1) An almost superior sense of self loathing.
2) The colour beige.
4) The pub.
And none of them sum up the British heritage more than the last one.
The humble pub is woven into the very fabric of the rich tapestry that makes up our unique history. All throughout the ages they have been the focal point of the community, the hub in which entire towns revolve around. From dens of iniquities, to warm, social meeting spots where families and friends meet up on regular occasions to catch up on old times, the pub has always been there quietly in the background, connecting everyone and everything.
The great London diarist, Samuel Pepys, would write down detailed accounts of his drinking sessions in 17th century London, of the merriment of the evenings and the hangovers that accounted the next day, giving the reader the sense of how important the Public Houses of the time were to the general population, all the while moaning about how much his head hurt- the massive lightweight.
Charles Dickens would regularly include descriptive passages of Victorian drinking in his Sketches By Boz, essentially a series of travelogues recounting the experiences he encountered while walking round Victorian London. Mainly whilst pissed.
Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, William Makepeace Thackeray, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, all of them could have been found at some point in history in the bowels of some smoky pub, debating, creating, arguing, and quite possibly telling the person sitting next to them that they were “My bestest mate (hic)." and " I bloody loves you (hic).” whilst probably getting them in a headlock and rubbing their knuckles on their head.
And now it seems that all that history, all that community, is finally under threat. A combination of the recession, draconian drinking laws, and an almost astronomical level of tax on alcohol, means that almost 50 pubs a month are closing, unable to fight a war on all those fronts. With supermarkets selling cheap alcohol by the basket full, undercutting the publicans on a level they can’t compete with, it seems the public would rather spend the night in front of the TV, slowly getting shit faced in front of the X Factor.
To be honest, I’m not really much of a drinker. I have the odd glass of red wine here or there, maybe a vodka and orange if out to be sociable, but I never attempt to get hammered, rat arsed, or god forbid, munted. I find it interferes with my heroin intake too much.
So a non drinker I may be, but I still know the value that the pub has to our society. The moment one is closed down in the neighbourhood, it either means that the locals will have to travel further to find a place to drink, or just think sod it, and just stay in. Whole sections of the population are sealing themselves away in their homes, loosing that contact, that sense of inclusion that public houses bring, for a combination of cheap drink and a lonely sofa.
I was brought up around pubs. From an early age, my family would meet up with their friends, other family members, and pop down to the local for a few pints and a catch up. And I was always included with them.
I would be sat at the end of a long, beer soaked table, a coke and a packet of crisps in front of me, fascinated by the characters and talk that I would encounter. Smoke and laughter would surround me, my back warmed by an open fire, and I would feel included with my family, not just some stupid child to be ignored in the corner. I would love how my Dad and my Uncle would seem to know everyone in the place, complete strangers who I had never seen were coming up to them to say hello and ruffle my hair, telling me how big I had grown and would I like a pint? I would always answer yes in a shy voice, much to my Uncle’s amusement. “Maybe in a few more years.” was always the reply I would get.
Summers spent playing in the beer gardens with all the other children while our parents watched over us from a nearby table. Christmases spent looking in wonder at the beautiful decorations, the massive tree with all its shiny lights and baubles, while Christmas music played happily in the background. Walking in from the freezing cold into a warm, friendly ambience, with its little pools of orange light and cosy nooks.
Places like these were ingrained on my childhood. The faces, the smells, the shouts of welcome as we entered, the 50p shoved in my hand from strangers I had never met, the other children of families there that I would instantly bond with, and then spend hours playing games with around the legs of the adults, the good natured drunken singing, the arguments, the cockney accents, feeling my Dad’s hand on my shoulder as he talked to Johnny Spinks about where West Ham were going wrong this season, seeing my Granddad and Harry George huddled deep in some dark corner, talking about god knows what, my Nan being the centre of our universe, the hub of all activity in which we revolved around, my Uncle telling me stupid jokes with the more alcohol he drank, my Mum’s loud laughter drifting over the symphony of voices that surrounded us, and there was me, right in the middle of all of this, never excluded, never an annoyance, just a part of something warm and welcoming.
After my dad died when I was 15, I would occasionally visit the pub with my Uncle before we went back to my Nan’s for Sunday tea. I would always be bought my own pint (it’s almost a ritual amongst 15 year olds boys, those first stolen pints bought in the pub by a family member), and it would sit there in front of me in an almost mocking way, little trickles of condensation running down the side of the glass.
Drink me. Come on. Drink me and keep up with the men. It would say.
So I would give it a good try but always fail miserably. After the second pint, I was normally pie eyed, and would end up getting a rollicking from my Nan afterwards when I would slur my words when asking her to pass the gravy at dinner.
One of the main reasons I would go to the pub with my Uncle was in hope that i would meet someone who knew my Dad. As I lost him at such a young age, I never truly got to know the man. He remained something of a mystery to me, a regret that still haunts me to this day. So on meeting someone who was his friend, I would pump them for information about him, stories about when he was young, funny situations he got into, things that I never knew. It was my way of trying to build up some sort of connection with my Dad, so I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life with him as some sort of phantom lurking in the background, a face in some photos that I never really knew.
And there were many stories. Far too many to recount really. My Dad seemed to be a walking attraction for humorous situations. From going horse riding with my Mum and some friends and him being given a wild black stallion to ride that he couldn’t control, which resulted in it being startled at some point and taking off. The last image anyone had of my Dad was on the horizon, clinging on in fear and half falling off the saddle, only to be found about three hours later shaking in a field, the horse calmly eating grass beside him.
There was also someone telling me about my parents disastrous first date, where my dad accidently set fire to the first table they were sat at (don’t ask me how). So they had to be moved and ended up sitting with a young mum and her son. My dad was eating a roast dinner and went to stab at a roast potato with his fork, causing it to jump from his plate and onto the little boys. My dad went to retrieve it by spearing it with his fork, only for the mum to look over at her son and see what looked like a strange man stealing food from her child's plate. A massive row took place and they were all kicked out the restaurant. And yet my Mum still agreed to see him again. Go figure?
I wouldn’t have known about stuff like this if it hadn’t been for my visits to the pub and asking these sorts of questions. My little social circle would never have interacted with these people if it wasn’t for the regular ritual of meeting at the same place, at the same time, every week. All of these stories would have been locked away and me never to know anything about them. That’s what I mean about connecting. That’s what a simple pub can do for you.
When I finally turned 18 and it was legal for me to have my first drink, I had just started college. My whole life had changed by then. I had left behind a relatively shite experience at school and was entering into a whole chapter of my life. I had made new friends, was experiencing new social situations, and hopefully leaving a whole lot of bad stuff behind me.
Every Saturday, I would meet my new friend Mark in Romford, and we would head to the pub that all of us students were using, The Moreland Arms, to meet all our friends. And it was just like how I used to remember my family going down the pub. We would walk in and know virtually everyone in the place (and that's not a boast to prove how popular I was, everyone knew everyone there. It was that kind of pub). We would meet up with our friends and take the piss out of each other, talk about the latest bands we liked, desperately try to look cool when a good looking girl went past (and failed miserably- 90’s clothes were a tad shit when I think about it. Must have been that? Yeah, it was definitely that) and just generally having the best time it was possible to have. And god how I miss it.
The Moreland Arms is gone now, replaced by one of those generic identikit bars that you can see on virtually every street corner. All the soul sucked out of it, no atmosphere to speak of whatsoever. A bland, empty building that I still walk past most days. And every time that I do, I can remember walking in the place, wrapped up because it was freezing cold, trying to convince the doorman that I was 18 and my face just looked young. Walking in as the warmth hit me, trying to spot a familiar face in the crowd, hearing my name being called out over the latest Britpop song and feeling like I actually belonged to something.
My pub days are numbered now. The combination of not really drinking, my friends being spread far and wide (though Mark is still around, God bless), and just generally not being in the situations where the pub is generally required, have all taken its toll on my visits to any local drinking establishment. I still go sometimes with my Uncle, but that's as far as it normally goes.
And yet on hearing the news of the dire state most publicans are facing in these harsh economic times, a massive part of me is hoping that somehow this is resolved with the least casualties as possible. For we truly need these places. I know that sometimes they can be filled with idiots, pissed up numptys with the brain cells of a deep sea amoeba, but no place on any British high street connects people in the way the local pub does.
And I hold my memories of them a lot better than I ever held my drink in them.