Dry November: Day 24

November 25, 2018

A major realisation I’ve had this month, mentioned in passing in previous posts, is that even without beer, I adore pubs. This should not have come a surprise; my mother, a lifelong teetotaler, also loved pubs when she came to visit me in London. One thing she observed is that no one rushes you. You could buy a single soft drink and sit for hours, and no perky waiter will come to check on you even once, much less once per mouthful. You can comfortably have a business meeting, a rowdy rant with friends, or just read on your own. They are less regimented than a restaurant, less lonely (and less loud) than a bar, and less sterile than a Starbucks.

They also have a daily rhythm that is something like a home. You can come for a lazy lunch, an afternoon coffee, a stodgy dinner, or a late night revel, and at every moment of the day, a good pub will match the languor or tenor of the time. You can while away the hours in this way, and I must have clocked enough time in pubs to amount to a part-time job for much of my life in London.

A few years ago, an excellent article in the Guardian got me thinking about the role of pubs in British life. In lamenting their waning numbers, it invokes the toughest type of nostalgia, which is the nostalgia for a thing that has not quite gone, but remains precipitously endangered. The danger in the article may be slightly exaggerated, but it is still well-worth reading. This passage particularly stuck with me:

 Try describing a pub for yourself, without resorting to cultural shortcuts—Marlowe, Moll Flanders, Peggy Mitchell, Withnail, Shaun of the Dead— and likely you will wind up describing what it isn’t. A pub is not a bar. It is not a restaurant. It is not a social club. It is not a shop. It is not a bench in a park. It is not a surgery or psychiatrists’ office. It is not a gig venue, a football stadium, a fighting pit, a staff room, a piano room. It is not the house you grew up in, nor the atrocious digs you moved to in your 20s. It is not your present-day living room. It is not a bus shelter. And in some way it is all those things. It is a pub.

Of course the term is short for “public house”, and people used to receive deliveries there, or turn up to hear the latest gossip. I suppose what I’ve been thinking is that the pub is an extension of the domestic space. Real estate pressure has pushed the better half of the home into the community. On a small island, a pub becomes a living room for those who can’t afford living rooms, which is virtually everyone in Central London. Most people who have enough space to entertain a large group live sufficiently distantly to be impractical meeting points. Though this wouldn’t account for the excellent British pubs in the rest of the country, where there’s more space than there is in London, I still think this is part of the explanation for the atmosphere of pubs in the capital.

Thinking of the pub as a home extension has also led me to a new idea about interaction with people. I have envied, over the years, those artists and intellectuals of the past, with their stately homes, enormous flats, clubs, and dinner parties fostering perpetual engagement of thought. It’s only occurred to me recently, that maybe a pub could become a surrogate salon for this type of discussion. 18th Century coffee houses acted as offices and meeting places as well, I think, if I remember my Habermas. My new idea is to fix a date in time and space—naturally, a pub—to meet, discuss, and encourage one another. There seems to be a demand for participation of this nature, as internet connections supplant physical ones.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.