Notes on...

Six rules for a perfect pub

Seventy years after George Orwell imagined the Moon Under Water, here’s a modern guide to the ideal local

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

Whenever one of those news stories appears about how many pubs have been forced to close in the last year, I always think of George Orwell. He would have had the correct reaction: lots of pubs are forced to close because they’re terrible. Yes, the pub is a wonderful British institution, with a long and noble history — but that doesn’t mean that any individual pub has a God-given right to stay open forever. If a landlord waters down his beer and scowls at his customers, as plenty of them do, they’ve only got themselves to blame when the bailiffs come knocking.

We know Orwell had strong opinions on the subject because he wrote an article about it, setting out the qualities of the perfect pub, a sadly mythical place he called the Moon Under Water. He loved open fires and china mugs, and hated barmaids who called you ‘ducky’ rather than ‘dear’. But all this has dated somewhat. In fact, 2016 will mark the essay’s 70th anniversary — so let’s get ready with our list of demands for the perfect modern pub:

Change in your hand, not on a tray. What on earth is this tray thing about? You think I’m going to tip you by leaving some of coins when I pick them up? After I’ve stood at the bar to get served? Sorry, but the only thing I want on a tray is the head of the man who had the idea for giving people their change on a tray.

Staff who know who’s next. It’s a basic requirement of the job that you keep an eye on who arrived at the bar when. A customer who has to say ‘Excuse me, I’m next’ is in the same position as someone needing to tell their electrician which wire to cut next.

Televisions. These should only be used for showing sport. When a pub starts showing quiz programmes and daytime chat shows, it ceases to be a pub: it becomes a house that sells alcohol.

Food. Orwell wanted a ‘good, solid lunch — for example a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll — for about three shillings’. The best grub-pubs now are Wetherspoons. Why is the chain always maligned? Great food and beer at low prices, beautiful old buildings — plus the delight of the name coming from a schoolteacher who told the chain’s founder he would never amount to anything. (The initials, meanwhile, come from J.D. ‘Boss’ Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard.)

Ice. Since when did it become acceptable to completely fill the glass with ice cubes before pouring the drink? Since pubs wanted to get as stingy as possible with their measures, of course. Sometimes there are so many cubes floating on top you can’t get to the drink itself. Except with a straw. But then who wants one of those?

Wall furniture. Acceptable if there’s a genuine story attached: a football shirt personally signed for the landlord by Bobby Moore, perhaps. But a load of artificially aged street-signs bought at Camden Market? Forget it.

There are other requirements — but avoiding the mistakes above should help a pub escape last orders.

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  • Sean Grainger

    Always a good standby and will read later but you missed the one that is now near the top of one’s list: “No f****** music.”

    • Freddythreepwood

      Except live jazz on just one night a week.

      • Barry & Yvonne St-Hargreaves

        Jazz is a total waste of ear time. Tedious knowing banal rubbish.

        • Callipygian

          That’s only one kind of jazz. The rest is great!

          • Lo Bin Sun

            Brilliant riposte. Can I have your permission to borrow it?

          • Callipygian

            Borrow away, Lo Bin Sun!

          • Jambo25

            The trouble is Chet Baker’s dead and Wynton Marsalis too dear.

      • Sean Grainger

        Yes good thought. Preferably Sunday lunchtime: the much lamented New Merlin’s Cave undoubtedly the best; Bull at Barnes yes but bit tired; Again lamented The Cherry Tree in Leeds; The Lion Basford Nottingham; possibly best of the lot — foreigners though — was again the lamented Dr Jazz in the Altstadt Düsseldorf. There is great Sunday evening place in Torquay whose details Brian Chammings will supply on demand.

    • Fraser Bailey

      I can never understand why pubs put large signs proclaiming ‘Live Music’ outside. It’s guaranteed to make me walk on by. But I suppose I have reached the age when if I want live music I’ll go home and play the piano or the guitar.

      • porcelaincheekbones

        It’s so the hipsters don’t have to feel bad about not talking to each other and staring at their phones.

      • Jambo25

        If they have a large back room where the musos can go and they put on folk music, it is allowed. Or if it is known as a muso bar, like Sandy Bell’s in Edinburgh.

    • Jambo25

      No effing theatre. See my other posting.

  • FrankS2

    Sixty years ago? Orwell was long dead by that time. But his imaginary Moon Under Water gave its name to a pub – opened by Wetherspoons.

  • Barry & Yvonne St-Hargreaves

    The best pubs either do no food or put the restaurant elsewhere.
    The best pubs exclude under 14s from the bar.
    The best pubs allow plenty of standing room near the bar itself.
    I think TV is a definite no too.

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  • Freddythreepwood

    A great pub has great beer. There is a pub in Green Street, Bath, called ‘The Old Green Tree’.

    • Barry & Yvonne St-Hargreaves

      Used to be run by Nick Luke and his wife. They had the Cornubia in a Bristol before it became the HQ of the BNP.

  • John P

    I was surprised to see no mention of gambling machines, usually both lurid and noisy. As a hardened smoker, some effort at shelter is always welcome, too.

    • Barry & Yvonne St-Hargreaves

      Smoking should be banned. Disgusting habit.

  • Dogsnob

    My favourite pub is now an Islamic Community Centre. Your’s next.

  • grimm

    What can be more irritating than someone setting out in a series of bullet points what the perfect pub should be.

    Anyway, my list of preferences would put most of these places out of business. These would include:
    No Beer’n’Farts yobs (the sort who think discussion of football transfer deals is an intellectual achievement).
    No loud music and no Karaoke EVER
    No standup open mike comedy nights
    No dopey yoof making loud whooping noises to show how bursting with life they are
    No boring old “character” bar flies searching for people to inflict their wit and wisdom on
    No large parties of insufferable “media creatives” taking over half the pub and exuding raucous smugness in all directions
    No Hen parties
    No Stag parties
    No pub crawling birthday parties
    No kids (especially if they need to be publicly breast fed)
    No dogs
    Strippagrams and their like to be barred along with anyone in fancy dress – especially men dressed in ridiculous women’s clothes

    • Frank Marker

      Can I also add to your spot on list.
      No aggressive tosspots who elbow their way to bar and cause people to spill their pints.

    • Lo Bin Sun

      Dart boards?

    • SchtenGraby

      So just people like you then grimm?

    • Gordon

      Any pub that banned all of these would go bankrupt these days.

  • Moe Blotz

    You residents of the Sceptred Isle are fortunate that youse can have such a discussion about pubs. Here in the colonies, the pub is nonexistent. Sure, we have taverns, bars, and restaurants with bars, but none of them serve real ale. Almost every tap is connected to some sort of fizzy beverage that may taste like beer, but assaults your palate as if a thousand pins were pricking it. An ex-Pat Yorkshireman opened the first pub brewery in New Jersey and serves the only credible pint of real ale within driving distance of my humble abode, but still keeps a CO² blanket in the cask to prevent spoilage. Every bar manager seems to think that the punters must be entertained with piped-in music or televisions displaying some sporting event. Rare is the establishment where you can sit and have a conversation in a normal speaking voice. Other than The Ship Inn I have to go to Canada to do that.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “Here in the colonies, the pub is nonexistent.”
      Essentially the same here in Japan. I was asking one bar owner where he bought his bottles of whisky, thinking I might latch on to a better price. Turned out I was getting it at a slightly better price than the bar. The bar mark-up was so high that they didn’t bother to collect, delivery being more important than getting the lowest price.
      Convinced me that doing your drinking at home was the only logical policy.
      Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • Jambo25

      There were a few bars in Hartford Conn that served decent beer as far back as the 60s. I can remember getting a really good pint of Bass in one. My dad’s favourite English beer. Is it still brewed as I haven’t seen it on sale for years?

      • Moe Blotz

        InBev owns Bass and has not buggered the draught version sold in the UK, although the alcohol content is lower today than before Bass was absorbed by the conglomerate. Bottled Bass sold in the USA is crap, brewed to a generic recipe that InBev fills bottles with and slaps on different labels. Bottled Bass tastes the same as Goose Island and neither tastes like the original.

        • Jambo25

          I don’t live in the states. I live in Edinburgh, Scotland so I was wondering if Bass was still brewed and sold in the UK. I used to visit bars in Hartford and the Boston area when I went to see my family in the states. The main bar I used to go to in Hartford was a ‘Rugby’ bar as there were a few teams in the Conn/Mass area. It was called Murphy’s I think and did decent Bass, Guinness and McEwan’s 80 when it was still worth drinking. The bars in Boston were often Guinness wastelands and the ones that sold decent beer often were also havens for Boston Irish IRA fanciers who got quite sniffy if you told them where to stick their white collecting cans.

          • Moe Blotz

            Guinness is a mere shadow of its former self as well. The IRA showed up at the Spectrum in Philadelphia when the Black watch played there in 1994. They dinna’ get many donations there, either.

          • Jambo25

            I’ve always looked on Guinness as an elaborate Irish joke. I like stout but Guinness never did it for me. I preferred Courage Imperial Russian and various other English and Scottish stouts. There are some very good small batch American beers that I’ve had over here. Aren’t they widely available in the USA.

          • Moe Blotz

            For those of us who have been blessed with the experience of tasting the finer real ales served in the UK, locating a reasonable facsimile at home in the USA is nearly impossible. Two row barley does not grow very well over here and Robin Appel, owner of the Maris Otter strain, refuses to allow any of his seed to reach these shores. Small batch brewers are too focused on price and six row is readily available. Ok for lager, but not real ale. The trend now is to brew IPA that tastes of grapefruit and the popular hop is Citra. American beer fanciers have been fooled into thinking plenty of hops and high alcohol constitute an IPA. If you put a pint of Deuchars on the bar, a Yank would think it “too heavy”. Same goes for 80′- or 90′-.

          • Jambo25

            I must admit most of the decent American beers I have drunk have been IPAs. I don’t think American lagers stack up against the better German or Czech ones.

          • Moe Blotz

            One American brewed lager meets the Rheinheitsgebot: Sam Adams Boston Lager. Fruity beers have a following, but brewers should not be trying to redefine the IPA by using that name on something that is not.

          • Jambo25

            In Germany they used to put crushed pineapple or slices of lemon or orange into Weissen in Summer. In the age of Radler that’s no longer really seen. In Scotland we used to have lager and lime ‘for the ladies’.

          • Moe Blotz

            Lager with a slice of lime was introduced to the world from Mexico, where the bars served teeth chattering lager with a wedge stuffed into the neck. Corona started the trend back in the USA circa 1970s along with Cinco de Mayo. Give me a bridie and a Belhaven, thank you very much.

          • Jambo25

            It was drunk in Scotland from at least the 1950s. Tennants or imported Tuborg or Carlsberg and a splash of Rose’s Lime Juice.

          • Moe Blotz

            Gag me.

          • Moe Blotz

            Shandy without the fizz.

          • Jambo25

            Pretty much. Not all that bad on a hot Summer’s day. A bit like German Radler.

  • davidshort10

    No food. Allow dogs in. No TV, even for sport. No children.

  • Mark

    Two bars, one a saloon bar for the couples, wine drinkers, people looking for a meal and those who are intolerant of men.

    The second a public bar full of boozers, smokers, darts and card players and ribaldry, with an easy to use swing door for those who need to resolve matters arising outside.

    And a lock in at closing time.

    Ah, those were the days.

    • Jambo25

      No snug?

  • Gordon

    Depending on the clientele it wants to attract, a decent pub would have free wifi Plenty of people “work from home” these days and would find it useful.

  • DavidL

    Strange that nobody mentions beer. Good beer, well kept. It’s amazing how many pubs can’t get that right. And of course many pubs don’t bother to serve a single draught ale. Imagine a French bar which elected not to sell wine.

  • CouchSlob

    Great article, agree with almost all of these. I would however replace “staff who know who’s next” with “customers who mind their fucking place”.

    Pity the bar staff, they can be very busy – blame the oaf who lacks the good manners to wait his turn.

  • Jambo25

    In the part of London where Orwell actually wrote his famous essay the main enemy of decent pubs turned out to be the trendoid Middle Class. The same trendoid Middle Class who moved into the area when I lived there from the mid 60s to the early 70s and got lots of public money from grants to tart up nice houses in Canonbury while working class families still had to use outside lavs in parts of the borough. The same trendoid Middle Class who patronise the over priced and generally mediocre coffee shops and restaurants down Upper Street and Camden Passage.
    It was this lot who got rid of a couple (at least) of the better pubs in the area. The best/worst example was The King’s Head. A great, old fashioned boozer in the 60s. Good beer, great steak sandwiches, regular ‘lockins’ at the weekend and a cracking Irish ceilidh band with a phenomenally good fiddler. In the early 70s it was turned into ‘a theatre pub darling: moi moi’. Then there was The Hen and Chickens at Highbury Corner (St Paul/s Road to be precise.) . It was a largely black guys’ boozer when I lived there. A couple of black pals had dads and uncles who were regulars. Guinness, Red Stripe, decent rum and speed dominoes were the order of the day. I was down in London, with time on my hands some years ago and thought I’d do a tour of the old area to see what it was like and went to have a pint in the Hen and Chickens. Another blasted ‘theatre pub darling: moi moi’. What makes The Hen and Chickens special is that it was Orwell’s local. It was this pub he based ‘The Moon Under Water’ on and apparently started writing 1984 there.
    Another victory in the onward march of metropolitan, trendoid Middle Class, brain dead idiocy.

  • Hamish Torrie

    Moon under Water was written in 1946 – Orwell died in 1950 – so impossible to have a 60th anniversary in 2016 ….maybe a 70th?!