On Lists

Collage: nine pubs.

We contributed to a list that appeared in the Guardian yesterday in a special travel supplement billed as The 50 Best UK Pubs.

As these things always do, it has generated some passionate commentary – why only three pubs in Scotland? Why only one in Birmingham, or the whole of Sussex? Why not my local, or the pub run?

And we haven’t dared look a the comments section online – that’s just what we’ve gleaned from Twitter.

Although we’ve written plenty of lists ourselves…

…this is the first time we’ve been involved in one of these big pieces in a national publication and it’s been interesting to see the workings from the inside, so we thought we’d share a few observations.

Fifty pubs isn’t many

Why only one pub in [LOCATION]? Why only [NUMBER] in [REGION]?

Interesting questions. We took a moment to do the sums on this: it’s because 50 pubs equates to about half a pub for each UK county, or 0.6 pubs for every town/city with a population over 100,000.

That means that inevitably some places are going to get left out, and even those that are listed are going to feel underrepresented to people who know them well.

The list has to be manageable, too. Most pubs are important or special in some way, to someone, but sooner or later you have to get off the fence and give a straight answer: if you’ve only got so much time, don’t go there, go here.

And that’s before you take into account other requirements of a list like this, i.e. the need for geographical spread, and to cater to a range of tastes.

Not ‘the best’

Even if the headline says The Best, and the accompanying social media, and even if that’s what we’re all conditioned to assume a list represents…

Scott Aukerman's chronological list of Star Wars films to which someone replies "WRONG" assuming it is a ranking.

…people who write these things never intend them to be that, because how could they be? Pubs are even more subjective than, say, films, or books.

They can feel different on Wednesday lunchtime than Friday evening. Some are great in tourist season but terrible out, and vice versa. Between a reviewer’s visit and publication they can change beer list, staff, management or ownership.

But The Best is just how headlines and titles work, like it or not – full of superlatives and hyperbole, bold and punchy.

When we’re writing here on the blog, where we are our own editors, we can afford to be more subtle, using “our favourites” and other codes intended to convey that your mileage may vary.

But we’d get more clicks if we said The Best, and probably more again for The Worst. National newspapers, which rely on traffic and clicks, can’t afford to be so snootily high-minded.

Not just about beer

If you think it’s all about beer, most lists like this are going to disappoint you. We think a pub with no exciting beer can still be a great pub. It can certainly have a great view, or a great Sunday roast, or deep history, and so on.

Articles in national newspapers aren’t aimed at hardcore beer geeks.

The usual suspects

There’s a reason the same pubs crop up on these lists time and again: they are pubs that lots of writers genuinely like, and that there’s therefore good reason to suspect lots of other people will also like them.

We’ve been to lots of pubs we kind of liked, and found kind of interesting, but we wouldn’t dream of sending anyone else there without a lot of caveats.

Write your own list

It’s become a bit of a cliche to bat away criticism with a variation on: “This is my list. If you don’t like it, write your own.”

But that is literally a thing anyone can do.

Not enough Birmingham pubs on the list? We’d love to read and bookmark any take on Top Ten Birmingham Pubs.

(But a list of every halfway decent pub in Birmingham is basically useless – you have to be cruel and leave some out or it’s just the Yellow Pages.)

Not enough “unsung pubs”? That’s a great idea for an article – which are the best pubs that never get on to these lists? And what is it about them the prevents them achieving wide acclaim?

Lists are nonsense

We never take lists seriously. They’re fun, a particular angle on the world that you can enjoy for a moment, then ignore.

Or, of course, rail against. That’s the most fun of all.

9 thoughts on “On Lists”

  1. All good stuff – good points and cogently argued as always….

    …on the other hand 8 in the South-West and 6 in Wales. It’s almost as if you lived in Bristol and were geographically biased (naturally) around there.

    And that’s the issue with these supposed ‘national’ newspapers and these UK lists. They are generally written by someone living in London or the south.

    The only refreshing thing here was at least it wasn’t the usual London and Home Counties list with a few nice ‘exotic’ places to visit while on holiday from the former (rather than the ‘best’ place people who live there love).

    PS love the blog.

    1. This is really interesting to dig into.

      Again, running the numbers, your tot-up doesn’t really sound like evidence of outrageous bias. You might equally point out that the list includes six in the North West, three of them in Cumbria — bloody Cumbrian mafia!

      We provided ten pubs with views: two in Wales, at the editor’s particular insistence; and one each in Cornwall, Devon, Bristol, Suffolk, Derbyshire, Tyneside, North Yorks and Oxfordshire.

      And contrary to Guardian commenters’ insistence over the years that he is a “London wanker with the usual South East bias”, Tony Naylor lives and works in Manchester.

      Maybe next time they might consider a contributor based in Scotland, though — there maybe was a local knowledge gap there, despite all the other contributors being fairly well-travelled.

      1. Actually it sounds like I was a tad unfair: I saw your names at the start of the article and assumed that you were the leads on it. Whereas that was maybe the lead author being generous (his name was last) and you merely contributed a section – and a fairly balanced section at that (although still 3/10 in the South-West 😉 ).

        Anyway your counter example that the NW also has six doesn’t really prove anything: it was just also well covered (lead author in Manchester?!). So I did run the numbers! A good way to start to my mind is to divide the UK up in to the 9 standard (EUSTAT1) English regions + Scotland, Wales and NI. Most of those regions are near as damn it 5 million people. Except London and SE (8m) and NE England, Wales and NI (2-3m). Very roughly, as a starting point, you’d expect each region/Scotland to have 4 pubs with the bigger two having maybe 8 and the small ones having 2-3.

        So where was really hard done by? In this article:
        London – with only 2 (whereas you might expect 8 by pure population) – a nice change?
        Birmingham and the English W Midlands – 1 (vs 4)
        English E Midlands – 2 (vs 4)
        So the English Midlands were very overlooked….

        Anyway this article wasn’t really the 50 best at all was it…. 😉

        Finally, sorry for slow reply. What really prompted me to write was a classic of the genre in the Times Weekend showing the metropolitan bias I wrote about. They asked some experts to name their favourite trees and the answers were (locations):
        Kew Gardens London, Dorset, Hampstead Heath London, Wye Valley, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire.
        You see my point?

        PS my point (despite my name) wasn’t really about Scotland. But not a single pub in Glasgow or the Highlands? 😉

        1. Blimey! Good number crunching.

          But… This kind of sounds like the distribution you might end up with multiple authors sincerely trying to answer the tasks they were set. If it had been *exactly* fair in distribution, that wouldn’t be the 50 best either — it’d be a box-ticking exercise.

          1. >But… This kind of sounds like the distribution you might end up with multiple authors sincerely trying to answer the tasks they were set.

            Indeed. Sincerely, yes… but sincerely through their perspective. Their ,often-as-not given newspapers, metropolitan/south of England bias. In this case it was better/different; just a hybrid Bristol and Manchester (+ others) perspective 😉

            >If it had been *exactly* fair in distribution, that wouldn’t be the 50 best either — it’d be a box-ticking exercise.

            Oh of course, that’s why I said merely as a *starting position*. But equally let’s not pretend that the distribution is based on some objective criteria either. Just as ‘best’ is subjective these things are rarely based on people with a good objective knowledge of all of the UK (although from following of your blog you do pretty damn well….).

            PS anyway, much more importantly, do you know what Boak means in Scots? It’s very relevant so I hope you do!

            cheers and keep up the good work! (All the Guinness stuff has been fascinating…)

  2. Hi, the stars wars list could be considered to be wrong because it is missing Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978…

  3. I have to say, I can’t really blame people who see an article with the title “The 50 Best UK Pubs” and expect it to be a list of the 50 pubs that some person or group of people consider to be the best in the UK. On the other hand, it is weird how some people treat “best” like it’s an objective thing, and the fact that it’s not the same list that they would have written proves that it’s Poorly Researched and Basically Wrong and Do These People Even Like Pubs?

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