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An Ode to the British Pub

Jake F Burger on the iconic institution of British pubs – from the sticky carpet to the peanuts and that particular scent they all seem to carry.

No Sir! There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness has been produced, as by a good Tavern.

            Samuel Johnson was the master of nice concise soundbites, he would’ve been fantastic on Twitter, and whilst not his most recycled quote that one must be up there in his top three, it is  also the one I tend to agree with the most. There is I feel a need for the English to go to the pub, it is where we go to mark the arrival of a baby, the announcement of an engagement, where men take their friends before sending them off to be married, where we gather in times of national distress, be it sport, terror or politically derived, where we go on days of national pride, where soldiers go before heading off to war, where the criminal goes before being locked up, where drinkers of questionable age first wean themselves on to alcohol and master the fine art of ordering a drink, where groups of girls go to either avoid or attract the attentions of the opposite sex, sometimes its just where we go to get out of the house.

            “Shall we go to the pub?”

 Mostly it is a rhetorical question. Of course we’ll go to the pub. Where else would we go?

            “Pub’ is really an overarching and convenient handle by which to describe a wide plethora of drinking establishments. A 1577 survey found that England was home to 14,202 alehouses, 1,631 inns, and 329 taverns, how many of these remain as pubs today is not recorded but I dare say more than a handful survive, and over the centuries we could add to the family with Punch Houses, Coaching Inns, Gin Palaces, and between 1830 and 1838 some 46 000 Beer Houses, at least one of which survives to this day in one form or another as The Portobello Star. In the modern era, as the high street declined, companies such as Wetherspoons bought up some of the finest old building in the land and former banks, insurance offices and building societies were transformed into the modern interpretation of the pub. Yes the pub is many different things.

            I don’t really like pubs which aren't at least a hundred years old or at least feel like they’re a hundred years old, there is something about the smell of an old pub which is reassuring and hard to mimic. I have not committed every episode of Eastenders to memory but I do remember watching one particular episode as a child when Dirty Den was opening up the Queen Vic and he said something along the lines of:

             Aaaah the greatest smell in the world, stale beer and furniture polish.

            Stayed with me that quote, because he was right. Pubs shouldn’t smell too clean, a carpet helps hold that odour, as does the wood of the counter, the skirting and the floor, well seasoned pub wood which has absorbed a million spilt pints, and a ceiling and wallpaper which still bear the stains of the nicotine saturated air of the pre smoking ban pub.

            A cocktail bar is, generally speaking, not a pub, although many of them occupy sites which previously were. What is the difference? Well a pub usually outlives the people that opened it and all of its original customers. Name a cocktail bar that is more than twenty years old? There are a few. Name a cocktail bar that is more than thirty years old? Now its getting tricky. Name a cocktail bar that is more than a hundred years old? If you can you’re probably only talking about hotel bars, which needless to say, are also not pubs.

            But maybe one day the bar will be the pub, the bar increasingly fulfils the same social function as the pub, a second space, to adopt the awful modern vernacular. When we opened the Star eight years ago we called it a Cocktail Tavern, it did all the things a pub did but you could get a good Strawberry Daiquiri too, in fact you could get the best Strawberry Daiquiri, I’ve seen relationships form, crumble and be ratified there, we’ve welcomed children, said goodbye to a few old friends, watched England fail at football too many times to count, celebrated the Jubilee of our Queen and the wedding of our Prince, sent one or two crooks off to jail, and more times than we care to remember just ended up there, because - well, where else would we go? 

            In America the bar became the pub long ago, that’s why we suck at Dive Bars in England, because we don’t need them, we have pubs instead. That’s not to say the Americans don’t do a pub well too, McSorleys Alehouse in New York is one of my favourite pubs in the world.

            One of…

            My favourite? If I stumbled into my idealised pub tomorrow, with Timothy Taylor, Flowers, Black Sheep and Tetley on tap, with Portobello Road Gin on optic, with a stern matriarchal barmaid keeping things in order, with a draughty Victorian toilet hidden somewhere out the back covered in graffiti saying “Call Dave 07008675309 for Gay Sex” and a picture of a comedy cock, with Tayto’s crisps on a cardboard display and one of those peanut displays from the 70’s that slowly unveils a picture of Bo Derek in a bikini, a carpet so stained that the pattern is but a distant memory, with stale beer and furniture polish hanging in the air, a roaring fire, and an old dog that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone and a grumpy old regular called The Captain who doubles up as a doorman on Saturday night, even if I found all that it probably wouldn’t be my favourite pub. A pub is somewhere familiar, it’s where you hang with your family, be they blood or urban, it’s where you go.

            The Portobello Star is my favourite pub.