On a clear summer’s day, from the escalator on the outside of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, you can see the Eiffel Tower standing proudly over what is a good candidate to be the most beautiful city in the world. It’s the perfect place for an epiphany or to be struck by inspiration.
I always thought of myself as strange that I was more likely to be inspired by the sheer beauty of the world in a Wetherspoons or walking along the side of a ring road. Maybe that’s just me. These places are as full of life as a Moroccan Bazaar or the Amazon rainforest, but are less likely to be the subject of rapturous descriptions rendered in sparkling prose. Beauty can be found in the magnificent squares or Rome with its steady diet of Renaissance masterpieces or in the sublimity of Niagara Falls, but there is beauty to be found in the mundanity of suburban life, in queues for the post office, or in a round of drinks after work on Friday.
In Britain, there is no truer expression of beauty than a good pub. I have known many good pubs in my time on this Earth, and I can say that there is no formula for creating an excellent pub. George Orwell laid out his ideal pub in his essay The Moon Underwater, which has given its name to many pubs (most of them Wetherspoons). I disagree with Orwell, there is no perfect pub. A great pub is a response to its environment and shouldn’t be measured against a universal standard.
I am a man of my time and a product of my environment, so I can usually be found in a trendy East London craft beer bar that probably used to be a warehouse, with exposed brick and pipes as well as keg beer from a local microbrewery. It’s easy to sniff at these places for being the embodiment of the modern aesthetic, but a pub should be a response to a time as well as a place.
Another mode of pub that I very much enjoy is the traditional high street boozer, usually with recognizable pub design and names such as the Kings Head, Rose and Crown, or celebrating a local historical figure or event. In recent years I have seen the range and quality of beer and food offered in these places increase greatly. They have always moved with the times to be the cornerstone of British life.
The best of these pubs are friendly, but not so relaxing that you think you’re in your own living room; so please don’t take off your shoes or put your feet on the chairs. They have subtle, inoffensive interior design, great beer and good food. They capture the community, town or suburb they are located in and reflect it back, whilst still being welcoming to outsiders.
These places offer a refuge from the assault of to our mental wellbeing that is the month of January. Why many people decide to quit drinking in the most depressing of months is beyond me. They sit on the high streets of small towns and street corners of suburban sprawl. Many of them are in tasteful Victorian buildings, but they come in varieties from delicate Mock Tudor to modernist cubes with flat roofs. The town centre pub is one of the few things that link us together in an increasingly atomized society.
There is a quiet beauty to the High Street pub that suits its usual understatedness. It’s the same quiet beauty that can be found on rainy weekend days in days in suburban streets. It can be found in a family or group of friends tucking into a Sunday roast. It can be found in weekly shops and car MOTs and the way that fans watching football in a pub can cast aside British awkwardness to share in elation at victory and commiseration at defeat.
This is where the profound can be found on a rainy January weekend afternoon in suburbia. It is on one of these weekends that I write this, in the midst of a local high street pub that serves good beer. People are sharing stories. There are family meals and friends’ reunions. A young couple is having a drink on the leather sofa near the fire. Kids are running around but are closely supervised. American Pie just came on the stereo. The pub is starting to empty out as the sun sets. Work tomorrow.
This is as fine a subject for a painting as the Battle of Trafalgar, and it says more about the Britain that we are than a mythologised naval encounter with the French. Pubs on rainy Sunday afternoons are what brings our country together and we need some togetherness as recent events have done their best to tear us apart.
Recently, I have sensed a rejection of the idea that mundane British life is beautiful. This comes from a mistrust of normal people and their experience by people of my ilk, whatever ilk that is. We used to champion the person in the street against their wealthy oppressors, but since the person in the street voted for Brexit we paused and thought maybe they have opinions that we don’t find so wholesome.
This has led to a mistrust of the person in the street or the pub, usually a Wetherspoons. In many recent political discussion drinking in Wetherspoons has become code for being ill-informed, angry at nebulous elites and probably a bit racist. This is mainly because of the pro-Brexit views of Tim Martin, the chain’s owner. There is more to Wetherspoons than being a vehicle for pro-Brexit propaganda, and not everyone who drinks in one supports Brexit. When we reduce people’s everyday experience to a knee jerk reaction we lose some part of our collective identity.
Some of that identity has informed the collection of anxieties that make up Brexit. The closure of pubs in a local area reinforces these anxieties and contributes to the support for Brexit. Brexit is a nostalgic movement, based on a nostalgia for an idealised Britain and for pubs that are vanishing from large parts of the country. In other parts of the country having new, cool, craft beer oriented bars is a badge of identity as a successful, open and anti-Brexit community. The pub, and how we view it, is key to understanding how we feel about Brexit.
I’m not denying that the referendum and Brexit are processes designed to divide people and turn us against each other. Brexit is not something that has to be merely accepted. What it is becoming is a culture war, a widening gap between people who share the same streets and pubs. Now we resent anything that smells of that other culture we feel so separated from.
I don’t want to trivialise the important disagreements at the heart of Brexit. I have written about the grave threats to our nation. However, we cannot continue to live as two nations in one land. Increasingly we have come to see each other as different. Not just politically or even culturally different, but different in the fundamental nature of the lives we lead.
If we view our Britain as the one of the exceptional, the cultured, the open-minded, then we cannot help but think of the other Britain as mundane, grey and filled with people ground down by the harshness of the world. If this is how we think, then we will grow to see every day experiences as signifiers of our cultural enemies.
At worst, a dislike of the person in the street could lead to a rejection of the everyday as invalid, a dismissing of the everyday things that bind us together. Rainy Sundays in suburbia are a part of everyone lives, regardless of who they are or what they believe. You can be awestruck in the Pomedu Centre Paris, or in a Wetherspoons in Grantham, but we all experience the same feelings.
I write this on a rainy Sunday afternoon in January in suburbia where our future is uncertain, but we must make sure that we don't turn against each other, dismiss the person in the street as an angry crank and render the everyday experiences of millions as invalid.
I don’t think that the answer to fear and suspicion is more fear and suspicion. We cannot harbor hostility to people who think differently to us or come from different places. I don’t want to live in a divided Britain.