Session #113 — Mass Observation — Round Up

Illustration: Soviet style block colours; a staring eye.

For this month’s edition of The Session we asked our fellow bloggers to go to a pub or bar and write a report on what they found, in the style of the 1930s Mass Observation project.

Alan McLeod at A Good Beer Blog didn’t manage to get to a pub or bar but instead shared some brief recollections of his first encounter with the work of Mass Observation in the form of a Penguin paperback, when he was 19-years-old.

Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer visited a St Louis pub where everyone had gathered to watch an episode of a TV game showJeopardy, in which a regular at the bar had competed:

When Gilbert’s picture appeared on the screen (there were two televisions in the bar area, another in the adjoining room) at 4:24 a cheer went up. The place went silent when the competition began, but low level conversations returned quickly enough. Mostly cheers followed, sometimes when he got an answer right, other times when one of his competitors got one wrong. Once in a while a chant — “Will! Will! Will!” — broke out. Wearing a T-shirt decorated with a St. Louis city flag and holding an Urban Chestnut ceramic mug Gilbert settled at one end of the bar, a step outside most of the madness.

UPDATE 17.07.2016: Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds observed a city centre pub in the hour or so after work:

There are real flowers in small vases on the table, nothing too unusual, nice light fittings, press button bells on the walls for service – I’ve tried it, no one came.

City centre pub with empty beer glass.

Rob Gallagher AKA Cuchuilain AKA The Bearded Housewife wrote a long, wonderfully thoughtful piece based on his observations of two very different pubs — a city centre place with craft beer, and a more down-to-earth East London local:

Apart from the discomfort involved in the deliberate observation of other people this task involved a much deeper and more personal discomfort, one that may touch on the secondary part of the brief about ‘The Pub and The People’, and my place within both pubs and peoples. It may get slightly confessional… Politically and philosophically, if not in every day practice, I consider myself working class, but the assumptions and attitudes I’ve displayed in this instance loudly proclaim the old trope of an effete liberal elite condescending to rough it in some sort of patronising urban safari.

Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site managed, by his own admission, only a brief set of bullet points on an outlet for Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, but even that contained intriguing details: ‘There’s a spittoon behind the bar that patrons can try to toss coins into.’

W.J. Kavanagh's -- bar view.

The Beer Nut provided a detailed record (‘homework’, he called it) of comings and goings at W.J. Kavanagh’s in Dublin one Sunday lunchtime, interwoven with tasting notes on the beers he drank. There are no pot plants or spittoons…

But it’s interesting how it has been kitted out, and I’m sure this is one of those features that are common to urban pubs but rarely noticed: everything is subtly nailed down and secured; nothing is hanging loose to be idly torn or knocked onto the floor. The pub doesn’t look at all sparse, but if you wanted to trash the place you’d find it tough to gather materials for doing so.

Luke Corbin gave us our only observation from outside the European-American axis, setting himself up at a bar called Suzuki Drink in Yangon, Myanmar:

An almost requisite stylised image of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi hangs close to the single television and in a large wall niche a collection of pottery, gourds, traditional instruments and tortoise shells draw the eye.  There are chairs for forty pax and the tables are tacky MDF.  A substantial bar sits in the northwestern corner with a single tap dispensing Regal Seven, a Heineken brand exclusively brewed in Myanmar.  It is surrounded by nice-looking glassware, Regal Seven-branded beer towers and a Conti espresso machine. 

The Anonymous author of the Deep Beer blog went to a ‘Bar & Grille’ in Crownsville, Maryland, with fish-carvings, patterned concrete, hops growing in the garden, and lots of people staring at their phones.

Mike Stein at Lost Lagers undertook an observation at a pub in Washington D.C. where, of 13 people in attendance, 9 were ‘tied to their mobiles’. The more substantial part of his post, however, is an extract from a memoir written by his father, a sociologist himself, about beer in pre-WWII Prague.

UPDATE 17.07.2016: The Anonymous author of Man Beach hung out in a suburban pub in Exeter, Devon, where a baby shower was underway:

The women and children in the alcove are obviously preparing for someone coming in – all but one hide behind the wall. A couple come in – the woman plainly pregnant – to be greeted by cheers from the crowd. A sign on the wall behind says ‘Baby Shower’ and someone has a doll dressed in baby clothes. The landlord/chef brings in sandwiches, snacks etc. for the assembly and later they can be seen playing party games such as ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ with the children.

The beer menu at The Mermaid.

Alec Latham, author of Mostly About Beer, conducted not one but two observation in St Albans, a commuter town just outside London which also happens to be the headquarters of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). First he visited The Boot where he found ‘about 40 customers… virtually all are watching England v Iceland in the Euros on one of the two televisions’. Then, on another day, he went to The Mermaid:

Just below ceiling height, the pub also boasts rows of both archaic and modern beer bottles and drinking vessels on a narrow shelf. I spot some bottles bearing candidates from the British 1992 election (John Major and Paddy Ashdown are represented, though I can’t see Neil Kinnock).

At his blog Oh Good Ale Phil, like Alec and Rob, provides notes on two pubs in Manchester, a branch of Wetherspoon’s and a famous brewery tap:

The conversation moves on to Guinness, seen as a particularly challenging beer (‘he said, we’ll chill it to fuck, you won’t have to taste it’) and past acquaintances who had been particularly fond of it (‘he’d just drink pint after pint after pint of it… towards the end of the evening when everyone was on shots, he’d just have another pint of Guinness…’). After a while they all go outside for a smoke; my nearest neighbours are now an animated young couple (both drinking the red cocktails) and a balding man sitting alone, wearing headphones plugged into his phone.

Martin Taylor AKA Retired Martin also looked at two different pubs, one in Epworth, and another in Barton-upon-Humber — ‘will be astonished if this place looks different on 1 July 2036’. Martin’s blog is an extended exercise in pub observation in its own right although he found this particular exercise a bit weird:

I’ve never been a detail person, and this was an odd piece to do, particularly when I had to ask the friendly barman for a pencil sharpener (pen and pencil were essential for authenticity).

Jordan at A Timely Tipple lives in Berlin where he set himself up at an English-style pub offering cask ale alongside more typically German styles:

I try to distinguish what people are talking about, but it’s a touch difficult given the three different languages being spoken in here. Some are catching up; others are discussing the philosophy of death. Typical pub talk, really.

Steve at Wait Until Next Year observed a central London craft beer pub around midday during the week when the customers were mostly colleagues sharing their lunch-breaks:

Variations on pork pies, pork scratchings and crisps are available. They are all on the craft-y side too. The pies are under a glass dome, the scratchings in glass Kilner jars. I see one person order the scratchings and the bar staff put on one of those blue catering gloves for handling them, squashing them into a ceramic ramekin.

And, finally, there’s our own contribution featuring button-up shirts, work boots, poker and a full-hearted rendition of My Way.

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So, what did we learn from this admittedly small sample?

  1. Vaping in pubs, which we saw lot of in Newcastle and a bit in Birmingham, isn’t as universal as we’d expected.
  2. Pubs are pubs are pubs — there’s nothing in the descriptions above that made us think we’d be unable to cope with any of those venues, even Suzuki Drink, which sounds the farthest from our experience.
  3. A major football tournament doesn’t necessarily dominate pubs even when they’re showing it.
  4. That looking closely at even the most familiar pub can reveal intriguing details.
  5. Observations without narrative can seem rather dry… But anyone looking back on these in a hundred years time (digital decay and pending apocalypses permitting) will find plenty to enjoy in every entry.

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If we missed your entry, grovelling apologies — give us a nudge and we’ll sort it. If you wanted to take part but didn’t get round to it in time, it’s worth doing anyway — we’re happy to add links retrospectively. The next Session is hosted by Al at Fuggled:

3 thoughts on “Session #113 — Mass Observation — Round Up”

  1. Thanks for co-ordinating that. An interesting range of drinking experiences and I’m sure folk will enjoy guessing which pub you were at in years to come.

    I wouldn’t want to do that level of intense observation for a living.

  2. It’s odd – I think I notice everything but when I’m deliberately taking everything in to comment on it, my locals become a bit alien again. I also wondered what people thought I was doing as I scribbled notes. It was a shame you didn’t get two contributors in the same pub unknown to each other writing about each other. I’d have included that suspicious and furtive behaviour in my observation.

  3. I agree that this was an excellent session topic and the above an enjoyable, comprehensive round-up.

    The reflections on the common and different experiences of undertaking the endeavour itself touched on by many of the authors are also interesting. For one, as a 6-foot Caucasian male in Myanmar, I get stared at the same way whether I’m drinking and playing on my phone or drinking and explicitly, attentively staring at everyone and recording my observations – and I feel no more or less awkward! The curses and blessings of the unfamiliar.

    Great work B&B.

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