The bare minimum

The above Twit­ter con­ver­sa­tion got us think­ing once again about ‘prop­er pubs’, and reach­ing a con­clu­sion: bare­bones isn’t every­thing – there are some min­i­mum entry require­ments.

We had a per­fect­ly fine time on our vis­it the Myr­tle Tree and, a lit­tle sleaz­ing aside, we were made to feel rea­son­ably wel­come.

But, still, we’re not sure it’s a ‘prop­er pub’, because it lacks atmos­phere and that sense of time­less­ness that you find in, say, the Merchant’s just up the road.

A ‘prop­er pub’ can’t have cold light and pale walls. It can’t be dom­i­nat­ed by TVs and flash­ing fruit machines. If you need to have a con­spir­a­to­r­i­al con­ver­sa­tion, there should be a cor­ner in which to do it. Ide­al­ly, there’ll be some sepia tones.

The Myr­tle Tree fails all these tests for us and so we would clas­si­fy it as some­thing else: a plain old, straight-up, stripped-t0-the-bone booz­er.

Booz­ers have their place, too, of course, but beyond the strange appeal of Bris­tol-style flat Bass, there’s not much for pub obses­sives to look at or enjoy at the Myr­tle Tree.

To put all that anoth­er way, ‘proper­ness’ is a pos­i­tive qual­i­ty, not mere­ly the absence of con­tem­po­rary adorn­ments.

Beer delivery vans in Bristol between the wars

In 1929 neither estate had a pub or off-licence, and tenants had to resort to vans selling alcoholic drink which plied the area.”

That intrigu­ing line appears in a paper by Madge Dress­er called ‘Hous­ing pol­i­cy in Bris­tol, 1919–30’, col­lect­ed in Coun­cil­lors and ten­ants: local author­i­ty hous­ing in Eng­lish cities, 1919–1939. The estates Dr Dress­er refers to are Hor­field and Sea Mills.

As we dis­cov­ered research­ing 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub, it’s almost impos­si­ble to take a seri­ous inter­est in the devel­op­ment of the pub­lic house with­out also get­ting into hous­ing and social pol­i­cy.

Hous­ing estates – a new idea as the 19th cen­tu­ry turned into the 20th, even if they’re now tak­en for grant­ed – were gen­er­al­ly dry by default until the 1920s. What was the point of mov­ing peo­ple out of slums if the slum behav­iour (as it was viewed) car­ried on as before?

Estates, and espe­cial­ly those with ‘gar­den city’ pre­ten­sions, were about fresh air, healthy pur­suits, and the com­fort of the home. If peo­ple need­ed to socialise, there were church­es, and maybe sports clubs.

But fan­cy­ing a pint with your mates every now and then isn’t weird – it’s quite nor­mal. As a result, many peo­ple liv­ing on estates lob­bied for the pro­vi­sion of social clubs and pubs, but Bristol’s estates were with­out pubs until the 1930s.

What about those booze deliv­ery wag­ons? Well, a 1929 news sto­ry cov­er­ing the appli­ca­tion for an off-licence by a Sea Mills shop­keep­er Thomas Prestidge (West­ern Dai­ly Press, 5 March) pro­vides a bit more detail:

There was a large num­ber of res­i­dents on the Sea Mills Estate who had asked Mr Prestidge to make the appli­ca­tion. The near­est licensed house was the Swan in Stoke Lane, over a mile away, and in the oth­er direc­tion the near­est place was a mile and half away. At present the wants of the inhab­i­tants were sup­plied by three or four peo­ple who came from var­i­ous dis­tricts in and out of Bris­tol and deliv­ered to res­i­dents on the estate in dozen and half-dozen bot­tles.

So, to be clear, not only were there no pubs – there was nowhere to buy any alco­holic drink at all.

Objec­tions to this appli­ca­tion from local doc­tors and reli­gious types argued that sup­ply by deliv­ery was per­fect­ly ade­quate and that peo­ple who had moved to Sea Mills to get away from ‘hub­bub’ would pre­fer drink­ing to hap­pen, if it had to hap­pen at all, behind closed doors. Nonethe­less, the licence was grant­ed on a pro­vi­sion­al basis.

Sea Mills did even­tu­al­ly get a pub, and a very grand one: the Progress Inn (pic­tured above). It opened in 1936, but closed in 2011, and was then con­vert­ed into a nurs­ery.

That means if you live at Sea Mills and fan­cy a beer, deliv­ery trucks, from super­mar­kets these days, might once again be the best option.

Progress? What progress?

This hap­pens to be Sea Mills’ cen­te­nary year and the estate is the sub­ject of a local her­itage project, Sea Mills 100. We’ll be watch­ing with inter­est for infor­ma­tion on the estate’s licenc­ing bat­tles.

Camaraderie is forced on men’, 1988

Stools at the bar in a pub.

Cama­raderie is forced on men. They have lit­tle else in life. Forced espe­cial­ly on the des­per­ate, the unimag­i­na­tive, who must drink the same drink in the same place every day.

How to be alone in the midst of fel­low­ship? One can turn the oth­er stool, try to indi­cate with the shoul­der one wants pri­va­cy. One can snap like a lit­tle ani­mal. But this breeds sus­pi­cion. In the end one is nev­er left alone.

But nei­ther does cama­raderie real­ly exist. It is a cre­ation of racists and war-nov­el­ists. Rather, there is an ero­tism about men drink­ing togeth­er.

Come. Come, you must come with us into our hap­py love cloud. A pub­lic bar is the boudoir of a com­ic-opera seduc­tress…

That’s an extract from a piece called ‘Drink­ing Men’ by Amer­i­can writer Todd McEwen. He moved to Scot­land in 1981 and this sto­ry is set in a pub called the Auld Licht. It por­trays the rela­tion­ships between the pub­lic bar and lounge, and between the reg­u­lars who drink in them.

It’s fun­ny, bleak, and rather sour, cap­tur­ing a time when pubs were over­whelm­ing­ly male, every­one smoked, and the card­board back­ings from which pack­ets of peanuts were sold were items of every­day kitsch erot­i­ca.

Hav­ing recent­ly writ­ten about mas­culin­i­ty, beer and pubs for BEER mag­a­zine (see the lat­est issue here) we found plen­ty to chew on even in these few hun­dred words, and would cer­tain­ly con­sid­er include ‘Drink­ing Men’ in that anthol­o­gy we’re hop­ing some­one will ask us to edit one day.

If you want to read it in the mean­time, it can be found in Gran­ta 25: Mur­der, pub­lished in autumn 1988, which comes with an added bonus: Gra­ham Smith’s grim pho­to por­trait of Mid­dles­brough pubs.

Bristol Pub Guide: Our Advice on Where to Drink

First pub­lished 07.06.2019; updat­ed 07.02.2019

Bristol has a huge number of pubs and bars and an ever-growing number of breweries. If you’re in town for a few days or hours, where should you go to drink?

We’ve been asked a few times for advice on this and so decid­ed that, rather than keep typ­ing up the advice in emails and DMs, we’d risk pub­lic humil­i­a­tion, and the fury of local beer geeks and pub­li­cans, by giv­ing it a sort-of per­ma­nent home here.

We haven’t been to every pub in Bris­tol – in fact we’re 203 down with, we think, about anoth­er 150–200 to go – but we’ve vis­it­ed most of those in the city cen­tre, and most sev­er­al times.

In gen­er­al, Bris­tol pubs are pret­ty easy to find, and fair­ly easy to read – chain pubs look like chain pubs, craft bars look like craft bars, and so on – so you won’t go too far wrong fol­low­ing your instincts. There are lots of hid­den gems in the sub­urbs and up side streets, too, so do explore.

And if you want to keep things loose there are some decent crawls: St Michael’s Hill, Glouces­ter Road and King Street all have runs of var­ied and inter­est­ing pubs close togeth­er, one after the oth­er.

Before we get down to busi­ness we must once again thank Patre­on sup­port­ers like Jonathan Tuck­er, Peter Allen and Andrew Brun­ton who jus­ti­fied us spend­ing a bit too much time putting this togeth­er. If you find this post use­ful please do con­sid­er sign­ing up or at least buy­ing us a pint via Ko-Fi.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Bris­tol Pub Guide: Our Advice on Where to Drink”

Pub Life: Sexy Connect Four

Why choose this pub, with its bare boards, real ale, hard white light, and stink of pork scratch­ings? Why make love here?

They arrive through a side door in a swirl of straw­ber­ry-scent­ed vapour, inter­linked and unable to stop star­ing at each oth­er.

He is in slacks, leather jack­et, slip-on shoes, and sock­less. A chipped tooth gives his smile some extra flavour.

She is all dan­gling bracelets and ear­rings, hair teased high and fixed with spray – a prop­er Going Out get-up.

They loud­ly order drinks, lager and white wine, and lean upon the bar, still tan­gled togeth­er, her hand up the back of his leather jack­et, his in her waist­band. They whis­per to each oth­er over the most­ly emp­ty pick­led egg jar on the counter and laugh dirt­i­ly.

The beard­ed man behind the bar looks star­tled. His wife looks star­tled. The reg­u­lars look star­tled.

The dog doesn’t care.

Hey, babes… Babes…”

Leather Jack­et points at the shelf.

Do you want to play Con­nect Four?” he says, some­how sug­ges­tive­ly.

She goes to the toi­let while he sets up the blue rack and sorts the red and yel­low coun­ters. She emerges with pupils dilat­ed, blink­ing and bright, and speak­ing twice as fast.

They play as if nobody can see or hear them, as if they’re Faye Dun­away and Steve McQueen lock­ing souls over a chess­board. Even­tu­al­ly, she wins, and they clink glass­es in mutu­al appre­ci­a­tion.

Then, the game hav­ing got them going, they have to get going, link­ing togeth­er again and head­ing for the door. They stop on the thresh­old as cold air floods in around them.

Blow­ing kiss­es, he shouts, “Good­bye! We love you all!”

She yells: “We’ll have the KY jel­ly out tonight, I tell you that much!”

And then they’re gone.

The land­lord blinks. His wife blinks. The reg­u­lars gig­gle.

The dog licks at an elu­sive Mini-Ched­dar crumb trapped between the floor­boards, pur­su­ing his own love affair.