Last week I was asked by an American writer if I would choose ‘a typically London pub’ to meet her in for an interview during which I could explain what makes pubs on this side of The Pond so special.
I chose a Central London pub, a well-preserved Victorian gin palace where the beer is OK and the rooms are magnificent. The festive decorations were up, and it’s the kind of place that will be rammed with office Christmas lunches by the time you read this.
Our meeting was the first time the heavily jet-lagged journo had ever visited a traditional English pub, and her first questions betrayed a certain anxiety.
“Tell me,” she said. “If I were, say, a Japanese tourist coming to London for the first time, how would you explain to me how this works? Is it table service, or... ”
I smiled. This is great interview fodder. When you start explaining the intricacies of how to behave at the bar, anyone in the pub, even someone as unfunny as Michael Mc- Intyre, can start sounding like a brilliant observational stand-up comic.
There’s no queue, but everyone has to be aware of when it’s their turn to be served. You have to stand in such a way that makes it obvious you are waiting to be served, with an alert posture and an attempt to make eye contact with the bar person, but to call out to them or wave money in the air would be rude.
It’s normal to start a conversation with a stranger at the bar, but rude to approach the same person at a table and attempt to do so.
(For more on how the genuine social anthropology of the pub comes close to observational comedy, download a copy of the excellent Passport to the Pub from the Social Issues Research Centre)
It makes me proud to talk about the quirky charms of the pub.
These are the aspects that made me fall in love with it in the first place. They contribute to what makes it unique around the world and different from any other form of retail establishment. I worry we’re starting to lose some important aspects. (Eg, why, when pub hours became more flexible and closing times began to vary, did so many pubs decide to dispense with the custom of calling last orders and time? For God’s sake people, bring the bell back!)
But those that remain will always keep the pub special, guaranteeing its soul.
As I explained all this to my American journalist, the memory of a recent spoof news article came to mind.
Last Christmas, The Daily Mash — a satirical online newspaper — ran an article with the headline ‘Pubs to trial professional lanes’. The joke was the suggestion of fast-track lanes for regular pubgoers who knew what they were doing, while the Christmas parties that were about to descend on pubs like the one I was in, full of people who buy coffee with a credit card, ask for the pint of Guinness at the end of the round not the beginning, and ask for a tray to carry more than two drinks, would be segregated.
Like all good observational humour, the laughter was in recognition — we’ve all been there, all seen these people.
And the article came back to me at this point because of the realisation the pubcraft I was teaching my foreign friend is being forgotten by significant chunks of native Brits.
People are going to the pub less. And when they get there, they’ve forgotten what to do.
We barflies sneer at their naivety, but we should be mourning yet another example of deskilling and homogenisation. This is stuff you’re supposed to learn at 16 — sorry, 18, of course — and use for the rest of your life.
So this Christmas, when you’re serving someone who asks you to divide the cost of a round for him so he can get the money back from his mates, or demands you make 12 incredibly complicated and lethal cocktails he’s seen on a movie but never tasted while you’re trying to serve 60 lunches in 20 minutes, don’t lose your rag: smile.
Tell these people how much you’ve enjoyed having them in your pub and how you hope to see them again before another 12 months have passed. Of course, that’s easy for me to say: I’ll be doing no such thing.
I’ll be standing behind, them, tutting loudly and shaking my head, glaring at them as they take their ‘cheeky Stellas’ back to the table.