The Old Spring, By Richard Francis

Calling time on the great British pub
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The Independent Culture

The pub's disappearance as a unique stage for the human comedy seems horribly inevitable.

As the last of these venerable institutions is closed, or transformed into some hellish "bar", it's important to remember that the pub was never simply about drink and certainly not about drunkenness. In its long heyday, it was a combination of home from home, theatre and church, in which the landlord filled roles as parent, priest and director.

So it is in Richard Francis's richly comic new novel. It follows a single day in the life of Frank, the landlord, and his pub The Old Spring. It is a significant day. Dawn, the landlady, mourns the death of her young brother, and commits adultery, and Frank discovers something rather surprising about himself and sex. The pub cellar is haunted by the ghost of a Victorian landlord, seen only by Darren the monumentally clumsy and dim bar cleaner; later that day, Darren will be triumphantly made up to barman and win his first girlfriend. The staff are augmented by Tim, the brewery representative, visiting to enquire into the large hole in the pub accounts, and Shirley, rival landlady, friend of Dawn and in hot pursuit of Frank.

The drinkers are evoked with a sort of wondering tenderness. There is Father Thomas, not a real priest, but deriving comfort from his presumed spiritual status; Alan, a fount of useless knowledge; heavily tattooed Jake, outwardly frightening, and inwardly frightened, dabbling in drugs. Customers are referred to as "old lags" or, when Frank goes to visit dying Romesh in hospital, as "one of my flock".

Much happens during the day, but nothing to destroy the even tenor of pub life. Staff and drinkers are partners in their conspiracy to defeat the outside world; each night, the dreaded closing time will be redeemed next morning, in an endless round of aimless and amiable immortality.

There have been quite a few good novels set in pubs, from Patrick Hamilton's The Midnight Bell to Kingsley Amis's The Green Man. But Amis's is from as long ago as 1969, and though the pub has had honourable mentions in fiction since, it seems unlikely that it will continue to play a central part. The Old Spring is a worthy addition to the line – but perhaps a last hurrah for what Francis calls in his acknowledgements "that great and beleaguered British institution".