by Rowan Pelling
Never have I longed so much for May. It’s not just the blossom, nor the fact you have to love a month famed for virgins dancing round a big phallic symbol on a village green. This year, what May symbolises for all who worship a good hostelry is the first time in over six months we’ve been allowed to seek sanctuary inside a pub. “Inside” being the key word. Yes, I’m sure you – like me – parked your bones in a beer garden at the Vole and Firkin during April and froze your bones in the name of a (supposed) good time. But being cold and damp isn’t fun. How can you savour the peculiarly British delight of warm ale when it threatens to ice over? Especially when you can glimpse a sign saying “snug bar”, but know snugness is denied you.
The whole point about pubs is that they’re places where we take refuge from the wind, rain and life’s crueller elements. They are where we relax, unfurl and begin to feel warmly philosophical. There’s no problem so vast it can’t be solved over a pint. Pubs’ outdoor spaces are usually for families, walkers, Morris dancers and other casual users. True devotees prefer the inglenooks, banquettes and, above all else, the bar stool. I cherish the fact that the seat-of-choice for drunks lacks a back, sides or any obvious form of stability. There’s nobility in staying upright after five pints of Adnams and three brandy chasers.
I’ve observed that high-stool balancing act many a time. My parents were tenant landlords of a Kentish country pub for 34 years and my siblings and I grew up washing glasses, ferrying ploughman’s lunches, listening to gossip and pulling pints. The law dictated those serving drinks should be eighteen or older. So I was eighteen from the age of fifteen and can still fix a mean Snowball, pint of Snakebite or Whisky-Mac. I also get a bit impatient with bar staff who have to visit the till to calculate the cost of four pints, a G&T, dry-roasted nuts and a Scotch egg. My parents’ till was a disused Victorian slops sink with a tray in it for coins. Notes were kept near the optics in a couple of beer glasses.
When I say our pub had charm, I don’t mean it had window baskets, and antique barometers – though there was a mangy stuffed fox that got stolen in the 80s by hunt sabs. Nor would the charm have worked for everyone. You had to relish an irascible landlord whose top endearment was “fathead” and who emptied the pub after last orders by shouting, “Bugger off the lot of you!” But you’d also need to warm to a Miss Marple’ish landlady, who knew every local’s secrets and ran pub polls to find “Britain’s Greatest Novel” (when the locals voted for Lord of the Rings, she rigged the vote so it was topped by Pride and Prejudice). We had shove ha’penny, darts, Radio 3 in the background, a group of practising Odinists and an Edwardian piano played by an old boy of the same vintage. Dogs were allowed in the bar, though they had an unfortunate habit of peeing against the corner of one of the two pub sofas. There were two blazing log fires, one either end of the bar and a sign saying “no unauthorised stoking.” My mum was driven insane by punters who grabbed her poker without asking.
Sadly, this Shangri-La was lost to drinkers when my widowed mum retired in 2002 and the brewery built a hideous restaurant extension. (My mum’s culinary repertoire didn’t extend far beyond homemade cauliflower ‘n’ cheese and baked potatoes – occasionally a rock-hard, wizened spud would be found weeks later at the back of the Aga). But most readers will have their own version of this sanctuary: a space where you hang out with an alternative family and feel like the best, wittiest, softly-lit, lightly-refreshed version of yourself.
Laura Thompson wrote a marvellous pub memoir The Last Landlady, which hits all the saloon-bar sweet spots. Her grandmother Violet was chatelaine of a home counties’ pub the author never names – allowing it to take on the varnish and velour of your own local as you read. Thompson writes that Violet had “learned to phrase her personality, as a singer phrases a lyric; she knew the power of withholding, and of brief conspiratorial bursts of charm.”
When a publican is that charismatic you feel chuffed to be allowed over the threshold. After all, British landlords have the prerogative to bar anyone they disapprove of, as Keir Starmer was rudely reminded when Rod Humphris booted him out of his establishment, the Raven in Bath. One licensee I knew used to bar people “for looking suburban” and for “never having read a novel.” The late Auberon Waugh wouldn’t let poets into his drinking den, Soho’s Academy Club – especially ones who dispensed with rhyming. You have to enjoy the fact that while US bars boast choice, polished service and a warm welcome – “Hi, how may I help you!” – British pubs are traditionally about a limited selection of beverages, a blousy barmaid (Babs Windsor will forever be my role model) and an aura of disdain. The curious thing is we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review