Wednesday, 21 April 2010

English Pub Culture: A Mark of the Past

A stroll around the cobble-stoned streets of York will reveal a multitude of quaint pubs, named everything from the normal (The Cross Keys), to the fairytale inspired (The Golden Slipper) to the just plain strange (The Three-Legged Mare). Pub culture, in fact, is such a prevalent part of English culture that I feel the need to reach for a metaphor: if England were Cyrano de Bergerac, pub culture would be its proudly prominent nose—a bit of an eyesore, but generally considered quite good to have. Pub culture has had a long and valued history in England. Ale has been served to British inhabitants since the Bronze Age, and gin entered the country via the Dutch in the eighteenth century. However, it was not the natives, but the Romans who would be the first to establish inns, or tabernae, as they were known. In Rome, it was common practice to hang vine leaves outside the door, signifying the selling of wine inside. Once this was tradition was transplanted to European, specifically English soil, it was discovered that vine leaves were in short supply. The vines were then switched out for small evergreen bushes, signifying, “Come hither for a pint of ale.”
With the building of roads across England, it became necessary to have places of respite—public houses which provided food, shelter, and a hearty drink. When the Romans withdrew from the rainy isle, the Anglo-Saxons took over their business and established alehouses in domestic dwellings. The beginnings of the modern pub lie in these alehouses, wherein the locals could have a drink and gossip about their days. The alehouse provided a place for the hard-working farm labourers to take a moment and enjoy a drink before going off to bed. By 965, alehouses had become so popular that King Edgar decreed there should be no more than one per village. Inns and pubs were so common by the twelfth century that it was necessary to name them, and with the names came pub signs, as most of the people were still illiterate. By an official act, King Richard II made it compulsory for inns and pubs to display signs in order that the official Ale Taster could find them more easily.

Pubs had almost become the focal point of the community. Samuel Pepys’s writings describe the pub as the heart of England, and he may very well have been right. Of course, pub culture did not come without its fare share of disapprovers. The temperance movements spoke out against the evils of gin and the loud and unruly drinking dens (described by Charles Dickens in Sketches of Boz), and attempted to shut down or at least diminish the proliferating beer and winehouses in the larger cities. The many Beer and Gin Acts passed during this time would be the predecessors of the modern debate over alcohol moderation in England. I was interested to find the correlations between the past and the present when I read a newspaper article about the worry over rising levels of alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom. The article outlined how the government was debating whether or not to raise taxes on alcohol in order to control its availability to young people. This proposition has been met with opposition; the locals of pubs claim that taxes would only punish the wrong people—namely, themselves—and would do little to stop excessive drinking among today’s youth.

As for myself, I have had nothing but good experiences in the pub. Unlike smoky dance floors or overcrowded student unions, the pubs provide a cozy atmosphere for the regulars and an assorted group of students. The atmosphere and crowd of the pub depends entirely on its traditions. The Brigadier Gerard catered to an older, more staid crowd. Quiz night consisted of general information questions, with the elderly pub owner (or landlord, as they were traditionally called) calling out the questions, only interrupted by the occasional drinking song emanating from a corner. (A woman was having a concert of her own and repeated the first line of the chorus until someone from the other side of the room raised their voices and told her to “Shut up.”) The Independent, off Haxby, sees a younger crowd. I, along with a few of my fellow students, signed up for their quiz night on Monday, only to find ourselves completely stumped by questions pertaining to British music from the eighties. One of the best and most innovative experiences I have had in a pub was its appropriation as a tool for Christian fellowship. Though historically condemned as a place of immorality, my friends from church took me to the Old Starry Inn as a way to introduce themselves.

Pubs have not lost any of their charm with the years, but rather new sources of entertainment have arisen to satisfy the public. They used to be places of congregation for hard-working farmers and merchants, bringing the salt of the earth together after a day’s labour. Most of today’s generation does not work in agriculture, and the pub no longer seems a necessary watering-hole. The discoteque has distracted the younger generation; bars have stolen drinking clients; cinemas and theatres are inexpensive and entertaining enough to draw the masses. The pub, however, is an unchanging fixture of the British countryside, a bastion of historical importance to the layman. With its polished oak counters and green booths, the pub cannot offer bright lights or fast entertainment. It offers what it has offered for generations—good food and drink, good company, and a place to rest your feet.

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