Moon Under Water Essay By Helen
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EVERY nation needs a national myth, and Britain might seem to need more than most. A modern myth has it as a country full of overworked wage-slaves. Newspapers write of a “long-hours culture”, and point out that the British working week is significantly longer than the European average.
Yet walking through the afternoon streets of St James, on my way back from Friday lunch, it is hard to see much evidence of that. A legion of investment bankers and private-equity types crowd the streets, as indistinguishable from one to the next, in their open-necked shirts and luxuriantly coifed hair, as their predecessors were in their umbrellas and bowler hats. They are the overspill from London's pubs, which have been filling up since midday. Now it seems as if half the city is outside, pint-glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, chatting up a co-worker or arguing about football. London must be the only city in the world where the journalists work harder than the bankers.
Pubs are Britain's national pastime. Three-quarters of the population indulge and a third consider themselves regulars, far higher proportions than are claimed by any of the country's religions—football included. And they are unique to the British Isles. The Germans have beer-halls, the French have cafes and most other societies have bars, but only in Britain and Ireland can you find pubs. There are procedural differences (there is no table service at pubs, something that causes endless confusion for tourists) as well as different pastimes once you arrive (it is hard to imagine sophisticates in a Parisian bar playing darts or Scrabble). But what really sets a public house apart from its foreign counterparts is the conceit that it is not a place of business, but a part of a person's home that is open to anyone.
In 1946, George Orwell, perhaps the 20th century's best chronicler of English culture, wrote an essay describing the ideal pub, which he named the Moon Under Water, and the qualities that made it special. Many of these remain recognisable to modern readers: the architecture, he said, was uncompromisingly Victorian, infused with the “comfortable ugliness” of the 19th century. It was busy, but not noisy, with a merry atmosphere but not a drunken one. There was a fireplace for the winter and a beer garden for the summer; the barmaids were friendly and most of the clientele were regulars.
Not everything would be so familiar, were Orwell to visit a pub today. There was no dinner served at the Moon Under Water. Today, virtually every pub in the land advertises “traditional pub food”, and an evening trip to the pub for a meal has become a classic family evening out—a “tradition” no more than a decade or two old. The Moon was unusual in that it offered draught stout; if there is a pub in Britain today that doesn't serve Guinness, I have never found it. Orwell reserved a snooty disdain for glasses without handles, preferring to drink his beer from pewter mugs. One can only imagine his reaction to the plastic cups that are becoming common in town-centre pubs now.
Still, most modern pubs try to replicate Orwell's formula, knowingly or not, some more successfully than others. One example of what not to do can be found at my local, a mid-sized pub which shall remain nameless, in a nondescript part of north London. It is owned by J.D. Wetherspoon, a large firm that has built its success on following Orwell's criteria (one of its flagship pubs is even called the Moon Under Water, though Orwell's essay reveals that the pub it describes did not actually exist).
First impressions are good. The dark, wood-panelled walls look suitably Victorian, and there is a nice mix of tables and booths. A pair of high-backed red leather armchairs, seemingly salvaged from the Reform club from the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, occupy pride of place in front of the fire. The walls in one corner are covered with bookshelves, suggesting the kind of place where one can while away a few hours reading quietly.
As soon as you sit down, those good impressions start to go sour. The tables are sticky with half-dried beer. There is a wide range of beers to choose from, but often it tastes as if the pipes have not been cleaned for weeks. The food is cheap because it comes pre-made in plastic sachets and is reheated in a microwave—that is, assuming the overworked staff can remember your order. Until smoking was banned from pubs in 2007, the front half of this Wetherspoonerism stank of cigarettes while the back half was suffused with a smell from the toilets. After three disappointing trips I swore never to return, a promise that I break now only in the interests of journalistic inquiry. Sadly, the tables are as sticky as ever and, while the cigarette smoke has gone, that has only allowed the toilets' odour to pervade the entire place.
OFF to St Albans, a mid-sized town in Hertfordshire. In the morning my girlfriend and I visit a nearby zoo. Once back in town, an unspoken understanding guides us toward St Albans Cathedral.
On the edge of the grounds, next to a large park, stands Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. Never mind the cutesy name; according to the Guinness Book of Records, this is England's oldest pub (though at least three other pubs claim that title). Parts of the structure date from the 11th century, and the foundations are thought to be 200 years older still. A sign at the door informs visitors that it hosted Oliver Cromwell for a night during the English Civil War. Believe it or not, I am not here in search of journalistic colour—my girlfriend is lucky enough to have it as her local.
The interior is cool and dark. Heavy wooden beams support a low ceiling, and the main bar is dominated by a massive fireplace (complete with an original bread-oven). I order a pint of Jack O'Legs, a locally brewed beer named after a Hertfordshire folk-hero who is a southern version of Robin Hood—a master archer who robbed from the rich to give to the poor.
Such small breweries are enjoying a revival, thanks largely to the Campaign for Real Ale, the largest single-issue consumer group in the country. Ale is the traditional folk drink of the British, and still has a lingering association with robust yeomen and rural wholesomeness.
After an afternoon spent walking, it is easy to see why. There are few things more pleasant than a cool pint on a warm summer day. (Real ale is kept cool in cellars, not served warm, as foreigners tend to think; but neither is it artificially chilled, like lager.)
This sort of contentment is the more pleasant side of Britain's decidedly two-faced relationship with alcohol, which was best depicted by William Hogarth, an 18th-century artist and satirist. Today Hogarth is remembered mostly for “Gin Lane”, a vision of an alcoholic hell. Drawn at the height of the “gin craze”, the print depicts the demon drink's effects on society—suicide, madness and, most memorably, a sozzled prostitute dropping her baby to its death.
But with a modern panic about booze in full swing, few people remember that the picture is one of a pair. Its counterpart, “Beer Street”, depicts a new Jerusalem, full of jolly, prosperous smallholders enjoying a well-earned pint of “small” (ie, weak) beer at the end of a hard day's work. “Beer, happy produce of our Isle / Labour and Art upheld by Thee / Genius of Health, thy grateful Taste / Can sinewy Strength impart,” runs the patriotic ditty that accompanies the picture. An afternoon at the Fighting Cocks feels much more Beer Street than Gin Lane.
Later that night, in St Albans' town centre, the dark side begins to emerge. Families and stallholders disappear, replaced by groups of young drinkers (and the occasional bunch of middle-aged ones, too). By 9pm the atmosphere is pleasantly boisterous; but two hours later, now that darkness has fallen, the currents of aggression that ran just beneath the surface have become more pronounced. Most people are only out for a good time, but the number of fights, screaming, tears and paralytic drunks lying in doorways, as well as the amount of vomit on the pavements, rises steadily as the night wears on.
Almost every town in Britain is like this on the weekend. Perhaps counterintuitively, things tend to be worse in smaller towns. My girlfriend used to live in the centre of Godalming, a wealthy town in the heart of Surrey's stockbroker belt. But her flat was right above the high street, and on Fridays and Saturdays sleep was impossible before 3am. One morning we awoke to a fireman at the front door, telling us that her car had been turned over in the night.
Although most types of crime have fallen in the past years, violent crime has not. The government blames the proliferation of cheap alcohol. Earlier this week it warned pubs and nightclubs that it would legislate to ban promotions such as happy hour if the industry didn't do so itself.
It would be nice to think that we could get rid of Gin Lane and keep Beer Street, but history isn't encouraging. Two thousand years ago, Britain's Roman occupiers (who founded a major settlement near St Albans) wrote letters home complaining about the rowdy drunkenness of the natives. Such ancient cultural practices tend to be immune to the fussing of mere governments.
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I AM standing outside the Golden Lion, a tiny pub squeezed in among the commercial buildings across the road from The Economist's head offices. It's one of the smallest watering holes I've seen: the bar takes up over half the space on the ground floor. Only the bar at my hall of residence at Southampton University was smaller, and that was a converted bedroom that claimed the dubious distinction of being the smallest university bar in Britain. Most of the Golden Lion's clientele stand outside, spilling out onto the road or onto a ramp that leads to an underground car-park next door.
Outdoor drinking is not unusual for a London pub in the summer—high rents mean space is limited, and warm air and late sunsets make being outside quite pleasant. But the habit has spread in the past year, as the government's ban on smoking indoors in public places has taken hold. Drinkers now huddle outside capacious country pubs as well as cramped urban ones, even in the middle of winter, taking hurried drags on their cigarettes before retreating back into the warmth.
Not all drinkers are so hardy. A common fantasy of oppressed British office workers is to give it all up and run a pub somewhere, but a few minutes chatting to a landlord will discourage all but the most incorrigible optimists. They paint a gloomy picture of their industry.
Trade has fallen since the ban, they say, which is just another in a long line of iniquitous changes that are slowly driving pubs to the wall. Statistics back them up. The British Beer and Pub Association reckons 27 close every week, a figure that has risen sharply over the past few years.
There are many villains, including cheap supermarket promotions, the rise of nightclubs, and snazzy electronic entertainment keeping people parked on their sofas instead of a barstool, but the most striking trend is a steady decline in beer consumption. Beer vies with tea as the iconic English beverage, but despite a revival of interest in small, independent brewers, sales have been falling for over a decade. Beer sales in pubs are at their lowest level since the 1930s.
A nation's drinking culture does not easily change, and so experts marshal broad social changes to explain the beer's waning popularity, including the decline in manufacturing (thirsty work, after all), more health-conscious consumers and—to my mind, the most compelling reason of all—the rise of an aspirational society.
Beer, particularly traditional ale, is still seen mostly as a workingman's drink, favoured by solid but unfashionable men who speak with thick regional accents. The usual contrast drawn is with wine, equated in the popular mind with svelte continental sophisticates. Sure enough, as beer sales have fallen wine sales have surged.
Coping strategies vary. Some pubs and brewers have tried to beat the oenophiles at their own game, and in the richer parts of town you can now find expensive and pretentious “beer bars” that offer hundreds of types of beer, breathlessly describing their “nose” and “palate” with all the overwrought flummery that makes professional wine-tasters sound so ridiculous.
Others have diversified into food, spawning gastropubs (essentially restaurants with bars), or into televised sport (copying American-style sports bars) or live music. Yet none of these innovations have halted the decline.
Being rich, diverse and the nation's capital, London might be expected to be at the front of such trends. Yet in bits of the city (including the west end, where The Economist is based) one can still find plenty of old-fashioned pubs, where food is an afterthought (if it is even served), wine is a rarity, gimmicks non-existent and the focus is still on drinking and socialising.
I am aware that I'm engaging in another great English pursuit—complaining that the country is going to the dogs—so I will try to end on a more cheerful thought. I have no way to back this up with anything other than personal experience and anecdotes from friends, but it seems that, while they have been declining at home, British and Irish pubs have sprung up in capital cities all over the world. It would be nice to see pubs exported as a concept, offering a homey, relaxed alternative to the more stylish, high-pressure environment of a bar or nightclub. Drinkers can stand in the gentle evening light with a pint-glass in hand and some good friends for company. To me, pubs seem the most significant contribution that the British have made to the cause of human happiness.
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The Moon Under Water goes under
Updated: 01:40 GMT, 31 July 2008
Whenever I write about the decline and fall of the English pub, I turn to George Orwell's 1946 essay The Moon Under Water, in which he lists the 10 reasons for visiting his favourite pub.
Summarised, these are: 1 A good fire burning. 2 Quiet enough to talk. 3 Pub games only in the public bar. 4 Barmaid knows most customers by name. 5 Besides cigarettes and pipe tobacco, the pub sells stamps and aspirin. 6 It serves bar snacks in the evening, but not dinner. 7 On the other hand, it serves a good solid lunch - cut off the joint, two veg and boiled jam roll. 8 Draught stout on tap. 9 Beer served in glass or pewter tankards. 10 There is a beer garden.
George Orwell lists 10 reasons for visiting his favourite pub in his 1946 essay The Moon Under Water
Yesterday, I had something of a shock when I tried to pay a return visit to Orwell's Moon Under Water for a refreshing pint in the beer garden. The pub has been closed down. The beer garden is now a car park.
I should mention that Orwell's pub has no connection with the JDWetherspoon chain's Moon Under Water pubs, which took his ideal hostelry's name and now strives valiantly to live up to those ideals in a less than ideal world.
George Orwell's Moon Under Water is now a fancy boutique arcade, the landlord having been turfed out when his beer sales fell to half what they were 20 years after Orwell wrote that famous essay. The landlord is now managing a hamburger bar.
As for Orwell's ten conditions for the perfect pub, modest though they are, they have long been in tatters.
A good fire burning? Fat chance. You get central heating winter and summer alike, the temperature turned up high to make you drink more.
Quiet enough to talk? Ho ho. These days the bar staff, screeching to one another over the bam bam bam of Madonna's Material Girl, will never hear your shouts to turn the flaming racket down. As for ordering another drink, lift up your empty glass, point at it and mouth 'When you're ready'.
Pub games only in the public bar? What public bar? And what pub games? You must mean that bank of clanking video machines. Sorry - the bar billiards table was thrown out years ago. Took up too much drinking space. Darts? Sorree - that raises issues with Health 'n' Safety.
Barmaid knows most customers by name? Listen - the barmaid doesn't even know where the corkscrew is kept. She's a temp, like everyone else in the place. Short term. Saves on National Insurance, see?
The pub sells pipe tobacco as well as cigarettes? You're having a laugh, aren't you? And postage stamps too? We'll see. Given that post offices are closing down faster than pubs, there could be a business opp here. Depends on the mark-up.
It serves bar snacks in the evening, but not dinner? Oh, yes? Show us the pub that serves bar snacks in the evening. Can't get the kitchen staff, you know. Unless it's a gastro pub, when it will serve a microwaved dinner at posh hotel prices. Gratuity not included.
But it will serve a good solid lunch - cut off the joint, etc? Hmm. More likely it will be a fussed-up, oversauced lunch from a foreign-sounding menu, dished up by a temperamental youth with ambitions to be the next Marco Pierre White.
Draught stout on tap? Depends on whose tied house you're in.
Beer served in glass or pewter tankards? Sleeve glasses, more like. And wine served in a huge goblet the size of a goldfish bowl, with nowhere to sit while you sip - or, in these conditions, gulp.
There is a beer garden? Oh, yes - and Orwell says it's the pub's best feature, because it allows whole families to go there, with swings and a chute for the children. Somehow I cannot visualise George Orwell enjoying his beer 'to the tune of delighted squeaks from children going down the chute'.
But then he makes a confession. His Moon Under Water does not exist. He made it up. He does not know any pub with that combination of qualities.
And if it didn't exist then, 60 years ago, what chance is there of it existing now?
And from pubs to piers - another threatened species. Thirty-six of Britain's seaside piers have gone over the years - many of them up in smoke - leaving only 55 still standing. Make those figures 37 and 54 respectively if Weston-super-Mare's 104-year-old Grand Pier proves beyond restoration.
I used to live opposite the wreckage of Brighton's West Pier, destroyed by fire in suspicious circumstances five years ago. Even in ruins it was still magnificent - an overgrown Meccano set sticking out of the sea.
The great beauty of piers and what makes them particularly suited to England, is that unless they are a launching pad for the lifeboat, they serve no useful purpose except for the morning constitutional or a spot of fishing.
Seaside piers have many enemies as well as faithful friends. They chunter on about modernising and 'keeping up with the times'.
I suppose they would be happier if their view from the front windows were a seaborne wind farm instead of a silly wedding cake on stilts.
More from Keith Waterhouse for the Daily Mail...
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