Raise your glasses to social division…


I have made the decision to focus some festive season blogs on early thoughts about my annual lecture 2011 (tentative topic; towards a 21st century enlightenment organisation). Of course, I may fail or renege but as my readers were so incredibly helpful with last year’s lecture I will try my best to use my brain for at least 30 minutes a day between now and January 4th.

But, before I go all serious, I wanted to talk about pubs. The topic arose over Christmas lunch with my long-suffering but always brilliant PA, Barbara. She doesn’t drink so I was surprised when she told me not only how good she was as a barmaid but how much she enjoyed it.  As she described the pub in Burton with its bar full of clocking-off miners , I was whisked back to time when public houses conventionally maintained a clear divide between the public and saloon bar.

The former was ‘spit and sawdust’, the place for working men, rowdy youths, old codgers nursing a barley wine and women not too bothered about their reputation. The latter was all carpet, tasselled lampshades and flowery wall paper. The public bar might have a loud juke box, a dart board and shove ha’penny, the saloon would have piped music by Mantovani or James Last and, on special occasions, discreet bowls of cheese straws or peanuts on the counter.

In my own pub-going history the most important distinction was that the public bar had cheaper prices. My first ‘local’ was the County Arms right next to Wandsworth Prison (it’s still there doing a roaring trade). In the public bar a pint of Young's bitter was 33 pence while in the saloon in was 34 pence. Now, given that three pints got a 17 year old merry, and that I could usually persuade my mum to let me have a quid to go down the pub, this was a deeply significant price differential.  Not only could we sit outside in the summer (albeit feeling a bit guilty about parading our enjoyment before the thirsty eyes of the incarcerated), but the bar staff seemed relaxed about people buying a pint in one bar and drinking it in another. The public bar concept has a deep and warm place in my heart.

Now the public/saloon bar distinction has all but disappeared. In fact, I would be fascinated to know if it continues to exist anywhere in the form I enjoyed and exploited at the County Arms.  I guess the cause lies in a mixture of commercial opportunities, fashion, the appeal to youth and a general egalitarian spirit in retailing. But I miss it. Not only did it give places more character and drinkers more choice but it meant people could have two different types of night out at the same establishment: The public bar for a pint or five with the lads after work and the saloon bar for something more civilised with a date, spouse or parents.

Another memory links Christmas and pubs. On Boxing Day visits to my grandparents my dad used to take me to the pub on the way to Anfield to watch a great team of the Shankly era. The bars were full of men escaping the family Christmas. For years after - before I started going with mates - I assumed pubs were always full of men awkwardly wearing new jumpers and smoking cigars taken out of metal tubes.

The fact is I love pubs. Having a decent local is a massively important factor in my life satisfaction (where will it be in David Cameron's wellbeing index I wonder). When I lived in the West Midlands I was the only person under sixty ordering mild: it's so low in alcohol I could drink for hours without ever getting sloshed (mind you, I did develop a weight problem).

So, to keep my spirits up as I plough into thinking about organisational theory, please share your favourite pub recollections, and if you can’t tell me where I can still get a penny off in the public bar, how about joining my ‘time to bring back the class divide in pubs’ campaign.

Cheers and happy Christmas

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