Up The Smoke to see some yank friends a couple of weeks ago. Arranged to meet at a big old Victorian pub on The Strand named The Coal Hole. Fond memories of ducking out of the summer sun and into a spacious bar with high ceilings, real ale and a relaxed mix of Londoners and tourists.
Met said yanks just as we approached the front door but our initial amiable greetings were drowned out by the loud harangue of rugby commentary. I hadn’t seen these guys for years but any attempts at “how you doing?” or “great to see you!” were subsumed beneath the televisual din of an overexcited sports boor. Screens everywhere and the other patrons were not jokey English or enthused tourists but gormless gargoyles sitting, supping and staring at men in shorts.
In 21st Century London, this is “The Pub”.
A quick Google reveals the Coal Hole to be owed by Nicholson “founded by William Nicholson in 1873” it says. Very traditional – Not! Nicholson’s is part of FTSE250 company Mitchells & Butlers, operators of “around 1,700 restaurants and pubs all over the UK”. The Coal Hole is the public face of yet another corporate and hence its values are corporate: profit first.
In my younger years, in rural England The Pub meant The Fox. No carpet, no music, just good beer, companionship and not an inkling of the fake camaraderie of sports event management. You had to engage. You had to discuss. Elaborate drinks were designed, the merits of Veganism debated and the landlord pontificated on various English wars: “the trouble with the Germans is they never had a long range bomber”. Eventually anyone in town with more than a glimmer of originality washed up at The Fox. Later, in London The Pub meant the Prince George. Tall ceilings, hanging flowers baskets and lots of room to stand and chat. The pub was the perfect place for discussion as everyone was welcome and the application of alcohol broke down the initial British reserve.
Pubs are not only British of course but the British Isles does seem to have something to do with it. Motorcycling around southern France a couple of years ago I found myself in Arles and, after failing to find any discourse in the French bars I chanced upon an Irish Pub. It was here that the Frenchies came to chat and I spent an informative evening hearing their views on the EU.
Indeed, it was the Frenchman Hilaire Belloc who said of English pubs: “Change your hearts or you will lose your Inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England”. This caution has gone unheeded.
With honorable exceptions, these days, English pubs seem no more than retail outlets. The beer is not well kept, the food is worse than a school canteen and even the music is just a tool to increase sales. Channeled into every corner of the building you can’t hear what your mates are saying so you just nod and put your pint to your face.
We English never complain. I noticed this after returning from Nigeria and America, two admirably assertive cultures. Having picked up a more forthright attitude to service, my fellow countrymen were embarrassed and hostile as I tried to specify the type of glass I wanted my beer served in. They hushed me as I demanded my money back from a faulty slot machine. The subtext in England then, as now is “Don’t make a fuss”.
Burt we should make a fuss. Traditional boozers are a part of England that we should value. Pubs require us to listen to opinions which we might otherwise dismiss out of hand. They nurture irreverence and humour, both attributes which are sorely lacking in our professional opinion formers. Last week’s episode of the Bridget Christie’s Utopia on BBC Radio 4 was a case in point.
Christie is funny and talented though can be sanctimonious and dreary. As she wound down toward the close, she quoted the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit: “Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective and remembering this is reason to live by principle and act in hope that what you do matters even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious”.
I had never heard this statement before but I love it. It may even be what drives my rants into oblivion on this blog.…. BUT…..BUT ……But Christie is a comedian not a soviet political commissar! Disgorged in her usual hectoring monotone on a comedy program my reaction was: BLOODY HELL! – BRING BACK BENNY HILL! If she’d just tried this out down the pub first she would have been met by an enormous raspberry – I know, because it’s happened to me.
The Guardian also suffers this inward looking self-riotousness and served this up in spades recently with Brigid Delaney telling us of her recent holiday exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Her account came across like the diary of a stroppy adolescent. First, she took offense at her fellow dive boat passengers. One lot were dismissed as racist, another lot as homophobic. Then she took umbrage at the crew for claiming that the media were exaggerating coral loss and the amount was not 95% but nearer 5%. Mr. Delaney thought this “bullshit”, though she had no figures of her own, and so left the briefing in a huff.
But what did she expect to hear from someone who makes their living taking foreign tourists to the reef? More importantly, if she thought coral loss so important, then why did she fly half way around the world, emitting enough CO2 to suffocate a herd of elephants, just to whine that the tour operator gave incorrect CO2 statistics? It beggars belief that she penned such nonsense but that it got past the editor (also on the boat) shows the level of group think at The Guardian. They’re not liberal and tolerant anymore and they’re not green – They’re just weird.
Traditional media stratifies society to some extent but modern social media takes this to extremes as people self-select only opinions which they find palatable. One antidote is the pub. If she’d taken the time to sound off about this down the pub she might have written a more balanced, humble and effective piece.
The absence of traditional pubs where anyone and everyone can meet up, sound off and hear contrary opinions is contributing to a loss of individualism and the growth of dogma.*
*Obviously German Beer Halls in the 1920s must have been some kind of aberration from my half-baked theory.