In Defence Of The Crap British Pub

The 'Good British Pub Guide' has attacked old-fashioned boozers. Here's why they're wrong

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Everyone knows the pub bore.

He’s the yellow-jowelled jackal with thinning hair leaning over a pint of flat ale at the end of the bar, eyeing each person who walks through the door with glass-eyed desperation.

Ready to pounce on any moment of politeness, he’ll lock his victim in with an interminable ramble stuffed with self-aggrandising anecdotes of implausible past glories before hinting that he’d like you to buy him a pint.

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In recent years The Good Pub Guide – once a formidable ally of British drinking – has started to resemble less a drinking buddy and more this very creature.

In 2012 it decided to start charging pubs £200 to feature in its listings (have one on me, mate) while this week, to draw attention to itself, declared that 4,000 British pubs ‘deserve’ to close down at a time when landlords are struggling more than ever.

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The reason? Because too many are ‘stuck in the 1980s’, offering ‘indifferent food, drink and service’. It’s time, according to the Bible of imbibing, that more local pubs ‘diversify’ with the changing times.

As a life-long pub devotee who has made the journey from downing £1.80 stouts in Northumbrian Working Men’s Clubs to sipping Soho cocktails out of tea cups, I wonder if that is what we really want.

To some, a pub ‘moving with the times’ means the kind of place where a polished Aspall tap winks at you from the bar as you sit down to a Jenga pile of hand-cut, goose fat chips.

Where on the table next to you, a cheerful young couple compete good-naturedly over a game of Scrabble as handsome staff wearing clean white aprons hover with plates of gourmet black pudding and tin buckets of £35 bottles of wine (shop price: £6.99).

In short: perfectly pleasant places to pass an afternoon, but also anodyne, bereft of soul, lacking in excitement.

Don’t get me wrong: there are few things more enjoyable than a good cocktail or wine bar, places of genuine refinement that make life feel that bit more special. And pubs that put a real focus on quality food and always have done: they’re among the best places to eat in the country.

But surely there is still a place for the traditional crap boozer, those dusty cocoons of cushioned velvet stained with the detritus of a thousand ‘cheers’, those sacred retreats where wobbly pints are passed over split packets of salty pig parts, those refuges from the sanitized outside world that unite people, not in how smart and clean but how utterly shit they are.

A couple of years ago I was temporarily homeless at the bitter end of a failed relationship. Wandering aimlessly, I found a pub like this, on Tottenham Court Road.

Every Saturday for a month or so I took to shuffling in and taking a place among the uneven bar stools to sip Strongbow and watch whatever football was on the telly.

Two old cockney boys were sat there at the bar every time, Mick and Paul. They knew everyone who walked in and greeted them loudly, buying pints of John Smiths from the warm-smiling Polish barmaid, counting out pockets full of coppers onto the sticky bar top.

After a while, they took me under their wing. We’d talk about the game and the wider world. It turned out they’d been friends ever since they played together in their local boy’s team. The made fun of my youth, and their old age. I never got to know them very well, but they were a welcome distraction from my own sorry troubles.

A few months later, life decidedly more on track, I returned to find the same building had been transformed into a ‘gastro pub’.

The knackered seats and peeling wallpaper had been replaced with retro avant-garde furniture and shiny mirrors. Where once crisps dangled unhealthily behind the bar, a blackboard boasted of the happily butchered organic animals. Inside, co-workers bleated at each other in segregated huddles.

It looked perfectly nice.

I didn’t go in.

Who knows what became of old Mick and Paul. But their simple kindness reminded me that pubs – as Tom Parker Bowles put it beautifully on these very pages – are ‘Britain’s secular churches’, the only places left where strangers can become friends, and a man can be alone without feeling lonely.

So what if some of them are incapable of serving any more than a pork pie and an out-of-date packet of Beef McCoy’s? Or if the bar is manned by a grumpy fat bloke instead of a team of professionally happy post-grad students?

In an old school pub, one lit by the grubby glow of gambling machines, where the air turns blue and the beer spills unselfconsciously, there is a sense of unpredictability, a freedom to act that touch more wildly, a coiled sense that things could go good or bad.

A man needs more than just organic food and comfortable cushions on a night out. He needs adventure. These old dives, closing down at a rate of 26 a week, still provide them, as they have done for centuries.

It’s something we’ll miss if we wish it away too hastily in our relentless pursuit of locally sourced organic roasts and continental beers.

So rather than sneer at the shit British pub, find yours, pull up a stool and enjoy a pork pie. Just don’t order the wine.

The article first appear on Esquire in 2013.

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