Opinion: « Fancy a pint? » really means
Editor’s note: Pete Brown is a British author, journalist, broadcaster and consultant specializing in food and drink. He is the author of several books on beer and pub culture, including « Man Walks Into A Pub: A Sociable History of Beer ». The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.
In the 1990s, a new sketch comedy show on British television laid bare a nation’s habits and quirks.
One of the recurring skits on « The Fast Show » would begin with a stressful, boring, uncomfortable, awkward situation – anything that makes the prospect of staying there increasingly unbearable.
As the pressure mounted, actor and writer Paul Whitehouse would eventually look off camera and ask, « Anyone fancy a pint? »
A significant portion of « The Fast Show » sketches were filmed in pubs, as the pub is where Brits meet and interact, with friends or strangers.
English literature more or less began in a pub, when Geoffrey Chaucer gathered the pilgrims of the « Canterbury Tales » at the Tabard – the only kind of place where his diverse cast of priests, millers, friars, clerks and of all the others would never be realistic in the same place.
Likewise, there has never been a successful British soap opera that didn’t have a pub at its heart.
Today, amid soaring energy, food and supply chain costs, the future of this great British institution looks more uncertain than ever.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan went so far as to recently warn that the cost of living crisis could be « fatal » for pubs in the capital, which were already shaking up after the hit of pandemic restrictions.
Inevitably, the issue of keeping pub lights on in economic darkness is mostly discussed in the business sections of British newspapers.
But the British pub is more important than that. People care about the pub because its role as a cultural institution is even more important than its huge contribution to the British economy. The pub is a defining pillar of British identity.
« Anyone fancy a pint? » was not (just) an invitation to drink alcohol. Even now, when Brits drink more at home than out of it, specifying a pint rather than a beer is a clear invitation specifically to the pub, where beer is still sold in pints and half-pints rather than metric measurements of 330 ml, 440 ml or 500 ml cans and bottles.
“Fancy a pint? stands for « Let’s escape to a place of normalcy and comfort in an increasingly unsettling world. »
It is well established that in times of uncertainty or anxiety, we look to the past for reassurance. It’s no coincidence that in British cities, pubs often appear to be buildings much older than anything around them.
In the Middle Ages, the sign hung above the door was common to any commercial establishment. Now, unless you’re in a tourist trap like Stratford-upon-Avon, pubs are the only businesses that have them.
The decor and dishes on a typical pub menu are usually closer to what the typical drinker remembers from his childhood than what he has at home today. Whatever happens, the pub is still there, unchanging.
Perhaps that’s why international coverage of Britain’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic has often used the pub as an indicator. The pandemic was the only time in history where all pubs were forcibly closed. (From March 2020 pubs across the UK began a roller coaster of various restrictions which were lifted in the summer of 2021).
When they reopened, that sense of normality and continuity in the face of scary times resonated far beyond British shores.
So how does the pub do it? Why is it different from bars elsewhere?
There are many answers. The British climate has something to do with it – the street café culture of France or the home socializing of southern Europe are not for us. For centuries, our homes were little more than places to sleep. When we couldn’t afford to heat them in the winter, the pub provided warmth and company.
Britain’s famous stiff upper lip may have gotten more wonky over the past few decades, but we struggle to open up to each other, especially British men.
Look closely, and almost every traditional aspect of the pub – drinking larger quantities of low-alcohol drinks, buying on rounds, ordering at the bar rather than at the table, toasting and saying cheers – is subtly designed to break down social barriers. .
The famous British class system stops at the door of the pub. Inside, your social status is determined solely by who has the best jokes and how fast you make your rounds.
In his 1946 essay The Moon Under Water, George Orwell listed a list of attributes that make the perfect pub. Chief of all this, he wrote, was its atmosphere. Walk into a great pub and, even though it’s empty, you still feel like the building is hugging you and saying, « Welcome home. »
Orwell’s Perfect Pub didn’t really exist: it was a compilation of the best bits from three of his favorite pubs in Islington, North London, all of which remain open at the time of writing.
But one, the Compton Arms, is now under threat of closure after locals complained the pub, which predates them by 200 years in the area, is causing a nuisance.
It is a sign of the times. When ‘The Fast Show’ first asked if anyone would like a pint, there were 61,000 pubs in the UK. At the start of the pandemic, that number had fallen to 47,000.
In the first half of 2022, almost 20 pubs per week closed their doors permanently. Covid-19 has exhausted any reserves the already battered pub sector may have had and hastened the drift towards consumption at home.
Brits are drinking less alcohol overall than a decade ago, and the pub now faces competition from Netflix, Amazon Prime and near-instant home delivery of food and drink as well as multiplexes, cafes and gymnasiums.
So is the pub an idea whose time is over? Well, no – not unless we’ve run out of time for friendship, for the spontaneous encounters that become lifelong memories, for the sharing of troubles and consolation that somehow feels more easier over a pint than a cup of coffee.
We use ads differently these days. We visit them less often. But that means when we go, it’s no longer a casual, everyday habit – it’s an elevated experience. We go to the pub because we can’t have this experience anywhere else.
The welcoming glow from around the corner always calls us. And in the face of a winter when fuel bills are a major concern, despite government price caps, we might once again be flocking to the pub because the price of a pint is more affordable than heating our homes.