A Simple Desultory Philippic on the Public House
It’s hard to define what’s so great about the great British pub. Is it the warm welcome? The long tradition of comfy, informal hospitality? The good company, conversation and sense of community? Or maybe it’s just the alcohol. Some pubs are pretty grim, let’s be frank. There are few things more depressing than the stark, cynical city boozer with its chilling anonymity; or the dilapidated drinking den, populated by three, gouty, long-faced locals, one of whom looks like he would happily murder you (if he wasn’t so drunk, depressed and, indeed, gouty)… But when a British pub gets it right, there’s really nowhere else like it.
Five years ago, the evening reception for our wedding was at our favourite haunt, The Dolphin. Its warmth, friendliness, good beer, great food, quirky décor, candle-lit tables, books and board-games* make it a place of cosy retreat as well as a happy meeting place, and they did us proud on our wedding day: a glorious evening barbecue in the garden followed by a long summer night of champagne and what might be loosely described as ‘dancing’ with our loved ones and oldest friends. When we lived in Canterbury we were ‘down The Dolphin’ nearly every week, cheerfully losing the pub quiz with our pals. In the summer we drank Pimms or Kentish ales in the garden, and in the winter we would sit chatting by the blazing log-burner, drinking mulled wine and listening to the genius piano-playing of another friend, Luke Smith. The familiar old ‘Cheers’ theme song could indeed be making quite a profound point: is a really good drinking establishment a place where “everybody knows your name”?
This is highly unlikely to be the case in my new home. Bars out here do not really have regular clientele and, even if they did, the staff would be unlikely to notice. The few exceptions include the happy haven that is the Cactus Cantina in Chelsea Plaza (formerly Rydges), and older, established drinking holes like The Ambassador’s George & Dragon in Bur Dubai – both of which have a gaggle of loyal punters on first name terms with the friendly staff. The doorman at the Ambassador’s is cheeky and charismatic. He also happens to be a dwarf. As he poses for photographs with tourists in the hotel lobby, one hopes he wasn’t just employed for this politically incorrect novelty factor. Little hope of that, I’m afraid. Ahem.
Pubs here are never stand-alone establishments; due to alcohol-licensing laws they are always tucked away somewhere within the cool, marbled depths of a swanky hotel. This, and an interior design bordering on parody, makes many of them feel rather phony. Less like a good, honest pint-and-pickles emporium and more like a tacky reconstruction of a British pub, complete with dark-wood furniture, threadbare carpets, nicotine-stained black and white photographs and tarnished horse brasses. And let’s not mention the suspiciously sticky, leatherette banquette. In some of the pubs out here one could almost be part of an exhibit in an obscure theme park or museum, the plaque on the glass reading Traditional 20th Century British drinking place; ‘pub’ (public house); from Old Latin poplicus: pertaining to the people. One half expects to see a desiccated mannequin with wonky eyes and a bad wig slumped awkwardly over a plastic pint glass and a dirty ashtray. Ah, now. The ashtrays… That’s what’s really weird about the pubs out here: they smell more like British pubs than British pubs do…
It’s not that I liked leaving a pub at the end of an evening with my eyes stinging and my clothes and hair stinking of cigarette smoke – as a non-smoker, the suffocating fug was sometimes unbearable – but the strange odour that has replaced the smell of smoke in British pubs is not necessarily much better. The dusty, residual smell of smoke, accompanied by the hoppy nose of good ale and the tang of vinegar is surely the definitive British pub smell, and has the benefit of disguising many other, less pleasant, odours. After the 2007 smoking ban in the UK it took a little while for the tarry miasma to clear, but it wasn’t long before the whole bouquet of the boozer had changed… Now, even in the more reputable establishments, one can’t help but notice the fruity notes of fermenting drip trays, fried-food and lingering disinfectant, complemented perhaps by the subtle whiff of a distant gentlemen’s urinal. Out here, these smells still remain happily masked by the heady haze of cheap cigarettes (and I mean cheap – even after prices were doubled last summer – a packet of Marlboro will still only cost you about £2.50 in the Middle East as opposed to an average of £7.60 in the UK… Now there’s a reason to emigrate, dear nicotine-addicted readers).
So, the smoky smell – that’s something ‘authentic’ about pubs here. But I’m afraid that’s probably about it. The range of beers on offer often leaves much to be desired and that, besides a relaxing atmosphere, is surely one of the most important features of a good pub. After my first full year of exile the one thing I was really longing for was a decent glass of beer. Most pubs, bars and restaurants here offer the same predictable selection of pallid, fizzy lagers – the usual, criminally flavourless suspects. After several months of red-tape-wrangling to get our coveted alcohol licence, my husband was ecstatic (literally ecstatic) when we visited our local off-licence to discover that they had recently received a shipment of ‘proper beer’ (it has often been said that he is a ‘bitter’ man – boom, boom…). We left laden down with bottles of Fuller’s Discovery and London Pride, and Shepherd Neame’s splendid Kentish ale, Bishop’s Finger. But it all comes at a price. A bottle of Spitfire will cost you about eight quid in some of the classier restaurants here (now there’s a reason not to emigrate, dear CAMRA-subscribed readers).
Speaking of the Campaign for Real Ale… One of my many happy childhood memories is sitting with my two brothers at a picnic table in the little leafy yard outside a Kentish free house called The Hog and Donkey. It felt like it was in the middle of absolutely nowhere, a remote public house surrounded by flat marsh land. There was hardly any room for Dad to park the Triumph due to the eccentric owner’s vast collection of vintage cars. I remember the twinkling theatrical presence of the landlord, his weird and wonderful anecdotes and his weirder and wonderfuller facial hair; the dark, grown-up secret of the pub interior: beer in barrels, the smell of yeast and hops, pipe-smoke, pickled eggs and dry-roasted peanuts. Pubs like this are of course a dying breed and, sadly, it closed in 2008. In my Blog Roll I’ve put a couple of links to sites on which The Hog and Donkey’s regulars mourn this significant loss. If you have a moment, it’s well worth reading about the legendary establishment and Dennis, its extraordinary landlord.
That sense of ownership is very important. There is a vast difference between the ruddy-faced ebullience of a British pub landlord and the unblinking, vacant professionalism of the average bar tender over here. There are no beverage recommendations, no bad jokes, no light-hearted chat – no… banter. On asking a barman if the plural of Guinness ought to be Guinni, one is likely to be met with a terrifyingly inscrutable, “Yes, Sir.” Trust me. Terrifying. Particularly being called Sir when you are a lady.
So what conclusions can we draw? (Other than the fact that a humourless lager-drinking chain smoker might feel very much at home in this part of the world) I suppose what really defines a great pub is its unique character – it could never be just an imported quick-assembly stereotype of oak-panelling and rusty railway signage or, God forbid, a Wetherspoons. Really good pubs can’t be built (are there any really great pubs in purpose built or modern buildings?). They have to evolve, shaped lovingly by their history, their loyal customers and the landlord’s idiosyncrasies. All the oil money in the world can’t buy authenticity.
*My favourite board game at The Dolphin is ‘Subjective Guess Who’. This is played in much the same way as standard ‘Guess Who’ (the one with the little flip-up board of cartoony characters) except rather than asking the usual questions such as, “Is your character wearing a hat?”, one may only ask subjective questions, such as, “Does your character look like they might have been a Cold War spy?” or, “Might your character believe they were once abducted by aliens?” or, “Does your character look like they have suffered from haemorrhoids?” or, “Could your character have played a minor role in a 1980s BBC sitcom?” It is deeply pleasing on the rare occasion that this questioning results in the correct identification of the mystery character (the shifty looking lady in glasses and a beret, more often than not).