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Pubs - Town and Country

Every country has its drinking habits, some of which are general and obvious, others most peculiar. Most countries also have a national drink. In England the national drink is beer, and the "pub", where Englishmen (and women to a lesser extent) go to drink it, is a peculiarly English institution. The word "pub" itself, of course, is an abbreviation of "public house", which sounds dull and uninspiring; but there is nothing dull and uninspiring about the associations which the shorter form - pub arouses in the English mind.


A bright introduction to any self-respecting pub is the sign outside it. The sign might hang from a wrought-iron bracket, or be mounted on a post, or be fixed to the wall above the door. On it will be the pub's name - "The Pig and Whistle" for example, or "The Three Mariners" - with a gay painting depicting the name. Push open the door and you will be met by a rush of warm air, a babble of voices and a welcoming whiff of beer. At tables round a usually not very large room people will be sitting and in front of each person you will see a pint or half-pint mug of beer, or a smaller glass of a "short" drink - whiskey, gin and tonic, or fruit juice. This room is called the "bar", but, confusingly, the same term is used for the great counter of polished wood which dominates one end of the room. At this bar, people will be standing, again with a drink either in their hands or on a "beermat" at their elbow. From time to time they will take a sip - for Englishmen sip their drinks - and then put down the mug to continue the conversation. Actually on the bar will be the "handles", which are in fact handles of pumps which draw the beer; behind the bar will be the "landlord" or, if you are lucky, an attractive bar maid, and behind him, or her, will be shelves filled with fascinating bottles of every kind to cater for the exotic tastes of those who find the usual English beverage unexciting. There is a general atmosphere of warmth and cosiness. Most pubs favour the "traditional" image - a roaring log fire, old oak beams supporting a low ceiling, and brass ornaments festooning the walls. Comfort is essential, for here people do not drop in for a quick drink and then go; they tend generally to "make an evening of it" and stand or sit, glass in hand, talking to friends or strangers, until closing time, when, with a cry of "Time, gentlemen, please!" the landlord ceases to serve further drinks, and the assembled company gradually disperses into the inhospitable night. This is usually at half past ten in the evening.

To describe one particular kind of pub, as I have done, is to over-simplify my account, since there are many, many variations on the theme. Indeed, pubs are everywhere in England; a small town of, say, 50 000 inhabitants will have between 50 and 100 pubs, each with its own character. Each tiny village has its pub. Sometimes a pub will stand in solitude on a country road over the moors, far from any village or town, a relic of days when travelling was mostly a matter of making stops for refreshment or lodging; and even today, in outlying districts as well as' in towns, the pub often serves as a small hotel, or "inn". So ubiquitous is the English pub that people navigate by them - "turn left at the Dog and Dart, then continue past the King's Arms, and the road you want is just before the New Inn." This navigation is very convenient, because pubs often stand on corners, and are usually exceptionally obvious, with their signs and bright lights.

There is a good deal of folklore behind the names which pubs bear. The derivation of some names is obvious; often animals figure in the title (The Fox and Goose); often an element of history enters with the name of a local noble family (The Tatton Arms). But what are we to make of such names as The Case Is Altered or The Elephant and Castle or The Beetle and Wedge? According to a popular opinion, which is believed by some to be false, the first two mark the return of English soldiers from the Peninsular War; they corrupted La Casa Altera* into The Case Is Altered and El enfanto de Castilla** into The Elephant and Castle. As for The Beetle and Wedge, this has its roots in craftsmanship of an earlier day, when wood was split by inserting a wedge into a log and hitting it with a hammer, or "beetle". A pub near Ambleside is called The Drunken Duck for a very strange reason. One day the ducks of this hostelry (which was also a farm) drank some spirit which had leaked from a barrel, whereupon they fell into a stupor. The good wife, thinking them dead, plucked them, and was about to cook them when she observed signs of life - one of the plucked birds was wandering drunkenly round the yard.

* (La Casa Altera - Spanish for a tall house.)

** (El enfanto de Castilla - Spanish for the infante of Castile, formerly a kingdom in Spain.)

Jokes, too, abound. A late-night traveller knocked at the door of the George and Dragon. From an upstairs window a female head appeared, and in vigorous terms told him that all sane folk were already in bed by that hour, and what was he doing making all that noise in the middle of the night? The traveller looked at the inn-sign and said "Could I speak to George, please?" In another place at another time, the landlord of a country pub called The Coach and Horses, hoping to maintain the reputation of his hostelry by keeping out the invasions of noisy people who arrive fifty at a time in a coach, had put up a notice outside saying "No Coaches". A wit affixed another notice saying "No Horses Either".

The oldest pub in England is usually reckoned to be The Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, situated in a recess carved out of the hill under the Castle. The Trip claims to have been built, or excavated, in the 12th century. The place for second oldest pub is contested, but as a Lancastrian, I favour The Carpenters' Arms in Lancaster, situated again just below, though this time not under the Castle, and hard by the harbour wall on the river Lune. There is no newest pub, since, oddly enough, these monuments of English traditional life are still being built. There is such a phenomenon as a modern pub. Sometimes these retain the traditional characteristics - low ceiling, open fire-place, exposed beams; sometimes they dispense with the characteristics altogether. None, however, can do without the great bar counter, although the traditional long beer-pump handles have given way to neater taps, for beer no longer comes in great barrels of wood but in metal containers. Gone also is the traditional "dray" - a waggon used for delivering beer. You used to see these great lorries carrying wooden barrels great and small, and crates of beer in bottles. Today's metal containers are a less picturesque sight, but the term "dray" is stiil used for the lorry which carries them.

The hey-day of the pub as the centre of social life in a locality has passed. Television at home has proved too strong a competitor. Nowadays there are few pubs left which provide the organized and extempore entertainment of fifty years ago. The centre of this entertainment was the bar pianist, and around him, on special nights, would gather a group of virtuosi-singers, comedians, or performers on the spoons. These last would hold two spoons between the fingers of one hand and provide a peculiar accompaniment similar to the sound of castanets to the music of the bar piano. The wane of pub life in towns brought about by television is matched by the effect of "don't drink and drive" legislation on the country pubs. In post-war years, the habit had grown of driving out of town for an evening drink in one of the most outlying, and therefore most often picturesque, pubs. The idea was to find an unspoilt pub, which not too many people knew about. But since the number of people engaged in this kind of exercise was large, and since the landlords of outlying pubs preferred to have a lot of customers than just a few, it became extremely difficult to combine the picturesque with elbow room. The situation changed somewhat with the passing of the "breathaliser" law, which put heavy penalties on a driver who had had more to drink than was compatible with road safety. Country pubs, some of which, in the bonanza of the driving drinker era, had abandoned the picturesque to become fairly substantial places of liquid experiment, found that business was decreasing. Many have taken to providing meals and coffee, so that the aim of the evening's drink might not be entirely alcoholic.

Thus television, the motor car, and restrictions on the use of the latter, have recently changed the social pattern in which the English pub occupied place of pride in a locality. But if the actual man-hours spent in pubs have decreased, and if the brewers complain of decreased profit, this is no reason to conclude that "the pub" is a doomed phenomenon; it will continue to accomodate itself to the times. Indeed, even now landlords are bracing themselves for the rude shock when people will no longer be calling out for "a pint of bitter, please, George". "Half a litre of bitter, George" sounds to an Englishman like the blare of the last trumpet; and think of all those useless pint glasses!

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