It was the interval of the distinguished As You Like It at the Old Vic last Wednesday afternoon and the audience was frantic to know the score. I legged it past the cafés and shops to the one place I knew wouldn't let me down.
I could not push through the door for the crowd staring up at the communal television screen and then I was further forced back by the rapture of applause and cheering. "What, what?" I asked a woman on the step, holding a sun-drenched pint. She raised her glass to me and laughed breathlessly: "Defoe."
The World Cup has restored pubs to the centre of national life. As Al Murray puts it in his terrible anthem: "Football's not coming home, it's going to the pub." Perhaps because England's performance has been so painful to watch, we have opted to share the anguish.
The pub is the right place to slake our thirst for glory, to deaden our dull dread of defeat. It is true that many traditionalists will decry the presence of a television. They tend to share George Orwell's 1940s fantasy of "draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio". But if television is going to help the communal experience, I think we have to let it in.
The death of the pub has become such a cliché that we hardly notice how many are in robust health. Despite the general retreat into the home for food and entertainment, even though television now offers a zillion channels, it turns out that, given the chance, we all want to watch the same thing and to watch it together. Communities exist, they are just not necessarily the same thing as villages.
Pubs survive against all cultural predictions. Women were meant to hate them – since Bridget Jones, female relationships shifted to wine bars. The smoking ban threatened to kill them off. Higher taxes, longer opening hours, stricter drink-drive limits, men's first steps into child care, conspired against their survival. And at the end of all this, what becomes the chief celebrity playground in London? Guy Ritchie's unpretentious Mayfair pub, The Punch Bowl.
Pubs prosper because they follow the grain of human nature. It took a recession to make us understand that nobody is truly happy in a grand restaurant. Good plain food in bare but friendly surroundings is much nicer. Who wouldn't prefer the York and Albany gastropub to the Ritz? A sorrowful clue to the failing marriage of Mr and Mrs Guy Ritchie was Madonna's attitude to pubs. She tried so very hard to embrace them. But they never suited her. It is a collective experience rather than a star system. Nothing much happens. The table is often a bit wobbly and profundity is achieved through silent reverie in front of a pint rather than zealous spirituality.
Madonna praised British pubs enthusiastically, so when she returned to America she was asked sympathetically if she missed them. "No," she snapped.
Meanwhile, Lady Gaga arrived in the country to drink our pubs dry.
Many pubs are closing, but the ones that get it right are doing a roaring trade. Wetherspoon profits are up 41 per cent on 2009. The founder, Tim Martin, understood that pubs, like football, are built on teams. And that the needs of the customer are not complicated. His secret formula, with which Orwell would surely have had much sympathy, is only this: "You can talk all you like about building brands... but I still say 80 per cent of your view of a pub is how your pint is poured."Reuse content