opinion pubs

It’s Easy to be Intrepid When You’re a White Bloke

Illustration: "Odd One Out".

Wandering into strange pubs in strange towns, perhaps even in distant countries, isn’t as fun for some people as it is for others.

This is something we’ve been brooding on for years, triggered by a passing conversation with a friend. We suggested meeting in the William IV in Leyton and she winced and shook her head. “I don’t feel comfortable in there,” she said. “I feel like people are staring at me because, you know… I’m a bit brown.”

To be clear: nothing ever happened, nothing was ever said, but she simply didn’t feel at ease — and unease, after all, is a finely honed human survival mechanism.

Even within this household there are differing thresholds. There are pubs which Ray (an average-looking white bloke) has visited and enjoyed, but where Jess felt on edge, and certainly wouldn’t particularly relish visiting alone.


Yer Actual Racism

Speech bubble in the pub.

What do you when you hear full-on, unapologetic racism being shouted across the public bar?

That’s not a rhetorical question — seriously, what do you do?

Because this has happened a few times over the years, but more to the point a couple of times lately, and we really don’t know how to react.

Just so you can gauge whether you think this is us being excessively politically correct or prissy, here’s a sample dialogue, as close to verbatim as we can manage given that we didn’t have tape recorders out:

Speaking of terrorists, I’ve had a couple move in next door to me.

What, terrorists!?

Well, the wrong colour anyway.


Bad, right, by any reasonable standard? And, just to be clear, this wasn’t us eavesdropping on a muttered discussion — this was the King of the Bar and one of his courtiers essentially putting on a performance for the other seven or eight — showing off. This came a few minutes later:

We call him Osama because he looks like a Muslim with that f_____ beard.

I’m not a Muslim!

No, but you could be a f_____ Jew with that nose!

That’s not well-meaning clumsiness in an attempt to have a free and frank discussion about the issues of the day — it’s like something from the 1950s.

Racists exist, and they have to drink somewhere, we suppose, but can they not find something else to talk about for an hour when they’re out? It might also be good to hear someone behind the bar say, as a bare minimum, ‘Alright, change the subject.’ Rather, that is, than joining in, as in this case.

Given that we were strangers in this particular pub, and the approving audience of big blokes, we did nothing but squirm. We suppose we could have stood up and said, with quavering voices, ‘Hey, come on now, that’s not on!’ but, in that moment, it didn’t feel like a good idea. (See Mark and Hali on the difficult reality of ‘calling people out’.)

As it is, slightly stunned and anxious, we just drank up, left, and can’t imagine feeling comfortable going back.

Before anyone suggests it, having failed to register a complaint at the time, we’re not inclined to ‘name and shame’ — it just doesn’t quite feel right, at the moment. But maybe our instincts are wrong.

Seriously, we are asking for advice here: what should we do next time? And what, if anything, have you done in similar situations?

Beer history pubs

Pakistanis in the Pub, Bradford, c.1965

We came across the passage below in Graham Turner’s 1967 book The North Country a few months ago and have been sitting on it because, frankly, race and immigration tend to be rather toxic topics.

The North Country, Graham Turner, 1967.

It comes as part of a chapter called ‘The Burma Road’ about immigrants to Bradford. The author (who is still about, by the way) was aiming for something like objectivity, letting people tell the story in their own words, although by modern standards the locals seem to come off poorly, exploiting migrants by renting them property, for example, while moaning about them behind their backs. He might nowadays at his own choice of words in places, too — ‘benighted’!

Anyway, the section below struck us as interesting in the context of the argument put forward by some commentators that pubs have suffered in certain towns and cities whose populations include a substantial number of Muslims:

It was almost lunchtime and the pubs looked inviting. In one of them, the man behind the bar had a broad Lancashire accent, but the warm, dusty interior felt like part of the one of those benighted tropical places which Graham Greene evokes so well, where on the priest and publican are white. The publican here was serving a group of Pakistanis and all the faces in the ‘best’ room were dark.

‘We’ve been here two years now,’ he said, ‘and it’s beginning to drive the wife crackers. Wednesday afternoon, she had a drink, there were so many Pakistanis in here by ten she started crying. At two in the morning I was still trying to comfort her. This last month, at least ninety per cent of my customers have been Paks. I’ve about six whites apart from the girls, you get them of course. The whites have just drifted away. When we came, there’d be twenty or so.’

Now, that sounds to us like evidence that people from (probably) Muslim backgrounds (clearly not especially religious in practice) did attempt to make the pub part of their lives — they attempted to ‘integrate’ in the language of this particular debate — but were made to feel unwelcome.

It’d certainly be interesting to talk to some of those Pakistani pub-goers today, or to their children and grand-children.

Main image: ‘Lumb Lane’ from ‘Changing Bradford’, 1969, via Bradford Timeline on Flickr.

Beer history london pubs

Apartheid in London pubs

Dog Star Brixton, aka the Atlantic, by Ewan M.

In the 1950s and 60s, pubs in London frequently refused to serve black customers, and thus became the focus for protests.

Enrico Stennett, who came to Britain from Jamaica in 1947, took part in several organised protests around Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham. Writing about it in 2010, the year before he died, he recalled provoking landlords in to revealing their racism by sending in a white companion, who would get served, and then trying to buy a drink himself, only to be turned down. At this point, picketing would commence.

In 1963, a group of protesters (ten white and one black) were charged with using threatening words at a protest outside the George Inn in Brixton.  Not only were they were cleared but the magistrate described the ‘colour bar’ in operation as ‘revolting and repulsive’. ‘The magistrate wants to come and live down here for a few weeks before criticising,’ said the landlord. ‘I don’t operate a colour bar, but I am making sure the blacks don’t take over my pub like they have some in the area.’ (Daily Express, 7 December 1963.)

There is a detailed account of 1965 protests against a colour bar at the Dartmouth Arms, Forest Hill, Lewisham, on this blog. On that occasion, the Mayor of Lewisham joined the protesters and walked out of the pub in protest when they refused to serve him because he was accompanied by Melbourne Goode, who was black. The landlord, Harold Hawes, was defiant: ‘The funny thing is that I am not against coloured people. I have taken a consensus of opinion of the people that use the saloon and they don’t want to have coloureds using it… I feel that my trade has increased because people know that they won’t find coloured people in my saloon bar.’

In 1965, it became illegal to refuse to serve someone because of their colour, but that didn’t stop landlords doing so grudgingly and then, for example, making a big show of destroying glasses from which black customers had drunk.

The Atlantic in Brixton, however, is an example of where protests paid off: at some point before 1963 (though we can’t find precise dates or a reliable account of what happened) protesters appealed to the brewery over the landlord’s racism and he was kicked out. His replacement was from the West Indies. By 1974, Martin Green and Tony White were recommending the Atlantic in their Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs: ‘with its recent, much-needed facelift and live, spontaneous jazz, the Atlantic is a predominantly West Indian pub, with its customers spilling out of the bars and on to the pavement. The nearest thing in London to a New Orleans bar.’

Geoff Parker says that, after that, it came to be known as ‘Brixton’s most visible black pub’, until the gentrification/regeneration of Brixton got underway in the nineties when it refurbished with the help of a government grant and renamed Dogstar. The intention was, in Parker’s words,  ‘a white clientele’, while commenters here put it more bluntly: it was transformed ‘from an old black geezer’s pub into a fashionable white kids’ hangout’.

It burned down in riots in 1995 and, after yet another refurbishment, is now part of the Antic chain.

Picture of Dogstar, aka The Atlantic, Brixton, by Ewan.