BY DR KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA
In a recent book on Anglophiles, I came across the essay on English pubs by George Orwell, ‘Moon Under Water’ which was irresistible and charming. George Orwell is the quintessential British writer who covered all things British from the ‘Empire’ to the ‘Pubs’ with felicity and in plain, simple and comprehensible language. The essay is about an imaginary country pub named ‘Moon Under Water’ located in a side street nestled in one of those lush green villages of the English countryside. The appeal of the essay lies in the fact that the description is strikingly similar to most English pubs in the countryside and although written in 1946 the setting could be transposed to the 21st century. The vivid description of the pub resonated with my personal experience of English countryside pubs.
My sojourn with the institution of English pubs began sometime in the mid-2000s when I first arrived in the UK to pursue my doctoral studies. I happened to land in a quaint, charming, fairy-tale English village called Godalming in Surrey which is about an hour’s train ride away from the bustling metropolis of London. For the first few weeks my sponsors hosted me in a lovely Bed and Breakfast which was located right across the street from the ‘Three Lions’ pub, nicknamed ‘Scratchers’ and Farncombe happened to be the next-door village to Godalming. Contrary to popular perception the English/British pub is not just a watering hole and is so much more than about drinking alcohol and getting inebriated.
My Farncombe English pub is a traditional and historic village pub which traces back its existence to the 18th century – it has been operational for nearly 300 years. The clientele in this ‘Three Lions’ was fairly regular and this notion of a ‘Regular’ as in the Orwellian essay in an English pub is quite extraordinary in the sense that its ‘status’ is not bestowed by just frequent visits and ‘downing pints’ or ‘knocking glasses of spirits. Regulars need to occupy the ‘same chair’ pretty much every evening and wholeheartedly indulge in genteel yet impassioned conversations including the local gossip and periodically participate in bar games like darts, billiards, pool, and activities like pub quizzes. As in Orwell’s essay, children were rarely to be found in the pub running amok or making noises.
The architecture was quintessentially Victorian – strikingly like Orwell’s pub with wooden frames, dangling posters, with a stuffed bull’s head behind the mantelpiece and an active fireplace which created a cozy warmth during long and cold winter evenings. There were some interesting, laminated advertising posters especially the ‘Spitfire’ brand ones which were humorous and poked fun at the Second World War with friendly rival banter at the Germans – like one with the caption ‘Downed all over Kent like the Luftwaffe’ referring to the fact that Spitfire beer is brewed in Kent or ‘No Fokker come close’ referring to the German fighter aircraft Fokker. No glass-topped tables were in my pub – it had solid and rugged teakwood top tables with plenty of scribblings on them. Regarding the architecture, what Orwell called ‘the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century’ I would term the architecture of my pub as the ‘solid, stolid, comfortable ruggedness of the 19th century’.
As in Orwell’s essay where he describes the ‘Garden’, as a great surprise in the Three Lions, there was a lovely, elevated garden ‘terrace’ with some green vegetation and few trees where benches were laid out for the customers under awnings with provision for outdoor heating with infrared torches which created a magical ambiance with their incandescent glow during the winter. The extended daylight summer evenings with the crisp air along with mild breeze created a salubrious ambiance for conversations and consumption of spirits. There were seating arrangements with white sturdy garden iron tables with painted iron chairs with armrests which created a postcard like visual image.
The pub with its elaborate social rituals and animated conversations – especially the weekend musical performances by local bands, comedians, magicians, and occasional tournaments of communal games like chess and pool – emerged more as a social and cultural institution than as a drinking, profit-making establishment. Here the silent environs of the ‘Three Lions’ pub was a boon for quiet chats since they played no background music on a radio nor any live music except at the weekends. The weekend bands were just fabulous and were mostly talent drawn from across the county.
Some of us wanted to catch up with the week’s news with publications like ‘The Times’, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ or magazines like ‘Country Living’ and ‘Homes and Garden’. The low-hanging lamp-shades illuminating the tables made it quite comfortable for reading or browsing through newspapers and magazines. When you answered any of the clues for Crossword enthusiasts you did so at your own peril since you would be sought out on numerous occasions. A very interesting item for me personally were Jukeboxes which were part of the furniture in most English pubs and I did love indulging with them and selecting songs from the ‘collection; of the ‘Oldies’ British music, the kind of music one had access to as a young student in pre-globalization and pre-internet India which prompted the sneer of ‘playing dodgy music’ from few of the younger regulars trying to be ‘cool’ and blend in with the latest fads. One had to watch for the ‘flying darts’ during those busy ‘dart nights’ and there were local dart ‘lovers’ who were devoted to the game and invested in securing their own sets.
As Orwell mentions, the primary reason for favouring a pub would be the beer. ‘Beer first’ logic existed in my Farncombe local where the regulars swore by the brand of the beer they devoured in the evenings and afternoons. The ‘Three Lions’ advertises on its website ‘serving perfect pints’ and after a few chilled servings on a parched summer afternoon there is little one can dispute about the claim. Apart from the multiple offerings of beer on tap and in bottle the Pub was well-endowed with fantastic blends of scotch whisky, gin, vodka, liqueur, wine and spirits. The pub did not serve food but there was a snack counter well-stocked with packets of peanuts, cashews, cheeselings, pork and beef cracklings and small sausages. In the pre-outdoor smoking days, the pub sold tobacco and cigarettes and there was a certain somber lingering of the odour of old tobacco fumes in the wooden beams.
As I understand there are changes ‘blowing in the wind’ to borrow a Dylan’s phrase in the world of traditional English pubs and more bottled beers adorn those sturdy oak tables than good-old fashioned robust mugs with handles. Wine is increasingly the favourite – jostling with traditional spirits. In a few years’ time as Orwell predicted the ambiance might change completely and one will find an ‘airport lounge’ ambiance rather than that of Victorian British sturdiness.
Finally my writing on English pubs unlike that of ‘Moon Under Water’ is not an imaginary one hence I leave here the website of the pub for any reader who would be interested to pay a visit and soak in the ambiance of an English pub. These delightful experiences remain embossed in my memory as being part of the nostalgia of an Indian student in the UK which provide a powerful ‘building bridge’ for relations between India and Britain. English pubs provided a lovely source for ‘soaking in’ of British countryside life and society albeit in ‘moderation’ for many of us Indian students who were new to the land.
Kaustav Bhattacharyya is an entrepreneur and independent researcher based in Bengaluru, India (the old name being Bangalore). Kaustav pursued a PhD in Management Studies from Cass Business School, London and spent nearly 4 years in the UK. Currently he lives back in India and is a Vice-Chairman of his family water treatment business. He writes columns independently for local publications and has written articles for The Sunday Guardian in India.