There has been a fair amount of nattering in the press this year from literary prize judges asking where the joy and humour in literature has gone. My first suggestion is they’ve been holed up with a pint and lost track of time in a cosy spot at The Old Spring, Richard Francis’ latest novel and homage to the institution that is the British pub.
Think about the times you have visited a pub. And when I say a pub, I really do mean a pub, not a wine bar, sports bar or club – an honest-to-goodness pub with a fireplace, snug, and heavy wooden bar. You know the one, with flowerpots and comfy booths and pre-made rolls and crisps. You know. So, ever found yourself wondering about the lives behind the faces of the barman, the loner, the criminal, the tart, the socially inept, or the couple in the corner? The Old Spring is, as it were, a backstage pass that grants access-all-areas to the fictional effigies of these wholly believable and very ordinary rock stars.
Francis’ tenth fiction novel is an ale-soaked romp set during the course of one day in The Old Spring. The narrative is loosely woven with the lives of a cacophony of characters that, on one level or another, all frequent the pub. And when I say cacophony, I mean cacophony.
Long-term unmarried couple Frank and Dawn run The Old Spring. When we meet them they are busy sweating over a till discrepancy they have to settle today with uber-sleaze brewery rep Tim Green. Frank is contemplating the secret that has kept their bed cold for the last couple of years while Dawn is struggling with the anniversary of an unburied hatchet of her own. Darren, pub employee, is like one of those cartoons that is followed around by a rain cloud hanging over his head and believes he is a vortex for poltergeists. Meanwhile other pub regulars sit at the bar and ponder: “Father Thomas” struggles with his faith, Romesh is dying in hospital, Jake the tattooed man contemplates whether tomorrow he himself will be alive or dead, and Jerry and Alan play the storage-of-useless-information and bitter-cynic duo. And there are more. But I wouldn’t want to confuse you. Even the pub itself, The Old Spring, the ‘brown diamond’, plays a character in the novel with its alluring fire and mysterious dark cellar.
Despite veering dangerously close to being overwhelmed by the volume of colourful characters featured in The Old Spring, the reader is in safe hands. Francis looks after us well, keeping characters clear by circling back and revisiting each story regularly, leaving reminders behind for us every time. Francis’ prose is vivid and immediate. His imagery is refreshing and visceral:
Dawn looked over at the bar, gleaming softly brown, at the different coloured bottle, ruby red, brown, fawn, yellow, green of green glass, at the faint glitter of glasses and optics, at the grey windows beyond. There was the gentle sound of thudding as if rain was knocking on the windows with watery fists.
But the backbone of this endearing, sad, hilarious and quiet novel is its sparkling comedic dialogue, which often leaves the reader feeling that we are indeed a patron of the pub ourselves, eavesdropping on the banter around us.
If you’re after a novel with feeling and soul, The Old Spring serves it up generously with perfect foam. It offers an altogether heartfelt ode to the way the pub brings together a liquorice all-sort of characters and turns them into a family away from family.
Any Cop?: It’s not a compelling I-couldn’t-put-it-down read, but it is very pleasurable. If nothing else, The Old Spring will have you hankering for a visit to your local to get a pint in your hands. And maybe a conversation or two with the regulars.