We may be living in a soundbite culture, but we need proper pub narratives

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Soundbite culture: a proper narrative reveals the joys that can be found in pubs
Soundbite culture: a proper narrative reveals the joys that can be found in pubs

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Pete Brown discovers the passion writers have in their quest to highlight the ups and downs of pubs in the UK

With Dry January ​almost over with, thoughts turn to the start of a new year proper, and the start of a new decade, one which for me – contains the rapidly approaching 20th anniversary of my first book, Man Walks into a Pub​.

I started thinking about what I want to do in this new decade, and what I want from it. I thought about beer and pubs, the issues they face, the exciting trends that might emerge, and the things we might have to fight for.

And I realised that, both professionally and personally, I’ve lost something that I’d like to reclaim: celebrating the simple warmth and wit of the British pub.

I never trained as a journalist. I never earned a professional penny from writing before ManWalks into a Pub ​was published. I worked in advertising, and eventually gave up because I loved pubs so much. I wanted to know why they were so unique in the world, where their customs and quirks came from, and why a good pub felt so much like coming home.

‘Expert’ status granted

That first book of mine reflects this. After that, I got properly ‘into’ beer. As one of the first beer bloggers in the UK, I started to explore issues within the industry. As my knowledge of beer grew deeper, I began to explore different styles and the nature of beer in different countries. In 2009, I got my first regular trade press column, and then I was an industry insider, an ‘expert’, whatever that is.

I don’t regret any of this – apart from the loss of the wide-eyed fascination that started me on this journey. Recently, I’ve read three books that remind me of that initial fascination and make me mourn its loss.

The Last Landlady ​is Laura Thompson’s memoir of her grandmother, Violet, who was born in a pub and became the first woman in England to be given a publican’s licence in her own name. Laura uses Violet’s life to explore the same questions that first attracted me to writing about pubs, because Violet was one of those people who embodied the spirit of the pub itself, and brought it to life.

Award contenders

Today South London, Tomorrow South London ​(TSLTSL​) is the collected musings of four bloggers who have created a psychogeography of South London via its pubs. Led by ‘the Dulwich Raider’ and ‘Dirty South’, they depict a demimonde where everyone is known by bar stool nicknames, where every event is an excuse for a pint, and where the pub is the location of every salty character worth knowing.

TSLTSL ​was shortlisted for last year’s British Guild of Beer Writers Asahi Award for Best Beer and Travel Writer (surely it would have won if they’d managed to make it north of the river more than once). But Ian Clayton’s It’s the BeerTalking ​went one better, winning the Long Live the Local Award for Best Writer About Pubs.

Clayton writes that this drinking career began, as many do, by nicking some of his Granddad’s Guinness when he was four years old. Almost 60 years later, the pub – along with his other great passion of music – has shaped his life. This memoir is joyous, hilarious and life-affirming, nostalgic and sad, and vital and optimistic. It’s rooted in West Yorkshire and evokes the role of the pub in declining mining communities as successfully as any academic social history, but draws on commonalities that anyone will recognise, wherever their local happens to be.

Genuine importance of pubs

Is it a coincidence that all three of these books were published within 12 months of each other? I don’t think so. Rightly, we’re all debating the plight pubs face and what must be done to save them. But there hasn’t been enough written recently about why pubs are worth saving in the first place (notwithstanding the livelihoods of The Morning Advertiser ​readers, obviously.)

Some of the phrases we use to talk about why pubs are important have been repeated so often, we don’t really hear them anymore. We may be living in a soundbite culture, but we need proper narratives – and here are three wonderful examples that should give a sharp reminder to anyone who has forgotten the unique joy a great pub can give. These are the pubs I hope to drink in over the next decade, and this is how I aspire to write about them.

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