I visit a lot of pubs in the line of work (what do you mean, you haven’t read Great British Pubs yet?): old ones, new ones, hip ones, trad ones; ones that serve food, don’t serve food; ones that feature a forest of hand pumps on the bar top, others that stick with one ale and more recently pubs that don’t even serve cask beer, but still major in great beer (I’m looking at you BrewDog).
That’s the beauty of the pub: if you search hard enough you’ll find one to suit your mood. Whatever their virtues (and I always try to visit virtuous pubs) these are all places that feature the diurnal cycle of people passing through their doors — to enjoy a glass of beer, a plate of food, a respite from the day’s cares and above all to talk with other people.
Naturally, with the frequency of my pub visits, I carry an assorted baggage of thoughts on its nature, on its character. I keep trying to see the pub in different ways, re-imagine it almost, try and uncover new approaches in which to describe it.
However, one thing has been bothering me recently, like an itch that won’t go away. It’s whether the passage of all the people through the corridors of pub time leaves some imprint. You see for me, the British pub is a palimpsest — a bricks-and-mortar equivalent of those ancient manuscripts that kept having their main features scrubbed away for reuse. I doubt that the Travelodge will be still here in two centuries, but I’m willing to bet the British pub will. It’s a born survivor and people are the words scratched time and time again on the manuscript.
What about the laughter that filled the bar during a darts night in 1987 or the meet the brewery beano the other week — is there something left during the following day’s lunchtime session? Probably not or maybe it depends on how much was drunk.
Looking a bit further down through the years, what about the people who celebrated VE Day in their local boozer, drank numerous toasts to a departed friend (who they have now joined in the churchyard across the green), wet the head of a baby who is now a grandfather, commiserated with a pal who had lost his wife/job/whatever, but whose hurt began to heal with the first kind words and a pint of Best. Where are they now?
Sure some of them exist in old photos on the wall. The Duke of York in Iddesleigh, Devon (where I suspect Michael Morpurgo heard the tale that would form the basis of War Horse) has a delightful selection of prints from the early 20th century of smiling men taking part in the annual Friendly Society perambulation around the village — there’s a poignancy about the fact that within several years many of these men would be marching off to war and never return. In another Devon pub on the north coast, the Fox & Goose, Parracombe, there’s a glorious black and white photo of an elderly local, eyes agleam, a wide smile on his face, as he takes a swig from his glass. Sometimes that is all we have left of the people who packed the pub down through the ages.
Then there are ghosts. Spirits of the sort that don’t fit into the glass are a fact of licensed life. I’ve been to several pubs that claim ghosts and what a motley crew they are (the ghosts not the pubs). The Bunch of Grapes in Pontypridd has ‘George’, who has a mischievous bent. He is allegedly responsible for popping light bulbs and generally shifting stuff around.
There’s also a ‘George’ at the King’s Arms in Winkleigh in Devon, along with ‘Cecilia’, tricksy spirits, known for snatching plates away from hapless waitresses and taking offence if things aren’t kept just so.
However the little boy who haunts the Oddfellows Arms in Wimborne is a bit more benign (there’s a beguiling sense of unworldliness about the Oddfellows and its surroundings: the Gothic Minster, the crooked Georgian houses and a magical square just round the corner seemingly out of an MR James story). He’s a friendly little spook who supposedly woke the landlord when there was an earthquake (though the floor shaking might have had something to do with it). He’s also prone to turning lights on and off, but then I suppose the odd haunting is par for the course in a place that used to double up as a morgue a couple of centuries ago.
Just remember all these folk the next time you sit in the pub raise a silent toast to those that have gone before us — we will be them one day, but the pub will still remain.