No one does pubs like Britain does pubs. Have you been to other countries? Yeah, the cafe cultures of France and Iberia are healthier and more sophisticated, but since when did people drink to be healthier and more sophisticated? Certainly not my counterparts at the Farrier's Retreat, where I go every night to down 75 pints of vodka in one go.
The bars in the US tend to be friendlier, the Germans are better at dressing their barmaids like cakes with breasts and Russia's drinking culture certainly outdoes ours in terms of aggressive misanthropy. But when it comes to drinking alcohol in public, the British are as unrivalled now as we were when Chaucer was knocking back tankards outside the Canterbury Arms.
As such, the way we go about this important task goes a long way to defining who we are as a nation: ancient, idiosyncratic, hostile, funny, warm and awful all at once, someone like Alan Bennett might opine when pressed for a quote.
It is unlikely, however, that fey national treasures like Alan will have spent much time in some of the many varieties of pubs available to us today, and it seems unfair to drag an 80-year-old playwright who walks with a stick into a Romford 'spoons for a few hundred words of copy. So I thought I'd have a go at nailing some pub archetypes myself.
(Photo by Tom Johnson)
Let's begin with the only type of pub that appears on TV or in films, and by extension the pub that the rest of the world imagines all British pubs to be: the Queen Vic, the Rovers Return, any pub in any Guy Ritchie film – hardman pubs. These places are working-class community strongholds with classic pub exteriors, full of solitary pensioners, NVQ apprentices playing pool and manual labourers having loud conversations in thick accents (Irish on the telly, Polish IRL).
They are run by brassy matriarchs who know all the customers so well they don't even have to order their own drinks, who did a ruddy decent buffet on the Jubilee and who have enough substance (they've been through a lot themselves) to smile through the human suffering and dissolution happening all around them. These are the sort of places where non-drug fuelled lock-ins with men in their seventies occur on a nightly basis, which explains why – seven years after the smoking ban was imposed – they still reek of Mayfairs.
Finally, despite the rather ominous "hardman" title we've given them because we're middle-class cream puffs, these pubs are really just a collective living room for working people in any given area – though the clientele might smirk if you order a Chablis, no one's going to cut your face for laughing too loudly. Which brings us to...
Demonisation of the working classes is a terrible, dehumanising thing that Katy Hopkins does way better than we ever could, but what the fuck is going on in those flat-roof pubs on the edge of estates? Face-cutting is standard Wednesday afternoon fare for these hollowed out breezeblocks filled with hate and pain. Occupied by marginalised, furious white people, flat-roof pubs are where Britain First and dog fighting live.
If you need to get hold of a decommissioned firearm that'll blow three of your fingers off when you fire it at your mother's new 32-year-old husband, these George Cross bunting-adorned doctor's-waiting-rooms-with-bars are the place you should be looking.
These places were once hardman pubs that, through both proximity to recently gentrified areas and an abundance of flat surfaces in their bathrooms, have been usurped by sweaty-faced media professionals, pointy-shoed estate agents and pit-stained financial workers with a penchant for getting the fucking gear in of an evening.
Thanks to the fact that even the owners of these places eventually become ayo for the yayo, no renovation or development ever happens. That means the classic pub exterior and semi-acceptable prices remain, attracting tourists, non-locals and other innocents. Of course, they all tend to leave at around 9PM after they've popped to the toilet and heard three loud mockney voices coming from a single cubicle, each one bellowing something similarly alarming about a woman at their workplace.
LOW-LEVEL GASTRO PUBS
When gak pubs are taken over by people who don't take as much cocaine as the previous owner (but still some, of course – these are pub owners we're talking about), they spot that the clientele of semi-wealthy, 30-something man-children might also want to spend £13 on a burger served on a chopping board.
But fear not, dedicated punters – the owners of low-level gastro pubs know that parmesan potato wedges only taste any good if you can't feel your face. So despite the fact they've installed a dumb waiter and scraped the grime off the windows, they're still going to let you do loads and loads of lovely cocaine in the loos!
HIGH-END GASTRO PUBS
It's a sad day for gakky guys when a low-level gastro pub puts the tiles covering the toilet cistern in at an angle, or just plain covers them in rough grouting, rendering them completely unusable. That's when you know the owner has hired a chef with a reputation and doesn't want another incident involving an "over-refreshed" Foxtons employee and some unsavoury comments aimed at a breastfeeding mother.
Of course, it's not just those gakky guys who lose out at high-end gastro pubs – any cushioned seating is done away with in favour of straight-backed misery-chairs, there to remind you that you eating and leaving is worth more to the proprietor than drinking and staying. Mind you, there are precocious toddlers everywhere in these joints, meaning that any normal pub activity – watching sport loudly, spilling drinks, swearing – is out of the question anyway, for fear of angry exchanges with upper-middle-class mothers in stripy Boden tops.
It's lovely that these guys are still kicking around. About four years ago the government tried to halve the drink/drive limit, which would have wiped out all these little businesses in a single pious, miserable bit of legislation. But that failed, and they're still here – each truly rural pub displaying every single trope you'd hope for.
Non-ironic stuffed things that didn't come from a vintage auction, tweed-clad gamekeepers, "harvest displays", outdoor toilets and men with neckerchiefs are all things that genuinely, 100 percent still exist in this country. Isn't that nice? Plus, the ceilings of these buildings were put in with the height of a medieval man in mind, which is great, because you're essentially getting an immersive history lesson while also paying half the price of a London pint for your locally-brewed whatever.
It should be mandatory for any urban liberal with an opinion on farming or hunting to spend an evening hanging out at a country pub. That way, they might understand that these people aren't necessarily death-mongering UKIPpers or homophobic public schoolboys, and that the world is a lot more complex than hyperbolic op-eds and reductionist sixth form politics would have you believe.
If you've found yourself edged out of any of the above pubs, you and your companion might be wandering through a city centre, maybe a little worse for wear. At this point, you might spot a Belushi's (perhaps the most popular tourist pub) and get an urge to tie one on. This is a mistake.
There are lots of nice Americans in this world, and even a few nice Antipodeans, but you won't find any of them in a UK city centre tourist pub past 10PM. Instead, you'll find a load of square-jawed athletic cunts in matching sports tour sweatshirts struggling with the larger measures of alcohol we serve in this country. These guys aren't going to fight you (unless you suggest they might not be the hardest guy in the room), but they are empty vessels – save only for a series of memorised Anchorman quotes – and hanging out near them is going to dumb down your conversation by some kind of psychic frat-boy osmosis, thereby instantly ruining your evening.
TRAIN STATION PUBS
The general opinion of train station pubs is that they're places of loneliness – venues for a sense of transient nothingness that you'd never actually want to have a drink in. However, there are lots of perfectly acceptable reasons why one might have a drink or two at a pub in or next to a stretch of train track: a reasonable delay on a train that was only taking you home anyway might force you to have a "Dunkirk spirit" pint with a stranger you recognise from your daily commute; you might find yourself pre-gaming with your oldest and dearest friends on your way to a stag-do; or you might even have a well-deserved drink on your own as a way of saying fuck off to a horrible working week. And these are all drinks of joy, not sorrow.
The sense of Lost in Translation-esque loneliness that you associate with these places is actually what the staff are feeling. There are no regulars and they all have to wear gross embroidered polo shirts – their misery is understandable. So spare a thought for them next time you're doing shots with your four oldest friends on the way to a lovely occasion. Maybe even ask them to join you for one when the landlord goes out for a smoke.
PROVINCIAL ALTERNATIVE PUBS
The provincial alternative pub might often billed as "alternative" in local listings. But "alternative" is a broad term that, outside of Chelmsford, could include a varied mix of people: LGBTQ folks, Italo disco fans, new-age travellers, piss drinkers, anarcho-syndicalists and that woman who claims to have only eaten air for 20 years. However, in the blander commuter-belt parts of this country, "alternative" mainly just means "Kerrang subscriber".
That, of course, is no bad thing – of all the pubs mentioned here, only the hardman pubs, the country pubs and these places can claim to have any real element of welcoming community spirit to them. Provincial forklift drivers in below-the-knee cut-offs covered in Pantera patches have dealt with their fair share of sneering derision, and as such are welcoming and friendly to anyone respectful.
Ah, 'spoons – the place we weren't comfortable with taking Alan Bennett to, but that we perhaps should have been, because if you're looking for a true slice of British life – a real cross section of this great nation's boozy folks to write a lovely, flowery bit of prose about – there is no better place to observe them than here.
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All this categorisation may seem divisive, but there is a truth at the heart of all British pub culture – one that makes itself even more apparent when you cram a bunch of distinct places next to each other and try to single out the differences. And that is that, at base level, we are one nation, united by decent drinks deals, perfectly acceptable reheated curries and secretly quite liking it when no music is playing while you're trying to have a drink and a conversation.
Follow Robert on Instagram: @bobfoster83
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