Why we yearn for the pub

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The Independent Online
With relatively few exceptions they offer you jumbo sausages and, always, the chips are frozen. Once, in Cornwall, I was sold a microwaved pastie; it was the most horrible thing I have ever tasted. You can't rely on pubs to do anything well except fulfil their primary chemical task of delivering alcohol to the bloodstream and thereby reducing the oxygen supply to the brain. This they achieve with gratifying and anonymous uniformity.

So we don't care about National Pub Week, which this is. Apart from anything else, how could we? Every week is National Something Week and if we started to take notice we would find ourselves in a debilitating condition of perpetual celebration.

But there is something here worth considering - not the pub as such, but rather the continued viability of The Great Good Place.

The phrase comes from the American writer Ray Oldenburg. He wrote a book compendiously entitled The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You through the Day. Such venues are "third places", neither home nor work, and they provide respite from the demands and identities of both. According to Oldenburg, such places offer a more just social order. "Whatever hint of a hierarchy exists," he writes, "is predicated upon human decency."

At work hierarchies are based on wealth, glamour, aggression or intelligence. You are judged by what secretly you know to be false. At home, life is overlaid with the compromises of intimacy and the excessive contemporary expectations of marriage. Work demands your life; home demands your soul. You are reluctant to give either, but you must pretend to give both.

But in the third place, you are at peace and you are good. The third place offers the kind of benign social control that, elsewhere, has been replaced by coercion.

In the best of American television - notably the sublime Cheers and latterly the passable Friends - the urban bar has become a haven where your true self is fully accepted by an infinitely forgiving yet judgmental coterie of similar true selves.

Of course, real American bars and real British pubs seldom live up to anything like this ideal. Pubs are usually ruined either by corporate idiocy or by the complete absence of any living pub culture. But the ideal is there. Even the horse brasses and the hunting prints refer, however ineptly, to the possibility of a rooted gathering place.

Once, pubs and bars were routinely seen as lonely, even wicked places. For most of the 20th century such places were images of alienation. The righteous were either at home with the family or at work; only the lonely and depraved propped up the bar.

But now we have new places to be even more comprehensively alone. The world is full of identical hotel rooms and airports, burger bars and office blocks. Faced with such anonymity the bar becomes in the imagination a place replete with local colour and human interaction. When the tourists and the executives land at Heathrow they want to see an English pub because that happens only here, not, like duty free shops, everywhere.

But what they want, primarily, is the decor, the beams and the brasses. And we provide it. Wood, gloom and painted beer pulls are now laid on by the breweries in frantic pursuit of the ideal pub that haunts the collective unconscious. The very artificiality of the attempt advertises the urgency of the quest and the need to flee from the threateningly, bleakly new. What the wood and brass say is: this is not an airport or a burger bar, this is a Great Good Place.

This low-brow yearning is the trashy correlation of Oldenburg's high- brow idealism. Both signify a desire for the possibility of character and community that is neither work nor home, a way of belonging that does not demand talent, money or excessive commitment but which does, gently, impose a form of "correct" behaviour.

Of course, far from this pastiche, modern life has generated its own variations of the Great Good Place. Gyms with their aerobic classes provided a feminised version as did, for Oldenburg, beauty salons. But these new variations tend towards the club rather than the fully public place. In clubs there is no free flow of characters. There is a reduced element of chance. Clubs vet their membership to impose order. In the true third place order arises spontaneously, organically.

The truth is that we no longer trust the world enough to embrace fully the Great Good Place. There are too many unknowns, too many threats. However bright the brasses, however dark the wood, we know it's a paranoid fake. However Cornish the pastie, we know it will be microwaved.