Here’s to you, Joe: a letter too late in the sending
So, you’ve left us and I’m sad. I’m standing in my whisky shed, a suitably old dram to hand alongside a favourite dark Porter (a quality hauf ‘n hauf). I’m not sure that you’d approve, but then I didn’t know you well at all. If I counted the hours that I spent in the Fiddichside Inn it would be no more than 5, spread over three days, spanning four years. Indeed, if you were still holding court in your “living room” of a pub and I walked in you probably wouldn’t recognise me… but I know that I’d be made to feel welcome. You had that way of looking and speaking that fused child-like innocence with the wisdom of a life well-lived. You also had a quiet, impish charm that I suspected, functioned as a veil suppressing a recently acquired, quiet melancholy.
On reflection, in terms of our first meeting, I was fortunate, but from your perspective as a business owner, not so much, Joe. On that October evening, after two gillies left, accompanied by their well-paying but pissed, Irish, visiting fisher folk, you were left with myself and my good wife as companions; your only custom for the rest of the evening. To be honest, that dynamic (a married couple and a stranger), in a setting that defied any common perception of either “inn” or “pub”, could have felt a little uncomfortable. However, your quiet, welcoming demeanor, your smile, and your fine selection of drams at unbelievably reasonable prices eased any “townie” misgivings I may have been harbouring. I remember being amused at your habit of writing down what drinks people had ordered on a notepad, a nod to a bygone age, a way of holding on to a past that held so much… I don’t know, I didn’t know you that well.
During that memorable evening you regaled us with intoxicating tales of your past, your time as a gillie, your work inspiring youngsters, tales of your life with your good lady, you directed our attention to various B&W photos that adorned the walls, each one imbued with history, innocence, and charm. Early on you revealed that your beloved wife, Dorothy, had died only a few years previously and in many of the stories you told, she played a not insignificant role. It has not escaped my attention that there was much about you that reminded me of my own dad (who had died a couple of years before we first met). Your enthusiasm for the telling of stories, your sense of humour, the sense that I got that you weren’t quite revealing all in your stories, that there was a deeper, more personal resonance that wasn’t for sharing with relative strangers… and then there was that sparkle in your eyes!
After working through a goodly number of the Flora & Fauna collection on your shelves we bade our farewell’s and sauntered back to the Craigellachie Hotel. I remember discussing the evening with my wife in an excited and almost child-like fashion, I was elated, it was the highlight of my trip to Scotland. I also remember feeling a sadness related to the fact that we had experienced a snapshot in time, an evening that was unlikely to be repeated. It was clear that you couldn’t continue to run the Inn for many more years and we wondered what would become of it when you finally left. More importantly, we wondered what would become of your stories! Had anyone spent time recording your experiences, tapping into the chronicle of events that punctuated your life? I certainly hope so Joe for you had much to share.
I don’t want to be presumptuous in using the word “meeting”, it seems to indicate something more than the coming together of landlord and punter. To you Joe, I may well have been another customer but to me, that phrase in no way captures my experience of both you and your fine establishment. You certainly didn’t make either of us feel like we were just customers. Whenever I’m sharing stories of my too few trips to Scotland, your name invariably slips into the conversation… and I’m always smiling when it does. I didn’t know you that well Joe, but I will miss you dearly.
P.S. For what it’s worth, I posted news of your passing on Twitter (don’t ask, you don’t want to know!), and the response was amazing. Messages from around the world poured in, expressing their sadness at the news. You were truly loved, Joe…
The two subsequent visits I made were all too brief. On the second visit, business was good! Joe was holding court to between 15-20 people in the bar which meant it was rammed and there was no time to exchange even a few words. The last time I visited I was with what has become known as “The Tormore Four”, a collection of ne’er do wells with a singular passion for whisky. As with the previous visit, there was little time to engage in much conversation. Having said that, each time I was en route, I can remember a growing feeling of excitement at reconnecting with… something ethereal, something deeper than simply calling in for a dram.
Perhaps the mark of a person’s impact on you is evidenced by how much you think about them after you have met. When the Inn closed for the evening I often wondered what Joe’s evenings looked like. Did he spend the time alone, did he have family close to hand? When he finished his landlord duties, the cleaning, the locking, the switching off of lights, and he was left with the babble of the Spey, and the serene darkness, what occupied his mind? There are others that are better placed to answer such questions but I like to think that, in that most tranquil of places, he was at peace with the world.
I recognise that there are many that can lay claim to knowing Joe infinitely more intimately than I could ever do. This is simply a reflection on the impact that he had on me.
(Video courtesy of Curt at All Things Whisky.)