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Do pubs exist? And is there music?

This week, we got an email from a reader in the US who had a few questions about UK pub culture. Here are his questions and our answers paraphrased.

Q: Are pubs in the UK generally the quaint, homey, and instantly familiar and comfy establishments we’ve been led to believe?

A: Those pubs do exist but need a little work to find. There are lots of types of establishment calling themselves pubs which are actually restaurants, fast-food joints, dive bars, nightclubs and so on, perhaps with wood panelling and handpumps.

Adrian Tierney-Jones writes very evocatively about traditional English pubs of the kind you have in mind at his blog and in this book he wrote for CAMRA.

Q: Is the occasional spontaneous song or musical number something that actually happens?

A: There are relatively few pubs where spontaneous music occurs these days. We’ve seen it at the George Inn, London, for example, and have heard of a pub in the East End of London where, on a Saturday night, the landlady sometimes plays the piano while customers sing. Here in Cornwall, people sing in the pub quite a lot — sea shanties and folk songs, mostly. Sometimes, a choir will turn up in a pub and sing while they drink.

14 replies on “Do pubs exist? And is there music?”

Strange how some folks from overseas perceptions of UK pubs seem to be a little like “The Prancing Pony” from LOR. I wish they were, but generally you couldn’t be farther from the truth in my neck of the woods.
Developers built flats at the rear of my local, who’s residents then complained about the noise so all music was banned.
Fri & Sat now also sees hordes of folk arriving on mass to drink Peroni, shout a lot & walk away with useless (to them) pieces of bar games furniture, skittles, bar billboards pegs & even the hanging ball from the skittles table. I’d love to open and run a bar myself one day where will be key, it’ll be where people go to the pub to socialise & have fun, from the sound of things Cornwall seems a good shout

Phil — we’re pondering a post on this but Penzance in particular seems to have the pub culture everyone moans has disappeared — busy, sociable, mixed crowds, live music, etc.. Hopefully it will stay that way.

I am playing uke in a pub in Balham this evening wIth about 20 like minded souls. People seem a little surprised at first to have singing in a London pub, but after the initial shock they either 1. Move away 2. Join in, in an enthusiastic if often out of tune way….

Funny – my immediate reaction to the first question was “of course they are!”, but on reflection that kind of establishment isn’t all that common any more, at least in towns. I can think of a few pubs in walking distance that are sort of pub-ish, but hardly any of them are places you’d go for decent beer.

As for the second question, I’ve only once heard a spontaneous sing-song develop, and that was in my local Spoons, of all places – a soulless barn without much to recommend it apart from some nice architecture and some excellent beer. Having said that, a bunch of us folkies do sometimes set up in quiet back-rooms and play some tunes; not sure how spontaneous you’d call that (we bring our instruments with us & know what tunes we’re going to play). We don’t get vast audiences, which is fine – frankly, we’re not doing it for anyone else’s benefit – but we rarely get any hostility. The exception was the landlord of a JW Lees pub, who told us one quiet Saturday afternoon that no, he wasn’t going to turn off the TV and yes, he would mind if we got out our instruments and started playing anyway, in fact he’d ask us to leave. God knows why – it’s a pub that regularly features live music in the evening, so it can’t have been a licensing thing. Perhaps he just doesn’t like folk music.

“I can think of a few pubs in walking distance that are sort of pub-ish, but hardly any of them are places you’d go for decent beer.”

Also often places that, while not actively hostile, do not extend a warm embrace to strangers.

The post you linked to on Pubs of Manchester really struck a chord with us with the idea that, in *real* local pubs — even quite friendly ones — you have to earn the right to belong by putting in the hours. We’re never loyal enough to one pub, and don’t drink enough, to every really get a warm welcome anywhere. We’re just happy to get a smile and not be stared at with too obviously.

I was in the Royal Oak in Borough on Thursday, and a few people brought out accordians and a violin. There was much raucous singing along and amusement!

Sea shanty’s, seriously? That’s awesome. Here in the US “pub” is usually used by bars trying to fool people into thinking it’s something special, or restaurants trying to be more fun and advertise a better than average beer selection. Which isn’t always the case.

Even if they’re a rare gem these days, it is nice to know such pubs do still exist, or at least pubs close to that magical ideal. Gives me hope that someday here, there will be a “pub” that gets it right.

Newlyn (next to Penzance) is very much a working fishing port and many of those who aren’t involved in fishing either have it in the family, or sail for other reasons. (Historically, of course, it was for smuggling…)

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