Pub Culture

Tom Utley (one of my all-time favorite columnists) waxes rhapsodical about the revival of pubs in Britishland:

This week’s cheering news is that after years of precipitous decline, the number of pubs and bars opening in the UK has outstripped closures by 320 in 2019. So says an analysis of labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Indeed, as I may have written before, my idea of heaven on Earth is an English village pub — ideally at least a couple of centuries old, with a thatched roof and a low ceiling supported by gnarled oak beams. On winter evenings, there should be a blazing log fire to greet us (sorry, Greta Thunberg) and a labrador stretched out on the hearth (‘just taking the dog for a walk, dear’).
On summer afternoons, there will be trestle tables out at the front, from which customers can watch the cricket on the village green or just listen to the drone of the bees in the roses above the door.

Of all the things I miss about being in the UK (and one of the very  few things I miss about living in South Africa) would be the weekly evening visit to the pub and / or the daily lunchtime visit thereto during the work week.  Lest anyone has forgotten, this was my “local” when I was variously staying with Mr. Free Market and The Englishman:

I desperately want to have a “local” Over Here, but we don’t have a pub culture:  ours is more a “get wasted after work” culture (not that this is altogether a Bad Thing, of course, but people don’t generally cluster around the pub (okay, bar) around these parts as a social venue).  The closest I’ve found is the Londoner in Addison, and it’s not close at all — a 20-minute drive away, assuming no traffic.

There is the Holy Grail a few steps from my apartment, which has excellent food but a somewhat patchy collection of ales — from week to week, they’re likely to be out of whatever I had the previous  week, which gets old very quickly — and as the website pics will show, it’s too damn big and very noisy.  (Aside:  why are  Americans so loud?  Is it because they have to shout to be heard above the earsplitting music/game on the TV?  Never mind:  that’s a rant passim.)

One thing, though, about Utley’s article:

It is run not by an ever-changing cast of managers on their way up the career ladder but by permanent fixtures in the community — landlords and landladies who have lived on the premises for years, know all the local gossip and are ready with their regulars’ preferred tipples, without having to be told (‘The usual, Tom?’).

Yeah, but that’s also a double-edged sword.  While an independent innkeeper can occasionally be persuaded to whip up a makeshift plate of sandwiches outside regular food-service hours, he could also be a cantankerous old fart, as per this story of Mr. Free Market, who arrived at his local one afternoon with a crowd of business friends and associates, and begged that the pub be opened to accommodate over fifty thirsty customers, to be met with the withering response:  “Fuck off;  I’m watching Corrie!” (Coronation Street).  Not yer model of customer service, innit?  And as the owner, he wasn’t going to get fired, either.

So there ya go.

All that said, I miss having a real local — but a place “where everybody knows your name” seems to have become a figment of TV fiction, hasn’t it?

I envy Tom Utley.


  1. One of the few things I miss about my former commute was stopping in Hoboken, NJ for a couple before I got on my train to go home. If you’ve never been there, Hoboken probably has more bars in a single square mile (the actual size of the city) than anyplace in the country. Just off the top of my head I could name at least a dozen bars within five or six blocks of the train station (including one right in the station). Whatever you’re in the mood for, you’ll find it, sports bars, Irish pub, music venues, places where barely (or not quite) legal age folks hang out, place where I, at age 56, would be the young guy, places where you can buy/use coke in the men’s room, classy joints, dive bars and absolute dumps. Lots of places with good food, and some where you wouldn’t drink from a glass unless your shots were up-to-date.

    One evening I missed a train, so I decided to try a place that was right across from the station (my usual place was a couple blocks away, but the weather was bad). I asked what they had on happy hour, he said all draft beers were half-price, so I ordered a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. He came back with it and said “That’ll be six dollars.” I said “I thought it was half-price?” and he replied “That IS half-price. This is Hoboken you know.” Well yeah, that was my point, this IS Hoboken and there’s a place two blocks away where I can get a pint of Guinness for $3 (also half price for Happy Hour). Last time I paid twelve dollars for a beer there were naked women dancing behind the bar.

  2. Well, Kim, establish one. You’d look great behind the bar with a 1911 in condition one strapped to your waist. Just to keep the lads in line you know.

  3. I’m lucky in that my VFW post is only 5 min away. They only serve lunch on Wednesday’s but have a various meals and dinners in the evenings during the week. It’s a great place to stop by when just killing time. You can BS at the bar with whomever is there at the time or grab a table with a great view of the river and be left alone.

    When stationed in San Antonio there was a local dive that was an easy stagger from my apartment. Spent a lot of evenings there when I had nothing else in particular to do. I was transferred to Korea, then Omaha and went back to San Antonio for a conference. Stopped by the place and after almost 3 years the first thing I heard walking in was “Where the hell have you been?”

    So, never been to England or a real English pub, but I understand.

  4. Damn, but I miss that. I did two tours in Merry Ol’ in the 80’s and 90’s. The Grosvenor in Felixstowe was my first local. 138 steps from the door to my flat. (Yes, I counted.) Great little hole in the wall but it had nothing on my second. The King’s Head in Orford. Built in the late 1000’s, at 5 foot 10 I had to duck to clear the doorway. The requisite Lab was there as were the oaken beams; also low enough to bump my noggin.

  5. IMO the biggest obstacle to pleasant bars is the ubiquity of television sets. When even “high class” (read: Expensive) bars and restaurants seem to be required to have several big TV sets tuned to the latest sporting event, it’s tough to have any kind of pleasant atmosphere.

    Seriously, the fact that flat screen TVs are so cheap will be the death of bars.

  6. I went to a pub in Wales (Carmathen) last summer to have a quiet pint with my BIL, who lives there. It’s the kind of place where you’re not expected to raise your voice without warrant, have a cell phone conversation, or act ungentlemanly. If the question “Do you have a TV?” is asked, the barman’s answer is always, “Why, do you not have one at home?”

    Closest pseudo-pub to me is in DC where Guinness is $14/pint and you have to shout over the Dropkick Murphy/Rumjack playlist and go full on scrum to get to the bar. No thanks.

    Favorite pub memory of Ireland 22 years ago. A sign on the wall, dating from the 1920’s, announcing that “Due to the actions of the McMurphy twins, goats are no longer allowed at the bar.”

  7. I’d love a good pub like that. THere were a few when I lived near Boston in ex-Pat communities that were as you described minus the dog. At least one had a turf fire going in the winter. It was great after rugby practice.

    Near me now I have a dive bar with awful pizza. It used to be an owned by the same person who owned an oil delivery business. To offset the low income from oil sales in the summer he had the bar. Well he decided to supplement both incomes with a cocaine habit. He went to jail and the oil business closed. The bar changed hands.

    Closer into town is a Irish restaurant which is good but apparently too good because the last two times I went the place was far too crowded.

    I’d like a place where I can get a good beer or good bourbon and throw darts from time to time and get a good meal. I miss throwing darts.


  8. I was overjoyed a few years ago when, at the bottom of my street in Fairfield NJ, new Irish Pub was being constructed, called Thatcher McGhees, complete with a partially thatched roof. Classic pub fare was promised. So dutifully I sallied forth on opening day about 20 minutes after opening for a pint and some lunch. Expensive, but given the taxes up here that’s not surprising.

    My wife and I went for a meal a week later. The bar part of the establishment was nothing close to Irish in nature, and was patronized by loud North Jersey Goombah types, there to get hammered or pick someone up or watch many of the sportsball games on the telly. Loud with high-energy popular music.

    I never went back, but every year on the 17th of March they need police to cordon off local streets for those who’ve come out for Amateur Night, whilst donning garish emerald nonsense, speaking in faux Irish accents all the while proudly wearing the Italian flag. What made my blood boil was the drinks menu–in an IRISH FECKIN’ PUB–had a listing for a Black and Tan. Ask for that in Ireland and you’ll be eating your supper without teeth and walking home without kneecaps.

    What I’d expected was a classic Irish pub that might, once in a while, have in some trad musicians from the Old Country to regale us with the classics, a bartender who knows how to draw a perfect pint every single time and who’s preferably an Irish ex-pat.

    Now that said, I’d be satisfied if someone would open a (gasp!) traditional English pub nearby too. I’ve (somewhat) forgiven the bastages for 1916, and the 850 prior years, and Fuller’s London Pride *is* genuinely tasty, as is roast beef with mash and Yorkshire pudding.

  9. Our local often wins Camra pub of the Year. The only food is rolls (or soup in winter), there’s no lager, no music or TV, mobile phones are banned (but there’s no signal anyway), it’s been in the same family for 300 years, and it’s next to the cricket pitch. They also don’t take credit cards. The [male] lavvies are outside, and completely open to the elements.

    First impressions are similar to the Slaughtered Lamb at the start of American Werewolf.

    It’s packed. The landlord (and his mum, now 85) are the friendliest people you’ll meet.

  10. I have been going to Nine Band Brewery in Allen for a few years. While there is television and music in the place, it’s not so loud or obtrusive that you can’t have a conversation. There’s a core group of regulars, good beer, attractive young bartenders, and you can take a growler of beer home if you like.

    No food, but they don’t mind at all if you bring something in.

  11. I can’t help but wonder if “pub culture” itself is a relic of a bygone age when, let’s be honest, there weren’t a lot of other entertainment options for most people who weren’t wealthy.

    Actually I wonder the same thing about church attendance. In the middle ages, attending Sunday services might be the only break you get all week from the drudgery of back breaking labor in the fields, by the forge or in the mill.

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