In Search Of The Perfect Pub

It's the anniversary of Beer Hunter Michael Jackson's death. Let's toast him at the perfect pub.

Before we get into the meat of this week's business it's time once again to acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe to the Beer Hunter. It was five years ago today that Michael Jackson went to that great pub in the sky where the beer is always free, the lines are always clean, the music is never too loud, your favourite seat is always empty and hangovers are unknown.

What we're talking about here is the perfect pub. George Orwell had his own idea of the perfect London pub when he wrote his essay 'The Moon Under Water' in 1946, and it makes for some interesting reading. At the time, Britain was clearing up after almost six years of war and Orwell was living in north London - Canonbury, to be precise. It's possible that he based his essay on an amalgamation of a handful of neighbourhood pubs, one of which might have been The Marquess Tavern which, before it was turned into a gastropub, fitted several of Orwell's criteria. Let's take a stroll to the imaginary Moon Under Water and see what comparisons we can make to today's pubs.

Firstly he suggests that it's no more than a two minutes from a bus stop. I think it's fair to say the majority of London is less than two minutes from a bus stop, apart from some of the swankier areas. A two-minute walk is hardly a stretch, so in order that a little more of the evening's beer can be walked off, and to afford a greater opportunity to drop in at a fish and chip shop, Indian restaurant or kebab shop (always a necessity after an evening of heavy drinking), I'd push the walk/stagger to the bus stop/front door up to twenty minutes. I'm curious as to why he chose to make the anchor point a bus stop rather than his home. After all, Britain is the kind of place where there's a pub on almost every corner in the big towns and cities, giving the drinker a rich choice of watering holes. Or rather, it used to be. A distressingly large number of pubs are closing every year, and the decline is by no means a modern phenomenon - it's been going on for decades. I believe it's currently running at around 12 a week, down from something like 50 a week not long ago.

There are several reasons offered up by experts and analysts for this sad state of affairs, ranging from increased taxation on beer, to cheap supermarket booze, to television/the internet, to the smoking ban, to increasing costs, to changing habits/interests/demographics, to the recession, and, in the case of country pubs and pubs in villages, to rich folks buying second homes and hardly ever being there so that the village effectively loses a part of its population and the pub ends up with not enough customers to sustain it. In 1967 the utter and permanent demise of the country pub - the kind of pub out in the middle of nowhere that you have to drive to such as The Rabbits (note the handy bus stop) - was predicted with the introduction of the breathalyser. It didn't happen, of course, but many thousands of people are alive today who might not have been and drunk driving now has a stigma attached to it, and a good thing too.

George goes on to say that his ideal pub would be free of the 'rowdy' element and populated mostly by regulars who sit in the same chair every evening. Even in the Big City, that kind of thing is by no means hard to find. I've worked in a pub like that. It's satisfying from the customer's aspect to be recognised by the staff who will always make sure to ask if you want "the usual?" before pouring it, and from the bartender's point of view it's nice to see the same faces several times a week, sometimes even every day, and yes, we had one customer who you could set your watch by and whose pint was waiting for him at his favourite table when he walked through the door at 5.05pm every day after work. Another would always give me the nod when he had two fingers of Guinness left in his glass so that I could get the next one going and have it ready just as placed the empty glass on the bar. A good mix of regulars and passing trade makes for the best pub atmosphere. If you go into a pub and the whole place goes quiet as everyone turns to look at you, slowly back out, then briskly walk away.

He then mentions something about the decor - something very specific: "To begin with, its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian". Ah, the Victorian pub. There are very few of them left in their original state but they evoke a cultural memory of elegance, grandeur and downright extravagance that has hardly been matched. Take The Philharmonic Dining Rooms in Liverpool for instance (yes, it's a pub not a restaurant, at least not today). Being Victorian you might at first think that the building is going to be a neo-Gothic pile, and while there are hints of that often maligned architectural style, there are several other styles fighting for attention, including some very ornate art nouveau gates. But it's once you get inside the Phil that your jaw drops when you see the mosaic floor, the oak bar (also covered in mosaic), the stained glass and that incredible ceiling. But that's not even the best the pub has to offer! What draws visitors to the Phil is the legendary gents toilet. No, really, and they let women in there too, just to look at the opulence of those marble urinals and washbasins.

The Philharmonic is now protected by a Grade II* listing from English Heritage, which means that it can't be demolished, or altered in any way that diminishes its cultural integrity and interest. Hitler, town planners and corporate pub designers have seen to it that far too few of these palaces of drinking remain intact.

Next, we're introduced to the layout of the perfect pub: "There are [sic] 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". In Orwell's time, a pub with three or four individual and separate drinking areas, bars, rooms, call them what you will, was common. Indeed, even into the 1970s it was still quite usual for pubs to have a public bar, where the floor was probably floorboards, maybe with a covering of sawdust, the seats were wooden settles and the decor comfortable but basic, and a saloon bar where the floor would be carpeted, the seats upholstered, the decor somewhat more plush and the beer a penny or two a pint more expensive. Larger pubs might have had other rooms like the ones described by Orwell, including the tap room (aka the vault) which was a notch or two below the public bar, was usually for men only and, shall we say, a certain type of woman, and was probably where most of the fights broke out. The ladies' bar (aka the smoke room) might have been a small room big enough for three or four tables, or it might have been what came to be known as 'the snug' - a space barely large enough for one table and maybe four chairs, often with a door that could be closed to make it private but which usually had a small window or hatch that opened onto the bar so that the occupants could order more booze without leaving its confines.

In the 1960s pub owners started to tear down the wall between the two bars and make the pub one homogeneous drinking space, but pubs with multiple bars can still be found, Indeed, the Philharmonic has a pair of bars called Brahms and Liszt - a reference to one of the several ways of saying 'drunk' in rhyming slang.

I'm not entirely sure if the part about the dining room is something Orwell made up or if that used to be the case in some pubs. As we've already seen, the full name of the Phil is The Philharmonic Dining Rooms, and perhaps at one time getting a meal there was an intrinsic part of the visit, but I don't ever recall going into a pub with an eating room like the one described by Orwell, upstairs or otherwise. I'm all in favour of the idea of food in pubs. 'Pub grub' had an appalling reputation for a long time, and deservedly so. Sandwiches curling up at the edges, limp salads, a jar of pickled eggs on the bar... it makes me shudder just to think of it. I do quite like pickled eggs though. Thankfully there has been a revolution in pub food, partly out of necessity in order keep patrons coming in through the door, but I have little time for the gastropub. I want belly ballast, not nouvelle cuisine; gravy, not jus.

A lot of pubs also had the kind of off-sales counter that Orwell describes, usually accessed from a separate door so that you didn't have to enter the pub, for those shy types buying beer to take home. In describing it as a "bottle-and-jug", he's letting us know that you could buy draft beer to take home. Very civilised, in my opinion, and in a time when everyone seemed to know everyone else in the neighbourhood it wasn't unusual for a kid to be sent to pub to bring home the beer.

"In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk". Right, let's get something straight. There are, essentially, two main reasons for going to a pub. 1: Booze. 2: Company. Item (1) can be enjoyed with or without item (2), but either way, music so loud it makes your ears bleed is not going to be a part of my ideal pub. I know there are people who enjoy going to bars where you have to shout at the top of your voice to make yourself heard, but I'm not one of them and I don't see the appeal. The subtle murmur of a pub full of people all engaged in conversation is a wonderful thing. A little music laid over the top of it doesn't hurt, as long as it doesn't get in the way. Yeah I know, if it's too loud you're too old. You stick to your hipster bar and I'll stick to my pub.

Now we start getting into the subject of the bar staff in Orwell's pub. An all-female staff, it seems, and with a maternal bent. I guess that puts me out of a job. Oh bother. Good bar staff, of whatever gender, can make all the difference to a pub. It's not simply a matter of knowing your beer, keeping the lines clean and making sure the toilets don't smell. A good bartender has to be a shoulder to cry on, knowledgeable on just about any subject (or a really good bluffer), up to date with the latest sports results, know a joke to fit every occasion and be tactful but firm when a customer has had enough to drink. It's important that their opinions should closely - but not entirely - match those of whoever they're talking to. There'd be little room for conversation if customer and bartender agreed on everything.

Tobacco and cigarettes in pubs are clearly a thing of the past in British pubs, and I'm very happy about that, as I am about the smoking ban in Austin bars. I used to get so weary of smelling like an old ashtray after a shift behind the bar or a night out. Nor was I too happy about what spending so much time in a smoke-filled room might have been doing to the inside of my body. As for dispensing medicines, even something as innocuous as an aspirin, I'm pretty sure that would be severely frowned upon today by the company's lawyers, fearing any kind of a medical lawsuit.

Orwell casts some doubt on the availability of stout in London pubs in the 1940s. At first glance this might seem surprising, given the ubiquity of Guinness these days. Perhaps 100 years earlier the London pub customer might have had no trouble getting a glass of stout's close cousin, porter, in just about every pub, but by 1946 porter was almost a thing of the past and dark mild was the popular choice, particularly for the working man. We should also remember that the kind of stout Orwell is pining for would certainly not have been the nitro stout that we're so used to now. "A soft, creamy sort of stout", he says. Perhaps it was a milk stout, like Mackeson, and probably from the wood, pulled by hand pump into the glass.

Orwell's stance on glassware is interesting, particularly his dislike of "a handleless glass". Since the recent burgeoning of interest in good beer, and particularly in Belgian beer, we're more aware these days that you need more than two or three fingers to count how many types of beer glass there are, and while some people can get just a little too precious about having the right type of glass for a certain beer, there's nothing wrong with a straight pint glass for English ale. He states that "in my opinion beer tastes better out of china", and I must admit that I don't think I've ever drunk beer from china, porcelain or any kind of ceramic, unless glass is scientifically classed as such. I feel an experiment coming on.

Now we get to something a bit contentious and divisive. No, not the beer garden. I love beer gardens. Even though the British climate isn't always conducive to al fresco boozing, sitting outside a pub with a pint of good beer in your hand and good friends around the table on a balmy evening in late June when the sun doesn't go down until almost 9.30pm and there's a slow, gently fading twilight for at least another half hour as the sky slowly darkens after a scarlet and purple sunset... well, if that ain't heaven I don't want to go. But what sometimes spoils the entire pub experience for me is what Orwell mentions at the end of the garden - children. I simply don't care for kids in pubs. It's where I go to get away from the blighters, and while I have some empathy for families who want to get out but who are encumbered by rugrats, I wish they'd do it somewhere else. I know, it's hardly fair that parents should be persona non grata until their little darlings are of legal drinking age, but as far as I'm concerned the pub is an adult environment where you can go to be a little bit excitable, within civilised limits, tell an off-colour story or two and use the the occasional sweary word (in a discreet manner and with a mind to the company around your table) while not having to worry about offending a protective parent. I sure don't want rugrats running around or being fractious while I'm trying to read a book or do The Times crossword.

I know I'm on the losing side here because so much today has to be 'inclusive', often regardless of the suitability and compatibility of the circumstances. I can't find any good reason for denying a family access to a beer garden on a summer's day other than my own prejudice, and I'm content to admit that. George and I just are going to have to agree to disagree about the matter of children in pubs.

Society has changed, of course, in the 66 years since Moon Under Water was published. One thing  Orwell couldn't possibly have foreseen is wi-fi, and any pub that doesn't provide it these days is likely to lose customers to a rival that does. He might not have approved of it, but I see little difference between reading a book or a newspaper, and using a computer.

Orwell concludes his essay by admitting that - as far as he knows - The Moon Under Water, ie the perfect pub, doesn't exist. I believe there are people all over the country who will take issue with that and say their pub is as perfect as they'd want it to be because it fulfils their needs. When they walk through those doors they feel at home. They know the landlord, the barstaff and probably most of the other people in the pub. It's where they go to meet their friends, and the beer can almost be secondary to that aspect. It's comfortable and you can stay there as long as you like, as long as you keep buying beer, and sometimes even if you don't. There's no impatient waiter or waitress pushing you into leaving because they want to get another four-top in and make more tips. Once you sit down at a pub table or bench, that space is yours for the session.

Looking for perfection is a pointless exercise. Curtis Mayfield said "Take nothing less than the second best". If you find a pub or a bar where you like to go and which serves beer you like to drink, enjoy it. If the decor isn't entirely to your liking but the company is, enjoy it. Either way, use it or lose it.

A votre santé, Michael.