tl;dr – Observations of two very different pubs, on a weeknight 2000-2200, followed by a brief discussion.
The pub is on the corner of a small pedestrian arcade between two busy roads in Central London. It is next to a very wine-focused winebar and opposite an Italian restaurant. It’s a warm evening and a large crowd of around ten people occupy most of the five outside tables in an area cordoned off from the rest of the arcade. Most of the facade is comprised of large windows and there are three entrances. Inside is subdued lighting, high wooden tables with stools and large, darkly evocative Lowry-esque prints. The bar protrudes like a villus into the pub, almost separating it into two rooms. Around 30 people are inside, and all the tables are taken, although none are full. Most are in pairs, or threes, although there’s a large group of seven that gives the impression of a work leaving do. Most people seem to have come from work, and a lot of the conversation seems at least tangentially business related, although none are the ‘suits’ or typical after-work crowd you’d expect in pubs and bars in Canary Wharf, or closer to the City. There are a few pairs that may be dates. Except for me, there is no-0ne on their own. I am entirely ignored.
Of the 15 people on the other side of the bar, six are watching Spain versus Croatia on a small television high up on the wall. Most appear to be supporting Croatia; there are intermittent cheers for a Croatian goal and a saved Spanish penalty. Others on that side of the bar give their attention at key moments, but aren’t following the game. The television is switched off after the game. There is music, but it’s light, non-confrontational and low enough to be difficult to discern. There is a loud murmur of conversation, like a large school assembly before it’s called to order. The overall noise is low enough to hear glasses being stacked at the bar, but not enough to easily make out the conversation of people more than a metre away.
The bar has an extensive range of craft beers on cask and keg, six lines of each terminating in chrome taps protruding from the wooden wall of the bar. The names of the beers are chalked above the taps, along with the brewery and brief tasting notes. Along with Beavertown and Redemption, ‘out of London’ breweries, such as Marble, Redwell and Ilkley are more well-represented than one might expect. There are also two Czech lagers on keg, including the uncommon Pernštejn polotmavé, and a keg cider. They also offer a small range of cocktails. Three young men are working the bar, occasionally joined by a man around 30 in chef whites, ostensibly in charge of the kitchen, but mostly taking out rubbish. They’re kept reasonably busy, but not so much that they’re rushed.
Around three quarters of the pub population are drinking beer, mostly pale, although lager or ale is difficult to tell. The rest, the majority of which are female, are drinking short mixed drinks or white wine. A few are eating pizza or chips, the pub has a limited menu. Clothing is fairly uniform, on the ‘business casual’ part of the spectrum. There are no shorts or joggers here, nor suits. Some have buttoned shirts, but ties are rare. There is a reasonably rapid turn-around. No one seems settled in for a long session, most will have two or three drinks and leave. Towards the end of the observation, there were noticeably fewer people.
“Sick of the referendum” – “Pros and cons to Brexit…” – “Too risky”
“If you take their second squad, they’re still better than half the other teams”
“What have you got that’s light” (at the bar)
“What’s a whisky mac?” (at the bar)
“What are you drinking?” – “Beer” – “Which one?” – *shrugs*
*Much animation within a group* “That! Is! Awesome!”
“They do three stages, introduction, core negotiation & advanced negotiation”
“The guy who’s running the training, he’s a really nice guy. He’s Mormon.”
“The European brand manager is coming over from Geneva”
The pub is moderately small and situated next to an unused light industrial unit in one of the un-trendy areas of East London. The dilapidated exterior displays two England flags and a Union jack, as well as five meters of England bunting. The display is unrelated to the ongoing football tournament, the flags are weather-beaten and bedraggled. A broken down picnic table is squeezed apologetically between the wall and the pavement.
The interior is exposed brick in the 70s style, and dimly lit. A long bar takes up three quarters of one long side and is crowned by more England flag bunting. 3 touch-screen betting terminals, one used intermittently, and an unused dart board complete that side. The other wall comprises a large projector-and-screen television and a completely unused fireplace. A pool table dominates much of the free space. There are three four-person tables and some bar stools. There is an impression of other furniture moved aside to create a bit more space. The far end opens on to a surprisingly large beer garden, an unexpected feature. A jukebox plays sing-along rock and indie at a high volume, conversation is possible with people near you.
The bar is comprised exclusively of keg lines and the usual spirits. Guinness, Fosters, John Smiths, Carlsberg and Strongbow. Most people are drinking light lager, probably Carlsberg, with two or three people drinking Guinness in a manner that suggests no deviation from their purpose.
There are around ten people in the pub, all male, although there is frequent coming and going, particularly amongst a group of young men, mostly in shorts and sports wear, who’s numbers vary between around four and seven. They’re drinking very little, playing pool, and will frequently leave, make phone calls, come back with others, speak briefly and leave again. It gives a strong common-room feel. Three older gentleman drink at the bar, with the quiet and understated determination of people settled in for a long night. Two young men are drinking together, wearing the functional but smart work clothes of people who do skilled manual work and one, wearing jeans and smart t-shirt, sits at the bar watching the football, he has a bet on Poland to beat Portugal. There is one barman, wearing shorts and t-shirt. The demand at the bar barely taxes him, and he spends a fair amount of time playing pool or chatting. Everyone seems to know each other on a first name basis, and will chat or call out comments to acquaintances, although the groups stay roughly consistent. I am very much the outsider, but there is no animosity or even detectable curiosity. Although one of the pool-players referenced my appearance (large beard!) with a comment when I entered, it did not seem harshly meant.
“Look at him watching me! Beady eyes, watching me cheat” (young man playing pool)
“Fucking hell… bloody poofs” (football player dives)
“Who do you fancy in this one?” (discussing football game)
“He done ‘im! Yes! Fuck ‘im up!” (football game)
“Ooooh! Count them…. 2! 4! 6! 7! Aaaaaah!” (on a comprehensive pool victory)
“What’s this ‘es put on!? More my era than his!” (on jukebox selection)
“I can’t! It’s not me, it’s him… I’ll get in trouble!” (Barman demurring a firmly but quietly made request)
“I’m in the block of maisonettes by the school. Been there since I was 3… can’t afford anywhere now” (young man to older gentlemen)
“Another one of those.” “Nah, yer fucked, I’m not serving ya!” (Barman ribbing a regular)
This was a deeply uncomfortable thing to do, both in the nature of the thing, and the specifics. Boak and Bailey themselves have succinctly pointed out both the worth of this sort of exercise and the horror of doing it. It’s not so much the watching people, or even, really, the taking notes, it’s the premeditation of the whole thing, the going equipped to the scene of the crime, the subconscious idea that you’ve got out your red pen to mark other people’s use of the pub. Eavesdropping was particularly difficult, both in terms of compunction and practicality, both pubs were pretty noisy. The quotes I’ve recorded seem, in retrospect, incredibly pat, almost cliched, a stereotype of the pub. I’ve made no attempt to account for Observer bias, or Availability error, but those are genuine utterances made in my hearing.
As to the worth, though, I think this is highly valuable. I talked before on this site of an attempt to recreate a medieaval ale and, despite the efforts of much better men than me there is scant evidence available, largely because it wasn’t considered important enough to be recorded. The everyday doings of everyday people is the very definition of mundane, but after a certain point, really not too far in the past, it becomes the most fascinating aspect of history.
Apart from the discomfort involved in the deliberate observation of other people this task involved a much deeper and more personal discomfort, one that may touch on the secondary part of the brief about ‘The Pub and The People’, and my place within both pubs and peoples. It may get slightly confessional. My apologies.
It wouldn’t take a very deep reading of my observations and previous posts to conclude that Pub One would very much be my milieu, should I ever get one and be confident what it was. It’s a pub I visit quite regularly, generally on my own, in the course of other activities in the area. I go, have a couple of halves of good beer, do some work, chat to the bar staff a little bit and leave. It brightens my week, frankly.
Pub Two is a pub I…. well, not avoid, as such. I’ve been there a few times but, since it’s a pub and less than 50m from my house, once or twice a year probably counts as avoidance. On the one hand, I feel guilty about this. It’s a ‘proper’ East End local, the kind I would be sad to see disappear and may have to. On the other hand, by every sense on my personal barometer of ‘rough’ pub, it simply screams at me; the England flags alone would be enough to make me walk on by. A hasty and unfair prejudice, perhaps, but one I’m not alone in. When I told people what I planned to do, they were aghast. I shouldn’t go alone, I shouldn’t openly take notes in a notebook… but I’d done both these things with Pub One, and it wouldn’t have been a fair comparison if I’d changed. Getting hassled would have been an interesting data point… an interesting, terrifying data point. In the end, I was simply begged not to mention Brexit.
Of course, in the end, it was fine. In both pubs I took notes while ostensibly doing some homework (I’m learning Czech). In Pub One, I suspect, this passed entirely unnoticed. In Pub Two this was probably noted, and the subject of comment after I left, but was never even the semblance of an issue. I was entirely left alone, except for a few pleasantries from the barman.
In the end, it comes down, as so many things do, to class and, in this instance, my own tortured relationship with it. Politically and philosophically, if not in every day practice, I consider myself working class, but the assumptions and attitudes I’ve displayed in this instance loudly proclaim the old trope of an effete liberal elite condescending to rough it in some sort of patronising urban safari.
Gentrification is undoubtedly a problem in this part of London, and I’m undoubtedly part of that problem, tiny though my individual role may be. The obvious solution, or at least minor redress, is to engage with the community you fear you’re displacing, to shop local and use local services. Generally, in this area, this isn’t difficult or onerous, more a pleasure than a duty, but Pub Two is far from the sort I would seek out. The beer selection alone is like some 90s nightmare, the kind you invoke to scare young beer geeks round the campfire, where Guinness is far and away the best choice. Deliberately and dutifully attending on a regular basis, like a secret atheist at Mass, seems faintly hypocritical and not a little patronising, a bizarre mix of atonement and arrogance, as if my patronage is the only thing keeping this tiny oasis of ‘realness’ from being swept away.
Thankfully, Pub Two doesn’t seem to need my conflicted and poorly thought-out support. For a weekday evening, trade seemed fairly brisk and it regularly seems to host parties and events where it fair heaves at the seams. This Pub undoubtedly has its People, and I’m not one of them. I imagine I could be… to be honest I’d quite like to be, it’s got a very pleasant communal atmosphere. Maybe if I were tied to it in some way, as an after-work pub, or the meeting place of a club, or darts team (if I were any good at darts), but simple geographical proximity isn’t enough.
Maybe I’ll content myself with merely observing.