Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Perfect Pub part 2 - The Magpie & Bodger

A most elemental part of the country pub

Out in the countryside, The Red Lion has thick whitewashed walls, a creaking sign, bulging ceilings, cold flagstones and a shotgun hooked above the hearth. It has metal bed pans, old bottles from extinct breweries lined up along oak beams with the horse brass and copper milk jugs. It has animals - the live stretched out in front of the fire, the stuffed mounted and posed while fox hunts stream up the hand pulls. The Red Lion is woody, cavelike, conservative, worn. It throws beer festivals in the beer garden and Morris Dancers jingle and collide out front on special days. Country pubs seem to me as steadfast and eternal as the geology that surrounds them. There is a sense that for however long the landscape has been there, the pub has too.

The Prince Albert in the town has matchboard drinking compartments and regal etched glass windows that make it difficult to look in from the street. It boasts ornate elbow shelves, carpentered bling, plaster mouldings and opulent chandeliers. It has Toby jugs, a yard of ale glass on the wall, photographs of itself through time and portraits and busts of its eponym. The colours scream red, walnut and cream and the regulars that haunt it possess trademark laughter. A piano sits in the corner covered in pint pock marks. It heaves from crowds returning from football matches. Casks are turned to seats.

This could only be a city pub

The Culta in Barbam in the gentrified sprawl has exposed brick and floorboards, a back plate for the taps, chalk boards and glass walls. There are subverted Magritte-style artworks, graffiti by commission, stalked glasses and gleaming chrome. It’s got seating in the form of plastic and metal geometry. In terms of comfort, it goes beyond Puritan to Spartan. A combination of fairy lights and neon signs heighten the darkness inside. Stripped bare, lean, hip, gaunt, ironic, hipster, hoppy. The bodies spill out during the tap takeovers and collaborations orchestrated on social media.

Finally, the Weekend Brewery and Tap under the railway arch. This last venue might differ from the others as all the available space will be taken up by stacked bottle crates, fermentors, heat transformers, mash tuns, palates and teetering columns of key kegs. So far, no room for conversation pieces as the old equipment is likely to retire to an even younger start-up brewery than hulk in the background to be cooed over. If it isn’t essential, it’s robbing space.

Hardworking breweries like this are time capsules rather than museums

I frequent all of these fictitious bars and shoehorn them into the rural, the urban, the modern and the functional. The first three of them, unless they take active steps to avoid it, will become small museums in their own right. Why? It’s simply a part of our fabric: we just can’t throw things away and should be proud of that. The fourth will remain relevant to the present only - a time capsule rather than a museum.

There is something to be said of completely modern bars like Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green. It’s minimalist with regards to decor - looking a bit like a mess room with graffiti. There’s an appeal to this like a blank canvas to start from scratch on, but over time paraphernalia and curios will amass given a purchase. Amongst males especially, there’s a sartorial and hirsute look being rocked at the moment. Some related items should be stockpiled on top of the fridges. They could include vinyl and 1980s record players, a row of beanies, flat caps, redundant Apple Macs, a scooter and a set of headphones ripped from the cockpit of a Lancaster Bomber. Whether or not many people will remember the significance of these items in the future is besides the point. A curio appeals because it’s curious.

Many pubs now display the hand pumps’ back catalogue of clips above the bar & along the walls, best exemplified by The Harp near Covent Garden. Pubs used to do this but with beermats instead. This is an example of an evolving trade memesis. It also shows our magpie nature. I love it. It’s like a celebration of tat.

Possibly the best pump clip canopy there is - The Harp nr Covent Garden

Archaeology is literally the unearthing of rubbish; archaeologists in the field sift through whatever the bygone peoples hoarded, left behind or threw away. If Britain had suffered its own Vesuvius, digging up a pub would be the pay dirt. It would house the accretion of years of cultural obsoletes and disposables revealing not just a snapshot, but whole passages from history in need of an archive.

Whoever runs a pub has a choice: to let stuff build up randomly or to channel it into an orderly fashion. Dirty Dick’s in Bishopsgate was a good example of the former. Cobwebs were so thick from the rafters it was like clinging soot. Guns, bank notes, skulls and mummified animals inhabited the recesses and over time it accumulated, reinforcing its own reputation. I’ve never actually been but my father remembers it from decades ago. Online it seems the wilderness has been sanitised and put behind glass. It’s a Youngs pub now that caters equally as a restaurant (and would need to meet food hygiene standards to do so).

On the other hand, The Speaker (Enterprise Inns) in Pimlico is a good example of collection by design. Directly above the bar which also acts as a Deli, there is a shelf crammed with hardback books. As you scan from right to left, these books give way to antique food containers like OXO and Wilburs Cocoa tins. On the adjacent wall is a glass case containing a display of explosive fuses. There’s another case with a small heraldic sword and a police truncheon. Outside by the doors, the history and procedure of the house of commons is emblazoned on cartouches. As an establishment, it has absorbed the business and pageantry that surrounds it and turned itself into a kind of totem for political Westminster.

Pubs often give me an education

So we’re a nation inclined to collecting and to organising the build-up. Sometimes the collection doesn’t come about through chance but is actively sought: A Wye Valley brewery pub called The Morgan in Great Malvern is so called because of the Morgan Motor Company. There is a tradition of racing sports cars around the Malvern hills and on a visit in 2012, two vintage specimens were parked outside. Paintings and photographs of Morgan cars were all over the walls inside. Again, this is an example of a premises being a gallery or museum to its local history.

Without going as far afield as the Scilly Isles, the north Norfolk coastline is easily Britain’s premier birdwatching stretch and here the public house links arms with enthusiasts too. The Dun Cow in Salthouse and The George Hotel in Cley both keep public bird sighting records that birdwatchers can use as a resource - often as a means to decide whether or not it’s worth leaving the pub based on what’s been seen. The log book in the George is a hefty tome splayed open on a lectern like the Gutenburg Bible. The two pleasures of ornithology and pub-going have here conjoined. There is no greater sight to a birder after an arduous trek across a shingle beach in horizontal rain, than a pub sign coming into view.

Sometimes a collection is even passed down like a baton to subsequent generations. There is a pub in Dorset that deserves World Heritage Site Status (except of course even more tourists would engulf it). The Square and Compass sits in the village of Worth Matravers in sight of the English channel. Apart from having all its beer on gravity served through a hatch you queue in front of, the pub also houses a museum filled with local paleontological, archeological and historical artefacts. It’s a serious endeavour including both Ichthyosaur and Plesiosaur skeletons. The collection is still being added to from the third generation of the same family.

The public lounge of The Square & Compass

Occasionally the collections in the pubs themselves are collated into a single volume. There is, for example, a website that has put together the museums (many of which are in pubs or breweries) that collect railway signalling equipment - a hobby squared as it collects collections.


There’s a very British drive to pursue something outside of your job - possibly as another calling - a dream that might some day be achieved, or just a means of escaping the grind you’re required to pay the rent by. We are a nation of hobbyists. People who don’t have their alter ego in an outside passion are incomplete.

In 1992 my grandfather was interviewed by The Imperial War Museum. He had joined the RAF as a teenager and had been involved in the inception of RADAR. His humble beginnings were as a hobbyist repairing wireless radios. Through the self-driven efforts of the boffin, he went on to explain how come the British recruits could continue the RADAR project when a component broke or malfunctioned. The interview can be heard here:


Excerpt from the second half:

“We were allowed to make ad-hoc modifications to keep the stuff going which I think from what I gather is rather different to the German situation. (…..) I think that when a unit failed in Germany, it was replaced with an identical unit. (…) I don’t think the chaps operating them/looking after them (the German RADARS) had quite the same facility to make do and mend that we used to have.”

(interviewer) "What kind of ad-hoc changes?”

“You might put in a non-standard resistor or a non-standard capacitor or something like that or you’d perhaps short something out. If one of the receiver stations failed on the RF7 there were five intermediate frequency stages. If one of them failed you’d swap over the anode caps so that you worked on four stages temporarily instead of five and turn up the gain to compensate, that sort of thing and all sorts of ways you might substitute different cables than the ones put in originally. You might substitute a different generator or something like that. (…) These things were overcome by a bit of ingenuity and general resourcefulness on everyone's part.”

The point isn’t to understand the terminology employed by my grandfather but to see that getting something up and running was something you had to rely on your own nous for - not by passing the problem up the chain of command. The young men and women had basically tutored themselves in the potting shed, in the back room or in the cellar honing their problem-solving skills with whatever they could get their hands on. The Germans hadn’t because they were professionally trained - such Heath Robinson approaches were looked down on. Our culture of hobbyism effectively gave us the edge.

A collection of archaic brewing supplies - The Six Bells, St Albans

Our pubs reflect who we are not just in exposing us as a land of inebriates but as incurable tinkerers. Our descendants might gaze at shelves of iPhone docking stations, food mixers and electric fan heaters on the windowsills of future pubs and marvel at how rustic and basic they all seem. Maybe they’ll imagine our sepia-tinted era when folk worked a punishing 36 hour week and had to walk each day to the car. A time when the body’s liver had to filter the alcohol itself rather than the the LiverApp and food couldn’t be dowloaded into the gut. With any luck we’ll still love the accumulation of tat and the labours of personal passion we always have.

More about what makes a perfect pub here

No comments:

Post a Comment