What is the perfect British pub? Although it’s an innocuous enough question, the answer will likely be entirely different dependant on the person asked and their state of mind at the time. Having turned 40 this year, my current vision of public house perfection is barely recognisable from the boozer I idly dreamt of as a twenty year old. Or as a thirty year old. I’m pretty certain that if my embattled liver holds out for the next ten, twenty – God knows, maybe even thirty – years, that mental image of the perfect pub will keep on evolving and mutating, undergoing mental refurbishments as my personal taste dictates the volume of music and what type of beer ends up flowing from the taps.
That said, amongst the many million different ideals, there is one perfect boozer that stands alone; its blueprint carved into the very foundations of pub folklore. Untouchable by progress and gentrification, it is locked into history as the alco-Xanadu for afternoon drinkers and barroom philosophers the world over.
The Moon Under Water was mapped out by George Orwell for a column in the Evening Standard in 1946, sometime after publication of Animal Farm and during the developmental stages of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although Orwell’s pub was a fiction (based on three or more Highbury hostelries), the central tenets were eternal. It’s a best kept secret that drunks and rowdies never seem to find, the barmaid calls you dear, the beer is exquisite and served in just the right vessel.
Orwell penned the paean to the Moon Under Water in a near-condemnable flat in Canonbury just a year after the end of the War. The area had been hit badly by German raids on the capital (Highbury Corner being a post War creation after a doodlebug took out a street full of tenement housing.) The Moon represented sanctuary from the bombsites and the long drawn out misery of rationing. Like anyone’s perfect pub – whatever the age, whatever the circumstances – it was a place where the outside world could be put to the back of the mind for a couple of hours, where certain class divisions melted away, where conversation reigned supreme.
Unlike in Orwell’s day, in 2011 The Moon Under Water actually exists. A word of warning though – if you go looking for it, you might not like what you find. The J.D. Wetherspoon pub chain owns a dozen or so pubs called The Moon Under Water. They pay lip service to Orwell’s text but sadly can’t offer many of the salves that his pub inevitably did. There’s one in Leicester Square next to the Odeon, just beyond the red carpet in the slipstream of Capital Radio with its regular gaggles of (insert this year’s model here) superfans. And there’s one in the heart of Manchester, the biggest pub in the city, presided over by a waxwork model of Ena Sharples. It’s a safe bet that the occasional drunk might find his way there and that due to its status as the city centre’s busiest boozers, the barmaid might be a little hard pressed to call you ‘dear’ on a Friday night.
A chance visit to Leicester Square’s Moon Under Water prompted by heavy weather sparked an idea. Over a pint of Brains SA, I pondered Orwell’s piece whilst looking at a framed poster on the wall that explained to visiting tourists the etymology of the pub’s prosaic name. It seemed that while so much of what Orwell predicted in fiction has since come to pass (from surveillance culture and permanent warfare to the inevitable corruption of totalitarian states and the reductive language of the modern day tabloid press), his sage words on something as innocent as an ideal public house seemed as far from reality in the 21st century as a drove of talking pigs. Was there such a thing as a perfect pub in 2011? Do we – as a country – get the pub we want or the pub we deserve? In days of “vertical drinking establishments”, most people’s experience of pubs is about as far from the Orwell version as it’s possible to get.
Walking away from the pub that day with these thoughts in mind, Paul Moody and I decided to set off around the country on a quest to map the landscape one snug bar at a time. Following in the footsteps of Orwell at a time when pub losses in the UK were jaw-dropping (at one point 52 a week were stopping tap for the last time), we spent two years trying to work out why it was that pubs still mattered to us at all in the 21st century and why we still have such romantic notions of what the pub represents in British life. After all, the local Tesco sells the same beers at a fraction of the price – and by staying at home you don’t need to listen to some berk’s awful record collection all night. Along the way, we sat and we talked pub talk with pub people. Conversations were had with the likes of Words on Water contributor Paul Kingsnorth, psychogeographer extraordinaire Iain Sinclair, Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin and Pete Brown (“the Bill Bryson of beer writing”, according to the Times Literary Supplement) alongside a host of publicans, pop stars and politicians, brewers and bloggers. Everyone had an opinion – such is the unparalleled position held by the pub in this nation’s collective psyche – and every opinion sent us in down different roads in search of new venues.
So after two years of searching, did we pinpoint the country’s perfect pub? Was there a shining citadel where the beer you want is never off and the rebellious jukebox is dancing to just your tunes; one that drunks and rowdies never seem to find? If no lesser a genius than Orwell had to resort to fiction for the answer, then what chance would we have? We found a fair few boozers that flaunt character and independent spirit and a steadfast determination to avoid the pitfalls of homogenization.
At journey’s end, one thing was obvious. Everyone’s perfect pub is out there. If you’re looking for it, you’ll know it when you find it.
Best part of all, it’s a hell of a trip getting there.
Illustration by Peter Turner. A limited amount of signed first editions of The Search For The Perfect Pub: Looking For The Moon Under Water by Paul Moody and Robin Turner are available from the Caught By The River shop for £14.99. They come with a set of 4 exclusive postcards of Peter Turner’s illustrations (only available from Rough Trade East and Caught By The River).