Marina Lewycka: She's mother, headmistress, and madame

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The Independent Online

There's precious little good news around nowadays, what with prices of all the pleasures of life and even the essentials going through the roof, and the grinning bankers and corporate scamsters running off with our money, and our phones hacked and our libraries whacked and our NHS about to be smacked and the Prime Minister apparently wanting us to pay off our credit cards sharpish, because the party's well and truly over.

So isn't it great to read about someone hitting back on our behalf, reclaiming a little low-cost treat to brighten our day; and even better that it's not a celebrity or a politician but an ordinary woman, a stubborn pub landlady called Karen Murphy. She is the landlady of the Red White and Blue pub in Portsmouth, who stood up to the millionaires of the Premier League at the European Court on behalf of her beleaguered customers, and won the right to screen Premiership football via a Greek-based company for only £800 a year, as compared with a crippling £8,400 Sky initially charged her.

The local pub has long had a central role in our cultural life, as a place that is home and yet not home, a realm of misrule where naughty things can happen but order is restored by closing time, a place of intimacy where lonely people find companionship, romantic people find love, a place where you can meet familiar faces and travellers passing through, where you can get merry but not too drunk. And the key figure, matriarch and magician, who holds this show together night after night, is the pub landlady. That's Karen Murphy, wearing a modest cardi over a skimpy T-shirt, winking and laughing her head off.

The pub landlady straddles a peculiar role as the arbitrator between merriment and decorum, drunkenness and getting home safely. From Shakespeare's Mistress Quickly to Stella Price of the Rover's Return, she has to be mother, headmistress, and madame. Tough and tender, she can confront a drunk, comfort a dying man, match-make, mediate, listen and pull pints, all at the same time.

In my student days, I lived next to the Old Swan at Madeley Heath, a haunt of miners from the Staffordshire collieries. We downed lukewarm beer and played cribbage with them, and peeped into their very different lives, and they into ours, all under the watchful eye of Mrs Burrows, who propped her no-nonsense bosom on the bar, forbade swearing, and told us in no uncertain terms when we'd had enough.

It was a traditional pub, where the main entertainment was talk – though singing, dancing, pub games and canoodling all had their place. Stories and ideas and gossip and news swilled around with the booze, all mixed together, so you'd stagger out into the frosty night not quite knowing which was which, but promising you'd be back to find out.

Some people – myself included, I admit – regret the usurping of pub conversation by a big screen where men in shorts run around after a little ball. Times have changed, and OK, you might not find today's Samuel Pepys, Dylan Thomas or James Joyce hanging out in the TV lounge of the Red White and Blue; Premiership football is not The Canterbury Tales, and Wayne Rooney is much less entertaining than Falstaff.

But never mind nostalgia, Karen Murphy is a modern-day landlady in the great tradition, standing up to and for her customers. They wheeled out the big legal guns against her, but she didn't back down. She stood tall in the face of gross snouts-in-the-trough style profiteering and bullying on the part of the football establishment, and she won. Oh, and she gave the Murdochs a passing poke in the eye. Hurray!



Marina Lewycka's novels include "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian", and, most recently, "We Are All Made of Glue", both published by Penguin.

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