The Changing Public House
Last year every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom drank twelve and a half gallons of beer, statistically speaking. In addition, we disposed of a pint and a half of spirits and a quart of wine each. The only thing to be said in our favour is that our fathers, 60 years ago, drank nearly three times as much on paper and, the child population being larger then, probably four times as much in practice.
Figures are hardly needed to show that people drink less nowadays. A drunk in the street or a man with a grog-blossom is a rare sight; the pubs are empty—not literally, of course, but certainly by comparison with other, quite recent times. The local that was once the Pantheon of the neighbourhood, with knees-up in the bar, a Saturday night overflow on the pavement and a fight now and again, is now a comparatively quiet place where people drop in for a glass and not much more. And in the more newly built suburban areas, pubs generally are few and far between. Today in Britain there is roughly one public house to every 600 people: 50 years ago it was one to 350, and a century ago one to every 100-odd.
It might look as if the two centuries campaign against the horrors of drink has worn resistance down. In fact, there is probably less “temperance’’—the word should mean moderation, but has come to stand for a dogmatic extreme—less temperance today than there was in the 19th century, when its disciples wore blue ribbons and had every child sign the pledge whom they could lay their hands on. Most men and women drink, but not so much and not so often, and they do quite a lot of it at home. Those who visit pubs daily—ask for “the usual” and call the barmaid by her first name—are mainly older men. People under 40 go to pubs, but not as a habit. Their lives have different rhythms. That is what really has happened. Public houses and peoples’ drinking habits have changed: the real change has been in the pattern of social life, to which institutions and attitudes are shaped and fused.
The true significance of the public house is a communal one. Every well-knit community has its centres, places where people of all sorts go to do business, hear news, form opinions and enjoy one another’s company: the market place, the church and, since the Middle Ages in Britain, the inn. There have been and are others, like the coffee-house in the 18th century and the caff in our own generation, but each of them limited to particular social groups (the cafes in fact have a stratification of their own from arty haunts to good pull-ups for carmen). The pub accommodates many groups. Public bar, saloon, private bar and lounge, separate only by wooden partitions, are distinct milieus under the same roof.
The fact of modern counter-attractions to public houses is obvious. Fifty years ago there were no pictures, no radio, no speedways and so on; a good many people nowadays drink bottled beer at home while they watch the television. Something more than mere counter-attraction has caused the decline in public house life, however. It is worth remembering that music halls, the great entertainment at the beginning of the centuty, were also places for drinking. Their successors, the cinemas, have no facilities for it.
A great deal of everyday social activity has taken place in pubs. Workmen ate and were paid in them— farther back, trade unions and friendly societies met in them. Shopkeepers and small businessmen went to private bars for transactions. Less obvious things, too: not so many years ago, housewives took bowls of vegetables into the locals and sat shelling peas or peeling potatoes with glasses of stout beside them. Public houses had their own football teams, with a pitch behind the premises and several hundred habituees to give support (the writer played for one, and a very good team it was). There are not many such teams now, simply because few pubs can raise them from the regulars.
Industrial and political developments have eliminated much of this activity. There usually is a canteen wherever more than a few people are employed, and a wages office as well. The late 19th-century war between the Conservative brewers and the temperance Liberals linked anti-Conservatism with disapproval of drink; the growing Labour movement set up Trades Halls and Committee Rooms, taking the meetings out of the pubs. The small tradesmen, forced into political participation by the near omnipotence of combines and multiple shops, met in Conservative Clubs instead of public houses. Both ways, political parties helped to clear the bars. It is true also that the quality and amenities of everyday life have altered since those days when the pub exuded, to quote Trevelyan, “ its promise of warmth and welcome on to the wet inhospitable street.”
More than anything, however, there has been a falling-off in communal living and thinking. In modern industrial society, any sort of local community is exceptional. Apart from the family, which has disintegrated visibly in this century, and such exceptional cases as racial and political minorities, the only coherent groups are occupational and technical ones; possibly that is why the cafe, the small-group meeting place, flourishes now instead of the pub. The division of labour and the growth of cities where functions must largely be delegated and depersonalized have taken away much of the basis for communal activity. Law and order, education, charitableness, recreation, all are in the hands of professional specialists. The variety of experience that urban civilization apparently offers is too often variety only of vicarious experience. A man who says he is keen on sport nowadays is quite likely to mean that he does the pools or watches all the Arsenal’s home matches.
One of the best literary pictures of the status of the pub in pre-urban communities is contained in George Eliot’s “Silas Marner.” Marner’s appearance in the “Rainbow” is dramatic because he has never been there before, and so—nothing else is needed—lived in isolation. Discovering the theft of his gold, there is nowhere else to announce it but in the inn. The incident is the real climax of the story, the point where the recluse enters and is accepted by the community, and the inn is its symbol. Nowadays, of course, he would go to the police station.
Certainly some unpleasant things have largely disappeared from social life with the decrease in drinking. Sottishness has not much charm; nor has the sight of children dawdling for hours on public-house doorsteps while their parents are inside. The fading of these unedifying spectacles is usually put down to a change in peoples’ outlook, as if outlook meant a kind of communal revelation. It is true that social attitudes about drinking have changed, but the change is effect, not cause. Given the growth of town life, the diminished need for community centres, and a hundred and one facilities for solving the “problem’’ of leisure, there is less drinking in public houses: consequently there are fewer drunkards and waiting children and, in time, a feeling that there is actually something disgraceful about both. Go to a village where life is still centred in the pub, and you will find the same attitude in reverse—i.e., that the amenities of town life are not just frivolous but wicked too. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that much of the anti-drink propaganda of a century or two ago was directed not against public houses but against gin shops. Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” and “Beer Alley” series, commonly supposed to depict the horrors of drink, in fact aimed to show that beer was better in every way than gin.
The modern public house is more and more a shop where beer is sold, with perhaps some provision for amusement. The only places, apart from rural areas, where it retains something of its former character, are where there is a single industry and so a community is formed by an occupational group—docklands, shipbuilding, mill and mining towns and so on. In those areas the pub has not changed very much, even in its architecture, fittings and compartments—figured glass, rococo partitions, horsehair settees and sporting prints, in contrast with the aseptic, tiles-and-chromium, one- or two-room buildings of the modern metropolis and its suburbs.
Our society is less and less a community, more and more an agglomeration of individuals. Reference has already been made to the handing-over of former communal functions to trained, authority-bearing specialists: the more important point is that responsibility has been handed over too. It is not only that impersonal powers manage, instruct, entertain and generally provide for people—the more vital aspect is that people no longer have much to do in any of those matters. That is why a happening like a flood or a railway disaster makes news by bringing out men and women spontaneously to help, nurse and clothe the victims: ordinarily those are services provided by institutions. The war produced a good deal of such communality and showed that, far from being dead, it is always ready to come through the surface of urban civilization.
The public house is what its name implies—a house for the publicum, the community; and a community is no more to be found in it than a fifty-shilling suit in the Fifty Shilling Tailors’. Is that a bad thing? It is nice to feel superior and think that people nowadays have better things to do than go to pubs; balance the rise of aspirin-taking against the fall of beer-drinking, and you may wonder what the better things are. The pub in itself does not matter very much, but the social circumstances which have changed its character do. Historians of the future will record ours as an era of amenity and progress. Perhaps, too, they will record it as the age of insecurity, personal as well as economic: an age of crowded but lonely people, knowing little communal obligation or sanction for behaviour. Advice bureaux, help pages, marriage guidance councils, huge unseen audiences for the opinions on everything of petty oracles . . . all these—and the aspirin-bottles—are the true monuments to today.