Queuing in Pubs: Feels So Wrong, But So Right

Is queuing at the bar an affront to the idea of the pub, or “excellent Britishness”? Are there any practical arguments against it or is the reaction purely emotional?

On Saturday, for logistical reasons, we ended up in a gin-and-dining waterside pub a bit off our usual beat where we saw a remarkable queue for the bar, 20+ deep at times, cutting right across the main service area and towards the front door.

We Tweeted about it…

…not meaning to convey any particular judgement, only that it was unusual. As is often the case, that kind of minimalist openness elicited an interesting range of responses.

“It’s a sad reflection of the lack of experience in “real” pubs by millennials. It’s not McDonalds #FFS”

“Have people forgotten how bars work?!”

“I think anywhere with this automatically loses their pub status.”

“I ignore it and do what I’ve always done — go to the bar.”

“I’m a big fan, saves having to concentrate. Just chill and wait for your turn.”

“Excellent Britishness on display. Makes you proud.”

“I’d prefer queuing to having to fight your way through a swarm of barflies.”

If you believe that the point is the most efficient and fairest service of food and drink, the queue does indeed make a great deal of sense. In almost every other aspect of British life it is considered practically sacred.

But the pub… The pub is supposed to be a jumble. And when we say “supposed to be” we mean “is usually portrayed as”. Look at this famous painting, ‘Behind the Bar’ by John Henry Henshall, from 1882:

A Victorian pub.

These days, as pubs have been cleaned up or closed, the scrum at the bar is about all that remains of the old tradition of gleeful disorder.

In response to our Tweet Terry Hayward shared a link to a 2012 blog post on this subject which contains the following stirring story:

I decided to make a stand and I began to bypass the queue. Two men at the back of the queue saw what I was doing and felt the urge to make a comment, and I heard the use of the word “queue jumper”. I turned to them, and I could see that they, like me, were men of the world. They weren’t here to order Burgers, or Bangers & Mash , or Turkey Dinosaurs and a Fruit Shoot, they just wanted a good pint of fine foaming ale.

I asked them when they’d ever seen people queue like this in a pub before. They conceded it was unusual but used the Homer Simpson defence, “It was like it when I got here”.

“Ah”, said I, “but by standing there you’re only making the situation worse, more will come and queue behind you. It’s time to break ranks. Are you in?”

They looked at each other nervously, but after a brief moment they agreed. It was time to make a stand. So, we started to move to the vacant areas of the bar but, being British and being naturally polite, we made sure we took others with us. We weren’t here to push in; we were here to ensure that centuries of tradition were not being thrown out of the window.

But, again, check that nostalgic instinct: what if, as one person hinted on Twitter,  queuing might make the pub more of a level playing field for women? (It’s interesting that Mr Hayward’s story uses the phrase “men of the world”.)

Or, indeed, for anyone other than large, confident people with sharp elbows?

It’s perhaps no surprise that the current spate of pub queuing seems to have started at branches of Wetherspoon which, for all its down-to-earth reputation, is also often a step ahead when it comes to making previously excluded groups (and their spending money) feel more welcome.

On balance, we don’t think queues are the end of the world in pubs like the one we visited on Saturday. Places that aren’t in historic pub buildings, with little history about them, and where the number of punters greatly exceeds the bar staff because head office insists on adherence to an ideal wage-percentage. In fact, it was pretty convenient, keeping things clipping along so we could get our drinks and Pub Grub before moving on to a Proper (queueless) Pub.

But something would certainly be lost if queues started appearing at, say, The Royal Oak, London’s best pub. Or, at least, overt, obvious queues, because of course there is a queue, even though the bar has two sides open to service. It’s just invisible, managed by staff and customers between them, through a system of eye contact, deference and polite murmuring.

Old Haunts #2: The Pembury Tavern

A collage of images of the Pembury Tavern.

The Pembury Tavern at Hackney Downs, one of the pubs where we learned about beer, has commenced a new phase as the Five Points brewery tap.

When we were first beginning to develop a serious interest in beer, in around 2005-06, we ended up at The Pembury because friends who knew more than us told us it was a must-visit pub. After years of neglect it had been bought and refurbished as a proto-craft-beer-bar — clean, plain, with a vast range of hand-pumps, and bottled beers from Germany and Belgium.

It was also a non-smoking pub before the ban was introduced, sending a very clear signal about the clientele it sought or, rather, wanted to exclude.

Circa 2006 Hackney Downs was posher than it had been 20 years before, but still less posh than it is today, with a lingering sense of wildness. For typical Pembury customers — overt CAMRA types, board-game nerds, hippies, and assorted oddballs not quite cool enough to pass their idiosyncrasies off as hipsterism — the scurry to and from public transport could be an anxious business. That people kept putting themselves through this ordeal is a testament to how welcome a bolthole The Pembury was.

When we left London in 2011, though, the shine had gone. The beer range diminished and what was left no longer seemed terribly exciting in the age of the Craft Beer Company, and with hipper venues popping up all over Hackney. When we checked in a couple of years ago, things were worse again — a dreariness, weariness, had settled over it all and we struggled to find anything decent to drink.

When we heard earlier this year that Five Points had taken over the pub we immediately thought, oh, that’s good news. It’s a beautiful building in a great location and it makes sense for it to be tied to a local brewery rather than one in Cambridge, and we were also excited at the idea of being able to taste all of Five Points’ beer in one place, presumably presented at its best.

On Saturday last, working around some personal business, we managed to find a couple of hours to investigate in person.

First impressions: the pub has been brought back to life. The whitewashed walls are now either rich green or vibrant red creating a sense of intimacy that used to be lacking. Heavy curtains dampen the once troublesome acoustics, and well-worn wooden furniture underlines the impression that this is a Proper Pub, only updated, rather than an outpost of Craftonia.

We were pleased to see, too, that the gamer geeks haven’t been driven away, and that locals (both posh, and less posh) are still using the pub. If any constituency has reduced its presence its the hippies, but perhaps that’s true of London in general these days, or of 2018.

The staff were energetic and efficient, serving Five Points’ beer in what we’re sure must be the best condition possible, in beautiful branded glassware, at what felt like reasonable prices for London. There is also unfiltered Budvar and a range of guest beers on keg, cask and in packaged form. All of the Five Points beers we tried were at the very least good, and it’s such a pleasure to be able to buy a pint of cask porter in East London.

The standout for us, though, was Five Points Pils. We enjoyed the canned variant  but the draught is on another level — so fresh tasting, hazy but not dirty, and full of blossom and perfume.

We would say, based on this trip, that The Pembury is once again worth going out of your way to visit if you’re a visitor to London, or rarely make it out east, especially as it is only 15 minutes out of Liverpool Street on the train.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 4 August 2018: Alcohol, Mirages, Contracts

Here’s everything to do with beer and pubs that struck us as bookmarkable in the past week, from alcohol guidance to estate pubs.

First, a bit of news from the other side of the world: Lion, which seems to be on a spending spree, has just bought pioneering New Zealand ‘boutique brewery’ Harrington’s, founded in 1991.

Meanwhile, in Australia, AB-InBev (via it’s ZX Ventures investment wing) has acquired online beer retailer BoozeBud, to go with similar purchases worldwide such as Beerhawk here in the UK.


 

Illustration: poison symbol (skull and crossbones)

For the Guardian philosopher Julian Baggini reflects on the essential problem of alcohol guidance in the UK: the entanglement of scientific evidence-based advice with matters of morality.

[We] like to think in clean, clear categories of good and bad. With our puritanical Protestant history, alcohol has always fallen on the dark side of this divide. So when the truth turns out to be complicated, rather than accept this maturely, we refuse to acknowledge the good and carry on as though it were all bad. Because drunkenness is sinful, moral condemnation of it trumps any other redemptive qualities it might have.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 4 August 2018: Alcohol, Mirages, Contracts”

Our Village Parliament

Will Jones’s Somerset bumpkin character Jarge Balsh first appeared in print in 1925 and thereafter in a series of books, article and radio broadcasts. The last book, Our Village Parliament, written in the late 1940s, is set in and around an important institution: the inn.

Like the other Jarge Balsh books it is narrated by a city man in standard English, while the yokels’ speech is reported in a version of north Somerset dialect: “I da zee, accordin’ the ‘The Rag’ thaay bin a meade a vine mess on’t now in Parliament”, and so on. Here’s how the narrator opens Our Village Parliament:

Away back in in the nineteenth century, in days when motor-propelled vehicles had not begun to disturb the peaceful serenity of the country-side, and when the rural landscape lay yet unsullied by poles and wires for conveying electric power or for receiving the distracting sounds sent out through the ether; men were wont to foregather at the village inn to discuss local topics and world events.

The popular night was pay-night and Friday acquired an added important from the fact that the local weekly newspaper was published on that day. The national daily papers were taken only by a select few who had to be content with getting them a day late by post….

A detailed description of the ‘King William’ kitchen with its chimney-place like a small room and the extraordinary characters which make up “woold Mother Barker’s” clientele would but bore those readers who have met them in other records by the present writer.

Though the action of the stories in the book takes place in the pub it is not primarily about pubs. There are nonetheless some nice details:

“Time, gennamin, please,” broke in the voice of Mrs Barker. “Let I zee your backs tonight an’ your feaces at ten-thirty, marra’ mornin’.”

There followed the usual reference to watches which seemingly agreed that the King William clock was “vive minutes in front o’ the Church clock — how a hit nine o’clock”, but our landlady stoutly maintained the veracity of her timepiece.

Overwhelming testimony that her faith was justified came from the Church clock itself, which interrupted the argument by striking the fatal hour. Mrs Barker paused in the middle of a heated sentence and turned out the light.

And so we all went home.

Battles between the regulars and Mrs Barker over closing time are a recurring theme throughout the book (she is anxious about the new teetotal village constable) as is her stinginess with the oil lamp, “so different to the glare of the electric bulb”.

Jarge Balsh as depicted in 1926.

Chapter III is an interesting one to read in 2018’s climate of political division concerning as it does the wisdom of discussing politics in the pub. It opens with a gloom settled oved the “old tap-room” as Jarge Balsh and Abraham Nokes sit sulking having disagreed over the question of “Nationalization and Private Enterprise”:

If I had my waay, thaay as do arg’ on politics outside a political meetin’ should be shut up together ’til tha’ learned on another better. Whut good do ’em do wi’ ther’ blitherin’ I should like to know?

Elsewhere there are passages concerning pub seating…

He who made the first settle must have chuckled with Satanic glee after having tested and proved the potential misery contained in the thing… Not being blessed with even average adipose tissue I can only endure the experience by pressing a hand on the seat either side of that portion of my anatomy so essential for the act of relief. This redistribution of pressure certainly affords relief to the angle-bones but at the same time is inconvenient to one requiring the use of his hands for inhaling cigarette smoke and imbibing cider… I might have mentioned that its back rises straight from a seat which is nothing else but a nine-inch board.

…and pub fires:

In the hearth fire, beneath the huge chimney, the butt ends of oak tree branches blazed and crackled merrily. Mrs Barker provided the branches and her customers pulled them along the floor as the ends became consumed on the hearth. The pleasant aroma of burning wood pervaded the atmosphere and the cider, for which the King William was noted, left one little more to desire.

There’s also what feels like an early use of the word “banter” to describe the particular kind of blokish back-and-forth that, for many, is the very point of the pub, and notes on judging the condition of cider by sound: “I do like to yur it go znick! znick! when I da put it to me yur.”

In short, if you’re after a portrait of pub life as it was in the early to mid-twentieth century, that hasn’t already been milked to death by anthologisers and quotationeers, and that focuses in particular on country life, then this might be the book for you.

Our paperback edition, dating from around the 1960s, cost us about four quid, and there are plenty of copies around.

You can read more about Will Jones and Jarge Balsh in this comprehensive blog post by a relative of the author.

Old Haunts #1: The Brunswick, Derby

I was nervous about revisiting Derby’s famous brewpub The Brunswick, so happy are my memories of our last visit almost a decade ago.

My worry, I suppose, was that anything less than a great experience in 2018 might wipe out the warm glow around the memory of 2009.

But I simply couldn’t resist when the opportunity arose to accidentally-on-purpose arrange my trains to allow for a stopover in Derby. Too many times in the past few years we’ve sailed through, seen the pub from the train, and daydreamed about jumping off and running across the road.

I just couldn’t watch it sail past again.

So off I came, through the barriers, and out on to the road by the station (which is as lovely as most roads by stations), from where I commenced a terribly long walk over the short distance to the pub.

What if it has got worse? I wondered. What if it’s just the same but my tastes have changed so I can no longer appreciate it? What if I’m simply fussier now than I was then?

Approaching the door was odd, like being  yanked back a decade into a previous phase of my life, twenty-something and full of beans: the pub looked identical, as if it had been waiting with breath held all these years.

Inside, nothing seemed to have changed either: slate floors, well-worn wood, the buzz of conversation in local accents with beautifully twisted vowels.  A choice of rooms to park yourself in. Above all, the thing that made it great then was still outstandingly good now — the welcome from the staff. I felt like I belonged there, even though I was an obvious stranger with my southern accent and enormous rucksack.

Sat there on my own, I looked up our tasting notes from 2009 and, yes, they still apply: “[Not] especially complex or clever, but… unbelievably fresh. When people say cask ale is alive, this is what they mean… The pale and hoppy White Feather (3.6%) was the stand out — it was easy to believe that it hadn’t long stopped fermenting.”

I’m so glad I revisited this wonderful pub and I certainly don’t intend to leave it until 2027 before going again.