The English Pub of my Youth

The Bull, the village pub was their meeting point. In those days back in the 1950s and early 60s, there were a number of bars in most pubs, developed from the feudal system of a single bar and adding bars as the social strata or class-consciousness of the population emerged. Opening and closing times were lawfully established during the 1st world war, due in no small measure by well-paid munitions workers, mainly women, popping out for a ‘quick one’, resulting in dud munitions for our brave boys at the front and a complete disregard for any ‘health and safety rules’, such as there were, in the factories.
So, here we are fifty or sixty years later in the British pub where smoking was obligatory and no piped music or television disturbed the hum of conversation mingled with bursts of laughter which caressed the jovial ambience.
My local, The Bull, a village hostelry, was a good example of thousands dotted around the country. A public bar for manual workers where beer was the mainstay, a lounge where both sexes mingled and included a carpet and chairs as well as posh drinks like rye and dry, gin and tonic and advocat. Crisps and peanuts were usually available. Tucked away near a lavatory with the occasional vase of faded chrysanthemums and faded photographs of Queen Victoria was the snug, a bar ostensibly frequented by very old ladies sometimes accompanied by very old men with very old comfy chairs and lots of port and lemons and sweet sherry. Then there was the ‘gentleman’s only’ bar. It was, in essence, a self-regulating gentleman’s drinking club dispensing beer and spirits, but no food of any kind not even a packet of crisps. Quite often the bar itself was administered by a barmaid. Usually, a lady of uncertain years with exquisitely coiffured and lacquered hair, face plastered with makeup, feisty when hassled and non-committal when not. Moderation of language was reflexive, social class was varied; bank managers, solicitors, members of the clergy and bookmakers mixed with farm hands, lathe operators and hospital porters. So long as one accepted the protocols and were something of a character, you were welcome.
During the week-day opening times, a self-disciplined overlapping rotation between the ‘early door’ drinkers was evident. At ten twenty-five in the morning, the ‘early door’ imbibers could be found shuffling around the pub’s threshold with fervent symptoms of dehydration until they heard ‘mine landlord’ throw the locks back on the door at ten thirty. Their lurch towards the bar turned into a fair imitation of the start of a horse race at the drop of the starter’s flag. Those desperate chaps, now assuaging their thirst in the in the ‘Gent’s Only,’ were followed half an hour later by a brigade of retired chaps with shopping bags half full of fresh fruit and vegetables on their daily need for ‘wife absenteeism’, a long-standing agreement that the husband would ‘pop out’ for a bit of shopping while his better half scrubbed the floors and suchlike. The ‘early door’ ensemble rarely stayed after one o’ clock. They were ostensibly, if not god-fearing men, wife fearing, and needed a tipple of ‘heart starters’ for medical reasons among others.
On a Sunday morning, when the licensing laws decreed pubs should open at noon and close at, the vicar, after the morning service and delivering a mind numbing sermon, would pop his head into the melee and be given a half a pint of bitter, then vanish, the local bobby, in mufti, would have a pint and depart, usually to the public bar and have another. Wives were conspicuous by their absence on Sunday lunchtimes. Cooking duties prevailed.
Sunday evening opening hours twixt 7pm and 10.30 were times of reflection for most imbibers. The husbands having consumed six pints of ‘Banks bitter’ then vast quantities of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding followed by a siesta and an afternoon tea consisting of plates of jam sandwiches and current cake were ready for the evening session. This session had to be crammed into about 3 hours. The various bars, with their traditional social class distinctions prevailing as per mid-week sessions, although animated somewhat by instinctive indigestion reflex actions of a noisy and malodorous nature.
I learnt the gentle nuances of village social etiquette in the ‘Gent’s Only’. I learnt that unless you are a murderer or child molester your background doesn’t matter. I learned never to talk about politics or religion. I learned the signs of the imminent disgorgement of the six pints of Bank’s Bitter I had drunk with gay abandon on an empty tummy and the advantage of hiding behind an oak tree in the car park while performing the actual purging.