Sentimental Journey

What on earth is nostalgia, is it a good thing, a bad thing, a thing itself? Adrian Tierney-Jones muses on what constitutes nostalgia and spends time in a bar in Mons


Nostalgia is everywhere, it permeates every aspect of our lives. Some of us praise it, others pray that it goes away, but that is a prayer (like all prayers) that is never answered. I see nostalgia as a longing for something that never really existed, on a par with a creation myth, a national mythology that a nation lives by, the stories that we tell ourselves to pass the day, to pass the time, to wear away the year. 

On the other hand, is it such a bad thing, this need for nostalgia? It could be if you’re the sort of person who believes that the beer you would rather not buy is nowhere as good as it used to be and that the absence in the pub of the smell of cigarette smoke and the shouts directed at those perceived to be different is a change for the worse. 

Nostalgia could be something a bit more benevolent, though. I have a nostalgia, a longing for when the world of beer was young to me and a Bavarian Weizen was a rare creature and the Trappist Tripel an unknown quantity, glinting and winking at me from the glass, the world of beer unknown and ready to be discovered (or should that be re-discovered?). Then there are times, moments perhaps, that continue to exist long after time has moved on, recordings or etchings of life as it is lived and is that a nostalgia for something that has passed?

Is this nostalgic this moment? It is noon, Sunday lunchtime, in the Excelsior, a bar on the main square of Mons. A few weeks ago. There is a glass of St-Feuillien’s Grand Cru in front of me, a glow of amber, the scent of spice, honey and citrus and an elegance of dryness, bitterness and sweetness on the tongue. There is a silence in the bar, a Sunday silence, the slow tick-tock of time silence, all of which creates those gorgeously reflective and unhurried moments only to be found in a bar or a pub in those early minutes after opening time. I am a lone drinker, in a space surrounded by wooden panels indented and engraved with the names of Martin s Pale Ale, Guinness and Gordon Scotch ale, while at the end of this long high-ceilinged room a confessional-like bar stands, a red neon sign for St-Feuillien glowing above. 

Beyond the windows of the Excelsior, the glass coloured and latticed, people scurry along, but here in the wooden womb-like centre of the bar I am a slow sole drinker, unconcerned about whether the glass of beer in front of me (another sip and it reveals more richness) is rated or tapped or the best or the worst or whether its spell will burst like an unruly balloon at a children’s party. It is moments like these, silent, soothing, subtle moments like these, that makes a place like the Excelsior a haven and a hidden place and turns a glass of beer (any beer that you like) into such a valuable companion. The door opens, a young couple, all giggles and long scarves, tumble in, and with my beer finished I return to the world, determined to hold onto the silence that my time in the Excelsior has created.