THE INNER WORKINGS OF THE PROVINCIAL BRITISH DRINKER
In Britain, there’s something sinister about entering a pub for the first time. As you cross the threshold, there's a voyeuristic quality to the first few seconds, like you’ve walked in on some dogging hotspot. Peering through the gloom (British pubs are never well lit), you’ll notice every eye upon you, offering a professional appraisal of your pub credentials. The male will be scored on his ability to drink pints, experience on the fruit machine, and potential as a darts partner in the doubles arena. Females will be scored on their tits and arse.
Let us be clear - this is not the cosmopolitan cocktail bar in Westminster. This is the King’s Head, the Stag, the Crown. The fading facade and sticky floors of village and town dominated by the hard-working class.
The provincial British drinker has an animalistic hierarchy. At the bottom sit the young men. Under twenty, they feverishly circle the pool table, smashing down the fare for the next game, which must always be 50p (£1 and they can shove it). Victory against a more seasoned opponent is rocket fuel for their upward social mobility, as is going the distance on a twelve hour binge at the weekend.
Just above this crew are the elderly. Former rank and file, they line the walls, tossing advice and mild racism between horse racing analysis. “Seen that darkie up the road?”,“McCoy’s going well this week”, “sixteen double tops’ll do”. These old boys are first in and first out, giving way to the current platoon around 6pm. Forty years of throwing, potting, chalking, and lifting pints takes it out of you.
Then come the NCOs. Ages range between 25-40, and their IQ is measured not in logic or general knowledge, but checkout darts, black ball angles, and cushion physics. These are the ones who will make or break you on entry. They are the police, the judges, the executioners if things get out of hand, but also the comics, slashing and parrying insults and jibes over a bad miss, or being in the ‘madhouse’ (a double one finish in darts).
Finally, there is the hall of fame. The legendary puggy-rippers and pint-downers. The one-punch-fighters and pool-masters. These are the kings of the British pub, able to balance two full-time jobs (one outside, one in).
In concert, this is one community. There’s an element of escapism, fleeing from the monotony of the minimum wage labour or office slog, and a collectivism, personified by the buying of rounds, the shoulder-to-shoulder defence when rivals come for league darts, and the homoeroticism that comes later in the evening, the touching and feeling after a good round of pool or shots of some brown spirit (bright colours are for benders).
You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a place the queer community is outlawed, but this is no hotbed of homophobia. Epithets like ‘poof’ and ‘shirt lifter’ aren’t hurled, they are lobbed, easy to throw and easy to catch by their target. In the minds of the pub community, it’s the not knowing that's disturbing, the shifty glances at the urinal which mask a curiosity for one half, and pure disgust for the other. A gay man who is a know quantity can be folded into the fabric, as long as he can drink, curse, and isn’t too much of a fairy. For the rigidly heterosexual pub-goer, gay men are from mars, but they can get on with it now they’re here. I asked a gay bar man what it was like to be a gay bar man, particularly in an pub where racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs were furniture. The response was simple; "it’s like being a straight bar man." Cognitive dissonance this is not. Calling someone gay is to say nothing about their sexuality. Rather, it’s a comment on their non-adherence to the status quo. Drinking anything other than lager or strong dark liquor is gay. Missing the board in darts is limp-wristish. Playing a song slower than 145bpm on the jukebox is poofy. It’s all a part of the honor code.
Much like the anthropologist who immerses himself in the tribe, you must learn that honor code. There are spoken and unspoken laws, by-laws, amendments, and contingency plans which must be absorbed and lived by. Naturally, these vary from place to place, but their existence does not. An excellent pot on the pool table must be rewarded with a thump of the cue on the floor, and the winner must always stay on. In darts, it’s ‘mugs away’ to start a new game (the loser throws first). In the pisser, a urinal must always be left between two men, that is, until full inebriation is achieved, then it’s arm in arm and flow’s away. Cigarette breaks are often and encouraged. To live by the rules is to be part of the group, which, regardless of the entrant’s background or circumstance, is the goal.
There’s a temptation to dwarf the men who rule the British pub. To relegate them to a lesser state, or consider them to hum at a lower frequency. It must be resisted. To stay in their company is to bask in pure contentedness, if only for a few hours. In those turns of the clock, you witness what it really is to revel in the company of others. These are the men of Billy Bragg’s Northern Industrial Town - “On payday they tear the place down/with a pint in your hand, and a bash ‘em out band/sure they’d dance to the rhythm of the rain coming down”.
There’s no 401k, pension plan, or quarterly bonus in these pubs. There’s the pay packet on Friday, the 15 pint Saturday and the hangover Sunday. The week is spent in anticipation, and the weekend’s dread drowned at birth in 5% ABV. To think on it - what could be better than spending your time and money with the people who bring you joy?
To the uninitiated onlooker, who sees the pissing against spinning walls at midnight, or the unmoderated oaths during a smoke break, it’s easy to paint in broad strokes. Scum, hooligans, wasters one and all. To those who’ve ventured past the squints and glares of the first encounter, Princes, Kings, and Emperors, heralded by the clink of glass, the thud of dart, and bound by honor.
- July, 2015