The English Pub, Then and Now

“The Mirror of England”

Godfrey Blunden was an Australian war correspondent who covered key campaigns during World War II. In October 1943 while on assignment in Britain he rendered a vivid portrait of the English pub. When not with the Forces in the field, some of his coverage was “domestic”, reporting on civilian life. As an Australian he offered a unique perspective on British life the wartime ’40s. His incidental remarks about drinking in Australia are of good interest as well.

 

 

Blunden understood the importance of the pub to morale; his affectionate yet not uncritical coverage shows it. Depicting the pub as an organic part of the community, rather than the malign agency of temperance literature, his journalism upheld the basic values people were fighting for. As all such writing it helped fend off defeatism, always a temptation in a long war.

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

In his article he 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 continued:

… [The] 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 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 New Year’s. It’s a different world from Blunden’s where small measures, high prices, and decorous behavior prevailed.

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

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, passing away at 90 in 1996.

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

 

 

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

Starting with the efforts of Prime Minister Lloyd George during WW I, abetted by the Depression, a long period of restraint ensued. It perhaps reached the apogee with WW II.

In contrast, today the typical pint is closer to 5% alcohol, and stronger drinks are easily obtained (coolers, wine, etc.). Shortage is unheard of. Given the atmosphere of social licence encouraged by post-1960s culture, behaviour in today’s pub follows lock-step.

Of course, not every pub permits over-drinking and rough behaviour. In fact, some say modern youth may be tending away from alcohol. But if so, the motives are quite different from those of the 1930s and 40s when social solidarity stood intact despite the multiple shocks of slump, Dunkirk, and the bombing of British cities.

At the time people were still deferential to government, to”the great and the good”, as shown by Blunden’s account. The average Briton accepted things as they were in contrast to today’s combative, even entitled social attitudes.

In retrospect, one can see that the problem of coal supply noted by Blunden and the related labour troubles were a harbinger. Indeed labour disturbances burgeoned after the war, across a range of industries. This was the seeds of the fractured politics and immoderate social behaviour endemic 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.