Recent focus on our esteemed lady Queen and her upcoming Diamond-encrusted Jubilee (in particular the recent Government announcement extending licensing hours on the Friday/Saturday celebration weekend) got me thinking how different Lizzie’s life must be to you peasants out there – ruled as it is by a series of codes and etiquette impenetrable to those not in the know.
However, a recent trip to my local pub(s) blew this conception out of the malted barley, hops and water. The Queen has it easy compared to the elaborate rituals undertaken each day by those superlative souls who venture into our nation’s many public houses. I intend here to describe some of these in more detail to assist the drinking enlightenment of the nation:
Ritual 1: The Journey to the Bar
The first stage in the pub ceremony is the approach to the hallowed bar to purchase one’s beverage. Before any human contact is made, the experienced pub-goer will judge the best moment to strike – for example if you are entering the pub make sure you get in first before a large group of people which will retard your ordering opportunity. One thing to look out for, especially in central London or other tourist cities (if there are any others in the UK), is groups of our overseas ‘friends’ at the bar. They will inevitably stand around for an age deciding what to drink and then ordering a tap water to the annoyance of you and the barstaff. The group will then insist on paying (individually rather than a group) with £50 notes for half a lager and a packet of crisps. This is a hazardous part of the ritual and will leave you thirsty and annoyed.
Ritual 2: The Contacting of the Eyes
Once you eventually get to the bar, the challenge is to get served yourself. Not as much of a problem as it used to be, as most pubs are adequately staffed, you still occasionally get busy periods. The pub expert will not shout nor wave money nor tap coins on the bar – this is a sure recipe to get completely ignored. Instead one must stand still, with a vague air of expectation and subtly try and catch the barperson’s eye. Then your drink must be ordered. Pubs have a wide selection of drinks on offer, however a pint of beer, from the vast range of styles available, should be top of the list. I once saw the terrible sight of a gentleman ordering a pot of tea for himself, on a Friday evening, which took a generation to make, while thirsty customers waited with throats unslaked – a heinous sight. One you have your pint, make your way to be seated.
Ritual 3: The Choosing of the Seat
This is also an area beset by traps for the unwary. In many pubs with an older clientele you may come across what is known in Germany as a ‘Stammtisch’ – seats for regular customers that no other mortals must use. If you are unfortunate enough to sit here, you will notice disapproving looks from other patrons until a wizened old man with a roll-up behind his ear drinking a pint of mild informs you ‘that’s Ted/Alf/Leroy’s seat’ which is the sign for you to apologise and move away to another table – even if the said local is not even in the pub.
To conclude, the seemingly simple task of going into a pub and buying a drink is subject to a Byzantine ritualistic process which has evolved over many years – making the monarchy look relatively straightforward. This pub etiquette is almost unique to our treasured isle, and is a defining feature of one of Britain’s most enduring institutions!
And however convoluted it may be, you know it’s worth it.