| Pubs, Southwark, The George Inn

Why do we care about pubs so much?

Putting aside the arguments over restrictions, passports and David versus Goliath, now we do most of our drinking at home (even before Covid) why does the pub actually matter?

Refreshing the parts.


I took the picture above on 22nd July 2020 – the first time I had been in a pub (or even outside one) since 13th March, the day I came home from a week of beery events around the UK and went into two weeks of quarantine to make sure I didn’t give Covid to my asthmatic wife.

Neither of us left the house again until 21st June. Three-and-a-half months into lockdown, we had never seen perspex screens in shops, or floor markers and widened pavements to help maintain social distancing. We were curious about everything in the changed outside world.

The picture was taken on a table outside the Anchor & Hope in Upper Clapton, North London. The pub sits on the bank of the River Lea, opposite Walthamstow Marshes, where we’d just taken Mildrid for a long walk for the first time in months, and the tables outside offer views of canal boats puttering lazily up and down the Lea, ducks futilely attempting to direct traffic, and long green fronds dancing lazily in the currents. Even if we’d been allowed to drink inside, we’d have chosen a table out here.

Liz went inside to the bar, and returned with two of these pints. Because I am now supposedly an “Influencer”, before I could take a swig I felt obliged (and indeed was instructed) to take a picture and share it on the socials. The accompanying text was:

“First draft pint in a pub since 13th March. Yes it’s a mainstream lager. Yes it’s in a hopelessly inappropriate wrongly branded glass. No it’s not “craft”. Go on, ask me if I care.”

They asked.

I didn’t care.

It was a warm day, 22nd July 2020. But that’s not why I ordered a mainstream lager in a wrongly branded glass. In fact I didn’t order a mainstream lager in a wrongly branded glass. I got served a mainstream lager in a wrongly branded glass because that’s all the pub had, thanks to the inept way reopening had been handled by the government, without enough notice for small, local brewers to start brewing again.

At home, I had a cellar full of infinitely better beers than this – and in many cases, the glassware to match.

But this was in a pub. As is so often the case, the beer itself wasn’t the point.

When I’m interviewed by other journalists – which happens quite a lot each time pubs gear up for reopening after a lockdown – the questions I get asked more than any other are:

  • – Why is the British pub so special?
  • – What’s the difference between a pub and a bar?
  • – Why are pubs such a big part of British culture?

These are the questions I was thinking about long before I even knew about things like “craft beer”, beer styles, the hop profile of a West Coast IPA or the pros and cons of cask breathers. And I’ve just been asked them an awful lot once again, over what we must all hope has been the final week of Covid lockdown.

I’ve been thinking about them for 25 years now, and have devoted the best parts of at least three books to trying to answer them. If anything, this makes it much harder to try to give short, concise answers, because there’s so much to say. But on the day pubs reopen for outside drinking (in somewhat less clement rather than 22nd July last year) here are three of the main answers, written with the perspective gained from having been away from pubs for longer than I have ever since about the age of sixteen.

1. We are pack animals.

Mildrid, our dog, is spoiled rotten. I’m afraid she gets whatever she wants, even when what she wants changes on a second-by-second basis. If Liz and I are sitting together, Mildrid has to be there with us, preferably lying between us. When she’s happiest she zones put, almost catatonic. The amateur dog psychologist in me believes this is to do with dogs being pack animals, and that when she’s lying between us, Mildrid is mentally back in her litter of puppies.

Maybe it takes a lockdown to really realise this, but we’re not that much different – we need to be around other people. We want to be in a pub that’s reasonably busy. We feel happier if there are other people there, even if we have no intention of directly socialising with them.

The pub occasion I’ve missed more than any other is popping in for a swift one on the way back from the park with Mildrid. On these occasions, I want to read a book, usually for some research I’m doing, and not to bump into anyone I know or be bothered by anyone I don’t know. But I’d still much rather the pub was busy than not (so long as I can get still get a table to myself.)

I wrote in Shakespeare’s Local about how trends in pub interior design have moved counter to trends in our homes. In Chaucer’s time, homes consisted of one room with a fire in the middle. There was no privacy. Pubs, on the other hand, were divided and sub-divided by screens and partitions, the forerunner of the snug, so that couples – who could afford it – were able to converse in privacy.

Now, we’ve gone the opposite way. At home, families spend a lot of their time in different rooms looking at different screens, while many pubs have knocked down all their interior walls, so we can all be in one big space, not interacting with each other directly, but comforted in some way by the presence of others.

2. But we need help socialising.

I love the American bar experience approximately 75% as much as I love the British pub. It has its own unique attractions, and I miss it desperately if I haven’t been to the US for a while. But much in American society and culture is formalised, whereas rules in Britain from the constitution to the way we order a drink at the bar are informal and unwritten – people are just expected to absorb it and know them.

I once met an American journalist for an interview in a pub in the centre of London. She was just off the Red Eye, and had headed straight in from the airport, so to be fair she wasn’t in the best shape for her first-ever British pub encounter. I found her standing about five yards way from the bar, staring at it, trembling slightly. After we made our introductions she said, “How do you do…” and raised one arm in a weak gesture in the direction of the beer pumps, “…THIS?”

Much has been written about the invisible queue at the bar, about why you never ask for a Guinness at the end of your order, about the difference in hand gestures that are politely attracting attention versus being rude.

But the reason I love this arcane, unwritten pub etiquette is that pretty much all of it has evolved specifically to encourage sociability: the buying of rounds, the need to go to the bar to do so, the clinking of glasses – the whole lot.

The best illustration of this is the way that the central bar space is open territory, but tables, once occupied, are private. If someone strikes up a conversation with you at the bar, that’s friendly. If they then follow you back to your table without being invited, that’s weird.

(As an exception to British supremacy in this regard, the Germans have a wonderful custom called the stämmtisch, which I wish was ours. This translates as “regular’s table”, and anyone who wishes to join it when it is already occupied is expected to knock on the table to request admission.)

3. So the symbolic value of pubs is greater than their practical use.

Whenever a pub local to me closes, people invariably go, “Oh that’s a shame. They should have gone there more often to keep it open.” Who “they” are is never clear, given that the person speaking professes to love the pub in question, but last went there about three years ago. We want pubs to be there, even if we don’t want to use them ourselves. This can be a problem.

That’s because the pub is such an important part of the British landscape that it represents normality. In the First World War, Prime Minister David Loyd George was in favour of total prohibition, but was talked out of it for fear of a communist revolution. In World War II, the bombing of civilian targets meant morale on the home front was as important as it was on the front line. Churchill understood this. Beer was never rationed, and pubs were never forced to resrict their opening hours. So long as the pub could still open, that meant we hadn’t yet been beaten – even if the “pub” was a plank across two barrels in a bombed-out pile of rubble that had until the night before been a Victorian hostelry.

That’s why Covid has been so shocking. As far as I can tell from my research, there has never been another time in British history when pubs have been required to close their doors universally in this way. It’s like cutting off a limb of ordinary British life. For fans of Shaun of the Dead, our first instinct when the virus hit might have been to go down to the Winchester and wait until all this blows over. But the virus might as well have been designed to take out everything that makes pubs special – the informality, the ordering at the bar, the chance encounters, the chinking of glasses. The fact that the pubs had to close showed that this was not normal. That it was actually pretty fucking scary.

So that’s why, today, all the headlines are about pub gardens reopening, with al fresco restaurants, gyms and hairdressers coming much lower in the mix. It’s why I’m writing this on a bus – the first bus I’ve been on since March 2020 – on my way to the George in Southwark to give an interview to the New York Times, and why I’m talking to CBS’s Sixty Minutes down there after that. If the pubs are reopening, that means Britain is getting back to normal – and the whole world is watching.

So just for today, I’m not talking about how pubs were unfairly targeted by a lazy government, about how those without outdoor spaces still aren’t open, or about all the other problems and issues that are not going away.

Today, I’m going to the pub, wrapped up in fleece and scarf, and asking “What’s on cask?”

One Comment

One Comment

craig harper

I’ve seldom clicked a link I’m so interested to read, we do so love the pub, & it’s always lovely to try & convey why.
I love the possibilities of a pint with pals, it’s the conversational equivalent of Gandalf’s warning to Frodo about how dangerous it can be “going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to” but even better cos there’s beer on hand at all times


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