Friday 31 May 2024

Rock Up or Line Up?

There has recently been a lot of chat on social media about an emerging practice, in some pubs, of forming an orderly line at the bar.  An actual queue, as if you are in the baker's, or at the till in a supermarket. Now, most of us know that queuing at the bar is the antithesis of British pub drinking. Rocking up to the bar and jockeying to get served is rooted in the cultural and social norms that define the traditional British pub experience. Here’s why:

British pubs are known for their informal and relaxed atmosphere. Customers typically stand or sit around the bar, and barstaff serve patrons in a seemingly spontaneous and natural order, hopefully based on who arrives first or - and this shouldn't really happen, but it does - on who catches the eye.  This lack of a formal queue however encourages social interaction. Pubgoers chat with one another while waiting, creating a convivial and communal atmosphere. 

Drinking in a British pub is, by and large, a communal experience in a shared space. The bar itself is part of that shared space and is, one might readily argue, a key part of it, where the act of getting a drink is a cooperative experience rather than a solitary task. People naturally form clusters rather than lines, fostering a sense of community. This in turn encourages socialising and mingling, as opposed to the more isolated experience of standing in a queue. Actually, for many, a chit-chat with others at the bar is all part of what makes a pub what it is and what makes it different from, for example, a continental bar.  
Of course, all this kind of goes against the grain of the British penchant for queues, does it not? Well, not really. As the anthropologist, Kate Fox wrote in her book Watching the English: "In our drinking-places, however, we do not form an orderly queue at all:we gather haphazardly along the bar counter. At first, this struck me as contrary to all English instincts, rules and customs, until I realised that there is in fact a queue, an invisible queue, and that both the bar staff and the customers are aware of each person’s position in it. Everyone knows who is next: the person who reached the bar counter before you will be served before you, and any obvious attempt to get served out of turn will be ignored by the bar staff and severely frowned upon by other customers. In other words, it will be treated as queue-jumping. The system is not infallible, but English bar staff are exceptionally skilled at identifying who is next in the invisible queue." In fact, there is an unwritten code of conduct that regular pub-goers understand and follow. This includes recognising when it's your turn and respecting others' place without the need for a formal line. It encourages patience and politeness, with everyone, trusting that they will be served in turn. This mutual respect reinforces the communal and friendly atmosphere.
Additionally, regulars frequently build a rapport with the bar staff, and the informal approach allows them to acknowledge and even, in some cases - and why not if done sparingly - prioritise familiar faces who provide much of the regular custom. This skill contributes to the unique dynamic of British pubs.
The queue, in contrast, is more of a formal, structured activity that can feel impersonal and rigid, which contrasts sharply with the relaxed and informal nature of a British pub.  It can even be seen as disrupting the traditional and cherished practices of British pubs. It introduces a level of order and control that feels out of place in an environment valued for its organic and spontaneous interactions. Even worse, it can be seen as diminishing the character and charm that make these establishments special. Warmth and social engagement are hallmarks of the pub experience.  As Pub Curmudgeon wrote on his blog "The interaction between staff and customers, and between customers at the bar, is a crucial part of the atmosphere of pubs. Much of that is lost if people are just sitting at tables and tapping at a phone to get their drinks brought to them."
In essence, queuing at the bar contradicts the intrinsic qualities of British pub culture, which thrives on informal, social, and communal drinking experiences. The organic and fluid method of being served at the bar is a fundamental aspect of what makes the British pub a beloved institution. We shouldn't muck about with it.

I have written about this previously, as has Pub Curmudgeon, Both are worth a read, but in the end, despite being quite even handed, Mudgie is right when he says  "This trend has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the impact of Covid and lockdowns. Customers have become more used to standing in line, and somewhat nervous about a crush at the bar.

It undoubtedly does detract from a traditional pub atmosphere, taking away the opportunity to chat with staff or other customers at the bar......... It’s just turning a pub into a retail outlet where the prime objective is the efficient processing of customers" 



Wednesday 29 May 2024

Book Review - Local Legends -The Hidden Pubs of London

One of the fascinating things about London is how much of  "old" London remains and how, relatively, many of its pubs are still pretty well unspoilt. Many of these pubs are either off the beaten track or concealed, either in the suburbs, or masked from view in alleys or byways which only those in the know discover. Additionally, many of these are comparatively unaffected by the passage of time, and some, a bit against the grain in these somewhat homogenous days, have long serving, idiosyncratic, or iconic landladies and landlords. Identifying these treasures is where this perceptive book shines.

You will read that many hidden pubs are steeped in history, with some dating back centuries. The architecture, old wooden beams, and vintage décor transport visitors back in time, creating a unique and nostalgic atmosphere. Often they are small and cosy or have a quirky and eclectic interior, filled with oddities and curiosities that give each venue a distinct personality. This adds to the overall attractiveness and is likely to make each visit memorable, as does the host - more of which later.  Some are, on the face of it, a lot more mundane, but the book looks beyond that to the story beneath. However, as this fascinating book sets out, these curiosities are getting fewer and fewer and may not be with us forever. This is very much a guide to these rarest of beasts, and the descriptions are peppered with a feel of "get there now before it changes". 

The book's narrative is expertly penned by John Warland, who is a down to earth and easy going wordsmith.  His photographic confederate is Horst A Friedrich, who provides this weighty tome - it is 335 pages long - with wonderfully atmospheric and striking depictions of the very diverse pubs included. There is a foreword by Suggs - he of Madness fame - who describes his early days in the French House, Soho, and his local, The Dublin Castle in Camden. His affection for pubs is clear when he says: "Pubs gave us a platform..... I wouldn't have a career without pubs. I'd be a busker or butcher's boy to eternity." This neatly sets the tone for what is to come.

The book covers 38 pubs, arranged by area. Many old favourites are included, such as Ye Old Mitre, The Pride of Spitalfields, The Wenlock Arms and the Cockpit.  Perhaps more interestingly, there are many that you probably won't know - and they aren't all Victorian treasures - but which will nonetheless capture your imagination and make you keen to visit. Each pub is allocated just a single page of text, but so well written and insightful is that text, that the reader gets a clear feel of what each pub is about.  That may be the intriguing local clientele, the fascinating bric-a-brac- within, the history or the nature and idiosyncrasies of the incumbents that run them.  Many of the photos have neat little accompanying subtitles or observations summing up either the photo or the establishment.   The Nell Gynne Tavern's lights are "The casual whiff of a whore's boudoir". The Cross Keys in Covent Garden is "An Aladdin's cave of ephemera", the Nag's Head in Belgravia quotes the landlord describing his rules "if you don't like it - don't come here" and Bradley's Spanish Bar is remarked upon thus; "The sign says "bar", but your heart says "pub".

Publican icons are covered too. The legendary Roxy Beaujolais of the Seven Stars accurately states that "a pub is egalitarian: anyone can come in" before waspishly adding "until I say they can't". This is accompanied by a stunning photo, which captures her essence vividly.   In the "no cards accepted" Palm Tree in Bow, a gem of a pub, still tricked out externally in Trumans signage and run by the same landlord since 1977, the author writes "it is hard to imagine the Palm Tree without Alf. You somehow miss him before he has even cashed out". 

This book has much to offer the pub fancier and those that simply like the quirky and unusual. They aren't difficult to find - most are hidden in plain sight - but reading about them makes the reader keen to visit and to seek them out before they change forever. There is an undoubted degree of tempered nostalgia in this book, but to a certain extent at least, that is the point. Perhaps the raison d'être of the book is best summed up by the pithiest of remarks pertaining to the Lord Clyde in Borough, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The book is highly recommended and frankly, so are the pubs. 

There was a nice quote from Horst at the book launch where, when invited to be involved, he asked John Warland what the book was about. "GFB Horst" he said." GFB?" queried Horst. Great Fucking Boozers" Exactly.

And maybe, some pubs could also take a leaf out of the King Charles 1 in King's Cross's book, and have this as a statutory entry policy to all pubs -  "Strictly no wankers".

Local Legends -The Hidden Pubs of London is published by Prestel. ISBN 978-3-7913-8973-8.


Tuesday 7 May 2024

Two Cheers for Carlsberg Marstons

So, the Burton Unions are saved - well, one of the sets at least. As revealed by Pete Brown, or rather, as followed up by Pete, here in Drinks Business, Thornbridge Brewery, with technical help from CMBC will install a saved set at their Derbyshire Brewery.

Now this is good news for the history buff and for the working preservation of a historical and rather technical aspect of brewing history that looked to be all but lost. I do though note that CMBC are keeping a non-working set at Marston's Burton Brewery, which was news to me.  The CMBC press release can be read here on the British Guild of Beer Writers site.  The gist of the deal is as follows:

According to The Drinks Business, discussions between CMBC and Thornbridge began in February this year, to look for a way to provide a new future for the Union sets at Marston’s Brewery, following their retirement earlier this year. CMBC gifted the set of Union barrels to Thornbridge, and has also provided expert guidance and advice on maintenance and set-up for the Union system being developed at Thornbridge’s Bakewell-based brewery, which is set to be completed in May. The Union sets will be used for brewing special edition cask beers utilising this historic method first created in Burton-on-Trent in the 19th century. 

Emma Gilleland, Director of Brewing at CMBC, said, “This collaboration is a perfect showcase for the ways brewers can come together to deliver something special, for the love of beer and Britain’s incredible brewing heritage. We’ve been proud to support Thornbridge through the process by sharing our time and expertise to help set up their own Union system, and we are confident they will be fantastic custodians for our Union sets.

Pete Brown says in his analysis,  "Occasionally, big and small can work together to achieve something neither could alone. This week, it’s been announced that Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) has given a set of of the famous Burton Unions to Thornbridge, and is helping the Derbyshire craft brewery get it up and running. This has sent some much-needed cheer through the craft brewing world.

Pete goes on to say " But why is it important? Is there anything to this beyond the preservation of a museum piece, important though that is?  Well, here’s where it gets interesting. The reason given by CMBC for “retiring” the Unions is seemingly unstoppable decline of the cask ale market. The Unions exclusively brew cask ale, and there’s simply not enough money in cask ale to justify using this expensive kit in its production. They have become, to quote CMBC, “unviable.” And yet, the reason given by Thornbridge for taking on the Union set is that it will enable them to premiumise cask ale, to do new and interesting things in the space, and make more money from the sector.

If Thornbridge is right, CMBC must be wrong. If Thornbridge can use the Unions to premiumise cask ale and make it more interesting and profitable, why couldn’t CMBC. These are good points.

A further point is why is the history of the Burton Unions being turned over to a small (albeit very well thought of) brewery, rather than being taken forward meaningfully by CMBC? A cynic might just think that multinational brewing companies care little for either history or cask beer, and this is a cheap way to put a slightly embarrassing problem to bed and come out of it looking rather good.

This whole affair, somewhat reminds me of what Churchill said of the Americans during the war, "You can always trust the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have tried everything else."

Readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan - indeed, I'm a confirmed sceptic of the notion - of premiumisation of cask ale generally, but in this particular instance, a much more convincing case can be made for it. 

Both pieces highlighted are worth a read in full. 

And there isn't a prize for the first to say Churchill didn't say that.  If he didn't, he ought to have.