Thursday, 24 November 2011

The perfect pub

Interesting article on the BBC website discussing what constitutes the perfect pub.  It begins by referring to George Orwell's famous description in 1946 of his ideal pub, the fictitious Moon Under Water * (you can read his essay here), and then points out that there are now 14 pubs called the Moon Under Water, all them belonging to JD Wetherspoons (JDW).  The nearest to Southport is in Wigan.

Tim Martin, founder of JDW, says that Orwell's essay picks out the essence of what a pub is about, which is "very similar" to what the chain is trying to create, although he admits that the writer might not have been impressed by some examples.  "He'd probably say we do very well in getting near to his idealised pub in some and we've got some more work to do in others."  

I'm not someone who dismisses JDW out of hand, but I think this is nonsense.  An important feature of Orwell's ideal pub is individuality.  Take food, for example.  Orwell says of the Moon Under Water:  "You cannot get dinner at the Moon Under Water, but there is always the snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels (a speciality of the house), cheese, pickles and those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses.  Upstairs, six days a week, you can get a good, solid lunch - for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll - for about three shillings."

In a JDW pub there isn't any snack counter, certainly no specialities of the house, and the food they serve, all pre-packaged and microwaved, has nothing in common with the home-made fare that Orwell describes.  In general, the fixtures and fittings in JDW pubs are all bought in bulk and sent to every outlet, so that they all have a very similar look when you enter.  This bears no resemblance to the individual look of pubs where licensees have stamped their mark by choosing items that suit both their own personality and the nature of the pub - the antithesis of Spoons' one size fits all approach.

What makes a pub into a local is a strong sense of individuality; corporate styling therefore puts a pub at a disadvantage straightaway, as the brewers in the 1970s found out when they adopted corporate signage and livery to go with the national brands they were trying to get us to love.  For instance, Ansells pubs in the Midlands had the identical lettering and colour scheme to Tetley's pubs in the North West.  After a while, the brewers realised this wasn't working well and so revived old brands they had cheerfully discontinued in the 60s, in some cases setting up entire pub chains, like Walkers (a Tetley brand), or establishing festival ale houses (i.e. carefully designed dumps with bare floors and artificial tobacco stains on the walls) - anything as long as it didn't have the corporate styling.  Some of these initiatives, like Walkers, were quite welcome, but most, like the festival ale houses, were another example of brewery accountants deciding yet again that they knew what customers wanted better than the customers themselves, despite previous experience.

Most of my favourite pubs locally are ones that have retained their character - I'll name but a few:  the Guest House in Southport, the Ship in Haskayne, the Volunteer in Waterloo and the Globe, the Lion and Ye Cracke in Liverpool.  There are many more, too many to list, but these I've mentioned all have individual qualities.  We should be glad they managed to avoid being ripped out into open plan, being themed, being corporately styled, being stripped down to bare seats, walls and floors, or being sold off for flats.  Let's hope they survive the current danger of insolvency because of PubCo greed and excessive beer taxes.

*  Moons under water seem to be associated with pubs and beer.  For example, JW Lees brew a beer called Moonraker, the local name for people from Middleton.  It's said that when some poachers were approached by the constabulary, they threw their loot into a pond and began raking the reflection of the moon in the water, telling the officers they were trying to recover the green cheese.  The constables went on their way chuckling at the gullibility of the yokels.


  1. Completely agreed there - whatever JDW have to be said for them, it doesn't include individual character, which is a key ingredient for a genuinely great pub.

    You may be interested in this description of my hypothetical ideal pub - penned quite a few years ago.

  2. CM: I'd agree with your ideas for the ideal pub, but you're probably right when you say, "Unfortunately, though, I suspect you'd find you did all these worthy things and no bugger would turn up!"

  3. I wonder how difficult (expensive) it would be to impart some individuality to JDW pubs? A little would go a long way. I have written about the need for more snacks in pubs too but at least in JDW you can have a snack from the starter menu without an eyelid being batted.

    The best pubs though like the best things in life come from people. Get that right o. Both sides of the bar and all things feel better.


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