Pub Life: The Weegie and the Marbles

Illustration: "Old Boy With Pint".

An old pub in a quiet part of a busy city, and an elderly regular, watery-eyed and pale as paper, is sunk in his usual seat waiting for something to happen.

He looks at the TV, then at his newspaper, then at his watch. He stares into space, and perhaps into the past. He lines up the spare beer mats, then shuffles them out of line again.

Then, at least, some real excitement: a mixed group of twentysomethings enters, laughing and chattering. They are all tall, stylish, and distinctly Mediterranean.

The Regular’s glittering eyes track them across the pub carpet. Two per cent of a smile appears on his thin lips.

The Visitors are quietly excited to be in a Real English Pub, staring at the ceiling, the ornate bar, the prints and mirrors.

They all thrust bank notes at one woman, apparently the best English speaker, and shove her towards the bar as they take over the table next to the Regular.

The Regular, his neck long gone, slowly turns his entire torso so he can watch them. The smile increases by another degree.

“Where you from?” he gargles in their direction.

The Visitors freeze and mutter attempted translations at each other. The second best English speaker, bearded and quiffed, acts as spokesman.

“We come from Greece.”

The Regular nods – of course, he thought as much.

“Well, me – I’m a Weegie.”

Silence. Baffled blinking.

“A Glaswegian.”

Further muttering.

“I’m from Glasgow.”

Bulbs light up.

“Ah! Glasgow! Yes, we know it! Alex Ferguson! Celtic football club!”

A lucky guess, apparently, as the Regular is not offended, but after this breakthrough, conversation stalls.

Lagers and gins are sipped as the Greeks look anxiously at each other – when is it acceptable to start talking among themselves again?

After an uncomfortable while, the Regular shifts some phlegm about, and leans closer.

“So,” he says, “here’s what I’m wondering…”

“Yes?”

“When are the English going to give you back those Elgin Marbles?”

And with that, the conversation really catches light.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 1 December 2018: Stats, Social Clubs, Suburban Pubs

Here are all the blog posts, articles and news stories around beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from Norway, Maine, to Canley.

First, something with a bit of weight behind it: UK government’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published a report on the health of the pub market. The overall conclusion it reaches is that, yes, lots of pubs have closed in the past 20 years, but “the total turnover of pubs and bars has held up, remaining flat since 2008, once inflation is taken into account”.

There’s also an interactive tool which will give you a readout for your town or city, e.g.

ONS chart on Bristol pubs -- down from 375 to 285 since 2001.

The report suggests increasing employment in the pub trade might be down to the growth in food service, and a trend towards bigger rather than smaller pubs. (But we wonder if the introduction of RTI in 2013 might also be an influence, effectively ending  informal (unreported) employment in most sectors.)


Children's party at a social club.

Historian of clubs Ruth Cherrington has written about her memories of playing bingo with her parents at the Canley Social Club and Institute in Coventry, and what it all meant:

Our local club was conveniently situated just across the street from our house on a postwar council estate. Mum told us that Dad was thrilled to bits when plans for the clubs were drawn up in the late 1940s. Having a local place to drink and play games like billiards and cribbage over a pint or two meant he would no longer have to trek to his old haunts on the other side of town. Like many local men on the estate, he threw himself into setting up the new club on the land allocated by the Corporation specifically for that purpose. The club opened in a wooden hut in 1948 and affiliated to the Club and Institute Union in 1950.

(PDF, unfortunately.)


Norway, Maine, brewpub.

At Beervana Jeff Alworth has taken a moment to breathe and reflect on how ordinary it has become to find decent and interesting beer in unlikely places:

Human experience requires constant recalibration, and mine occurred about halfway through my dry-hopped pilsner, Impersonator. I was focused on the overly American hop character and lack of assertive malt flavor when it hit me: I am in a brewpub in Norway, Maine. My critical apparatus had been set to “world standards.” I quickly recalibrated to “18-month-old brewpub in rural Maine,” and all of a sudden it was looking mighty impressive. There were no flaws in that or any beers we tried, and part of my complaint was, admittedly, preference (I don’t want to taste IPA in my pilsner).


Debit card illustration.

We wrote about cashless/cardless pubs and bars earlier this week, and it’s a topic generally in the air. David Holden at Yes! Ale reports the reality on the ground where consumers are expected to carry both cash and cards if they expect to visit more than one venue in the course of an evening:

Yes, I had to go back out in the wind and rain but at least I am in a position to get cash out at six o’clock in the evening. I don’t have to go into an open branch to get cash. In Koelschip Yard I was in the position to open my wallet and draw a card out to make a payment. There are many reasons why not everyone can do this. These reasons may be why one potential customer has to “give this one a miss” or ask their mate “Do you mind getting the round in here?”.


Hofmeister lager.

And here’s another reality check, from Paul ‘no relation’ Bailey: beers that you can’t actually buy, even if you really, really want to, might as well not exist. His experience was with the award-winning revived version of Hofmeister.


Vintage illustration: McSorleys

We were surprised to come across someone this week who didn’t know Joseph Mitchell’s brilliant 1940 essay on New York City tavern McSorley’s, AKA ‘The Old House at Home’. So now, in what might be a one-off, or could become a regular feature, welcome to Classics Corner:

It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register. Coins are dropped in soup bowls—one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves—and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox. It is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years.


And how can we not finish with Hilary Mantel doing her version of 20th Century Pub?

Want more reading? See Alan.

Cash or Cashless, the Problem is ‘Only’

Both cash-only and cashless-only are barriers, and both tend to be driven by the needs of the business rather than what works for customers.

We got talking about this in the pub last night because of a poll from the Beer O’Clock Show:

The arguments against card-only have been piling up for some time:

  • it excludes the poorest in society
  • it discriminates against older consumers
  • it plays into the machinations of global tech giants
  • it contributes to the tracking and influencing of our behaviour.

But on the ground, in daily life, we very much understand the appeal of paying by card in pubs, bars and bottle-shops.

It saves us having to wander round suburbs or industrial estates looking for cash machines, and makes it easier for us to manage our various bank accounts and budgets, with every transaction recorded and reported.

And not taking cards can be excluding in its own way. One publican in a cash-only business recently told us they’d been thinking about getting a card machine purely because they were aware of constantly turning away young people who expected to be able to use cards. About half of them were willing to find a cash machine and come back, but the rest just moved on down the road.

A lot is made of the cost of processing card payments but depending on the size of the business, cash can be just as expensive to handle, and certainly less convenient.  It can require extra staff-hours for counting and banking, and needs transporting, either at considerable cost (secure pickup) or risk, with a member of staff walking to the bank with a sack of readies. (I’ve managed cash-heavy concerns and write from experience. – Jess.)

The presence of cash can also make premises more vulnerable to crime or, rather, advertising total cashlessness can be a good way to deter it.

And some of the objections cash-only businesses have to cards seem to use to be a hangover from a decade ago when banks charged a lot more for the service, and when people who paid by card in the pub were amateurs and freaks.

It used to mean five minutes of faffing around with signatures and pin numbers, holding up the line. Sometimes, there’d also be another minute or two of trying to get up to the limit for paying by card without an additional charge – “What are your most expensive crisps?” Nowadays, it’s a quick one-handed tap and done, and its people fiddling with coins and waiting for change who seem to cause a delay.

Fundamentally, though, we bridle at the idea of businesses doing only one, or only the other, because it’s convenient for them, rather than offering both with the convenience of their customers in mind.

Writing About Pubs

Last night we won a gold tankard from the British Guild of Beer Writers for writing about pubs.

Though we’ve yet to receive the post-mortem notes we assume this was primarily for 20th Century Pub which, in case you haven’t heard, is a 230-page run through how pubs have changed in the past century or so.

Oscars™-style, we’d like take this opportunity to thank Jo Copestick and Tim Webb for taking a punt on publishing it, and Dale Tomlinson for his excellent work on the design.

We worked hard on it and would love people to read it. Please buy a copy, or ask your local library to get it in, or borrow it from a mate, or dip into the copy on the shelf at the Drapers Arms. There’s even an extract here you can read for free.

As well as the book, though, we also submitted:

We know that when this new category was announced there was some concern that, being sponsored by the pro-pub campaign Long Live the Local, it might reward only cheerfully uncritical writing about pubs but we think our win proves that fear unfounded.

Now, perhaps for 2019, we’ll pull the balance back from pubs to beer a bit.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll have another think about that book on the history of lager in Britain we’ve been wanting to write for a few years. A trilogy sounds quite good right now.

Notable Pubs: The Milestone, Exeter, 1985-1988

"Pub with no beer"

There have been repeated attempts to test the idea that the identity of the pub need not be tied to alcohol. The Milestone, which opened in Exeter in 1985, was one such experiment.

On the bookshelf at the Drapers lurks a yellowing copy of the Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names, a cheap 1990s reprint of a book by Leslie Dunkling and Gordon Wright first published in 1987. The naming of pubs is an area of study requiring more pinches of salt than most, and the book is not without its inaccuracies, but flipping through it over our Sunday night pints, we often find some nugget or other, and that’s how we first heard of the Milestone:

The pub sells only soft drinks, non-alcoholic beers and wines. It was set up in 1985 by the Devon Council on Alcoholism and the Exeter Community Alcohol team to help people with a drink problem. It is in the basement of an office block, and those who named it clearly see it as a highly significant step.

A contemporary report from the Liverpool Echo (20/11/1985) offers more information:

Mr Murray French, chairman of Exeter District Health Authority, will pull the first pint — or rather pour the first soft drink — at noon [today].

The pub, complete with pool table, dart board and the usual bar fittings, is the brain child of Exeter Community Alcohol Team.

Mr Stan Ford, executive director of Devon Council on Alcoholism, said: “The main aim is to provide an environment where people can get the atmosphere of a pub without alcohol.

“A lot of my clients have asked where they could go if they stopped drinking. There was nowhere. Now there is.”

Laudable as this might sound, it’s hard to imagine anyone convincing friends who are still drinking (possibly heavily) to come to a teetotal pub, and however convincing the facsimile, there’s no denying that an air of merriness is an essential part of the pleasure of the pub.

Without booze, it will just feel like a youth club, won’t it?

There’s a certain inevitability to the next mention we can find in the newspaper archives, from the same newspaper for 25 October 1988:

MILLSTONE

Britain’s first alcohol-free pub, the Milestone in Exeter, Devon, is to close next month after three years. It failed to attract enough custom.

This feels like the kind of thing that might have generated the odd academic paper or official study but, if so, we can’t find them online, on this side of a paywall.

It would certainly be interesting to see pictures of the Milestone, or to hear from anyone who remembers (not) drinking there.