Customers drinking in an East End pub, London, circa 1970. (Photo by Steve Lewis/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

In praise of the Great British pub

Let us sip, slurp and quaff this weekend, and do our bit to keep the pub trade going

Today, the English are finally allowed back into their pubs, if they so choose. This has been greeted with everything from muttered caution – ‘breeding grounds for disease’ – to ecstatic whoops of jubilation, although that might just have been the echo heard from my kitchen. It has been over three months since the doors of public houses were closed, and although I have heard murmurings about lock-ins at some disreputable places for favoured customers, and have been pleased to see that a few enterprising establishments have been doing takeaway drinks, we have been a nation of drinkers-at-home. We have eschewed the delights of the cask or keg pint and the ‘pub measure’ of spirits in favour of the can, the bottle or the not-so ‘wee dram’. But now, we can return once again. Let joy be unconfined. 

Of course, it will not be the same as it was in those Edenic pre-covid times. Names, addresses and telephone numbers will all have to be taken on entry, and amicable queues at the bar will be replaced by table service. The former pleasures of ‘the quick pint’ taken spontaneously will be put on hold, and instead something more regulated and less anonymous will replace it. Social distancing will mean that large, rowdy groups of revellers will instead give way to smaller, quieter assemblies. Live music has been banned. There is talk about limited menus and smaller selections of beer. But even in its compromised form, the pub is still the pub, and the millions who are excitedly flocking to their local this weekend – even if the naysayers and gloom-mongers are readying themselves to blame them for any later spike in infection rates – will be delighted at the prospect of being able to drink somewhere that is not their own home, for the first time in months. 

It has been the right of the freeborn Englishman to take a libation in his local establishment for time immemorial

We are a nation of pub-goers, tavern-tourists, alehouse-aficionados and freehouse-fanciers. It has been the traditional right of the freeborn Englishman to take a libation of his choice in his local establishment for time immemorial. Chaucer had his pilgrims begin their journey to Canterbury at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, and Falstaff is barely out of the pub in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2. Countless writers, artists, poets and filmmakers have all paid tribute to the joys of the public house in their various ways; there are too many highlights to list here, but most people will never forget the various watering holes visited by Withnail and Marwood in Withnail and I, ranging from terrifying blackspots of lurking violence to forgotten places run by drunken military men. 

In a famous essay, ‘The Moon Under Water’, George Orwell wrote a paean of praise to his favourite pub in rapturous terms. Conveniently located, busy but never raucous, ‘uncompromisingly Victorian’ in its architecture and furnishings and always quiet enough to talk in, Orwell economically conveys a sense of a male-centric environment, where the barmaids have been conveniently desexed (they are middle-aged, with surprising shades of dyed hair, and call everyone ‘dear’) outdoors leads to a delightful pub garden with children running about, and drinkers can enjoy basic but delicious food and soft, creamy draught stout, which ‘goes better in a pewter plot’. As Orwell writes, “The Moon Under Water is my ideal of what a pub should be.” 

As many readers had guessed when they read Orwell’s essay, first published in the Evening Standard in 1946, there is no such place as The Moon Under Water. (There are now no fewer than fourteen in Britain, all operated by the JD Wetherspoon group, indicating that its chairman Tim Martin is not without a wry sense of humour.) Orwell acknowledged that there were many pubs that had some of the attributes that he prized, but claimed that no pub in London had all ten (although, in typically punctilious fashion, he noted that he knew one that possessed eight). 

George Orwell. (Photo by Ullstein ~Bild via Getty Images)

It may come as a surprise to many that Orwell – an anxious, sickly, dyspeptic sort of writer – was a seasoned pubgoer, but he wrote about pubs and drinking in novels such as Coming Up For Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying with the vigour and sympathy of a man who had measured out his afternoons in pint glasses. One can imagine, if one had been active in Forties Soho, running into the erstwhile Eric Blair in the snug of an establishment such as the The Dog and Duck, which was reputedly his favourite, or, if one ventured further away, to the Compton Arms in Islington, supposedly the pub that had the eight out of ten qualities that Orwell so prized in his fictitious Moon Under Water. 

One would have hoped, while on this fantastical literary pub pilgrimage, not to run into the greatest twentieth century chronicler of alehouse life, Patrick Hamilton. As his biographer Nigel Jones has so perceptively written, Hamilton was both a superb novelist and an unpleasant man, whose heavy drinking interfered with virtually every aspect of his life (including his writing, eventually) and led to an early grave. Yet there are few writers who have dealt so perceptively and so fascinatingly with the rituals and the atmosphere of the pub, creating an evocation of smoky, dusty places where men come to drink, chat and argue with one another, and where the mood can switch from alcohol-fuelled hilarity to anger and violence, and back again, at a second’s notice.  

Certainly, a crucial observation that many people have forgotten in our brave new world of gastropubs, craft beer and tasteful Farrow and Ball paint is that the pub, in Hamilton’s time and before, was traditionally a raucous, male atmosphere, where fights were as common as spilled beer (and often occasioned by said spilling) and where women were neither seen nor heard, save as barmaids, and then often as the subject of lubricious and unwelcome attention. These places have more or less vanished now, swept away by progress, higher rents and a general sense that they have little to offer their dying clientele. The famously unfriendly pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, that the doomed Americans stumble into at the beginning of An American Werewolf In London would today probably be a charming and much garlanded establishment, serving food with gastronomic pretensions, and featuring a well-chosen wine list and quaintly mismatched antiquarian furniture. The locals in the village would undoubtedly hate it, but there can be no doubt that it would be a considerably more pleasant place to visit. 

Pubs are finally reopening their doors this weekend. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Everyone has a favourite pub, and their criteria differs. Some prize atmosphere and camaraderie above all, while others are more interested in eating Michelin-starred food and drinking fine wine or craft beer in a relaxed setting without linen tablecloths and hushed silence. I moved to my current home in large part because my favourite pub in England, The Punter in Oxford, is five minutes’ walk away. The Punter, which I booked a table at the day that it announced its reopening, is the kind of wonderful place that is much longed-for but seldom exists. It overlooks the Thames, and has the kind of big windows and comfortably rustic furniture that make misspending afternoons and evenings here all too easy, coupled with excellent food (now newly all-vegetarian, apparently), superb drinks and the kind of prices that transport you to the past; £3.50 here will buy you a double of house gin and tonic. The conversation is usually highbrow, but leavened with a touch of bawdy wit. It is a haven to civilisation and I cannot wait to return there. David Cameron is an occasional visitor, but we cannot hold that against the place. 

Yet not all pubs offer such civilisation and conviviality. Ever since the smoking ban of 2007, they have been closing at an alarming rate, as their patrons have either chosen to remain at home with their fags and multi-value-packs of cheap supermarket lager, or, in the case of the young, eschew alcohol altogether in favour of a marvellously frightening range of illegal narcotic stimulants. Norwich was once said to have a pub for every day of the year, but most mid-sized cities are now unlikely to have a pub for every week of the year, and in some cases once-prosperous towns are down to a mere handful. The past few months will have been extraordinarily hard for many of them to bear, and it is hard to have any sympathy with the Puritans who have been tut-tutting at those who are reopening and hoping to have some semblance of trade. One can only hope that they recover, in some style, and that the second half of the year makes up for the enforced closure of much of the first. After all, dry January would have hit takings badly; many pubs would only have been recovering financially when they were ordered to close, this time by government edict. 

As one sips, slurps or quaffs this weekend, one is helping to stimulate a vital part of this country’s economy

So, this weekend and hopefully long beyond, one can take a drink in one’s local or favourite pub, after all the tiresome but necessary precautions have been adhered to. As one sips, slurps or quaffs, we are not only treading in the footsteps of great men (and, of course, the great women) who similarly lionised the establishments that one is patronising, but helping to stimulate a vital part of this country’s economy, which would be catastrophic if it was to collapse. So if you find me staggering out of the Punter this Saturday with a bleary-eyed look of confusion on my face and a smile of deranged happiness, you will know that I have, in a way more vigorous than Maynard Keynes could have ever imagined, been doing my very own bit to keep the pub trade going. That, I hope, is certainly worth raising a glass to.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover