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.

Three’s ideal, maybe five, six is pushing it

You can do the pub with two, sure, but even the closest of companions will find lulls in the conversation.

No, three is the ideal – keeping the chat at a constant simmer, taking it in turns to interrogate or listen, and nobody left alone while the round’s got in. And three will fit anywhere, from the tiny round table in the tiny snug, to the end of a bench, to leaning on the bar.

Four and five work too, though the balance is never quite as good as with three. It’s too easy to end up in a row, player one unable to hear player four, player five cast adrift and in everyone else’s way on a stool dragged across to the end of the table.

Six? You need a biggish pub with plenty of room to pull off six, but it can be done on special occasions: you can’t see A without telling B you’re coming out, and B will want to bring C, and if C’s there it would be rude not to invite D… But the conversation either fragments, or ends up with everyone yelling over each other. You’ve to work hard in a six.

Eight is just daft. Avoid eight. That’s a dinner party, that is, or a committee meeting. Coats in a pile, not enough chairs, “You swap with her so she can talk to him about them”, tables dragged together and bar staff rolling their eyes. Except in the biggest of booze barns your group of eight is a dominating and probably irritating presence.

Then there’s twelve… Are these people barmy? Five tables in a row down the middle of the room so nobody else can get to the bar or toilet or the smoking lean-to. High chairs and pushchairs. A camera on a tripod. Is somebody making a speech? “Let’s pile the presents on this table here to get them out of the way while we eat.”

Even better, the central London speciality: fifteen, with no booking, guidebooks in hand. Shuffle in, shuffle all the way round looking for the magic unreserved banqueting table, then shuffle out again looking sad.

No, three is the ideal size for a team in a game of pub.

Though there’s also a case to be made for one.

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.