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June 30, 2004

Middle England & Pubs

Posted by Digby Anderson

Digby Anderson laments Middle England's retreat from the pub.

At the Mucky Duck (White Swan), most Friday evenings are busy, the busiest evening of the week. Among the mainly Middle-England customers in the village pub are six or so who are of particular interest. Some are in middle age, some retired. They are the last of a dying type. The clues as to the type are their loud enthusiasm for beer, though they do not drink as much as they did, their conversation about sport especially rugby and their loud bonhomie especially their calling each other by nicknames ending in "ers" and a love of banter and stories about escapades. They are the last of the Hearties. I knew Hearties when they really flourished in the fifties and early Sixties. Hearties came from middle class families. There was perhaps a tendency for their fathers to be farmers or military men but they could equally well be in the professions or business. Hearties were members of rugby clubs and liked drinking beer, driving sports cars and playing unintellectual pranks. They liked singing mildly rude songs with easy to remember choruses, they liked (partly for the same reason) "traditional" jazz and lurching about ineptly on dance floors with girls called Fiona whom they had met at Young Conservative hops. They sported cravats, cavalry twill trousers, suede Chukka boots and sports jackets. They despised oiks - the lower classes - and foreigners and hated intellectuals, the arts, effeminate persons and anyone who didn't see the obvious merits of rugby football. Although they could be noisy and tipsy, they were far from being deviants. Indeed they were stalwart Middle-Englanders just enjoying themselves a bit before becoming estate agents or whatever. Even in their prankish years they spoke properly, were Conservative, conservative, patriotic and respectable.

Various social types come and go, especially those attractive to youth such as Teddy Boys or Hippies. Hearties were different. When a Hearty reached his early twenties, got married and started estate agenting or farming, he did not stop being a Hearty. Precisely because Heartiness was not essentially deviant, he could carry on, if confining the beer to one night a week now. Traces of the dress lingered and so did traces of the banter. Unlike so many other types Hearties lasted. Evelyn Waugh describes them at Oxford in the 1920s having wars with Arties and they were still an easily discernible type at universities and still having wars with the Arties right up into the Sixties, maybe beyond. But now there are no more new recruits, just a few old Hearties out on Friday nights. And even then they are failing. Hearties are not safe. Friday night is popular with other people too: the pub is increasingly invaded by young trendies drinking silly drinks out of pink bottles. By 7.30, the old Hearties have had enough: they retreat back home to safety.

Hearties were one part of Middle-England that colonised pubs. And when Hearties were in a pub, they took over at least their part of it. Both in reality and fiction, as Hearties and in other types, Middle-England held sway in not a few pubs. Bulldog Drummond was a pub man. So was the young Evelyn Waugh. Many middle class students, those not attracted by other students in the "Union" bars, went to pubs. The doctors of Doctor in the House fame liked pubs. Chaps from the City had a couple in the pub before catching the train home. The point is a simple one: the pub was part of - some - middle class lives. Put it round the other way, a visitor, say, an American, when he went into a "typical" English pub would not necessarily be seeing working class life. He might well especially in the south of England and in villages, be seeing middle class life. To be tediously sociological, the accents he heard, the interests and attitudes he heard expressed in them, the manners he might see might well be middle class. The landlord himself might well be middle class. One stereotypical landlord was the retired wing-commander or naval captain.

A few pubs were exclusively middle class. In others, different social classes and sexes used the different private, jug, saloon/lounge and public bars, the last two differentiated by carpet and price. In many more space within a bar was delimited by class or sex, for instance the ladies sitting at tables by the walls and the men at the bar, a knot of businessmen standing by the fire, some young people in a sort of alcove playing darts. In yet others, there was a shift system. My father always taught me that "they" went home immediately after "their" factory work, had tea and emerged at 8pm to drink. We drank from six, "when the ashtrays are clean and the landlord sober" and returned home to dinner at eight. This had the advantage for us, that we missed meeting "them", and no doubt for them that they missed meeting us.

I don't want to overdo it. No doubt over the whole of the United Kingdom there were more working class pubs and working class people in pubs than there were middle class pubs and middle class people in them. That is hardly surprising since there are, or were, many more of "them" anyway. But the middle class had a place in pub life.

Pubs have changed a lot and various interest groups applaud or bemoan the changes. There's more lager, less beer, proportionately more women, fewer men, more young, fewer middle aged people, more food, less darts and cribbage, more canned music, less singing, more standardisation, themes and reliability, less individual character and really off beer. Lefty interest groups blame the "big brewers" for the changes they deplore. I am more interested in what has happened to the middle classes and pubs.

Pubs are about sociability, being ready to talk with others. Sociability does not necessarily mean loquacity, being talkative, talking a lot or with a lot a people. It might just be a first customer muttering about the weather or the news with the landlord as the first pint was poured. Sometimes groups that talk together come into the pub already formed, for instance three businessmen from the same company or a group of students. Sometimes exchanges start up in the pub between strangers or people who only know each other in the pub. Conversations start and stop, groups of talkers come together and disintegrate. Most without obligation. This is fairly neutral ground.

Put the points about sociability and the middle class together. They mean that once there was a form of middle class sociability in English pubs. It is only right to add that this sociability was also largely male and to an extent adult. Of course there were pubs, bars and spaces in bars for the young, but the pub was generally not a youthful institution. Today male, middle class, middle aged sociability in pubs is increasingly rare. Has it been pushed out by the brewers anxious to attract the young and female custom? Or have youth and the lower class and women themselves edged it out and taken over? Or has it committed some form of cultural suicide itself?

Some examples. The Red Lion is a fairly ordinary building about 100 years old situated in a provincial town just within commuting distance of London. It had a saloon bar and a public bar. Every evening between 6 and 8pm, the saloon bar was the meeting place for half to a dozen local shopkeepers, professional people, the odd London commuter just returned home. They drank well, a few pints but mostly large Scotches or gins and tonics. They paid their way. They also talked well about cricket, stories in the news, politics only insofar as it affected them which they considered to be in the form of taxes or unpunished criminals, about their holidays, each other and their families. A small minority of the conversation was taken up with predictable opinions which were aired neither aggressively nor in embarrassment about criminals, foreigners, scroungers, young people and the other social classes. The relaxed way they spoke, leaning against the bar proclaimed their right to be there with their interests and opinions. For about an hour and a half that space was their club.

In the late sixties, one landlord put in more tables and started cooking and serving food. That brought in a new customer, people who only came at most once a week. The food smelt, a waiter bustled about, it took longer to get drinks, it was noisier. But it did not affect the club. It continued, its members their backs turned to the diners carried on as before. I seem to remember that at some later point anodyne musack was introduced and fizzy beer and raffle tickets and a kitchen and dining extension. But the club kept going. regardless. Only death depleted it. Even its effects were limited as, up to the Sixties several of the members' sons, took their fathers' places.

Twenty five years later, the landlord retired. Another arrived. This time things turned out very differently. Times had changed. He gutted the place, restyled it and, most significant of all, filled it with customers from his own previous pub who talked about football, sex and the price of second-hand motor cars. The old regulars left, the club folded. Could the club have resisted and maintained its place? Perhaps. What destroyed it was partly that it no longer had the favour of the landlord and was outnumbered by the new contingent which had. Yet even this would not have mattered if it had not been depleted. And its depletion was not the fault of the new landlord or the restyling. It was simply that several offspring of the old club members no longer kept up the pub tradition.

Instead they chose, or their wives chose for them, to stay at home. The few who wished to keep going to a pub went to different ones which made them even more outnumbered and beleaguered. One or two of them even reinvented themselves, went over to the enemy and acquired a loquacious interest in football, sex and used cars. The point is that the Middle England presence was not ousted by the landlord or the brewer but by itself, by a new tendency to withdraw into the home.

What happened with The Coach and Horses was similar. For some 30 or more years a Middle England club kept going. Members died or were taken into nursing homes. Yet somehow they were replaced by others and not necessarily from their families. This particular club specialised in stereotypical WWII Wing-Commanders and Indian Army Colonels with appropriate moustaches and banter. As one Wing-Commander or Colonel faded from the scene, somehow, defying the passage of time and forces of nature, another would arrive and slip onto the still warm barstool. There was a bar-maid, herself in her sixties. The Colonels winked at her and she served them ahead of strangers who had been waiting longer.

The bar eventually closed. Again depleted, the few remaining members somehow did not have the Oomph to get together and go somewhere else but went their different ways, which for some meant home. I would not want to say that it is all a matter of retreat by the members. The activities of the pub owners and landlords and managers play some part. It’s a vicious circle but one initiated by the members. Their lack of persistence, their cultural weakness reduces their numbers and when opposing cultural forces introduce musack, vulgarity, lefty opinions, bad language and aftershave, the members feel still weaker and retreat again. The retreat ends at home, in front of the television, with a gin and tonic whose measures are monitored by the wife.

The third and last example merely shows another sort of retreat. In this case a pub where the Middle England club met six nights a week had a change of landlord. For a variety of reasons he did not appreciate the members. So most of them reduced their visits to once a week. The pub is entirely different on that night from all the others. A few of the members, as with the first pub, showed yet another response. They stayed and became like the young and lower class people who replaced the club. Rather as with the pigs in Animal Farm, they even look like their old enemies.

There are then, three ways in which Middle England responds to rival and enemy cultural forces in the pub. Some abandon their positions and flee into the safety of the home. This is especially tempting given the "home" as a source of Middle England pride and identity. Their desertion leaves their colleagues even more outnumbered and threatened by ever more unpleasant developments from their enemies at the pub, such as karaoke. Most of the colleagues then go their own ways to other pubs where they are isolated. A despicable few buy earrings and running shoes, learn dirty jokes, drink American beer from bottles and go over to the enemy. In all three cases, the club and the class has not stood its ground.

Digby Anderson retired as Director of the Social Affairs Unit earlier this year. Dr Anderson is the author of All Oiks Now: The Unnoticed Surrender of Middle England.

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Try The Old Green Tree in Bath. The old ways still survive.

Posted by: Tim Worstall at July 2, 2004 03:27 PM

The Hatchet Inn in Lower Chute, near Andover in Hampshire is also a good one. I was in there last night and it was almost like stepping back in time.

Posted by: Jackie D at July 4, 2004 12:34 PM

"Today male, middle class, middle aged sociability in pubs is extremely rare...." hasn't anyone been watching the adds on telly?! The hearties are all at home now donning fancy aprons and cooking aubergine au gratin while their wives look on approvingly from a leather sofa showing off long legs slithering from silk négligées and sipping Sauvignon blanc.

Mariana Bell

Posted by: Mariana Bell at November 24, 2004 07:36 PM
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