A huddle of Alf Garnetts from the Bunch of Grapes

Pub debate has nothing to do with philosophy and has more in common with pub fighting
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The Independent Culture
FORGET THE Booker Prize. I have recently become involved in a much more exciting contest. Yes, I am proud to say that I have been invited to be a judge on the panel of the Pub Philosopher of the Year contest. The name is a bit misleading, because pub debate has nothing to do with philosophy and has more in common with pub fighting.

"There are five of us on the panel," the chairman, my old friend Adrian Wardour-Street, told me, "and we travel to all the pubs which enter the contest, and adjudicate their arguments. It's a bit like a pub quiz except that instead of them being given questions to answer, they're given subjects to argue on."

"What kind of subjects?" I wanted to know.

"Oh, some timeless things like whether the ends justify the means and some topical things, like Tony Blair's welfare state reforms.

"Philosophically speaking, "I said," I don't think you can actually discuss Blair's welfare reform, because there is no such thing. It does not exist, except as a concept. Can one discuss something which owes its existence solely to being announced..."

"This is exactly the sort of thing we're trying to avoid," said Adrian. "Contestants will lose marks heavily for that sort of pseudo-philosophical claptrap. What we want is real pub argument. But you'll get the idea when you do a bit of judging at the first preliminary round, which is next week in Kent somewhere - the Bunch of Grapes against the Crooked Billet. Should be fun..."

And it was quite fun in its own way. The Bunch of Grapes had a team of three men who were all a bit like Alf Garnett - unbeatable in argument as long as you accepted their unacceptable premises - while the Crooked Billet were playing clever in their team selection: one black guy, one woman and one white guy who was gay. It was like seeing the England rugby scrum take on a trio of New Labour spin doctors - not pretty but enthralling.

The subject for the evening's knock-out round was a topical one, the Tour de France and the drugs scandal. One thing that impressed me immediately was that it wasn't like an Oxford Union debate where one side supports the motion and the other side opposes it. That's why the Oxford Union is so sterile. No, when the Bunch of Grapes took on the Crooked Billet, it was not specified which side supported what idea. They were just given the topic to run with, so I shouldn't have been surprised when the three Alf Garnetts from the Bunch of Grapes disagreed violently among themselves.

"It's a disgrace," said one. "One of the great races of the world, brought low by drug abuse. If the pressure to win is so great that they use drugs, they should cancel the whole thing."

"Bollocks," said another. "If they all use drugs, it's self-cancelling. If they all take oxygen-enhancing substances, it's the same for all of them, innit? I can't see it matters."

"Yeah,"said the third, "but what if some take drugs and some don't? Are you going to force non-drug takers to resort to illegal substances?"

"What's illegal about them?" said the first. "That's the thing I don't understand. All these drugs were available on prescription, so they're not illegal. I can't see why the police got involved."

"I don't understand," I whispered to Adrian. "These three are all on the same side but they're all arguing against each other."

"Tactics," whispered Adrian. "They're blocking the other team from even talking. If you don't talk, you don't get points. Clever stuff."

But the other side started to make inroads here.

"You know what I find shocking about the Tour de France scandal?" said the black guy from the Crooked Billet. "I am deeply shocked that every newspaper I saw had the same headline - `Tour De Farce'. You'd think that the British headline industry could come up with something different - but oh no!"

"What worries me deeply about the Tour de France," said the gay guy, "is the lack of sexiness in it. What is less sexy than cycling round France in tight underwear?"

"And what is more stupid than cycling round France, the most beautiful country in the world, and not seeing any of it?" said the woman. "Ask a top cyclist to describe what France is like, and he'll say it's just a lot of people waving little flags."

"I don't understand," I whispered to Adrian. "They're not even talking about the drugs scandal."

"That's the beauty of pub debate," whispered Adrian. "You get extra marks for diverting the topic to your own hobby horses."

The Crooked Billet ran out winners eventually. I'll bring you more news from the next round.