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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