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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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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