How well do you know London's pubs? Sure, you might know a decent place to get a pint around the corner from Victoria train station. But what about if you find yourself stranded and thirsty in Chingford or Neasden? Most people don't really know London's pubs. At least, not like Ewan Munro.
For the past seven years, Ewan has been painstakingly researching London's pubs, both past and present, cataloguing them and taking photos before uploading details to his online database Pubology. He also posts them on Flickr where they're available for anyone to use for free. His mission is to photograph every pub in London – although, as he tells me, it's difficult to know just how close he is to that goal. Nevertheless, the thousands of photos he's taken so far represent an invaluable record of an aspect of British culture which feels at an increasing risk of being lost. I sat down for a pint with him at the Cock Tavern in Hackney to ask him about his work.
VICE: Hi Ewan. What made you decide to start taking photos of pubs?
Ewan Munro: I've been doing this for about seven years now. It's difficult to say why exactly. I guess because I like them and I find them interesting and I enjoy spending time in them. I'd started taking photos of pubs and at a certain point I just started to take photos of every pub. I can't say the idea was part of some conscious plan to make an amazing database and collection of historical photos of pubs. But I guess I have that obsessive streak in me to catalogue things.
How did you get started?
I have a group of friends who did walks along the tube line. We'd go to tube stations and walk from that station to the next tube station along the line. It gets you out to places you would never go to. So I'd go on walks with my friends and take photos of things that I thought were interesting and sometimes that thing was an old pub.
It's a romantic thing, the idea of these buildings that used to be so important just sitting there decaying. Once I'd decided to take photos of every pub I had to create a database to keep them in so I knew which ones I'd taken photos of and which ones I still had to take photos of. That's when I started getting a bit serious about it.
How many pubs are there in London?
It depends on several different things. One is how you define London. Let's say you define it as Greater London, the borough boundaries. Then you've got to decide what you count as a pub, and that's an even more contentious question. It's impossible to say. What's the difference between a bar and a pub? There's a lot of blurring going on. It's my database so I feel I can be idiosyncratic if I want to be... Off the top of my head it's at least 5,000. But that might be a massive overestimate.
Is it something you think you'll ever finish?
I can finish doing the research. Then I could, in theory, get a photo of every building that is or was a pub. But pubs change a lot, the names change, they get repainted. I can't keep up with that. I can barely keep up with the changes on my website, let alone getting a photo of every one. There's almost a bottomless amount of research I could do into historical pubs.
Do you see yourself as a pub historian?
My wife tries to introduce me as a pub historian. But I've studied history, I feel like I know what it is to be a historian and I'm not a historian. I'm at best a pub witness, or an archivist. I don't really do research that places pubs in a historical context. All I'm doing is finding out where they existed and when they existed and then taking a photo of them if they're still there.
Do you see your work as important?
I wouldn't use the word "important" but I do see the value of having a record of the changes. Even in the time I've been doing it, the buildings that I've taken photos of have been knocked down and rebuilt, often not as pubs. So I think it's been useful to see all those changes over time. The longer I do it I think the more value it has. Now I've taken so many thousands of photos I think, maybe it does have some value. In 100 years' time maybe people will say, "look at this bunch of photos that guy took back then". Maybe it could be of interest.
On a personal level, what do you think makes a good pub?
It's such a strange alchemy to get all the things lined up. No pub is going to do everything right. There are plenty of places I know that have a good selection of beer but I don't want to spend time in. It's about creating a pleasant environment for drinking. Sometimes you can do that without having any good beers. There are plenty of nice pubs, little community locals, which are friendly and welcoming but have absolutely nothing decent to drink.
Do you have any favourites architecturally?
I love looking at and taking photos of, if not always going into, estate pubs. Your classic flat roofed, concrete buildings at the edge of estates. I think those are fascinating and those are the ones that are going to disappear. A lot of them are these places that are just hanging on for dear life and no-one really loves them and when the last local has died and they close up they'll be earmarked for demolition. I find that sad.
We hear about pubs closing all the time. Are you optimistic about the future for London pubs?
I don't share all of the pessimism that a lot of people have. Demographics change, the way that people engage changes, the way people socialise changes. If pubs are closing, other things are coming up in their place. Bars, restaurants... they aren't pubs but they're places where people socialise and drink. Like a lot of people, I share certain concerns about the way that London is more and more becoming impossible to afford to live in. But there are always going to be places to drink.
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