| Pubs, The Pub: A Cultural Institution

An Ode to the Pub

Today I was asked by BBC Radio 4 to write and record a short piece for the World At One about pubs, and the news that they are due to reopen on 4th July. If you missed it, or you enjoyed it and want to read over it again, here’s what I said, with an extra intro that was cut for length.

I loved pubs before I could even say the word. 

One of my earliest memories is of being held in someone’s arms in a space that glowed with polished brass. It was also red and green with Christmas decorations, and everyone around me was laughing so hard their cheeks shone too. 

I didn’t know why, but I understood that these people – my parents and their friends – were happier here than I’d seen them anywhere else.  

The British pub is so much more than a place to buy drinks. For a nation that’s famously awkward socially, every aspect of pub life is designed to break down social barriers and bring us together. For much of the last thousand years, the pub is where we’ve socialised with friends, met spouses, celebrated birthdays and weddings, and said goodbye to loved ones.   

The pub is where we play – darts, dominoes, board games, quizzes – and most of the sports we love originated either in the pub or on the village green just outside. 

George Orwell celebrated the pub as part of the informal cultural network that we choose for ourselves rather than having our leisure pursuits chosen from above. 

His 1946 essay, The Moon Under Water, remains the best thing I’ve ever read about pubs, despite spending twenty years trying to write something better. Orwell’s pink china mugs, liver sausage sandwiches and barmaids who call you ‘dear’ may sound archaic now, but the congenial spirit they create – where as a punter you feel not just like a customer, but a stakeholder in the establishment – is still present in ways Orwell would recognise. 

So when pubs were ordered to close on the 20th of March, it felt like Coronavirus was attacking not just our bodies, but our very culture and the bonds that tie us together. We knew it was coming, and on my last visits to the pub, I drank in their everyday routine, their pace and rhythm, as lovingly as I sipped my beer. 

I’ve enjoyed many great beers under lockdown, supporting my local breweries by buying from them direct. But nothing is quite like a freshly poured pint. The weight of the glass, cooling your skin. The bubbles rising. And the first hit at the back of your throat, clearing the dust and cobwebs of the day. 

The only thing that makes this better is being somewhere with others enjoying the same experience, a silent moment of communion with friends you’ve known for years, or even friends you’ve only ever met in your local, knowing that you’re sharing a moment that is simultaneously normal and banal, yet also marvellous to a degree where you might just remember it for the rest of your lives.

You can hear the programme here. I’m on at 42 mins…

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