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.