English Pubs Under the Microscope
From my surveys of the historical international press, no country matches Australia in the depth of its interest in the English pub, particularly from the early 1940s until the mid-1950s. The coverage was regular and in-depth, usually by Australian journalists, and sometimes British ones in Australian newspapers. Readers often weighed in, in the letters columns.
Other countries, the United States, say, featured fewer and shorter pieces, often with a humorous tilt. (I am speaking of this later period). Mr. Bill Bloggs of name-your-Shire drank a yard of ale in x number of seconds, or Mrs. Bloggs of that other Shire won a beer-tasting contest, to the consternation of the men.
Australia’s coverage was more thoughtful, delineating often the social and historical aspects of the English pub. The writing is a sub-set of a broader genre of Antipodean drink journalism going back to the 19th century. The domestic picture dealt with local breweries, beer types and quality, and not least “hotels” or pubs. I have given many examples here.
The pieces on British pubs were a counterpart. The preoccupation with metropole so to speak was understandable given the ethnic origins of most Australians and the role the country played in two world wars.
A young country still imbued with notions of the frontier, Australia was less inhibited than other places on these questions. Into the 1970s the tinnie, the Darwin Stubby, and booze-artist were vaunted as emblems of national culture.
International observers noticed the phenomenon, typing it, in the words of one writer, as “aggressive and stereotypical”.* The Aussies themselves exploited the image for humorous purposes with a descent (ascent?) finally into the self-deprecating.
Today, the country is like everywhere else, nervous about its alcoholic heritage. Public health authorities and other guardians of the public good, many self-appointed, inveigh regularly on dangers of alcohol. Somewhat in contradiction, some experts suggest the young are abandoning alcohol.
I’ll mention two pieces here that neatly bookend the bygone fascination with English pubs. This piece, published in 1942 in Melbourne in the Herald, typified the rose-tinted view. It was wartime, when an attempt clearly was made to divert and relax people, but the writing illustrates how many Australians viewed the old country.
The piece is subtitled “Before the Blitz”, with the implication of showing English life as it was just ahead of the war. A sample:
The crowd gathers round the dartboard and cheers on the opposing teams. Smoke blows in clouds and hangs suspended like balloons from the ceiling— a pungent smell of shag and woodbines mingles with the smell of beer – good honest beer, locally brewed, and drawn from the wood into pewter tankards, and cloam mugs. It’s the public bar of the Dog and Duck — any night of the week, including Sundays — filled with farm laborers and small tradesmen. …. The power of the Pub is second to only that of the Church. They were built in juxtaposition right down the centuries, and together they weave the warp-and-woof of village life. Farm laborers, tenant farmers, yeoman farmers, and the few professional men that make up English Village life meet here as man to man. Maybe each knows the “state of life” to which God has been pleased to call him, but they’re good friends nevertheless.
The piece gets a lot right, even today before the pubs were closed in the current emergency. Not every pub, not in every place, but many of them.
In contrast, this 1949 article, published throughout Australia and here in Mackay, Queensland, was a more sober look. It assessed the losses to the inventory of pubs – the sheer numbers destroyed by the indiscriminate German bombing and rocket attacks. The destruction, the article makes clear, was a national heritage irretrievably lost.
The writer uses the term “inns” but conflates inns, pubs, taverns, a pattern typical in Empire-settled countries. (These terms originally had distinct meanings. An inn, for example, was a higher-grade institution, a hostel as well as a resort for drinking).
After a historical survey of the pub that includes some attention to the beer, the author sets out a rationale for the pubs having remained open during the war:
It was not until 1940 that they [the pubs] really came into the front line. They have survived through the ages because of their genius for adaptation to the ever-shifting pattern of national life. At no time in their long history did they play a more active role in the destiny of the homeland than when she was beleaguered in 1940-44 …. The inns did their best in war, and they are also helping to maintain morale in the difficult peace. The impression of the visitor is that they are woven more intimately than ever into the pattern of national life.
The observation on morale applies fully today, during Covid-19. Public authorities have recognized this: even though pubs are closed due to a unique public health situation, retail stores and breweries may still vend to the public. That vending is the functional equivalent to the pubs being open during World War II.
The words of 1949 also form a complete response to a recent article in the Independent arguing that people should weather the Covid storm without benefit of alcohol and all remaining outlets for its sale should be closed.
And when the emergency is over? Our pubs surely will adapt to an (inevitably altered) post-Covid world; this is the “genius for adaptation” mentioned above.
This Wikipedia article, whence the above image was taken, has a good paragraph on whether the storied steadfastness and social solidarity of the British in the Blitz were exaggerated. Whatever the true position, had the pubs, which then were the main outlet for alcohol, been closed, morale would have suffered even more. The lessons for today are, once again, obvious.
*The American Michael Weiner wrote this, in his 1977 The Taster’s Guide to Beer.