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American Pie: Many Names But Just One Institution

John Merchant reflects upon the high days and the low days of that great English institution - the pub.

The “Boozer,” the “Alehouse,” the “Watering Hole:” all are fond names for a great British institution, the “Pub.” I’m careful about the use of “British,” because it is often miss-used in the US. “You’re a Brit, right?” “No, as a matter of fact I’m, English. There’s no such thing as a Brit.” But the Pub is truly British; the center of social life from Jon O’Groats to the tip of Cornwall and west to Wales and the Emerald Isle.

Or it used to be. I’m told by my English connections that the “pub” has changed, mostly for the worse, and almost is an endangered species. A number of factors account for this: the DUI laws, the transmogrification from being drinking parlors to restaurants, and possibly the liberalization of licensing laws. What once was restricted is now freely available, therefore not as attractive. Stolen fruits and all that.

What made pubs great, and an important part of any community was the “regulars.” Drinkers who could be relied upon to turn up at the same time every night and drink the same brew; day in, day out for years. Against the background of these constants, personal problems could be discussed, governments could be reshaped, and bosses consigned to hell.
The performance of the local soccer/ cricket team in the past weekend’s game could be dissected, analyzed and replayed endlessly until at least Wednesday, when thoughts would turn to the coming weekend. All of these matters could be transacted whilst playing a game of darts or dominoes, not to mention quaffing a pint.

One of my favorite pub pass times was to listen to a group at the bar discussing some esoteric topic that none of them had a clue about, but all of them claimed to be experts in. What a time they could be having with global warming. Differences were good humored and never descended into acrimony.
By and large, the drinking was moderate in my time because the patrons didn’t have the disposable income people do today. Of course there were exceptions – the guy drinking to forget; the newly divorced, or someone celebrating anything from getting a job to getting out of the military.

The local pub was the archive of its clientele, where the collective memory of all patrons could come up with anything you wanted to know about anyone or anything in the neighborhood, even if some of it was surmise.

After I had lived in the US for about 5 years I returned to England on a business trip, flying into Heathrow airport. A good friend lived in Marlow on Thames, not far from where I was staying, so I decided to look him up. I could not remember where his house was located, but I knew the pub where he went most nights, so that’s where I headed.

The evening drew on and there was no sign of Dick. Disappointed, I made some inquiries of the regulars. Their faces fell. Apparently Dick’s wife was confined to a psychiatric hospital, and Dick had returned to Iran where he previously worked in the oil industry. He later died.

Of course, not all pubs were pleasantly memorable . Some country hostelries were cold and inhospitable, as were the landlords. They grudgingly opened their doors to comply with the licensing laws, and in one I visited, the landlord and his wife were still eating breakfast in their night clothes as mibe host reluctantly pulled me a pint.

At another in Stratford Upon Avon, a group of American tourists who wanted sandwiches were told gruffly that the staff were too busy serving meals to make sandwiches. I was embarrassed.

The British pub in its most romantic iteration is beloved of all anglophile Americans and Canadians. Enterprising individuals in both countries have tried to tap into that by opening “pubs” in major concentrations of population. Though popular, none of them have, or could, replicate their British counterparts.
Gnarly wood trimmed décor and beer on tap with a couple of Cunard posters and a London Underground sign just doesn’t do it, any more than do menus listing dishes that British people are said to eat, but don’t.

Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers and Mash, Cornish Pasties and Toad in the Hole are what gave British cuisine a bad name, and have long been consigned to the repartee of stand-up comics. Fish and Chips is not meant to be eaten of a plate, sitting at a table; but in a paper, walking home in the crisp night air.

What’s missing from these attempted replications is the locals. There are no locals or “regulars” to speak of, and certainly none of the continuity that makes for firm friends. Some advertise “100 beers to choose from,” but so what? I’m not drawn to a “British Pub” to drink Corona from Mexico, or Dinkel Knocker from Germany, or Kingfisher from India.

And then there are the names. “British Pub” is about all there is. Absent are the Black Swan, the White Hart, the King’s head, the Plough, the Wagon and Horses, the Duke of Wellington, the Millstone, the Rising Sun, the Beauchief Arms and the George and Dragon. So many names, but only one institution. Cheers!


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