Alongside The Queen Vic and the Rover’s Return, George Orwell’s The Moon Under Water is perhaps the most famous fictional public house in Britain. In 1946, the Evening Standard published the short essay in which he painted his picture of a perfect London pub. With ten key qualities, he brought together many familiar and established pub characteristics and added a few of his own invention. What could have been first mistaken as a glowing review of somewhere he had been and enjoyed, actually only ever existed in his imagination. Reading over Orwell’s vision of the pub 70 years later, how relevant is it today in the context of declining pub numbers and use?
“GREAT FOOD, WELL KEPT ALE”
Whilst it did not serve dinner, ‘The Moon’ had a ‘good solid lunch’ available upstairs and a well-stocked snack counter (though the ‘liver-sausage sandwiches’ and ‘boiled jam rolls’ are off most menus these days). Over the last 25 years, many pubs have reinvented themselves as ‘gastropubs’, offering a wider food selection and elevating ‘pub grub’ into well-cooked British fayre. The overall quality of the food on offer is, without doubt, continuing to rise across the country’s pubs. Tasty and affordable food is key to many pubs’ reinvention today, and most tend to serve dinner too.
Stout, in Orwell’s time was hard to come by, but it was on tap in his favourite pub, and of the darkest and creamiest variety, just as he liked it. Drinks are served in their correct and intended pots, and the establishment is very ‘particular’ about this. Today, new and exciting drinks are constantly on rotation as Britain enjoys a resurgence of ale with the rise of local craft breweries. With it, the classic dimpled glass ‘handle’ has also seen a return, the drinking vessel traditionally associated with bitter and ale.
WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME
The pub provides the venue for an ‘elaborate social ritual’, as Orwell described in another article he wrote for the Standard. At a time before television, mobiles and social media, the pub of the 1940s offered entertainment, escapism and companionship. Cinema and radio were the ‘passive drug-like pleasures’ opposed to the ‘creative’ and ‘communal’ forms of recreation found in social interactions over a pint of beer. Free of the ‘solitary mechanical amusements’ of the radio, The Moon is a pub geared towards good conversation. Always quiet enough to talk, it offers a unique ‘atmosphere’ generated by the interactions of people from different walks of life who might not otherwise meet.
The bar staff (exclusively middle-aged and female in Orwell’s time) know the regulars by name and where their favourite seats are. The somewhat motherly barmaid ‘takes an interest‘ keeping an eye on the community. The clientele is mostly made of regulars making The Moon a ‘community pub’. As opposed to serving a passing trade of tourists, visitors or workers, ‘locals’ mainly serve people who live or reside nearby.
Today, ‘locals’ account for around 57% of the pubs in the country, according to ‘Pubs and Places’, a report produced in 2012 by the Institute for Public Policy Research. As the report aptly describes, pubs are places where ‘a community can bounce off itself’. 69% of all adults believe that a well-run community pub is as important to community life as a post office, a local store or a community centre.
With current economic and social pressures challenging pubs of today, creative solutions are now being sought to retain them at the centre of their communities. As with Orwell’s literary creation, the formula of success is often to retain the best elements of a pub, introducing new functions to help them improve, reinvent and prosper. Now 70 years old, some elements of The Moon Under Water that might seem outdated or antiquated but plenty that we still identify with and cherish.
The Moon Under Water by George Orwell
Book Review of The Pub and the People by George Orwell
http://www.ippr.org/publications/pubs-and-places-the-social-value-of-community-pubs - Pubs and places: The social value of community pubs (2nd ed, 2012)