get out and clear glasses or collect plates would be Big Andy. Big Andy’s family live in a small cottage on the high street. An old and attractive flint and brick building in a little row just down from the station. He will tell you that his surname is local, attached to the village since at least the 16th century. His name, he will tell you, is older than his house. I was a few years younger than him at the grammar school in the nearby town. The school that has created an arms race of private tuition and extra classes and in my experience no small number of rather lost souls like Andy, who can’t quite seem to reconcile how the world has never offered up its wonders to him, having been told that was his destiny from the age of eleven to eighteen. One of the gifted. The top whatever percentile of intellects in the country. The school goes on selling itself to its pupils long after they’ve enrolled. No doubt the kids are mostly smart investments. But a few, like Andy, emerge from those days of latin and quadrangles, of heavily-funded school sports, of camaraderie and the casual homophobia only an all-boys school can engender, and they find themselves in a world that is harder than they thought. A world that, it turns out, doesn’t care quite as much as they thought about their actually rather second-rate schooling. They might meet somebody genuinely posh, or rich, or educated at that next, rather more ‘selective’ level, and their expectations of a gilded life meet the rather grubby reality. Perhaps they drop out of university, finding that they don’t fit in quite as they did at school. Perhaps their jokes no longer land. The ‘gay’ stuff doesn’t wash, the bluster doesn’t come over. They are one of any number of middling students of English. It turns out that rather a lot of people have read Bukowski, the Beats, Burgess, Ballard. They come back to the village after that disastrous first year, they get a job for a local building company and for that first summer everything turns great again. Their little gang from school are all back, they have proper money. They drink in the Lantern every night and on the weekends they go into town. On the site they are the great talker, the thinker, the joker. They have read the books, and they make everybody laugh in the pub after work on a Friday. Slowly it all becomes something like a self. The heroic autodidact. No university for them but instead the world of work and a little reading. They know a little more than a little bit about almost everything. Football, motor racing, cricket, rugby, boxing. They are especially pleased with themselves to show off their knowledge of boxing. Politics, of course, local history, etymology. They are the first person Mark takes his crossword to when he’s got as far as he can. In places like the Paper Lantern they are always at home.
Big Andy has become so at home, in fact, that a packed sports bar once provided him with an audience as he performed the staggering feat of becoming visibly aroused during his own rendition of Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ at one of the pub’s regular open mic nights. Six-foot-five, eighteen stone, his best friend Adam playing the song quite beautifully sitting just behind him, and as that soft, other-worldly melody passed from Andy to his audience across the room, so we watched as a quite obvious erection slowly stirred and announced itself in his dark blue tracksuit bottoms. Andy didn’t seem to notice, or to care. He had drifted away with the song, with its odd phrasing and its dream-like chord progression, and the doleful melancholy power its lyrics had on him. Poetry, you see. I don’t remember anybody bringing it up with him after he’d finished and gone back to his place at the bar. He isn’t the kind of person, I don’t suppose, that makes it easy to broach the subject of him getting a discernible hard-on in his tracksuit bottoms during the singing of his particular, favourite Nick Drake song.
These last weeks of course, both rooms are continually empty. The tray of crisps sits up on the bar in the saloon alongside newspapers, cleaning products, now and then a coffee cup or a mobile phone. The place is in a perpetual Sunday morning. The tall tables by the windows in the sports provide a spot for seedlings and propagation trays. There are gaps in the spirits behind the bar where rum and bourbon bottles used to stand. Each week Friday teatime passes without the teachers overrunning the sports bar, the regulars in the saloon, the cyclists and families and dogs in the beer garden. After a lifetime of imagining, of thinking and dreaming it up, this is what eventually passes for truly dropping out—an absence of individual, specific people, which turns into an absence of the times they are associated with, which becomes an absence of time altogether. Time has become simply the choreography of the three of us who are left in this place, surrounded everywhere by monuments to its once true function, by memory, going off like the beer in the cold store, forgetting itself in the dementia of becoming the past, obsolete, meaningless.
The field directly to the south of the pub is called The Witchell and in any other summer would be serving as the cricket club’s second ground. Training for the youngsters, colts and pub games, that sort of thing. A small path leads around the field along its eastern edge and down past a large pond towards the church. Another pub story of the classic type tells of the ‘fact’ that the field takes its name from the time when the church was first built. The villagers laid the church’s foundations in this field, brought the stone and flint and timber to build with, but the morning after their first days’ work, they arrived back at the site to find that during the night everything had been moved a couple of fields south. Of course the fairies and witches had long since claimed that field for their own, and when the same thing happened a few days and nights in a row, the villagers gave up and the church was eventually built in its present location. Rumours of witches and witchcraft continued to attach themselves to the field, and there is a 14th century reference to it as the ‘Wychewelle Croft’. More prosaic and so, of course, much more likely is that the village in fact moved further to the north in order to expand into its status as a market town. Commerce and expansion. The drift, that started even before the assizes and markets and little flint churches and bells by Ellis Knight, and family names like De Gurnay and De Fiennes, even before this place was known by its other, older names—Gloversacre, Oxpennyng, Northbrech, le Maline, Socchfeld, Medecroft, Paradise—the drift from the house of the spirit to the house of finance. The slippery and mutable definitions of space, of human demarcations which are really demarcations of time. One ‘history’ of this place, the one read in the archives, is that of these names and manors, of tithes and rents. Of boundaries prone to be moved, and with them whole settlements. That’s not to say, of course, that the church itself hasn’t always represented both the house of the spirit and the house of the pound in equal measure. In fact, this church has its own special place in the entwined histories of money and the soul, in the double nature of the word ‘salvation’—the country’s first ever penny savings bank was formed here in the vestry. In this very place where money and morality still most subtly confuse themselves, still play tricks on each other in the manner of the trickster gods and their archetypal-opposite siblings. Give me the witches and fairies that shift bricks and stone and flint and timber overnight. Not here, they say. Not now.