The Dream of Exiles

A Picture of the Pub in Two Eras

Pub-goers in Britain and elsewhere are today ruing the – hopefully short-lived – disappearance of something they took for granted – the pub.

It still exists of a fashion, yes, for delivery and take-out only. The essence of the pub – ordering a drink at the bar, some food, meeting friends, playing a game of some kind, is just a memory, for the moment.

So let’s look back to when the bar was real, via my occasional series on English pub history. I’ll give two examples, one from 1946, the other from 1962, both as revealed in the Australian press.

The 1946 piece was authored by Irish-born Patrick Campbell, the 3rd Baron of Glenavy. The peerage was created for his grandfather James Campbell early in the 20th century, preceded by a baronetcy. Due ultimately to a lack of male issue in the line this peerage is now defunct.

Campbell was a noted journalist who later enjoyed popularity on Irish television.

The evocative title of his piece is Sunday Morning in an English Pub. (I wonder if the novelist Alan Sillitoe ever read it. I believe he was in the Far East then, with the RAF).

And so we can add Campbell’s flourishes to what is an enduring – so far – genre of U.K. and international journalism: reportage on the pub. The subject has also been treated in full-length studies and chapters in books on travel, some of which we have also surveyed.

The field is vast covering themes such as public house origins, its role as a social centre, the pub in wartime, building styles, and pub signs. Oh – I shouldn’t forget: the beer.

Campbell focuses on the patrons – the everyday people who are heart and soul of the pub. He paints them as (mainly) measured in habits, accepting of authority, and stoical viz. the great sacrifices they made in the recent war and were still required to make. He notes that Britain was exporting food for example while Britons were still deprived of many items.

Of the beer he offers brief yet interesting comments, for both colour and taste. The bitter is “bright orange” – which indeed it still can be. The mild was reddish. There are numerous little details that create a picture: two women drinking “unescorted” (although it was Sunday, when some women did traditionally frequent the pub); men in forage caps being demobbed; the physical layout with its glass partition; the Bass Ale sign on the wall.

The second article, from 1962 by John O’Hare, is less literary in style but full of factual information. Port and sherry were still staples in the pub. Beer was still drawn “from the wood”. In perceptive architectural comments, O’Hare points out that the mahogany and mirrored Victorian pub, the typical pub in public imagination, was going out. Newer styles, from the airy 30s roadhouse with parking to the 60s-70s concrete block, answered to newer needs.

In a winning line that will resonate with many today, O’Hare stated: “A pint of bitter is the dream of exiles”.

And how.

Little would O’Hare have thought, or anyone at that time and until very recently, that the UK citizenry would form the body of such exiles.