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.