Andrew Stuttaford at National Review noted this weekend the passing of one of the classic bars in Manhattan, the former speakeasy Bill’s Gay Nineties Restaurant and Piano Bar. (That’s Speakeasy as in, Large Men Will Break Your Legs If You Work For The Cops, not Speakeasy as in, Dude, You Get To Go All Maxwell Smart On The Phonebooth In Back Of The Hotdog Shop!) In so doing, he makes mention of a great essay by George Orwell in which he describes what is, for Orwell, the perfect English Pub. George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, kiddies. They are two books you used to have to read, but usually don’t any more because, well, they don’t want you to read them anymore.
The Moon Under Water, the pub Orwell describes, is a fantasy, simply Orwell’s description of what a Pub should be, or ought to have been in wartime England. It is a lovely piece of writing, and while it would likely not be (as Andrew suggests) the perfect American bar, there is much here to chew on. I’m going to highlight a few of the elements that Orwell imagined in his perfect pub that I think ought to be universal, and a few that perhaps don’t work across time or ocean.
Also, it’s a chance to quote Orwell and generally class up the writing around here a bit.
My favourite public-house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights.
He opens by noting that the Moon is easy to get to, but is neither hip nor happening. Assholes need not apply. I think you can certainly agree that a great bar should be generally free of rowdy assholes. Unless you are a rowdy asshole, of course. In such case we can take comfort in the likelihood that you don’t read this blog, and the near certainty you don’t read Orwell….
In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of a decorous kind.
Mega-Dittos, Rush, er, George. Nightclubs should have loud music. Pickup joints in general should have deafening music. There is no reason in places like that to risk your personality taking away from whatever attractiveness alcohol has bequeathed you. There will be time enough in the morning to discover what a crashing bore you’ve hooked up with, right? But a good bar should make socialization easy. Either with friends, or with complete strangers. If you cannot solve the Problems of the World with a drinking companion known five years or five minutes in a bar, it is simply not a great bar.
In America today, by the way, this means no TV… anywhere in the bar. Nothing sucks the life out of conversation faster than the flickering idiot box. Sports bars need TVs, but beyond that, keep one in the back and wheel it out for people to listen to in the event we declare war, or Elvis returns.
They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drink to be transparent, but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china.
First, I did not know this about china and beer. I intend to try it and see. Anyone else in America use china? Any bars?
This and other comments in the piece show that an English pub, at least of Orwell’s day, was about beer. Here, cocktails are much more the focus, whether you mean the extravagant concoctions of the discerning booze nerd, or the sea of Jack and Cokes and Kangaroo Cocktails in more mainstream joints. And even for customers who don’t actively notice it, drinking vessels matter. The size, heft, and quality of glasses lend more to the quality of the drinking experience than most customers, or bar owners for that matter, realize.
And care of those vessels matters too, though Orwell neglects to mention it. A dirty, water-spotted glass puts me off almost instantly. And you best have built up a veritable sea of good times with me in the past if you want me to ever darken your door again should my glass, or those of any of my party, sports even a trace of lipstick.
Orwell speaks of the Moon’s garden, a family friendly environment.
Many as are the virtues of the Moon Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.
He is more open to the presence of children, at least on the periphery, than I am, or think Americans in general are with our bars. But his main thrust here is that wives drink with their husbands in his mythical perfect pub. I also think this is a huge deal. A bar whose customer base is too much one sex or the other is dreary for every day drinking. Yes, a boys’ or girls’ club is refreshing from time to time, and frankly, we need more of them in these politically correct times. But a really good general purpose bar ought to mirror one’s community and civilization. Further, a great bar should have a solid leavening of couples in its crowd at all times. And not just dates and hookups in progress, but husbands and wives out meeting other husbands and wives. Such atmosphere is healthy and robust, and offers all involved a richer, fuller evening out.
Not all of his suggestions, though are that great, at least to me.
The barmaids know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone. They are all middle-aged women—two of them have their hair dyed in quite surprising shades—and they call everyone ‘dear,’ irrespective of age or sex. (‘Dear,’ not ‘Ducky’: pubs where the barmaid calls you ‘ducky’ always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere.)
Some of this is awesome. Regulars expect and deserve to be known and recognized as such, and newcomers likewise deserve to be taken interest in. But I am not a fan of the motherly or fatherly aura in my bartenders or servers. Likewise, I’m not advocating the whole “breastaurant” concept for this either. But if given my druthers, I’d rather the bartenders and servers be attractive, and perhaps just a bit younger than the clientele… so long as they don’t act like it.
The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed bull’s head over the mantelpiece — everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century.
Yes, I really like a good bar that has a well-maintained but lived-in feel. And true, nothing makes a space feel more “lived-in” than yellow nicotine stains. But I do not personally like the smell of cigarettes; not when they are being smoked, and especially not when they were smoked 18 years earlier. That said, the perfect bar can allow cigarette smoking. It just won’t be my hangout. Bars should absolutely be allowed to allow smoking. As a business decision, most of them should not. But that should be their choice. A perfect bar for the smoker is one that allows smoking, and non-smokers should just go elsewhere. And vice-versa.
A great bar is filled with happy people, and smokers who can’t are not, and non-smokers who essentially must are not either.
There is more, and the piece is well-worth reading just for the atmosphere it evokes. It is nice to see that Orwell could paint a luxurious fantasy idyll just as well as he could a hideous, plausible nightmare. What else do you think a perfect bar should boast?