Modern Pubmanship, Part 4: Nor Any Drop to Drink

1930s style picture of a pint of beer.

The fourth in an occasional series of guest posts by our etiquette expert R.M. Banks.

We have, as our cousins across the p. like to put it, ‘all been there’: in the pursuit of some errand of great import, you come upon a public house handsome enough to lighten the dullest eye before which resistance crumbles, and in you stride, hands rubbing together and tongue lolling in thirsty anticipation of 20 fluid ounces of something piquant and wholesome. At which, like young Harker hoofing across the threshold of Castle Dracula, What ho!-ing freely, you confront a scene of infinite horror: there is not one beer on the bar counter worth your time, your precious coinage, or the strain on the old sock which serves in place of your liver.

‘Oh, you are being fussy again, Banks,’ you say, pooh-poohing, and, I dare say, wagging a digit. Well, I tell you, I am not – the most flexible of practitioners would struggle to limbo beneath my standards, which lie as close to rock-bottom as is possible without holing the hull. (Have I mixed my metaphors? No matter. We must plough on. (Oh, bother — there’s another one.))

No, when I say nothing, I mean that two of the three pump-clips have been turned, while the third shows only the dreaded name of Ironsides IPA; the draught stout is of the untouchable Extra Cold variety; and the lager… Well, like any warm-blooded person, I enjoy a tumbler of the Teutonic nectar from time to time, but even I, who would sup from an old boot if the beer inside was being provided at no cost, gratis, and free, must draw the line at certain poisons. (I advise those among you who have yet to try Stella Artois, but are perhaps saving up the pennies to do so on some special occasion, such as the coronation of new Belgian king, to abandon the idea at once: there is no percentage in it.)

If the tavern happens to be populous – perhaps a Swedish coach party has disgorged nearby – then the problem is easily solved as, under cover of the crowd, one slides backwards into the street and continues the perambulations, albeit with mental scars to bear. If the beer is a bad lot, however, it is more or less a dead cert that you will find yourself (a) quite alone and (b) being eyeballed by an eager barkeep with the innocent, pleading expression of a new-born Bassett hound. In such situations, one generally feels obliged to order a pint, even if its fate is to be slung into the base of a pot plant, or ditched only half-inhaled behind a basket of condiments.

‘What can I get you?’ asks the pup-like drinks slinger, plaintive but keen.

At this, your soundest path is to make like G. Washington and refuse to tell a lie: explain to the youngster what is what, in the plainest terms. ‘There’s nothing on I fancy,’ or words to that effect, will usually do the trick, especially if delivered in the honeyed, reassuring tones which imply, ‘It’s not you, it’s me, and of course we shall remain the greatest of pals.’

To those with spines of the more pliant variety who cannot bear to have so frank a conversation, and for whom there is therefore no other option but slump on a banquette and drink something, I say this: gin and tonic. Now, hear me out – I mean no disloyalty to beer, and would hurl G&T beneath the wheels of a charabanc if the ‘hit’ was to be paid off with half a pint of decent mild. But the fact is that a tall glass of mother’s ruin topped off with ice and a substantial portion of citrus fruit is good for the health, once in a while. It braces, it enlivens, and, what’s more, it tends to slip down like an Austrian luge champion on the third run at the track, so little time will be wasted.

But let us produce the trusty Staedtler HB from a pocket and re-spool the tape: all of this trouble might have been avoided if, at the very beginning, more care had been taken — fools rush in, and all that.

(Before we go further: Have you found yourself squinting to discern the numbers on the front of omnibuses of late? If so, you must pay a visit to Messrs. Specsaver & Co for a tuning of the peepers and the purchase of a weightier monocle. If your eyesight is now A1, then continue reading.)

The trick is to learn and practice an as yet unnamed manoeuvre which it would be immodest of me to refer to as ‘Pulling a Banks’: it requires you to pass the pub at least once, peering through the window like the brass cannon &c., for just long enough to glimpse the bar counter. With practice, you will soon learn to identify most popular beer brands at 100 paces, in low-light, without breaking your stride, and much embarrassment will be given the swerve.

5 thoughts on “Modern Pubmanship, Part 4: Nor Any Drop to Drink”

  1. As a teenager I cleared a pub of over a dozen of my mates once I’d got to the bar and spotted it had no real ale. Sometimes these things have to be done.

  2. Why be polite? Ok prob not poor kid on bar to blame so no need for actual abuse but a bar needs to know why it’s empty. Ok out with my wife I might ask ‘anything drinkable in the bottle fridge’ the pick a half of whatever is least offensive. But even then if there is another pub within 500 yards then no cask = goodbye. Number of tines ive heard bar staff say ”we had some on yesterday ‘ and ive bit my tongue to stop myself saying ‘oh good ive got my tardis parked outside ill just come back yesterday ‘

  3. Is it wrong to ask for tasters of a couple of ales and then buy a pint of lager as a passive-aggressive way of hinting that the ales aren’t much cop? This is always tempting in pubs around here that have a bunch of grim local homebrewed (sorry, microbrewed) ales and Adnams DHL on keg…

  4. I used to hate this kind of thing – I used to try and get in & if necessary out of the pub as quickly & quietly as possible, not catching anyone’s eye, least of all the bar staff’s. If I did have the misfortune to end up interacting with the bar staff I’d say something like jstchecknthbrs and beat a swift but slightly more overt retreat (mumbling made the whole thing a bit less embarrassing somehow). It was very much the same in other settings – going into newsagents to see if Private Eye was out yet, checking the weekly special at the local Indian…

    It took me years to realise that the people behind the bar (or counter) don’t actually mind if you come in and go out again – and that it’s much less embarrassing to all concerned to walk straight up to the bar, say “just checking what you’ve got on” (out loud) & then turn and walk away. (Maybe you’re checking for a friend. Maybe you’re going to that pub later on and you want to know what to order in advance. Who knows? Who cares? There’ll be someone else through that door in a minute & you’ll be forgotten anyway.)

    My theory, which is mine, is that what’s going on here isn’t just me being a white mouse, socially speaking, although clearly that is a factor. My theory is that it’s regional – that I learned habits of deference growing up in the South of England (south London suburbia specifically). Down there, consciousness of social status is much more pervasive than it is in most of the country – you listen to the accent & look at the bearing of the person talking to you, and you act accordingly. Shopkeepers & landlords are figures of a certain social authority in that culture – and they know it.

    So my advice to young Rosie is as follows:

    1. Don’t be a goose. Stride up to the bar with a song in your heart and purpose in your every step. If nothing on the wickets is to your pleasure, look the servitor in the eye and announce firmly but politely that you will not be partaking of the tapster’s wares on this occasion, as your visit was for research purposes only. After this explanation you may take your leave with your head held high.
    2. If, on undertaking the aforesaid manoeuvres, you find that your harmless activity is met with expressions – verbal or otherwise – of stiff-necked disapproval, both the problem and its solution can be classed as geographical. You are clearly operating at too great a proximity to the Great Wen, which is to say, the capital. Distance yourself therefrom forthwith.
    3. Recommence at 1. at your earliest opportunity. Experience will reveal whether you have travelled far enough from the capital’s noxious influence.

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