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My favourite public-house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights.
Its clientele, though fairly large, consists mostly of ‘regulars’ who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as for the beer.
If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its ‘atmosphere’.
To begin with, its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham roof-beams, ingle-nooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak. The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed bull’s head over the mantelpiece — everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century.
In winter there is generally a good fire burning in at least two of the bars, and the Victorian lay-out of the place gives one plenty of elbow-room. There are a public bar, a saloon bar, a ladies’ bar, a bottle-and-jug for those who are too bashful to buy their supper beer publicly, and, upstairs, a dining-room.
Games are only played in the public, so that in the other bars you can walk about without constantly ducking to avoid flying darts.
In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of a decorous kind.
The barmaids know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone. They are all middle-aged women—two of them have their hair dyed in quite surprising shades—and they call everyone ‘dear,’ irrespective of age or sex. (‘Dear,’ not ‘Ducky’: pubs where the barmaid calls you ‘ducky’ always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere.)
Unlike most pubs, the Moon Under Water sells tobacco as well as cigarettes, and it also sells aspirins and stamps, and is obliging about letting you use the telephone.
You cannot get dinner at the Moon Under Water, but there is always the snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels (a speciality of the house), cheese, pickles and those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses.
Upstairs, six days a week, you can get a good, solid lunch—for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll—for about three shillings.
The special pleasure of this lunch is that you can have draught stout with it. I doubt whether as many as 10 per cent of London pubs serve draught stout, but the Moon Under Water is one of them. It is a soft, creamy sort of stout, and it goes better in a pewter pot.
They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drink to be transparent, but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china.
The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden. You go through a narrow passage leading out of the saloon, and find yourself in a fairly large garden with plane trees, under which there are little green tables with iron chairs round them. Up at one end of the garden there are swings and a chute for the children.
On summer evenings there are family parties, and you sit under the plane trees having beer or draught cider to the tune of delighted squeals from children going down the chute. The prams with the younger children are parked near the gate.
Many as are the virtues of the Moon Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.
And though, strictly speaking, they are only allowed in the garden, the children tend to seep into the pub and even to fetch drinks for their parents. This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding children—and therefore, to some extent, women—from pubs that has turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be.
The Moon Under Water is my ideal of what a pub should be—at any rate, in the London area. (The qualities one expects of a country pub are slightly different.)
But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Moon Under Water.
That is to say, there may well be a pub of that name, but I don’t know of it, nor do I know any pub with just that combination of qualities.
I know pubs where the beer is good but you can’t get meals, others where you can get meals but which are noisy and crowded, and others which are quiet but where the beer is generally sour. As for gardens, offhand I can only think of three London pubs that possess them.
But, to be fair, I do know of a few pubs that almost come up to the Moon Under Water. I have mentioned above ten qualities that the perfect pub should have and I know one pub that has eight of them. Even there, however, there is no draught stout, and no china mugs.
And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.
Evening Standard, 9 February 1946
Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday
EVERY nation needs a national myth, and Britain might seem to need more than most. A modern myth has it as a country full of overworked wage-slaves. Newspapers write of a “long-hours culture”, and point out that the British working week is significantly longer than the European average.
Yet walking through the afternoon streets of St James, on my way back from Friday lunch, it is hard to see much evidence of that. A legion of investment bankers and private-equity types crowd the streets, as indistinguishable from one to the next, in their open-necked shirts and luxuriantly coifed hair, as their predecessors were in their umbrellas and bowler hats. They are the overspill from London's pubs, which have been filling up since midday. Now it seems as if half the city is outside, pint-glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, chatting up a co-worker or arguing about football. London must be the only city in the world where the journalists work harder than the bankers.
Pubs are Britain's national pastime. Three-quarters of the population indulge and a third consider themselves regulars, far higher proportions than are claimed by any of the country's religions—football included. And they are unique to the British Isles. The Germans have beer-halls, the French have cafes and most other societies have bars, but only in Britain and Ireland can you find pubs. There are procedural differences (there is no table service at pubs, something that causes endless confusion for tourists) as well as different pastimes once you arrive (it is hard to imagine sophisticates in a Parisian bar playing darts or Scrabble). But what really sets a public house apart from its foreign counterparts is the conceit that it is not a place of business, but a part of a person's home that is open to anyone.
In 1946, George Orwell, perhaps the 20th century's best chronicler of English culture, wrote an essay describing the ideal pub, which he named the Moon Under Water, and the qualities that made it special. Many of these remain recognisable to modern readers: the architecture, he said, was uncompromisingly Victorian, infused with the “comfortable ugliness” of the 19th century. It was busy, but not noisy, with a merry atmosphere but not a drunken one. There was a fireplace for the winter and a beer garden for the summer; the barmaids were friendly and most of the clientele were regulars.
Not everything would be so familiar, were Orwell to visit a pub today. There was no dinner served at the Moon Under Water. Today, virtually every pub in the land advertises “traditional pub food”, and an evening trip to the pub for a meal has become a classic family evening out—a “tradition” no more than a decade or two old. The Moon was unusual in that it offered draught stout; if there is a pub in Britain today that doesn't serve Guinness, I have never found it. Orwell reserved a snooty disdain for glasses without handles, preferring to drink his beer from pewter mugs. One can only imagine his reaction to the plastic cups that are becoming common in town-centre pubs now.
Still, most modern pubs try to replicate Orwell's formula, knowingly or not, some more successfully than others. One example of what not to do can be found at my local, a mid-sized pub which shall remain nameless, in a nondescript part of north London. It is owned by J.D. Wetherspoon, a large firm that has built its success on following Orwell's criteria (one of its flagship pubs is even called the Moon Under Water, though Orwell's essay reveals that the pub it describes did not actually exist).
First impressions are good. The dark, wood-panelled walls look suitably Victorian, and there is a nice mix of tables and booths. A pair of high-backed red leather armchairs, seemingly salvaged from the Reform club from the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, occupy pride of place in front of the fire. The walls in one corner are covered with bookshelves, suggesting the kind of place where one can while away a few hours reading quietly.
As soon as you sit down, those good impressions start to go sour. The tables are sticky with half-dried beer. There is a wide range of beers to choose from, but often it tastes as if the pipes have not been cleaned for weeks. The food is cheap because it comes pre-made in plastic sachets and is reheated in a microwave—that is, assuming the overworked staff can remember your order. Until smoking was banned from pubs in 2007, the front half of this Wetherspoonerism stank of cigarettes while the back half was suffused with a smell from the toilets. After three disappointing trips I swore never to return, a promise that I break now only in the interests of journalistic inquiry. Sadly, the tables are as sticky as ever and, while the cigarette smoke has gone, that has only allowed the toilets' odour to pervade the entire place.
OFF to St Albans, a mid-sized town in Hertfordshire. In the morning my girlfriend and I visit a nearby zoo. Once back in town, an unspoken understanding guides us toward St Albans Cathedral.
On the edge of the grounds, next to a large park, stands Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. Never mind the cutesy name; according to the Guinness Book of Records, this is England's oldest pub (though at least three other pubs claim that title). Parts of the structure date from the 11th century, and the foundations are thought to be 200 years older still. A sign at the door informs visitors that it hosted Oliver Cromwell for a night during the English Civil War. Believe it or not, I am not here in search of journalistic colour—my girlfriend is lucky enough to have it as her local.
The interior is cool and dark. Heavy wooden beams support a low ceiling, and the main bar is dominated by a massive fireplace (complete with an original bread-oven). I order a pint of Jack O'Legs, a locally brewed beer named after a Hertfordshire folk-hero who is a southern version of Robin Hood—a master archer who robbed from the rich to give to the poor.
Such small breweries are enjoying a revival, thanks largely to the Campaign for Real Ale, the largest single-issue consumer group in the country. Ale is the traditional folk drink of the British, and still has a lingering association with robust yeomen and rural wholesomeness.
After an afternoon spent walking, it is easy to see why. There are few things more pleasant than a cool pint on a warm summer day. (Real ale is kept cool in cellars, not served warm, as foreigners tend to think; but neither is it artificially chilled, like lager.)
This sort of contentment is the more pleasant side of Britain's decidedly two-faced relationship with alcohol, which was best depicted by William Hogarth, an 18th-century artist and satirist. Today Hogarth is remembered mostly for “Gin Lane”, a vision of an alcoholic hell. Drawn at the height of the “gin craze”, the print depicts the demon drink's effects on society—suicide, madness and, most memorably, a sozzled prostitute dropping her baby to its death.
But with a modern panic about booze in full swing, few people remember that the picture is one of a pair. Its counterpart, “Beer Street”, depicts a new Jerusalem, full of jolly, prosperous smallholders enjoying a well-earned pint of “small” (ie, weak) beer at the end of a hard day's work. “Beer, happy produce of our Isle / Labour and Art upheld by Thee / Genius of Health, thy grateful Taste / Can sinewy Strength impart,” runs the patriotic ditty that accompanies the picture. An afternoon at the Fighting Cocks feels much more Beer Street than Gin Lane.
Later that night, in St Albans' town centre, the dark side begins to emerge. Families and stallholders disappear, replaced by groups of young drinkers (and the occasional bunch of middle-aged ones, too). By 9pm the atmosphere is pleasantly boisterous; but two hours later, now that darkness has fallen, the currents of aggression that ran just beneath the surface have become more pronounced. Most people are only out for a good time, but the number of fights, screaming, tears and paralytic drunks lying in doorways, as well as the amount of vomit on the pavements, rises steadily as the night wears on.
Almost every town in Britain is like this on the weekend. Perhaps counterintuitively, things tend to be worse in smaller towns. My girlfriend used to live in the centre of Godalming, a wealthy town in the heart of Surrey's stockbroker belt. But her flat was right above the high street, and on Fridays and Saturdays sleep was impossible before 3am. One morning we awoke to a fireman at the front door, telling us that her car had been turned over in the night.
Although most types of crime have fallen in the past years, violent crime has not. The government blames the proliferation of cheap alcohol. Earlier this week it warned pubs and nightclubs that it would legislate to ban promotions such as happy hour if the industry didn't do so itself.
It would be nice to think that we could get rid of Gin Lane and keep Beer Street, but history isn't encouraging. Two thousand years ago, Britain's Roman occupiers (who founded a major settlement near St Albans) wrote letters home complaining about the rowdy drunkenness of the natives. Such ancient cultural practices tend to be immune to the fussing of mere governments.
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I AM standing outside the Golden Lion, a tiny pub squeezed in among the commercial buildings across the road from The Economist's head offices. It's one of the smallest watering holes I've seen: the bar takes up over half the space on the ground floor. Only the bar at my hall of residence at Southampton University was smaller, and that was a converted bedroom that claimed the dubious distinction of being the smallest university bar in Britain. Most of the Golden Lion's clientele stand outside, spilling out onto the road or onto a ramp that leads to an underground car-park next door.
Outdoor drinking is not unusual for a London pub in the summer—high rents mean space is limited, and warm air and late sunsets make being outside quite pleasant. But the habit has spread in the past year, as the government's ban on smoking indoors in public places has taken hold. Drinkers now huddle outside capacious country pubs as well as cramped urban ones, even in the middle of winter, taking hurried drags on their cigarettes before retreating back into the warmth.
Not all drinkers are so hardy. A common fantasy of oppressed British office workers is to give it all up and run a pub somewhere, but a few minutes chatting to a landlord will discourage all but the most incorrigible optimists. They paint a gloomy picture of their industry.
Trade has fallen since the ban, they say, which is just another in a long line of iniquitous changes that are slowly driving pubs to the wall. Statistics back them up. The British Beer and Pub Association reckons 27 close every week, a figure that has risen sharply over the past few years.
There are many villains, including cheap supermarket promotions, the rise of nightclubs, and snazzy electronic entertainment keeping people parked on their sofas instead of a barstool, but the most striking trend is a steady decline in beer consumption. Beer vies with tea as the iconic English beverage, but despite a revival of interest in small, independent brewers, sales have been falling for over a decade. Beer sales in pubs are at their lowest level since the 1930s.
A nation's drinking culture does not easily change, and so experts marshal broad social changes to explain the beer's waning popularity, including the decline in manufacturing (thirsty work, after all), more health-conscious consumers and—to my mind, the most compelling reason of all—the rise of an aspirational society.
Beer, particularly traditional ale, is still seen mostly as a workingman's drink, favoured by solid but unfashionable men who speak with thick regional accents. The usual contrast drawn is with wine, equated in the popular mind with svelte continental sophisticates. Sure enough, as beer sales have fallen wine sales have surged.
Coping strategies vary. Some pubs and brewers have tried to beat the oenophiles at their own game, and in the richer parts of town you can now find expensive and pretentious “beer bars” that offer hundreds of types of beer, breathlessly describing their “nose” and “palate” with all the overwrought flummery that makes professional wine-tasters sound so ridiculous.
Others have diversified into food, spawning gastropubs (essentially restaurants with bars), or into televised sport (copying American-style sports bars) or live music. Yet none of these innovations have halted the decline.
Being rich, diverse and the nation's capital, London might be expected to be at the front of such trends. Yet in bits of the city (including the west end, where The Economist is based) one can still find plenty of old-fashioned pubs, where food is an afterthought (if it is even served), wine is a rarity, gimmicks non-existent and the focus is still on drinking and socialising.
I am aware that I'm engaging in another great English pursuit—complaining that the country is going to the dogs—so I will try to end on a more cheerful thought. I have no way to back this up with anything other than personal experience and anecdotes from friends, but it seems that, while they have been declining at home, British and Irish pubs have sprung up in capital cities all over the world. It would be nice to see pubs exported as a concept, offering a homey, relaxed alternative to the more stylish, high-pressure environment of a bar or nightclub. Drinkers can stand in the gentle evening light with a pint-glass in hand and some good friends for company. To me, pubs seem the most significant contribution that the British have made to the cause of human happiness.
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