In the pub, standing is part of the fun

In a really lively pub, not everyone is going to get a seat.

If you do get a seat, there’s no guarantee you’ll have the table to yourself, or that someone won’t end up stood over your shoulder bumping you with their hip and yelling, laughing or otherwise existing out loud.

We found ourselves thinking about this as we worked our way around the pubs of Kelham Island in Sheffield on a busy Saturday night.

There, parties of people in smart Going Out Clothes seemed happy to stand about, cascading into spaces between tables even where there hadn’t seemed to be spaces moments before, and crowding the corridors.

“Can I just squeeze through there, pal?” Well, not really, and yet somehow, yes, and all without touching. (A British superpower.)

If you’re mug enough to wear a coat, you’ve either to swelter, to hold it, hope to hang it, or throw it on the floor. The tendency to hit the town in shirtsleeves makes sense in this context – cold between pubs, sure, but unencumbered once you get there.

That’s not to say that people aren’t keeping an eye on the availability of seats. There’s a way of glancing sideways: how near is this lot to finishing? How empty are their glasses? Is anyone making a move to buy another round, or have they started picking up coats and handbags? There are prime hovering spots, and sharp elbows are sometimes unleashed: “Some people’ll jump in your bloody grave!”

One party leaves (a gust of cold air, dead leaves across the carpet) and another group comes in. The crowd flows fluid to make way as hands reach over to lift pints from the bar, as scotch eggs are eaten from plates balanced on the mantelpiece, as giggling people sit on laps, or the arms of chairs.

These pubs are healthy. This pub culture is healthy. Life is good.

And those lovely, tranquil pubs where you always get a seat? Perhaps worry about them.

Part-time drinkers

Bailey's grandparents having a drink in around 1980.

Here’s a confession: we don’t actually drink all that much. Sorry, brewers, landlords and British drinking culture in general, but we are letting you down.

We don’t go to the pub every night and, when we do, we rarely get beyond tipsy. At home, it’s unusual for us to drink more than a couple of bottles of beer in a session.

Why? Well, partly because we are the kind of uptight oddballs who don’t much like losing control. Mostly because we hate hangovers. And maybe, just maybe, because we are a little concerned for our long term health.

Contrast that with the stories older relatives tell about drinking ten or twenty pints in a weekend session, having worked up to it with five or six on each preceding night; or the world evoked in this post at Pubs of Manchester; and in this extract kindly sent to us by the Pub Curmudgeon:

It was here that I first became aware of the South Welshman’s peculiar dedication to beer, as a pastime. Three male customers ordered three consecutive rounds of pints. When the first man ordered his second (the fourth) round I realised that these three were stuck for rest of the evening…. It is not so much that the South Welsh drink to excess – rather it is a humorously sly but wholehearted approach to the enjoyment of drinking that endears them to me.

Ben Davis, The Traditional English Pub, 1981

All of these describe a relationship with beer (or booze more generally, or perhaps pubs) which is very different to ours. Is it better? It is probably, to steal a word from Davis, more wholehearted, more passionate and, in some ways, more fun. It might also be a bit more dangerous — something of a dance with the devil.

Is this is why we can’t work up a rage over the price of beer? Because we’re part-timers, amateurs, lightweights? Beer would have to get very expensive indeed before we couldn’t afford a couple of pints or bottles — even of quite strong, high-falutin’ craft beer — if we really wanted them.

The picture above is not us! It’s Bailey’s grandparents in the club, mid-session, c.1980.