Everyone knows that many people native to this wind blown, rain sodden, brass monkey scaring, pastoral idyll known as Britain……like to drink. We don’t have to look very far (outside the window is enough) or ponder for very long (about a minute) to think of reasons why. Until the advent of double glazing, central heating and an offering of comestibles that goes beyond worm infested earth encrusted root vegetables, nettle leaves infused by fox piss, and a few grains of limp oats, life was often ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ due in part to the relentless rain, wind and cold.
Winter is no better.
Even the aristocracy in medieval times felt the cold and resorted to throwing a few serfs onto the fire when the logs ran out. For all their wealth, they often lacked spices to, er, ‘spice up’ their dinners. They could not even dream of a decent tikka masala because India had not been invented. So for serf and lord alike, booze got them them through the day in an attempt just to survive until the dawn while living on an island that was trying to kill them. Winter of course was especially harsh. During the long dark months, alongside their baby making and God bothering, a piss up was not only a relief from the cold, it was a necessity.
Ever since the Romans turned up and brought a cheeky little Chianti with them, the natives of this fair isle had developed their taste for the distilled grape and grain. Mind, the Celts were no slouches when it came to a piss up. Archeologists have found flagons, cups, banqueting vessels, cauldrons, basins, plates, bowls and ‘drinking horns’ – the latter does not refer to the male tumescent state brought on by a few pints of Spingo, but to drinking vessels fashioned out of bits of animal. At festival time (every weekend) before you could say ‘where’s me woad?’, frothy flagons of ale helped to slake thirsty throats to help them ignore the pain from the the frost forming on exposed bits of blue painted genital. Crowds would gather round winter fires, raucously sing songs to the Gods, stuffing their faces with roasted pig all the while slapping the arses of passing serving wenches.
The men were no better.
This was the precursor to the pub. A fire pit, gallons of ale and a cheeky ‘spit roast’ in the fading light of the sun, while singing and attending to a crispy fat dripping hog staked out over the logs. If they were to have a sign outside, it might say something like ‘The Hog and Ale’ or ‘The Flagon and Fettle’ or ‘The Huge Ring of Stones’. There would of course be no references to Royalty (sweating or otherwise) or pizzas. Princes of Wales and York had yet to make an appearance.
Some historians of culture have suggested that not much has changed over two millenia since the Romans left, and while remnants of the Celts can only be found in far flung fringes of these islands, they passed down their genes through the generations so that modern day enthusiasts are directly linked to their ancestors. It is a scientific fact that genes can be altered by the environment, both physical and social. This process is called epigenetics. If you have the Celtic drinking gene, you are predisposed to get shit faced when the sun rises, and when it sets, and at equinox, and at solstices. The moon phases affects you in a similar way. So the next time you find yourself face down in a stranger’s cleavage, while holding up your kebab so that you don’t drop it into the canal, all the while trying to sing D:Ream’s ‘Things can only get better’ (but deep down you know they won’t), you can blame the Celts. Or the Romans, the Anglo Saxons, the Danes, Normans, the Jews, the Hugeunots, the Irish, Cornish, Picts, Scots and Welsh. They all loved a piss up.
The core components of a drinking session did not change for 2000 years or so. All you needed was ale or strong liquor, a warm fire, songs and a certain licence to misbehave as the sun sets. Sex was integral to the whole process, in fact it was the only time sex took place. Alcohol was the necessery ingredient to facilitate coupling. Don’t forget this was a time without bidets and aloe vera skin softener, no shampoo or shavers and certainly no hot running water. Winter clothes were put on after the midsummer wash by the river and kept on until the spring equinox. No one smelled any worse than anyone else but untrimmed bushes could hide a ‘Billinsgate’s Worth’ braved only by the desperate when sober. The very worse aromas from fetid foreskins would be kept well inside the layers of animal skins that made up their garments. The ‘underwear’ would be smothering a multiplicity of oderous sins, and so it takes being really pissed to endure the instant release of a few month’s worth of collected body emissions lurking among the furs. Remember also that not only was personal hygiene sorely lacking, so too were trips to the dental hygienist. Kissing back then was akin to sticking your tongue into a dog’s ringpiece.
There was an eclectic turn to the piss up when folk from the colonies joined in the partying. They added much need rainbow colour and magic to the proceedings as well as funny smelling plants. Many pubs all over our cities became havens of hedonism that would make a Roman orgy look like play time at kindergarden. New forms of music blossomed and ‘new’ chemicals in the 1980s and 1990s were discovered so that the necessary relationship between sex and alcohol was leavened by new forms of genital bonding by proxy via a chemical brother, or sister, offering a cheeky half or the soon to be ubiquitous double drop. Alcohol for a short while fell out of favour to the yoof, and pubs were left to the remnants of the boomer generation.
Back in the 19th century, the Temperance movement attempted to wean us all off the demon drink, with a modicum of success it has to be said. Their first argument was that drink was being used by the bosses to keep the workforce docile. Not too much drink so that they cannot work, but just enough to prevent them from banding together and cutting the throats of the running dogs of capitalism. Pubs were therefore part of what Louis Althusser later called the ‘repressive state apparatus’ – put to use to keep the mass of workers under control, a bit like marriage and a mortgage does today. So when Red Fred the union rep suggested storming the managers office, his mates would suggest having a pint first. And we all know where that first pint takes us. Let’s just say it leads to not so much as storming the walls of the Bastille as taking a piss against them before giving up and going for a kebab.
Then there was the ‘destruction to family life’ argument which suggested that the cost of drink was taking the food out of children’s mouths. Every penny spent on a Guiness means a penny cannot be spent on a potato to be fed to Tiny Tim. You can’t fault the logic. Pubs are now forms of child abuse, except child abuse did not exist back then. How was the Empire going to be built without child labour to supplement indentured servitude? After all, it was Jesus who said ‘suffer the little children’ so it can’t be bad can it? Anyway, this call to the moral conscience of the working class was doomed to failure simply because your average miner, ship builder and agricultural labourer did not give a shit. The condensation running down the outside of a pint would no more remind them of a starving child’s tears than Jesus Christ Almighty appearing in person would remind them that they were wretched sinners doomed to spend the rest of their eternal lives being poked up the arse by one of satan’s demons.
Then, when that failed, there was an appeal to health. But what on earth made them think that telling folk booze was bad for you would work when pictures of starving children and battered wives wouldn’t? If you worked down the pit and you saw your 40th birthday, you were lucky. The working class died young. Heart attacks, strokes and liver disease were, for most, so far in the future as to render them irrelevant. Pubs were now a menace to Public Health. Mind, insanitary housing, appalling working conditions, a diet based on a knobbly potato and some cabbage if you were lucky, one shithouse per street, the pox, plague and pneumonia stalking the neighbourhood, and you want us to worry about a pint of porter and the odd gin? The argument never washed then and it still doesn’t. We know for certain the heath risks booze entails but millions in pubs and bars up and down the Kingdom could not give any fewer (or is that less?) fucks.
Suffice to say, you Temperance if you want to…the rest of us are going to get royally shitfaced at every opportune moment.
The latest incarnation of the pub is the gastro pub. In other words, a restaurant. They look like pubs from the outside but usually a bit cleaner with a few more BMWs and Mercedes in the car park, if you are in Oxfordshire, or a Renault clio or your Dad’s work van if you are in Redruth. When you walk in they look like a pub but no one is at the bar. You can’t really sit and engage mine host with stories about how your boss is a wanker, the new car you’ve just bought and how Tenerife is nice this time of year. You can confirm that you’ve booked a table and order the first round, but you’d better get your arse to your table. You will be given a menu that has items on it that amount to being common fare, but ponced up in description. Pork belly is not just pork belly. It is Roasted Manuka Honey Glazed Buttercup Farm Pork served with a twizzle of home grown swede and five peas hand picked in Norfolk. The ‘chips’ look like a game of Jenga. ‘Buttercup Farm’ is in fact a huge grey shed the size of Wembley stadium on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Swindon which mechanically slaughters 1,000 pigs per week importing them from Belgium (before Brexit).
They don’t serve pork scratchings, which to my mind is one of the defining fetarures of a pub. They may not even serve beer. Just an array of fancy bottles from Japan, Belgium and the Ukraine (before Putin). You can buy wine of course, that eternal favourite of your average scaffolder. Swearing is not allowed, which is a bit of cunt really, nor are ribald stories. So, Not really a pub then.
Right. I’m off for a pint.