Friday, 27 February 2015

What I love (and hate) about English pubs.

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The UK has always been proud of most of its unique institutions, many of which we exported to the rest of the world. Some caught on, like cricket, football and rugby.... all of which the rest of the world now beats us at. Some though will never be improved upon and the great British pub is probably top of the list.

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Australia has its Pubs, but they're more like bars where any beer above freezing is considered warm. France, Spain, Italy and many other Continental countries have the much vaunted Pavement Cafe Culture that the Labour party wanted us adopt by making 24 hour opening hours legal. In many Scandinavian countries alcohol is so expensive that pubs are impractical and Norway only sells booze through licensed government shops.

The UK pub is definitely unique. For the most part the drinks are affordable and you're never too far from a watering hole.....
..... But that's changing. Chains of pubs, like Weatherspoons, are opening up in city centers and closing those in outlying areas. Many of those that are still open in villages are becoming "Gastro Pubs", making more money from selling over-priced food than they do from drinks. Those that still function as true pubs are few and far between, but wonderful when you find them. The problem is that if you do find one, word soon gets around and it becomes packed full of non-locals before you can say "mine's a pint, and do you serve crisps?".

So what is that is so fascinating and attractive about UK pubs? If I asked a thousand people I rather suspect I'd get much the same answers from most of them, so I've listed my likes and dislikes as follows:-

I love:

- A log fire. There are few things nicer on a cold winter's evening that drinking a pint of best ale and sitting in a convivial group in front of a fireplace with a real log fire. Preferably warmed mulled wine should also be on offer at no charge.

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- Real ale and probably warm beer. Australians and American usually hate our real ales as being too warm, but we've been brewing and drinking it for centuries. It's not our fault if  foreigners want to drink chemicals instead of good traditional malt and hops. We'll still sell them that if that's what they want.

- Skittles and darts. Real pub games like "Cheeses"  and Shove Ha'penny seem to have disappeared though when I was in my early 20's I can remember playing both in lots of pubs around Bath where I lived then. Now pool has taken over with the occasional game of table football. Both games cost money to play whereas the old games were free. Pub quizzes are reasonable fun, but they mean the rest of the pub's clients have to take part, or remain very quiet. The only survivor as a freebie is darts, which is undergoing some sort of revival. In fact word is it may be an Olympic sport one day!

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- good company. Good friends, a warm friendly atmosphere and good beer make a perfect evening out in a pub. Take away the good company and you might as well stay at home.

- A friendly landlord. The landlord / landlady makes the pub. Service with a smile and the occasional lock-in can't be equalled.

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- Almost inaudible music. Background music is fine. It covers up those difficult moments when no one can think of anything to say. It should be quiet enough so that you're not quite sure what it is that's being played. It should also be from the late 60's!

On the other hand I hate:

- Being called "mate". Nothing irritates me more than being called "mate" or even worse "my friend". I'm most likely neither of those things, and even if I was, I still have a name. It's a familiarity I don't like and supposes a relationship that doesn't exist.

- Children running around screaming while their parents couldn't care less. Time was when kids  were banned from pubs, then kids over 14 were allowed into a children's room with their parents... the thin end of the wedge! Now it's not uncommon to have kids running round shouting and ruining the ambience. Parents don't seem to care what their kids do, or worry that they may be ruining someone's evening. The pub is after the family's money. Never mind the couple of guys enjoying a quiet pint.

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- Loud music. I mentioned above that I don't dislike quiet background music. What I do hate is the pub that provides a full-volume disco machine, and there's always someone who wants to play The Sex Pistols several times on the trot. Clubs were designed for loud music and dancing. Pubs were designed for getting quietly drunk!

- Swearing. I bloody hate swearing (old joke toned down). At a pub near me the F word is used as an adjective and the C word as a description. Some of the men are just as bad. Someone told me that both the F and C words have existed since Saxon times. Piffle! The F word is a relatively new innovation going back couple of hundred years. I swear it's true!

- People who stand drinking at the bar and look at you as though you've sworn at them when you try to get served. Few things annoy me more than going into a pub and not being able to get to the bar because loads of men (and it is always men) are drinking and chatting there. There's always loads of empty seats and tables, but they have to stand at the bar and when you try to get through to order a beer they look at you as though you've just farted.

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- Fruit machines. As if pubs didn't make enough money out of punters! So many pubs now have 4 or 5 fruit machines that all seem to have Noel Edmunds smiling "Deal Or No Deal" face grinning out of them. They play stupid tunes, make annoying noises if someone wins £1 and make a horrendous sound as they clatter out coins.... grudgingly giving out the occasional note. There are enough places people can go and lose money without having to go to the pub to do it.

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- Prices. Petrol is now cheaper than beer. A friend of mine used to work in the oil industry and he proudly told me one day that the price for a pint of beer was now more expensive than the equivalent in petrol. With the price of petrol going down recently I can believe him. I haven't seen the price of a pint going down because hops have become cheaper.

- Mobile Phones. I've seen 4 or 5 people sitting at a table and each one is using their mobile to text, or the're just looking at the screen, willing the thing to ring. Mobiles in pubs are almost as annoying as they are on trains. I'm almost sure that some people would rather communicate by text with someone only a few feet from them.

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- Aggressive, or drunken people. It used to be said that the sawdust on the floor of a Glasgow pub was yesterday's furniture. It's one thing to get happily drunk, but getting aggressive for no reason as a result is stupidly unacceptable. I've only seen it happen twice in what would otherwise have been a nice pub. On one occasion a girl thought (wrongly, and not me!) had been rude to her. She got on her mobile and minutes later two thugs burst in and chased the poor guy round the pub and anyone who tried to calm things was fair game. They eventually left after the landlady called the police. On another occasion i was having a quiet drink with a friend when a tatooed, vest wearing medallion man kept pushing me for no apparent reason. I asked him to stop and he went into a drunken tirade about me invading his personal space and it was his human right to shove me. He then shoved a pool cue into my drinking friend's stomach. We left vowing never to return because no one seemed to be fussed. We later found that he has now been banned from every pub owned by that brewery.... and that's a lot! After a phone call from the landlord apologising, we now go back and thoroughly enjoy the pub experience again.

- Chains. I suppose we always had pub brewery chains like Watneys and Whitbread, but they were really a widespread group of fairly independent pubs that had reasonable autonomy so long as they sold the brewery's range of products. Now the chains are businesses run by accountants that prefer to own gastropubs and cater for "the family". There's still the odd brewery chain like Fullers and Greene King, but they're few and far between, and even their landlords are realising the profit value of real food, as opposed to curly cheese sandwiches and cold pork pies. The new chains enforce uniformity, so that every pub is like the previous one you went to.... boring!

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The fact is I still like pubs and the unique Britishness about them!

Blog on, Dudes!


  1. Great post Richard - I so agree. I have very fond memories of nights out to old-fashioned real ale pubs with my Brummie friends - great-tasting beer and a cheese cob, heaven!

    1. Bliss indeed, Teresa! There's still the odd out of the way country pub that keeps the idea of the "local" alive, but as soon as they're discovered, the either become too full for comfort with non-locals, or they realise they can make loads of money by becoming a gastropub!

  2. My pet hate is finding a wonderful looking old country pub, walking inside to find it's been ruined by a crisp, bright makeover and is now a ghastly gastro. So disappointing!