With the easing of lockdown on 4th July comes the great British conundrum – will our pubs still be the same? Gustav Temple and Olly Smith look back at the glory days of the British pub, at least as they were until 23rd March 2020.
The gentle murmur of voices. The clink of glasses being raised. The slosh of dark ale filling a tankard. The pop of a crisp packet being opened. A round of laughter. The crackle as a log is popped on the fire. An old man in a flat cap bustling in, shutting the door on the gusts outside. ‘Half of mild and bitter, if you please.’
Where are we, in a dream? An Ealing Comedy? Paradise itself? No, gentlemen, we are in the 21st century and thanking the Lord for the preservation of the British pub. An institution that has remained unchanged, in many of its better exponents, since mediaeval times. And even the ones that have evolved, by removing the horse brasses and painting the walls grey, have still maintained some vital essence of the original inns of these fair isles, which distinguishes them from all the other drinking holes of the world.
The Spanish have their bodegas, the French their Bar-Tabacs, the Germans their bierkellers, the Americans their bars, all of which are fine and dandy for chaps on their hols seeking a refreshing local tipple, but there is nothing quite like entering an British pub on a cold winter’s night. Even on a sunny afternoon, it is always winter in a pub. The light from outside might try to penetrate the gloom and remind you that there is something else to do, but seriously, is there?
What activity on God’s Green Earth could be more civilized, more important and more invigorating than sitting (we’ll come to standing up in pubs later) at a slightly sticky table with several beer mats propping up one of the legs, and discussing practically anything with one’s favourite chums. There is something about a British pub that encourages fine conversation as soon as one enters. Pubs are like the Symposia of Ancient Greece; one pulls an imaginary toga over one’s head upon entry and sharpens up one’s wit and intelligence for the debate ahead. This could be about whether Britain was right to reject the European Exchange Rate Mechanism or whether five pence coins are prettier than half pennies.
Pubs have a place in every stage of our lives. At the beginning of a relationship they provide a neutral though cosy venue for quiet discussions that may lead to love. Though often small, pubs, even the ones without music, somehow encourage privacy among its customers, if that is what they require. One may visit the same pub a week after one’s first date and be absorbed by a huge, beery, happy crowd that shuns privacy in favour of bonhomie and unity.
When you stand among such folk at the bar of your local pub; young, old, male, female, human, canine, equine (in some country pubs) you are truly part of the community and there is no need to worry about anything at all, apart from whose round it is. Everyone, at least once in their lives, should enter their local pub and offer to buy every single punter a drink. When you choose to do this is up to you: in Gustav’s case it was when his tailor had finally agreed to put turned-back cuffs on his jacket; In Olly’s it was when his pet Python Arabella gave birth to triplets, giving rise to the cheery toast of “Snake Surprise!”.
TYPES OF PUB
In the old days, pubs were all more or less the same: a floor full of sawdust, a room full of men and beer pulled straight from the barrel. The only decoration was the sign on the wall that read: DRUNKARDS WILL BE HANGED and NO URINATING ON THE FLOOR. These days, there are all manner and variety of hostelry, from roughhouse boozer to sophisticate’s retreat. Here is a handy list of the types of pub you will encounter on these isles and what to expect therein.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE LOCAL TO DRINK HERE (BUT YOU DO)
Décor: Threadbare carpet in shades of red, horse brasses, photos of the pub 100 years ago (looking exactly the same as today). Clientele: Male, 50+ (and that includes their dogs). Lavatories: Pungent, abandoned. The menu: principally real ales, a few perfunctory bottles of lager, good selection of single malt. Catchphrase: “Fred’s in late tonight.” (at five pm).
THE CITIZEN’S ADVICE BUREAU
Décor: grey walls, large photographs of pebbles. Clientele: boring people in their late 30s. Lavatories: pointlessly wallpapered. The menu: craft ales, lots of Czech lager, tons and tons of red wine at eye watering prices and a vast range of glass sizes. Catchphrase: “A small-to-semi-medium Shiraz please, and some of those overpriced macadamia nuts.”
THE WILD WEST SALOON
Décor: Carpet decorated with wet patches, broken chairs, passport photos of youths barred for life. Lavatories: dangerous. The menu: Lager, lager lager. Catchphrase: “Wot you lookin’ at, mate? (to the landlord as he pulls pint).
Décor: bare, polished floorboards, framed reproduction wartime posters. Lavatories: lovely. The Menu: white wine, sparkling wine, rose wine, weak beer. Catchphrase: “It’s raining Merlot, Hallelujah!”