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The Dregs

Surveying the literature of the pub

In the first weeks of England’s first Covid lockdown, the closed pubs on my village high street took on a haunting aspect, looming larger, somehow, than the shuttered shops. Their owners are public figures of a kind here. When spotted out walking, people checked in on them, as if they were bearing an extra weight, which I suppose they were—the weight of our cultural obsession with work, and the identity it provides, which had been stripped away. Also, the weight of a life defined by communion, which felt depleted.

That pubs are a central thread in England’s social fabric was clear from the news coverage of the various reopenings and re-closings across the country in the months that followed. We saw footage of people waiting for their first pint in weeks in the early morning cold, heard interviews with landlords and bar staff. It all told a peculiar national story. The pub in Britain is not simply another business. It is an imagined as well as a real place. Historically, the “public house” was a home away from home, for those who had no room to socialize in their farm workers’ or lacemakers’ cottages. It has also long been a favored site and subject for English literature. Some writers have dramatized the pub as a male-only space. For others, it has been a staging ground for transgression, where the norms of behavior break down. The pub has meant shame, dissolution, pleasure, companionship, and the artifice of companionship. A mutable mini-England on every high street.

Drunk as a Lord

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales begins in a pub, The Tabard Inn, whose landlord accompanies the “sundry folk” on their pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket. Part judge, part referee, he weighs the relative merits of their punters’ tall tales, establishing a relationship between client and patron that exists to this day. In locating the pub as an archetypal meeting point, Chaucer also introduces the foundational secular gathering: the inn here stands in opposition to the Church. The Tabard Inn is in the borough of Southwark, outside of the jurisdiction of the City of London, then closely allied with the Anglican Order and its taxonomy of status. The drama of Chaucer’s Tales is predicated on a social diversity that only the pub could provide.

Shakespeare’s canon is full of drinking and drunkenness. While not limited to the pub, the plays do make a case for the importance of alcohol in public life. Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters are drunks: the porter in Macbeth, Sir Toby in Twelfth Night, who asks, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Falstaff is emblematic. He is a knight of the realm, a nobleman, but one in terminally dire straits who wiles away much of his time in taverns. As such, he functions as a kind of go-between for young Henry and his people, showing the prince a glimpse of common life. The pub provides Falstaff solace, community, and opportunity; through him, Henry soaks up some of its richness. There is also the sense that drinking is part of Hal’s education, that this immersion in the dissolute underworld is essential to the perfection of his leadership. Harold Bloom called Falstaff “the embassy of life.” He is comic, loving, overblown, self-aware, fragile, indomitable. But also untrustworthy, cynical, and exploitative (the full Johnsonian gamut). It is this complexity which surely compels the audience. Here is the sum of what it is to be truly alive, in all its glory and squalor. The will to life contains in it a rejection of moral norms and duty.

With the rise of the novel came new ways of representing the pub. It became a space where reversals of fortune, revelations, and denouements could play out. The climax of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling is set in an inn, where Tom, his companion Partridge (who may be his father), his true love Sofia Western, and her maid Mrs. Waters (who may be Tom’s mother) gather. It’s here that Sofia discovers, from Partridge, of Tom and Mrs. Waters’s affair.

Dickens’s most notably alcoholic work is probably The Pickwick Papers, with its eponymous club. But pubs play an interesting role in Great Expectations, where Pip’s choice of public house conveys his shifting fortunes: he graduates from The Three Jolly Bargemen to the Blue Boar as his circumstances improve. Dickens hints that the latter was “in possession of the intelligence,” its regulars treating Pip better and worse as his luck rises and falls. The pub is humanized, becomes a cipher for its clientele’s outlook. In London today, tourists can go on a variety of guided Dickens pub walks and crawls, a testament to his enduring presence as a pub figure.

Over The Volcano and Far Away

For a certain type of writer, perhaps for a certain type of person, the interwar period was oppressive and overly mannered. Malcolm Lowry couldn’t wait to get out and remained on the run his whole life, like Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic protagonist of his masterpiece Under the Volcano. Lawrence Durrell made his own escape by way of the Mediterranean, traveling to Greece, Alexandria, and later France. His 1938 novel, The Black Book, was written after he had left for Corfu. Its narrator, Lawrence Lucifer, another Englishman abroad, recounts his old life in a London hotel, where he lived alongside a cast of bohemian characters who haunted their rooms, endlessly depressed, frustrated, bored. For all its grime and bleakness, the book is also full of earthy and transgressive sensuality. One passage deftly blends all these themes; it’s set, of course, in a saloon. Among the “warm herded smell of males” and the “shrill draughts of piss from the urinal,” a brewer’s widow, Connie, awaits her lover. She thinks of the men in the bar, how she could “slip a thick finger in their flies and tickle them.”

Durrell called the stultifying culture at the time “the English death.” And the book has a terminal air—tuberculosis, fog, even the “black” of the title, which seems to announce the final act of the class system. Drinking was a small transcendence, but every night has its equal and opposite morning: “In the vacant bar the ash of the fire must be grey, the empty glasses upended in the sink with the froth stiff in them.” Banned for its obscenity in Britain, The Black Book charts a descent into squalor, or perhaps an exultation of it, the rejection of bourgeois convention.

Born under the shadow of his father’s alcoholism, Patrick Hamilton was drawn to the tapestry of London street life. His trilogy of novels, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, describes the clientele of The Midnight Bell, a fictional version of Hamilton’s own favorite Fitzrovian haunt. But it is in Slaves of Solitude that the pub takes on a more transgressive aspect. The novel is set in the fictional town of Thames Lockdon, based on Henly-on-Thames, a quintessence of middle England, where Hamilton’s protagonist, Miss Roach, has gone during the Blitz. She lives at the Rosamund Tea Rooms, rubbing up against parochial fellow lodgers until her grey days are enlivened by the arrival of an American lieutenant named Pike, who she becomes romantically involved with. Things go south when, over the course of a drink-and-repression-fueled disaster of a Christmas, he takes her to the local pub, the River Sun, drinks too much, kisses her, and even proposes marriage—offending her to the extent that she breaks things off.

There is something in the pent-up manners of these characters that lends the River Sun a different energy than the Midnight Bell. In London, the regulars are just that; they understand the rituals and order of the place. In the suburbs, however, the atmosphere is of shifting alliances and social structures at a breaking point. The war is part of it, but there is a tension between the desire to live in the moment and the residue of an earlier century’s social mores. Miss Roach can’t reconcile her manners with her feelings, her idea of herself with the truth. No more can her fellow guests. At the boarding house’s disastrous Christmas party, the Nazi-sympathizing Mr. Thwaite has one too many whiskeys before they head to the River Sun, where he grows suddenly sullen. Miss Roach observes, in Hamilton’s peerless free indirect prose, that “he had been lured to come here, public houses were not really things which were supposed to take place at all.”

In Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, set in a provincial town after the war, the pub is a place of respite for the feckless professor Jim Dixon from the snobbery, hypocrisy, and boredom of campus life. The dreary pretension of a forced “cultural” experience he has to entertain in order to keep his job is played off against the easy and true pleasures of pints in the pub. In a memorable scene, Dixon escapes from a party involving the singing of madrigals and oboe solos at his boss’s house and heads straight to the pub. Amis’s prose loosens deliciously as he describes Dixon’s debauch, his delight at finding the pub open later than assumed, the “dreamy smile” of true happiness that comes over him with the first drink. The subject of Dixon’s final, disastrous, drunken lecture? Merrie England, of course.

The Morning After

In 2018, Laura Thompson published The Last Landlady, about her grandmother and the pub she ran for years in the home counties. It subtly examines aspects of Englishness that seem synonymous with the pub: the delicate balance of political tribalism and kindness to strangers, a supposed aversion to theatrical emotion that in fact necessitates a kind of performance, and that strange glamour of status. Thompson’s eye is sharp and her treatment evenhanded: the malaise of the pub and its attendant bores are invoked just as its romance is. “Home but not quite home” is how she evokes the place where, as a child, she was babysat in the living quarters. Even at that age, she had intuited its double-nature, or half-nature. Her description of the pub contains the same kind of transitional qualities:

A trimly thatched roof, shuttered windows, white walls with a wobbly grid of black beams—the works—and its classic English chiaroscuro was splashed, in summer, with profusions of colour from hanging baskets that dripped with water (the principle of “a good drink” extending to the flowers).

Thompson’s book is perhaps the most accurate cartography of the pub as a set of ideas—aesthetic, social, cultural. Her list of “true pub qualities” includes “the toughness, the bonhomie, the spaciousness of spirit, the commonplace daily courage, the refusal to judge alongside the implicit steadfast standards.” Refusing to judge is important.

Yet it would be too simplistic to accept the pub as a kind of cultural utopia. Bars often function as a hive of bad-faith arguments and flawed logic, creating echo chambers in much the same way social media does. This is why the barroom is home to a certain kind of conservative politics: argument not as revolution, or even as evolution, but as a game of wit. Politics in the bar is largely symbolic, not connected to any sort of sharp end. Take the backslapping over the reduction in the duty paid on draught beer in the UK government’s most recent budget. Three pence on a pint of draft beer, which in practical terms means nothing. And yet the next day’s newspapers carried photos of Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson clinking their glasses to a point well scored.

In Gwendoline Riley’s latest novel, My Phantoms, the pub features mostly as the locus for her narrator’s father’s bluster and bullshit, the stuff from which he builds his strange mythology. It seems utterly essential to his character; he is a man who enacts every social moment. His young daughter sees through him from an early age; so does everyone else. He is a kind of bully, really, lacking the generosity of spirit that would yield a relationship with his daughters. In My Phantoms, the pub is intimately connected to this kind of overbearing maleness, which now seems outmoded and obsolete. Perhaps this points to where we are, both in the tradition of pub-writing and as a juncture in English politics. Somewhere slightly out of time, amid figures who seem laughably old hat yet still hold on to power. Somewhere exclusionary and self-congratulatory. Somewhere too keenly aware of its own history, always insisting upon it, talking it up into romanticism. By God, it sounds like England.