After many years of leading tours of European battlefields I decided to add another string to my bow & took the course at St. William’s College to qualify as a professional guide at York Minster.
I have devoted a lifetime to military history, a sixty year course if you will, so trying to become an expert on a building where the site has two thousand years of history & the building alone nearly one thousand was a tall order. Passing the course exam was just the beginning. I make no claim to being an expert, it would be presumptuous, I class myself as an educated layman at best.
However I have got much pleasure from showing such a magnificent building to people from all over the world. Usually my guests want to visit a real English pub post tour, particularly Americans. I do claim expertise on English pubs & the ale served therein.
My first memory of that unique institution, the pub, was in London back in the early sixties. I was too young to go in. Those far off days were pretty hostile to females & children in pubs. No bad thing in my view but each to their own. The pub that enchanted me had brown smoked glass windows, the day was hot so the door was open. The smell of ale & pipe smoke drifted out along with the subdued buzz of conversation. I was desperate to find out first hand what delights a pub could offer. My father & grandfather would go to The Mitre at Greenwich park every Sunday lunch time before roast beef & Yorkshire pud. I was allowed to join them at seventeen, still a year shy of the allowed age but no matter. I was not disappointed. It was the beginning of a life long love affair with public houses.
What then makes the English pub so special? (Incidentally I love Welsh pubs but my expertise does not run so deep & there are differences).
I have travelled the world, there is no continent I have not been & usually not as a tourist, so I have visited many bars in good company but they are not the same. What then makes the pub unique, literally globally?
I believe the most important aspect by far is social rank is left at the door. In the pub everyone is equal. Surgeons, barristers, brickies, joiners, mechanics, accountants, airline pilots. Usually only Christian names, sometimes not even those. Everyone’s opinion is equally valid on any subject save where one customer has professional expertise, the breadth of expertise in the English hostelry is extraordinary. Whatever the query someone will know the answer, recipes, horticulture, tree surgery, quack remedies, cricketing, folklore, football, the list is endless. If I have any kind of problem I ask at the pub. If the answer isn’t there someone will know a man who knows a man.
This is not universal, a French bar will likely have customers address each other Monsieur le Professeur, Docteur or whatever profession they pursue. In an American bar your status is often based on how much money you make. All these things break the golden English pub rules of social discretion.
In a good pub the landlord or landlady will always be there, they will know their regulars, the relationship is based on mutual respect. Special seats or spaces are acknowledged, a good pub has an eco balance all of its own, most decent pubs welcome well behaved dogs which remarkably pick very quickly on the rules of the house.
The pulse of the nation can be felt in the ‘local’. There will be a running theme of common sense, pragmatism & practicality. Politicians hate pubs, they only visit them at election times to pretend to enjoy a pint. Politicians are wine drinkers almost to a man. They hate pubs where there is a free exchange of ideas across the social classes, which is why taxation & regulation policies are designed to close them down in large numbers. The State wants us to watch carefully controlled TV & stick to buying cheaper alcohol from their sponsors the big supermarkets.
My local, well I admit to two, serves very high quality real ale & being in the heart of rural East Yorkshire enjoys a brand of humour so politically incorrect it makes me look like a Guardian reading snowflake.
I have worked abroad over the years in various parts of the world, not for too long because I cannot live without real ale in a real pub. I have many young English friends who have little choice but to work abroad to further their professional careers, they all unhesitatingly bemoan the loss of access to a pub & the dry wicked humour that goes with them in whichever county they might be.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file