TIM HAYWARD: MY FANTASY PUB
Posted on December 06 2023
The Financial Times’ food critic, Tim Hayward, writes for us about his dream boozer...
TH: There’s no evidence that Marx ever said ‘drink is the curse of the working class’, but Engels spent a lot of ink and bile on the British boozer. It’s hard to deny the Marxist stance that pubs existed, mainly in cities, as an outlet point for a cheap addictive substance, mass produced by the vile capitalist brewing families, rapidly becoming some of the richest people in the country.
I’ve realised that my upbringing was tainted by this. My grandparents, and therefore my parents, had a strong streak of Bristol/Welsh Valleys Socialist non-conformism about them. All that Baptist chapel and temperance ‘Band of Hope’ nonsense. None of them liked pubs at all. They rather feared them, I think. It’s probably why I never got the genes of proper a pub bore, complaining about straight glasses and whinging when they let kids or women in. It’s a tragedy, but I was born without the genetic predisposition to the pub.
George Orwell, my favourite old leftie, wrote a terrific essay for The Listener in 1943 - The Moon Under Water - describing his own dream pub. It was urban, Victorian, with cheery staff, a decent roast, welcoming to families, with stout on tap and … and unfortunately was completely imaginary, because, as Orwell saw clearly, even in 1943, the pub and our relationship to it was already changing too fast for anyone to keep up.
The change hasn’t slowed.
Beer is, I suppose, the starting point. Urban Victorian pubs and the breweries and distribution systems that supported them were a brilliantly evolved design for the delivery of mild or bitter ale at the widely accepted national standard level of about 8 pints per man per night. ‘Ladies’ got a port and lemon in a segregated bar and should count themselves bloody lucky. Any development from that has since been seen by pub-bores as a catastrophic collapse of standards.
Blame my upbringing, but I don’t give a damn about wooden barrels and hand pumps. I want a brilliant selection of bottled beers that are properly cold and big thick glasses kept in the freezer. If every bar in Manhattan can manage an ice cold glass, why can’t bloody Wetherspoons? I’m also going to demand a decent wine list. Nothing stupid, but the wine’s got to be at least as good as the stuff I would pick up at the off-license to drink while I’m watching the telly.
“But then the wine in the pub will be twice the price of the same stuff at the offie!” Yep … Of course it will. Just like any restaurant or cafe, I’m paying extra for the place, the service, the running costs. I’m happy to pay the extra to drink it in a pub with friends. My pub’s reassuringly expensive.
There needs to be food too. This isn’t just because I’m a food writer. I genuinely believe that without the ubiquity of the pub - which Engels would have argued was designed to push subsidised booze to the masses - we might have had the chance to develop what the rest of our European neighbours seem to have; a solid infrastructure of independent cafes, bistros, bodegas, trattorias, and tavernas. Places that might have had tables and served wine because … if you’re not drinking 8 pints of industrial beer every night, you might have the freedom to realise that food and wine work well together.
Proper pub bores loathe gastropubs to the very depths of their souls. I bloody love them. My pub has a socking great blackboard full of big hearty, homemade stuff to be consumed in quiet contemplation or in a riot of celebration. Sharing plates, big steaming platters of stuff, highchairs for child restraint and plenty of vegetarian options … because I’d like to be able to invite friends.
The Victorian pubs in the working-class districts of our big cities fell into disuse when their customer base moved on and it was during the late 90s, with some encouragement from the Thatcher government, that the breweries were forced to divest themselves of these hulks. Intriguingly, they were cheap, came with a booze license, sometimes a kitchen, and were in the areas that the new yuppies were keen to gentrify. The Gastropub was a natural evolution. It’s also now the English answer to our missing brasseries and ristorantes.
My favourite pub is definitely an independently owned gastropub. I honestly believe we should stop reviling them … from the posh ones in gentrified city ‘quarters’, to the good-hearted but slightly crap ones out in the sticks. From the destination ones we drive halfway across the country to visit or the local, scraping together a decent little menu.
And the pub still retains an important function as a social nexus. It’s a place to hang out with friends. And that’s probably the most important distinction for me. My friends are not the blokes on my shift at the shipyard. Muscled, sweat-stained and flat-capped. They are not the strutting pack of semi feral identikit ‘lads’ I used to swill fighting lager with when I was just old enough to drink. My friends are pretty diverse in age, ethnicity, class and, frankly, propensity to put up with crap. My place needs to welcome all of them, and their bloody dogs, or the whole thing just doesn’t work.
So, like The Moon Under Water, mine is probably a dream. But still…
You coming down the pub?