London, 1946: bombed buildings, bad food and black market spivs. While recent World War victory and Attlee’s new Welfare State gave people cause for optimism, the daily realities were harsher. For many in Britain’s ravaged capital, the most accessible respite from the hungry grind of ordinary life was the common public house. A pub was a place where one could become cloudy from drink, warmed by a coal fire and cheerful with amicable company. Such was its importance in an Englishman’s existence that George Orwell wrote an influential article in the Evening Standard outlining his vision of the perfect pub. The Moon Under Water, which would also be the name of this imagined establishment, outlined ten ideals that Orwell desperately wanted to find together under one roof, preferably in London. These elements, such as the use of china drinking vessels and a limiting of darts to the public bar, would combine to form Orwell’s alcoholic Shangri la.

At the heart of his musings, it was community that Orwell craved. So, The Moon Under Water would be frequented by locals (who occupied the same chairs) rather than random ‘drunks and rowdies’. The barmaids (some of whom may have hair dyed in ‘surprising shades’) would take a personal interest in all their customers, and whole families would gather and unwind in the expansive garden. The consumption of alcohol was really secondary to the human aspect: a social lubricant to foster civility and community. In Orwell’s words, ‘atmosphere’ was The Moon Under Water’s real allure. It was this element, not specifics like ‘creamy draught stout’ or ‘grained woodwork’, which the writer wisely saw as definitive of the British pub. He did not want ‘boozing-shops’ – he wanted a venue for the beating heart of each local area.

Fast forward nearly seven decades to London, 2015 and the situation is rather different. Some of Orwell’s ten publican commandments seem amusingly outdated and faintly ridiculous. The need for a working phone is completely redundant, for example handleless glasses, of which he was not a fan, have been universally accepted by heavy-drinking Brits as ideal for knocking back pints. (The retro desire for handled glasses seem an affected nostalgia.) On the other hand, a number of Orwell’s wishes have now been comprehensively achieved. Meals served in today’s pubs, from dubious Thai curries to gourmet burgers, would be unimaginable to a post-war Englishman who considered ‘boiled jam pudding’ to be culinary heaven. Beer gardens and draught stout are no longer imagined luxuries but as common a sight as fruit machines and Australian wine. In these ways, examining The Moon Under Water shows how times have changed.

However, there is a far more profound difference between pub culture in 2015 and pub culture in 1946. Dramatically, traditional pubs are disappear- ing at an accelerating rate. Each week, more Red Lions or Railway Arms are quietly boarded up, the regulars having to re-locate for their social meetings – or simply dying off. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, twenty-nine establishments close their doors permanently a week: there are roughly 20,000 fewer than there were three decades ago. In place of these pubs are springing up a record number of trendy bars and cafés diminishing the pub’s cultural significance with every passing month. Bare-bricked hipster joints with retro jukebox playlists and faux-Americana aesthetics sell guacamole as enthusiastically as ale. The Viking-bearded ‘mixologists’ tempt today’s thirsty Orwells away from old-fashioned locals in huge numbers. Neither are pubs the first choice for a night out any more, with clubs and late night venues offering liver-busting drinks deals. With rocketing prices no doubt partly to blame, pub-going is used for lower key social meetings, like the Anglo-Saxon version of continental café culture. It seems that the famous British pub is slipping into the footnotes of history.

Modern commentators lazily decry the decline of the pub in national drinking culture as simply awful, nostalgically shaking their heads at the crumbling of Orwell’s vision. Disciples of Orwell’s writing portray the New York-style bars of the twenty-first century as charmless dens of binge drinking. All vestiges of respectable, old-fashioned beverage consumption can seem a dim memory when viewing some trashed club reveller vomiting over the kerb. Gone are the days when women had the choice to occupy a separate room from male drinkers. Articles on the subject see only doom and gloom, apologising to the late Orwell for the perceived polarisation between old pubs and new bars. But this is a pessimistic simplification of reality.

We must first ask ourselves: what exactly is a traditional British pub? If faced with this question, many would paint a highly specific picture, one of a well-defined archetype stemming from nineteenth-century urban Britain: the angular, brick exterior; a narrow doorway leading to a dark interior; wooden tables, Victorian architecture and imposing furniture. In reality, this was just one style amongst the multitude of inns, taverns and alehouses that evolved over two thousand years on this windswept island. The Romans, as part of their thankless quest to civilise our muddy barbarians’s paradise, established a series of public venues for the consumption of wine and ale. The Anglo-Saxons continued the idea, their drinking dens becoming forums for local meetings. The public house made its way through the Middle Ages and the Early Modern era to enter industrial Britain in the form of the urban pub. So why should this evolution not continue? Why stop in a nineteenth-century purgatory? The single public house style, then, has come to represent all British drinking venues, rather than being seen as one type. This is a misleading mistake that derails any debate with rose-tinted nostalgia – modern bars are as legitimate as an inn or tavern.

Furthermore, let us consider what most pubs are really like, rather than relying on some easy stereotype. Many locals are disgusting hovels with wobbly tables and an undertone of hostility. We’ve all been to those dodgy pubs where the room falls silent on entry – where half a dozen die-hards stare silently at their dusty glasses, alone with their demons and thoughts of better days. Before the smoking ban, these places would be thick with a dense fog of fumes.

Besides, who says change is bad? In reality, many new bars are not cesspits of binge drinking but are actually more respectable than the pubs that they are replacing. This implies a healthy evolution of British drinking houses, with new styles making a necessary replacement of the old. Sticky surfaces, warm beer and dirty toilets are being swapped for clean floors, displays of bourbon and artisanal snacks. I like being able to eat pulled pork and drink mysterious international spirits. Vintage posters of Humphrey Bogart and luminous Coors signs look nicer than peeling wallpaper and grubby carpets. Orwell himself described nineteenth-century architecture as ugly. If new venues can offer what decrepit, intimidating pubs once did, but with a basic level of hygiene, then such complaints are short-sighted: they are just another example of how simplified ideas are distorting reality.

It is useful to use Orwell’s analysis to see how modern bars can fulfil his desires for the perfect pub. As he correctly identified, the key to a true British drinking establishment is not decor or Victorian styling, but a communal atmosphere: regular patrons; jovial staff; and somewhere for friends and relations to gather and unwind. It gives an area its soul and brings communities together. At the same time, a drinking venue should offer calm sanctuary to those who want to escape the trials of life. In the warm safety of a public house, one can gather oneself, pint in hand, without judgement. It is a place which welcomes inebriation, relaxation and conversation not normally allowed in public. What stops a modern bar from offering these things? What Orwell desired can be found in a variety of building types, whether Victorian or twenty-first century. New bars that incorporate traditional elements will meet the needs of pub-goers perfectly: places to sit and relax; a rapport with the regulars; a social environment. It is these venues which are filling the void left by former pubs. And, in the hyper-connected world of today, communities are based far less on proximity but are instead fostered through online links. So, meeting places do not need to be exclusively in the local area. It seems that we get too caught up in the image of a venue rather than focus on what it is actually providing. A friendly bar is thus not too different from what Orwell imagined when he wrote The Moon Under Water.

Such is the public desire for an updated drinking culture that pubs, which are surviving, are the ones that are moving with the times. They thrive precisely because their owners are refusing to sit and fester in a grubby, stale past. They retain the traditional elements that we are fond of, but are adopting aspects not found in their nineteenth-century and twentieth-century predecessors. These modernised establishments share forward-thinking practices with many of the newer bars: approachable staff; pleasant interiors; a wider variety of drinks. The last point is particularly pertinent as drinking habits change: the dominance of beer is being challenged. Indeed, the J D Wetherspoon chain now sells around fifty millions cups of coffee annually. Ironically, the growing wine culture in our country takes the pub back to its original Roman roots. And neither is the appearance of food an entirely modern concept. Inns and country pubs have been feeding hungry travellers for centuries.

It cannot be denied that the decline of the common pub demonstrates a general loosening of local ties in British society. However if a new kind of watering hole offers a friendly, collective place to drink and socialise then why scorn its presence? In fact, such a place would be far more in the national tradition than those anonymous, mock-Victorian pubs in central London which are packed with tourists and a have different set of bar staff each month. Orwell described what the drinking establishments of our capital could become in 1984 thus: ‘From their grimy swing doors … there came forth a smell of urine, sawdust and sour beer.’ If it is these kinds of pubs that we are keeping from our streets, then we should not despair.

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