Monday, 28 December 2009

London's Best Pubs by Peter Haydon

A quick foray back into non-fiction this week for Peter Haydon’s beautifully produced guide to London’s most interesting and unusual pubs. I include it because it contains not one but two pictures of my favourite pub cat, Tom Paine at the Seven Stars, but also a rather fine historical introduction to the public houses of London.

Descended from coaching inns, taverns and alehouses, the London pub as an institution has changed considerably over the last few hundred years. Back in the 1700s, for example, the drink of the tavern was wine, until wars with France conspired to disrupt supply. Portugal came to the rescue:

Our long-standing friendship with Portugal meant that port was the popular tavern drink of the 18th century. Consumed as it was in very large volumes, port can be considered largely responsible for having made the 18th century the era of gout and the skull-splitting hangover.

William III’s policy to wean the population off wine popularised gin instead. He succeeded only in making the nation drunk. Indeed, until this point, alcohol wasn’t really considered particularly harmful:

...with gin came the revelation that there was an alcoholic drink that was actually bad for people.

After the gin fevers of the 18th and 19th centuries came the Temperance movement and drink as a political issue. London’s taverns, gin palaces and inns have been shaped by licensing acts, brewery speculation, social mores and trends and have arrived in the beginning of 21st century as unique and remarkable public spaces. Haydon describes them thus:

For me, the chief virtue of a pub is that it can almost anything you want it to be. Provided you do the landlord the courtesy of buying a drink you can stay as long as you like, be as gregarious or reticent as you like and be as idle or as studious as you like. You can enjoy the company of all or engage in solitary reverie. You can talk to strangers, make lifelong friends, catch up on gossip, commit to memory a cracking good joke for later use, hold forth on any subject close to your heart and leave whenever you wish (within opening hours, of course). The pub is egalitarian, libertarian, non-judgemental and subversive. For these reasons alone, I rate it as priceless.

He helpfully includes an excellent quote from Dr Johnson, regular at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese:

No, Sir, there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.

I’ll quite happily raise a glass to that.

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