The Moon Over Bullshit: How a column about pubs explains the British media's disconnection

Get yourself a 'foaming pint', stick some horse brasses on the wall, and settle in.

I once worked in a pub where at least once a month a man would come in with a bag of stolen meat, deposit it on the pool table and proceed to sell steaks, chops and packs of mystery meat offcuts at knockdown prices.

In another pub which briefly employed me, I was told the toilet was broken and when I went to investigate, I discovered a large bag of what I presume was cocaine concealed in the cistern. I replaced the lid and forgot I’d ever seen it.

I tell you these tales of the ‘time before’ in the hope of providing a counterweight to the theme park description of public houses contained in Clare Foges latest despatch for the detached in The Times. Having read George Orwell’s own class tourist essay about the glory of the British pub, The Moon Under The Water — his final piece for The Evening Standard — too many times and noted that pubs are in a perilous state, she couldn’t resist.

Foges — who at least didn’t write one of her regular screeds about travellers — describes a pub so fantastical that its like has not existed anywhere in the UK since about 1957. She says:

Each pub feels like a member’s club for British citizens, a place where you can immediately feel at home. Walk into a pub in Doncaster or Dawlish and your surroundings will be different yet entirely predictable: brasses on the walls, beef on the menu, ornamental mirrors, the faint smell of upholstery that has soaked up too much beer. There is deep comfort to be found in this familiarity.

The world may change, empires crumble, oceans rise and fall but there will always be a British pub with Smiths Scampi Fries hanging behind the bar.

Is it any surprise that David Cameron’s former chief speechwriter — ludicrously called his ‘larynx’ — is still a big fan of dog whistles?

Read that paragraph again and listen to the shrill sound of the phrase “… a member’s club for British citizens”. Any pub I’ve worked in was for anyone who wanted a drink and was old enough to buy one, no passport checks required.

Foges’ description of the pub in her mind’s eye — “brasses on the walls, beef on the menu, ornamental mirrors, the faint smell of upholstery that has soaked up too much beer” — is one penned by someone who has spent their time in gastro pubs but is now engaging in an act of pure imagination. If she visited a flat-roof estate pub, the kind of brasses she would find hanging around would be quite, quite different.

As the journalist and editor, Padraig Reidy, replied to my tweet about the article, a reference to a “foaming pint” and the inevitable Orwell quote (“[The pub is] one of the basic institutions of English life.”) are clear indicators that the person writing the piece doesn’t actually visit pubs.

Foges lards her case further by chucking in a quote from Hillaire Belloc: “When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.” To mangle a Ken Dodd line, Hillaire Belloc never had to play closing time in a Croydon Wetherspoons, and neither has Clare Foges.

There’s another way you can tell when a British columnist is writing about something of which they have little or no experience — especially when they think there are some working-class credentials to be had — is that they ratchet up the emotionalism. Take a look at how Foges builds the ersatz nostalgia for pubs in her piece:

If the AA is the fourth emergency service then for many of us pubs are the fifth; a port in the storm, glowing windows on a rainy evening, a place where the bored, lonely or lusty may enter anonymously with no questions asked and no eyebrows raised, to be embraced by the familiar hum of voices and clink of glasses and roar of the Champions League on the television.

In my admittedly brief dealings with the AA in the past, none of their employees has ever threatened to cut my throat, nor have I noticed their vans stinking so strongly of piss that, as Sleaford Mods said, it “smells like decent bacon”.

I have been to many excellent pubs but none of them has been a horse brass displaying, ornamental mirrored cave full of grumbling old bastards. I really like pubs but I don’t expect them to be the shining vision Orwell presented when writing about his ideal drinking den, The Moon Under The Water:

And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.

I think a great pub has a jukebox and I will fight the zombie Orwell to a second death if he disagrees.

The columnist class — and as much as they chafe against being grouped together like that, it’s what they are — are obsessed with trying to position themselves as tribunes of the people. That’s even true if they’re absurdly privileged poltroons like Giles Coren, former Prime Ministerial speechwriters like Clare Foges, or ministerial spouses like Sarah Vine, who both wants to be defined by her own work and paid attention to because of her proximity to power.

Tub-thumping racists such as Richard Littlejohn and hand-wringing moralists like Polly Toynbee alike cannot address their own wealth head-on because then readers will be less likely to consider their pronouncements as tablets of stone lobbed down from Mount Sinai, instead they will, like me be thinking the whole time, “This fucker is writing this from a huge villa. This fucker is writing this from a huge villa. This fucker is writing this. from. a. HUGE. villa.”

Still, I’m sure we can all discuss our difference in the jolly old pub, admiring the horse brasses and casual racists, while we drink our foaming pints, right?

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