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What we talk about when we talk about pubs

Most pubs are not vibrant community centres: they are places lonely people go to drink

The past few weeks have seen rending of garments and gnashing of teeth about the potential closure of the Gladstone, a pub situated just south of the river in Borough, London, with the site flagged for an apartment block development.

The Gladstone is an agreeable pub replete with the interesting beers, affordable food, and the mix of “young creatives” and old locals that is the holy grail of pub fetishist.

Writing in the Spectator, conservative columnist Peter Oborne went misty-eyed over the potential loss of the “Glad”: “[A]n old man nurses a pint in late summer light that falls through mullioned windows. The grain of the oak floors has a dark patina of London grime. There is nothing spiffed-up about the place. But it’s beautiful, and in decent nick. A black and white cat sits on the piano.” (Meanwhile, no doubt, long shadows are cast on cricket grounds,invincible green suburbs remain invincible, and old maids bicycle to holy communion through the morning mist).

Meanwhile, an overwrought blogger at Deserter.co.uk fulminated with horror that anyone would dream of turning his favourite drinking den into flats:

“The problem with the kind of people that are happy to pull down a boozer is, they’re not pub lovers. They therefore have some genetic deficiency of the soul. It may not be their fault, but why do they have to inflict their shortcomings on the rest of us?”

I am, of course, sympathetic. Earlier this year, one of my own favourite London pubs, the Sekforde Arms in Clerkenwell, closed down. This was not due to avaricious developers, but due to an owner who apparently felt they could make more money running the place as a restaurant rather than a pub. This in an area that is not exactly short of restaurants, but increasingly crying out for good pubs.

The Sekforde fitted all the necessary cliches: mixed clientele of young and old, locals, journalism students and “creatives” who worked nearby, classic, wood-paneled, listed interior, acceptable food...

And of course, yes, it was more than that. It was a scene of argument, conspiracy, condolence, and solace.

But here is the problem with writing about pubs, and particularly the English pub: the perfect pub, the platonic ideal, is so set that one cannot possibly talk about the pub without turning into a terrible bore, a “pub lover” bathing in misbegotten nostalgia.

As ever with English culture, Orwell is much to blame.

Orwell’s Moon Under Water, in which he describes his ideal pub, has been adopted as scripture. Describing this pub/nirvana, Orwell insists “its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian”: “In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk”; no radio, no piano, no singing.

Bar snacks are available, and you can get  “a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll—for about three shilling upstairs. The Moon Under Water is, in modern terms, “family friendly”. It even has swings and a slide in its enormous garden. Orwell is not really talking pubs here any more - he seems instead to have invented the Toby Carvery.

Tim Martin, the founder of mega-chain JD Wetherspoon, is often derided for claiming to have taken inspiration for his pubs from Orwell’s essay: but while it may be reasonable to accuse most Wetherspoons pubs of a certain soullessness, they are not far off Orwell’s fantasy: at best, they are clean, safe places with a good range of beer (Orwell wrote:  “I doubt whether as many as 10 per cent of London pubs serve draught stout, but the Moon Under Water is one of them”)  and affordable if unspectacular food. Though more and more of them do have televisions showing sports and news, most remain “quiet enough to talk in”.

But still, no one would describe any Wetherspoon’s as a perfect pub: Orwell’s pubtopian dream has turned sour – though he should have seen that one coming.

The curious thing about Orwell’s ideal pub is that not much drinking seems to happen in it: “drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights,” he writes. He goes on to dismiss the idea that people go to a pub for the beer: “If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its ‘atmosphere’.” Like Russ Abbott, it seems, Orwell loved a party with a happy atmosphere.

And this is where all paeans to the wonderpub fall flatter than a pint of Young’s Ordinary. In order to mythologise the ideal pub, it seems necessary to eliminate the drinking element.

Orwell, for his part, hints that the drinking goes on among the hoi polloi in the public bar. Oborne in the Spectator, and our baleful blogger, are both keen to emphasise the community, the music...everything else but the fact that the English pub is a place where people go to alter their state of consciousness, to a greater or lesser extent.

One understands the dilemma: to admit that pubs are places where people go to drink is to admit that they are essentially melancholic places.

Orwell, one should concede, is capable of looking the pub straight in the eye: the establishment described in Keep The Aspadistra Flying, visited by Gordon Comstock and his wealthy communist friend Ravelston, is a more real affair:

“Gordon shoved open the door of the public bar, Ravelston following. Ravelston persuaded himself that he was fond of pubs, especially low-class pubs. Pubs are genuinely proletarian. In a pub you can meet the working class on equal terms—or that’s the theory, anyway. But in practice Ravelston never went into a pub unless he was with somebody like Gordon, and he always felt like a fish out of water when he got there. A foul yet coldish air enveloped them. It was a filthy, smoky room, low-ceilinged, with a sawdusted floor and plain deal tables ringed by generations of beer-pots. In one corner four monstrous women with breasts the size of melons were sitting drinking porter and talking with bitter intensity about someone called Mrs Croop. The landlady, a tall grim woman with a black fringe, looking like the madame of a brothel, stood behind the bar, her powerful forearms folded, watching a game of darts which was going on between four labourers and a postman. You had to duck under the darts as you crossed the room, there was a moment’s hush and people glanced inquisitively at Ravelston. He was so obviously a gentleman. They didn’t see his type very often in the public bar.”

One cannot help think Orwell is projecting some of his own Old Etonian discomfort onto poor Ravelston (the horror at ducking darts in the public bar rears its head in the Moon Under Water, too).

The evening in the pub continues with more beer, “sucked up from some beetle-ridden cellar through yards of slimy tube”, and served in “glasses had never been washed in their lives, only rinsed in beery water”. Gordon becomes “at once more philosophic and more self-pitiful” – that is to say, drunk. Such behaviour, one expects, would not fly at the Moon Under Water.

Meanwhile, Orwell's near contemporary Patrick Hamilton was conducting his own research into public house life. Hamilton’s characters do not occasionally grace pubs – they live and die in them, much like their creator. His masterpieces, Hangover Square and Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, are “set” in pubs in the way the Great Gatsby is “set” in America: they are of pub, ur-pub, le pub profonde.

The Midnight Bell, the setting for Twenty Thousand Streets, is a non-descript pub somewhere around the Euston Road (probably the site of the current Prince of Wales Feathers on Warren Street).

Early doors, Hamilton captures the singular oddness of the public house, as the staff, Bob and Ella, wait for the bar to fill up:

“[T]he door was flung back, and there entered a tall, violent gentleman with a long nose and wearing a bowler hat. A complete stranger. He ordered a small “Black and White” and a splash. He drank it in two gulps, and instantly paced out again, leaving ‘The Midnight Bell’ in the precise predicament in which he had found it.

“One apprehended for the millionth time that it was indeed a very queer life. Silence again reigned...”

By the end of the same night, that queerness is reaffirmed, the detachment from reality only heightened:

“A horrible excitement was upon everything and everybody. Indeed, to one unacquainted with the feverish magic that alcohol can work there could only have been one way of accounting for the scene. This house must have been the theatre of some tremendous conference, in which some tremendous crisis had arisen at the moment of adjournment, and the individuals had gathered into frightened but loquacious groups to discuss the bombshell. (But some of them were in fits of laughter about it.) In such circumstances alone might the ordinary despondence and lethargy of man have been galvanized into such potency of discourse, such keenness of confidence, such an air of released honour-brightness and getting down to the essentials of life as was apparent everywhere here.

“Men! They thrust their hats back on their heads; they put their feet firmly on the rail; they looked you straight in the eye; they beat their palms with their fists, and they swilled largely and called for more. Their arguments were top-heavy with the swagger of their altruism. They appealed passionately to the laws of logic and honesty. Life, just for to-night, was miraculously clarified into simple and dramatic issues. It was the last five minutes of the evening, and they were drunk.

“And they were in every phase of drunkenness conceivable. They were talking drunk, and confidential drunk, and laughing drunk, and leering drunk, and secretive drunk, and dignified drunk, and admittedly drunk, and even rolling drunk. One gentleman, Bob observed, was patently blind drunk. Only one stage off dead drunk, that is – in which event he would not be able to leave the place unassisted.

“And over all the ranting scene Ella, bright and pert and neat and industrious, held her barmaid’s way.”

The pub has regulars, but they are all lone, and lonely men, desperate to impress Ella or Bob or anyone who will listen (one, Mr Eccles, decides he is in love with the barmaid – a not unusual phenomenon). In the second part of Twenty Thousand Streets, the Siege Of Pleasure, we learn the backstory of prostitute Jenny, whose life was ruined by her very first encounter with pubs and intoxication. (“Two ports! – she was surprised and diverted by her daring. ‘I shall come to a bad end,’ was what she very nearly humorously said.”)

In Hangover Square, the action switches to Earl’s Court, to a coterie of pub drinkers who clearly hate each other. The sole moment of light in this grim but brilliant story comes when protagonist George Harvey Bone escapes the booze to play golf on the Sussex Downs. But Bone returns to the bar quickly enough, and the story ends in tragedy.

Hamilton, a mean drunk by all accounts, was clearly addicted to, and resentful of, pub life. His accounts are extreme, but still ring true.

And this is perhaps because he grasps best the aforementioned melancholy: the vast majority of people in pubs are there because they have nowhere better to be: throughout our culture, from the sketches of Dorothy Parker, to 30s London literature to Cheers to Moe’s, we are again and again confronted by people who prop up bars because the alternative, isolation, is worse. The reason for the nightly presence at the bar is acknowledged but unspoken. This, by the way, is why many men maintain a working knowledge of major sports: one does not want to be the one who rebuffs the advances of a lonely drinker reaching out with his opinions on Wayne Rooney’s world-class status or lack of it. Solitude is bad enough without the ultimate rejection of your fellow drinkers.

This is not the picture that the vibrant community hub that those who set out to save pubs such as the Gladstone paint. But it is the elemental truth of the kind of pub that will never be eulogised in the Spectator: wells of loneliness and fountains of beer.

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms. He is Director of Editorial at 89up and has written and ghostwritten for The Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Observer, The Irish Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Sun, and The Irish Post.

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    Paul Anderson is a former editor of Tribune and deputy editor of the New Statesman. He talked to Little Atoms about Orwell's life and legacy.

    Interview first broadcast on 18th August 2006.