The first drink
This introduction is being written in a pub. My publishers would expect nothing less I have decided. Plus I fancied a pint. But more importantly I fancied looking around at other people, and wondering what they hell they are doing here at 11.14 on a Tuesday morning and why they are not at work (like me).
Can I claim this beer on expenses do you think?
“I’m writing a book on pubs, you know.”
“Yes love,” replies the barmaid.
“And Dave over there is a rocket scientist.”
I may be wrong but I suspect she’s taking the piss. But then pubs were probably invented so we had somewhere to take the piss out of each other. It’s a British obsession, right up there with updates on the weather and endless cups of tea. And where better to start a book on the unwritten rules of pubs than with rule number one? You can, generally speaking, take the piss out of people in a pub to an extent you could never get away with on the street. However, like all rules of grammar, there are exceptions, and in these cases piss-taking should be avoided.
- If the other person is bigger than you.
- If you are wearing a cravat.
It’s 11.58 and two builders have just walked in. At least they’ve been to work first, unlike Dave and the other people sitting at the bar.
“Can I claim this second beer on expenses do you reckon?” I ask them.
“I’m writing a book on pubs, you see.”
“Sure,” says the big one.
“And Dave over there is a rocket scientist,” says the one wearing a cravat.
“Hang on, hang on, I’ve used all that material already. How am I going to complete this book if I am using the same stuff already?”
They ignore me.
I decide I should hang around a bit longer. Just so this intro is authentic, you’ll understand.
The builders have downed their beers and left already. Good old swift ones. Swift ones are not so much a rule as a custom. Me? I’m not much of a swift-one type of guy; pubs are to be enjoyed, savoured. I can sort of accept people like the builders who are on a short break and fancy a quick pint, a packet of crisps and a check on the cricket score. But what’s with those people who come in order a double vodka and have downed it before their change is out of the till? I mean, that’s just mainlining alcohol. What’s the point? You might as well just keep a bottle in your draw at work.
It’s 1.26 and a few people have come in for lunch. The special is pork chops, mashed potato and vegetables.
“Would you like a receipt for that pint love,” asks the barmaid (her name’s Clare she tells me; I think I might have pulled).
“For your expenses?”
She’s now warming to the idea of this book, especially as I just bought her half a lager, and I now know Dave is actually a life insurance salesman and Tuesday is his day off. He apparently comes in every week, has breakfast, reads his Telegraph, disappears to put his bets on and comes back to do some work (Clare thinks so anyway, because he’s always on the phone and writing notes). Later he just talks rubbish, plays darts with his friends and gets drunk.
In Dave’s day off I have found the perfect summary of why us Brits love pubs. Ah, thank goodness I stayed here. Everyone knows pubs are central to life in Britain and Dave’s shows why. In just one day his local is his restaurant, his library, his office and his social meeting place. If he’d just put some money in the jukebox and pull the barmaid (not Clare, she’s too nice for Dave) then he’d never need to leave the pub at all.
We Brits do pubs better than anyone, let’s be honest. In fact, apart from the Irish and the odd enclave dotted around the English-speaking world, we are pretty much the only ones who do pubs at all. Elsewhere it’s all pavement cafes, bistros and bars. But to really enjoy a pub you have to know how it works. You have to know what pubs you can and can’t go in, where you can and can’t sit, what to drink, who you can and can’t talk to, and, most importantly of all, which urinal you can pee in.
I’ve got a Colombian friend, Carlos, who reckons British pubs are like foreign islands in what (to him) is already a foreign island. Bit like Guernsey maybe.
“In Colombia,” he says, “we also meet friends and have a drink. But I can’t work your pubs out. It’s all a bit confusing to understand what’s going on.”
Be confused no more. Pubs are run by a set of complex rules but over time they can be understood. It’s not a set of rules you will find on the wall; they are unwritten. Well, at least they were until I started this book.
Sorry, must go, Clare’s smiling at me. Think I’ll stay for one more.
Daniel Ford, Greenwich, London, 3.27pm, one Tuesday afternoon.