I’ve been trying to write about pubs for weeks. I say trying because occasionally it’s really hard to kick a piece off. It just feels all wrong.
When that’s the case the best way is generally just to say what you wanted to say. So here it is. I love a good pub. Pubs are a vital part of the culture of the British Isles.
The Greeks have the taverna, the Germans the biergarten, the French the tabac. In America they have bars. We have the pub.
Some of my earliest memories are of the pub. I remember being taken on holiday to Wales by my parents and visiting friends or family who owned one. I was ushered quickly through the bar but those brief seconds of noise, bright lights and electric atmosphere left an indelible impression. I couldn’t have been more than five or six. I remember the boy who lived there had a poster of The Who on his bedroom wall. Of such small details are childhood memories made.
An even earlier memory is of my local; The Bull in Three Leg Cross. I remember sitting on the settle just inside the door into the main bar. That’s pretty much all I remember. I was four or five. But I do remember liking pubs. They were full of life; adult life. Children existed below the radar. There were things to keep adults busy and distracted and that opened the door to small adventures.
When I reached my teens pubs started to become meeting places for me and my friends. I won’t say late teens because, for whatever reason, I didn’t seem to have too much trouble getting served in pubs from the age of about 14 onwards. Of course things were rather more lax then. No one asked for ID.
My favourite pub when I was in my late teens was The Sussex Arms just behind the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells. It was legendary (Paul Bailey remembers it as legendary too – the picture comes courtesy his blog). We’d drink Harveys Best or a mix of King & Barnes Festive with a bottle of Harveys’ Elizabethan, a barley wine, tipped into it. The Sussex was full of an amazing clutter of things including some of the original Pantiles which gave the most famous street in Tunbridge Wells its name. I seem to remember the ceiling being covered in chamber pots. It had a Sussex bar and a Kent bar, according to rumour dating from the days when the county boundary ran through the building.
The landlord was an incredibly fat, rude man called Dennis. Dennis would steer himself downstairs at around nine each evening clinging for dear life to the stair rail and then make for his seat. If you were sat in it he’d say, simply; “Fuck off! That’s my seat.” Obviously that was in the days before the customer became king as opposed to an inconvenience. But in them days it was almost a badge of honour to be told to fuck off by Dennis.
The Sussex was a haven for beatniks, artists, hippies, bikers, punks and dealers. There were five knobs on the front door only one of which worked so that the regulars would know if the person coming in was one of them or not.
I remember one guy trying to get a packet of crisps. “Salt and vinegar crisps please,” he asked the barmaid. She looked under the bar. “Sorry. Haven’t got salt and vinegar,” she replied. “Cheese and onion?” She looked under the bar again. “Sorry.” “Roast chicken?” She checks and shakes her head. “Beef?” Nope. “Prawn cocktail?” Negative. He realises he hasn’t tried the obvious yet. “Ready salted?” She checks again and shakes her head. “Well what sort of crisps do you have?” he asks. “We don’t do crisps,” she replies. Barmaid one, punter nil.
I think I lost interest in Tunbridge Wells when the pub got a makeover, Dennis was retired or kicked out and it developed all the charm of a big wine bar for teenage Henrys.
Lots of pubs went that way. Then pubs started closing at an alarming rate. Wadhurst lost a couple a while ago – The Rock Robin (where I went to nursery – I know I started early) and the Cross Keys, both down by the station. Many of the old road houses hereabouts are now Thai/Indian/Nepalese/Chinese restaurants.
My friends James and I had a good chat about the fate of pubs a few months back prompted by my musing aloud what I might do with a pub, given the opportunity.
Pubs, observed James, used to be a good alternative to one’s own front room. A hundred years ago your average front room was dark, cold, damp and boring. The pub with a roaring fire, lamps burning, the chance of company and, of course, good strong ale was a much nicer place to be.
These days your average front room is bright, warm and dry, has comfortable seating (more comfy than the average pub), the choice of a telly, a games console, a music system and a radio and beer is a short hop away in the fridge (and much, much cheaper than it is in the pub). So why go to the pub?
James argued that the ratio of pubs to people ought to be much the same as for dentists to people. Of course he and I meet in the pub rather more often than I go to the dentist (I have a whizzy toothbrush that hopefully keeps the dentist at bay).
Once, people left home in search of somewhere more inviting. These days pubs need to work harder to give people a reason to leave home.
The answer will vary from pub to pub but food seems to play an important part. Few pubs get it right. Either they have pretentions to be a restaurant, charge accordingly but don’t deliver restaurant quality food (or food with any integrity of imagination) or they just serve bad food.
Then there’s beer. We’re living in a golden age of brewing. Last year I went to a beer festival where there were some 50 beers from Kent and Sussex alone. My favourite breweries are mostly from round these parts.
Yet despite that too many pubs struggle to bring those beers in because of tie arrangements or management companies. Why would I pay twice as much to drink down the pub the sort of pre-passed rubbish I can buy in the supermarket? Give me a perfectly cared for cask ale from one of our local brewers and I’ll come visit you. Give me no choice other than to drink John Smiths or Stella and I’ll go home. Even ‘real’ ales from the big breweries aren’t much of a draw.
I fear unless pubs and their owners wake up and try harder we’ll see fewer still in a decade. It would leave a hole at the heart of British culture. Perhaps if we vote with our feet we’ll get the pubs we deserve.
I think we deserve great pubs and when I find a moment I’ll write about some of my favourites.