The English Pub Then and Now

“The Mirror of England”

Godfrey Blunden was an Australian war correspondent who covered key campaigns during WW II. In October 1943, while on assignment in England, he painted a vivid portrait of the English pub. When not in the field, some of his work was “civilian” in nature, reporting on home life. An Australian, he offered a unique perspective on England of the wartime ’40s. His incidental comments about drinking in Australia are of interest, too.

Blunden understood the importance of the pub to morale; this is conveyed in the affectionate yet not uncritical tone of his coverage. Depicting the pub as an organic part of the community rather than the malign agency promoted in temperance literature, his journalism upheld the basic values people were fighting for, which in turn blunted defeatism.

George Orwell’s famous essay on the ideal pub, The Moon Under Water, was written shortly after the war and is a particularly accomplished expression of this viewpoint. Blunden’s approach combined literary flourishes with the investigative tone reminiscent of the sociological research body Mass-Observation.

Blunden wrote:

The life of London today is very thin beer. By that I mean to submit that British morale would long ago have collapsed without the English pub.

He goes on to add:

That English pub has no connection with the rowdy beer halls of Australia, where a beer monopoly stooge throws you a drink, and tells you to get out before the police arrive. The English pub does not have [as the Australian hotel] buff-coloured tiles and miles of glittering mirrors. It is very small, very old, and very quiet. The pub I am thinking about has a bar not more than 12 feet long. Its top is a piece of polished jarrah, which has a deep red lustre as a result of many decades of polishing. Handles of beer pumps are big and white, and stick above the bar top…. Your order is half a pint of bitter, which is a darkish fluid, said to contain a percentage of alcohol. That percentage, of course, is fixed by the Government, and one can imagine the profound discussion and wide exercise of statesmanship which counsels just how little alcohol can be left in English beer without undermining British confidence. That is not intended to be funny. It is part of my submission that the principal factor which has held the British together, kept them sane during long, dreary years of blackout, has been the English pub, and that the British Government knows that very well, and is wise and judicious in its regulation.

Much has changed since these lines were penned. Every year the U.K. media describes in fevered detail the unhinged behaviour of the British high street at Christmas and the New Year. It’s a different world from Blunden’s orderly pub of small measures, high prices, and quiet conversation.

Beer during the war was about 3.5% alcohol (see Ron Pattinson’s useful analyses), which encouraged restraint. In 1943 the whisky and gin bottles behind the bar were mostly empty due to requirements of the war economy.

Godfrey Blunden never returned to Australia. He married a French citizen and moved to New York to work for Time magazine. He issued numerous novels, and made his final home in France before passing away at 90 in 1996.

Today’s world is very different to the 1940s one he described, at least until a crisis hits comparable to WW II. One wonders what he thought of the Bacchanalian Christmas scenes probably reported in his last years, or the similar revels of British vacationers on the Iberian coast.

That said, riotous behaviour and unhinged drinking are nothing new in British life. One can trace them intermittently from Tudor times (at least) to the present. Hogarth’s depiction of destructive gin boozing is a well-known example. Beer during the 1800s was plenty strong, and Henry Mayhew among others noted the toll in splintered families and debtor’s prison.

Due to efforts of Prime Minister Lloyd George during WW I, as well as the effects of the later Depression, a long period of restraint ensued that perhaps reached its apogee in WW II. Yet, as well, the wartime pub shows us that social behaviour can be modified by taxation, a decreed low alcohol strength, and the self-willed social discipline of the people. In contrast today the typical pint is closer to 5% alcohol, and coolers and other stronger drinks can be easily obtained. Given the atmosphere of freedom encouraged by modern (post-1960s) culture, behaviour in today’s pub manifests accordingly.

Of course, not every pub permits over-drinking and rough customers. In fact, modern youth may be tending away from the traditional lure of alcohol according to some media reports. If so, the motives are quite different from the ’40s when British social solidarity stood unshaken despite the shocks of two world wars and a Depression.

At the time, in other words, people were still deferential to government and “the great and the good”, as reflected by Blunden’s account. The average Briton accepted things as they were, in contrast to today’s more combative attitudes viz. politics and social issues.

However, the problem of coal supply noted by Blunden, related to labour troubles, was a harbinger. Labour disturbances became more common after the war, across a range of industries. They were the seeds of the fractured politics and oft’ immoderate social behaviour seen in the country today.

Note re images: the images above of World War II war correspondents is drawn from this Australian military history website and profile of Godfrey Blunden. In the first image, he is depicted second from left. In the second image, he is second from right. Copyright belongs solely to the lawful owner. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

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