The pub isn’t as mysterious or special, it’s just small, that’s all

Abstract illustration of pubs.

What makes English people think the pub is so special? Is it some special quality of the decor, the culture that surrounds it, or something else?

Ray Oldenburg, the American author of The Great Good Place which we mentioned in yesterday’s post, gives over several pages to a consideration of the English pub as an example of ‘the third place’.

Acknowledging that for most English people, the local pub is the default third place, he is nonetheless scathing of the way it is sometimes written about:

The pub’s favorable press is often romanticized. Writers are quick to proclaim its mystique, especially in comparison to ‘imitation’ pubs on the Continent. A barrage of platitudes are leveled at attempts to create the pub elsewhere: ‘Real pubs are found only in England!’ ‘Only an Englishman knows what a pub is!’ ‘An outsider couldn’t possibly create a pub!’ There is some truth to these prideful claims, if only because the pub is part of the larger culture that nurtures it. But there is no magic in porcelain beer pulls, smoke-tainted pictures of Teddy, or mementos of the local cricket team. Nor do the quaint signs, etched glass, and idiosyncrasies of pub behaviour lend the English public house its essential warmth and verve.

You’ll note that he does concede that the pub is special. It’s just that, in Oldenburg’s view, the explanation is very simple: unlike the third places of other nations, pubs are small.

Or, in social-commentator-speak, ‘pubs are built to the human scale’.

Remember, now, that Oldenburg was writing in the late 1980s, just as the modern superpub was coming into existence, and at a time when the vast interwar pubs were largely forgotten out on ringroads and housing estates. His focus was on the pubs most often written about, especially by Americans, and particularly in London.

He backs up his argument by quoting Frank Dobie’s 1946 book A Texan in England – a book and writer we must admit that, until this, we’d never heard of. You can read more about it at the Pub History Society website, which says:

In the autumn of 1942, Cambridge University instituted its first Professorship in American History. Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, New York, was invited over to blaze the trail but he stayed only one term and was then asked to nominate his replacement. The man he selected was one of his Columbia University colleagues, a Texan named J. Frank Dobie… Never intending to set out to write a book about his life at Cambridge… Dobie eventually put pen to paper because ‘experiences within myself as well as without made me want to say something.’

Dobie apparently became rather fascinated by the pubs of Cambridge and pub culture in general, devoting an entire chapter to one particular pub, The Anchor.

We have a copy on order, of course, but for now, though, here’s the line that Oldenburg quotes, with reference to The Anchor:

If they operated such an establishment in America, they’d make a barrel of money. They’d enlarge it to take care of more and more customers and keep on enlarging it until it grew as big as Madison Square Garden, or else became a standardized unit in a chain. Long before either stage, however, it would have lost the character that makes the snug little public houses and inns of England veritable ‘island of the blest’.

It’s hard not to read that and think of the rise of the Wetherspoon pub chain on the one hand, and the rise of the micropub on the other.

Tim Martin has acknowledged his debt to Ray Kroc’s business model for the expansion of McDonald’s across the US so, in a sense, Dobie predicted the future.

And at the same time, he foreshadowed the backlash, too.

Based on our experience of drinking in The Drapers Arms, Oldenburg was on to something: it doesn’t matter that the building isn’t traditional, or that the fixtures and fittings aren’t authentic Victorian, because the space sends the right signals to the pubgoer’s brain.

5 thoughts on “The pub isn’t as mysterious or special, it’s just small, that’s all”

  1. I think it’s all these things that made up the English pub: not too large, yes, but also the English and Victoriana bits Oldenburg felt unsure about. If you remove every single element, the pub is absent. How we know this: the London craft bar, or Brewdog’s pubs. There is nothing specifically British about them. They are very similar to our craft bars, down to the styles of beer served. Only the accents of the people and the money exchanged are different. Even the food on the menu strongly resembles what we see here.

    Not every pub was Victorian, but all pubs shared enough attributes to confer a British character, including for the beer. When you take it all away, what is left?

    If the pub is just British people congregating in public for a drink, that’s not a “pub” I think, just a bar. That was the point of the critics of the British Rail “tavern cars” I discuss in my current post.

    Whatever one feels about Wetherspoon’s, and I like them, they are more English in character than Brewdog.

  2. I’ve never heard Tim Martin refer to Ray Kroc, only to Sam Walton of Walmart. A Google search for ‘Tim Martin Ray Kroc McDonald’s’ yields scant and unconvincing results compared to one for ‘Tim Martin Sam Walton Walmart’.

    I also agree with Gary Gillman (qv) that (most) Wetherspoon’s ‘are more English in character than Brewdog’. While Wetherspoons branches are technically bars (licensed shops), the vast majority feel more like pubs and are obviously designed that way.

    1. Tim – he doesn’t mention Ray Kroc but he has spoken about the influence of McDonalds tons, including in the interview we quote in 20th Century Pub.

  3. Size seems an odd criterion. When I’ve talked with USAn friends in the past about the difference between a pub and a USAn bar, the difference that’s leapt out is that the latter are “wet-led” and not family friendly – although of course that would also describe a large (if shrinking) subset of pubs. Bars – of the “Moe’s Tavern” variety – aren’t definitively *bigger* than pubs, though, even if you bend the size criterion to include size-of-a-chain-of-small-bars; we have those too, after all.

  4. Haven’t been there for years but MacSorleys in New York is a small pub that definitely feels special.

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