Wednesday 20 March 2013

In a hotel bar in Poděbrady

In a hotel bar in Poděbrady, a small town on the River Labe (or Elbe), east of Prague, north of Kutna Hora (a depressed vicar of a town where I found a closed brewery in 2011 as well as a church full of human bones). It is a small hotel bar, slightly smoky, serving just PU, a TV over one wall, ice hockey on, a marionette hangs from the ceiling.The hotel and its bar is next to the river, and the bar has eight men inside, a beer waiter in black and white, CCTV on legs, constantly watching over the drinkers, who has an empty glass, who is due to finish, who is ok for the moment but still drinking quite swiftly. Glasses of Midas-like golden beer topped with thick foam are brought out, the foam as white as the snow that last night dis-robed itself so obligingly on the grass bank I can see outside through the window; the beer bracing in bitterness, seductive in sweetness, resiny, a fine expression of Saaz, a resounding bitterness in the finish. No other beer is sold in this hotel bar. The conversation of the pub people interrupts my daydreams, the yarns and yawns at the end of the working day, and I catch the eye of the waiter as I drain my glass: another one please and for a moment we are the best of friends. 

This is a place past which I walked on my way to see the Labe (or Elbe) flow by, a mighty river it will become, a river that will cut and thrust its way through the Czech lands before taking a name change on the border, and there was this hotel, looking comfortable and casual, offering the sight of people sitting at a table, glittering glasses of beer in their hands, a sense of bustle and consolation somehow being transmitted through the window, interpreted and acted on, in the act of myself walking through the door. And I am so glad I walked through that door, for once inside I found the sounds and sights of pub life that always make me feel happy - for is not happiness possibly the mark of every pleasing pub or bar that impresses? 

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The pub as an eternal round of happiness

The conviviality of my local; the pub where a well of warmth rises up and envelopes one as soon as you enter its doors (it works for me and I'm sure it works for you whever your local is); the pub where you can set your clock as its regulars come creeping from their homes on the dot of six, Shakespeare's reluctant schoolboys become adult; the pub where the 23-year avoidance of Bass was overturned in the time it took to joyfully drink a pint; the pub where a look at the loo where the women come and go is recommended for one and all; the pub where George the ghost occasionally pops a lightbulb. The pub as a place where, as someone said to me at the weekend, 'I feel happy as soon as I go in'.

This Saturday I shall be at Otley's fabulous pub the Bunch of Grapes in Pontypriddl doing a bit of a beer tasting and a pub talk drawing up on my last book Great British Pubs alongside some of my Daily Telegraph pub columns, plus some of my own thoughts on what makes a great pub. It's my attempt to talk about beer and pubs in a more relaxed and informal manner than my usual beer tastings, something that I will be doing a lot more often in the future; it's an experiment perhaps, but I like the idea of change. So if you're in the area, it starts at 5.30 and do come along.

Monday 4 March 2013

English public house

Currently skimming through The English Public House As It Is, by one Ernest Selley, and I came across this passage:

‘This was the worst public house company I met during the whole of my travels. Nothing I saw reminded me so strongly of Hogarth’s pictures. The women were the most degraded I have ever met. They were noisily obscene. One woman illustrated a filthy tale about herself by bodily motions. The tales provoked uproarious laughter. The potman joined in and laughed as heartily as the rest. This conversation could be heart at the bar. I remained for half-an-hour yet no one interfered or called for anyone to desist. One young girl, red-eyed  with drink, repeatedly called upon one of the tale-tellers to “tell the one about the parson”. When at last the request was granted she became hysterical. It was the vilest story I have ever heard. This conversation was shouted rather than spoken. Anyone passing this house could have heard quite distinctly. There were children playing outside the doors. From the brazen way the women behaved, the attitude of the potman, and the way calls were made for this and that filthy story, one could guess that these sort of  ‘carry on’s ’ were not exceptional for this house.’

Sounds rather modern doesn’t it? Actually it was published in 1927 and is an attempt by the author to profile the pub as it was then; it’s rather a negative approach and tut-tuts a lot about the amount of drink people are consuming (nothing has changed there then), but it’s also a fascinating piece of social history about an essential part of our lives, something I don’t think the author gets. And he’s a bit of a spoilsport in not telling the reader the tale about the parson…