The overrated British pub yields a Bawlmer occasion


February 09, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- At some point, after living here a while, one has to come to terms with the public house -- for nothing better captures England's idea of itself than the pub.

Of it, Samuel Johnson said: "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good tavern or inn."

But where do you find this "throne of human felicity?" as Dr. Johnson called it. How odd that something that is everywhere, on every street, remains so elusive.

Dr. Johnson's divine pub is difficult to find because it is really an ideal.

Comfort and warmth is what a pub is about. A pub must be snug. It must have a mock oriental rug, the glint of copper against the wood, a minute fire in a Victorian hearth, a cheery man who, at a certain hour intones, "Time, gentlemen."

Michael Jackson, a British expert, believes pubs have improved lately: "They're more comfortable. They serve better food than they used to. They welcome children."

But they have deteriorated in his mind in one important respect. "The predominate role of the pub was always as a place where people went to talk to other people. This 'social role,' " he said, has weakened.

Ian Loe, of the Campaign for Real Ale, a lobby organized to improve the quality of British beer, also thinks something's missing: "Today too many pubs are run by people, or companies, that really don't understand what the institution is all about."

Pubs must be old. Even when they are not, they must suggest antiquity, to take in at least those who come from outside the neighborhood and aren't aware The Broken Arms has not really been there since 1795, but only recently replaced a failed laundromat.

Many pubs in London actually are old. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street is said to have been in business before the Great Fire of 1666. It was closed most of last year for renovation. It reopened recently looking older than ever.

Down the street the venerable Punch Tavern still does business. This is where the founders of the defunct humor magazine of the same name used to get legless.

The English pub is a cliche, cultivated by the tourist industry, a soft and welcoming place that celebrates Cockney taste. And in truth, Andy Capp still haunts the pub. That was one reason the Wine Bar gained popularity in London.

It allowed middle class imbibers to distance themselves from the Andy Capps -- Andy being, when you got right down to it, a wife beater and small-caliber thug, though always endearingly chipper.

A lot of romance has been written about the pub. One Belfast journalist saw it as, "A place where philosophy graduates from the University of Life generously exchange information with the less fortunate folk who have been educated in places where you have to pass exams."

Nourished by this kind of stuff, the mythology of the pub creates large expectations. But you can spend your life in a pub and never encounter a graduate from "the University of Life" or experience a magical coincidence.

But, then, there was Desmond Exley, met in The Britannia.

He was a barrister, and a man of the world. He had had a broadening experience in his early years, for he was among those thousands of children evacuated from Britain's cities in the 1940s to avoid German bombs.

Most went to the countryside, others to Australia, Canada, some to the United States. Desmond went to an improbable place.

"It was a very interesting place, as I recall," he said, though unable to locate it on the map of his memory. "A community of small bungalows, arranged on streets with odd names. Names of airplane parts."

"Like Fuselage Avenue? Cockpit Street?"

"Exactly!" His eyes flashed. "Now, where was that? It was so many years ago. . ."

fTC "Near Baltimore?"

"That's it!" Desmond was snapping his fingers, trying to call forth the name of that place that had given him refuge.

"Aero Acres?"

"You've got it! That's it. Here, have a pint on me. How strange that you would know about that. How strange."

Sort of a magical coincidence, you might say.

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