Robin Turner talks to Peter Moore about the ghost of George Orwell and his quest to find the perfect British pub
The pub, as a cornerstone of British life, has never been more under threat. With smoking bans and the cost of a round being roughly equivalent to the price of a multipack from a supermarket, there are something like 57 pubs closing every week.
Robin Turner and Paul Moody headed off in pursuit of pubs that fizz with independence and a true frontier spirit, travelling from Edinburgh to the Pembury Estate in Hackney, from the Isle of Lundy to the House of Commons.
Robin Turner talks to Peter Moore about how the journey evolved into an elegy for the local pub, and for the bookshop and the greengrocers, all of which have faced detriment through the rise of the supermarkets and pubcos (pub companies).
What set you off on this quest to find the perfect pub?
Paul and I wrote a book a few years ago called the Rough Pub Guide. The idea was to write about unreconstructed pubs. Pubs that weren’t in chains. Pubs that were a little rough around the edges as opposed to rough, you’ll get beaten up. As we were researching pubs for that book we found ourselves wondering more about the philosophy of pubs. What actually constitutes a brilliant pub?
How did George Orwell come to be your muse?
George Orwell wrote a piece for the Evening Standard in 1946 about the perfect pub. It struck us that much of what he wrote was applicable now and set us off on a bit of a quest really. With Orwell as a guiding spirit, we would explore the length of the land to find pubs that matched his criteria.
According to that article, Orwell’s idea of the perfect pub was, “no rowdies, no music and a motherly barmaid who calls you ‘dearie'.” What's your idea of a perfect pub?
Pretty much exactly the same! (Laughs)
Orwell's ideas were obviously in tune with the scene in 1946, but I think a lot of his basic premises still apply. The perfect pub is a place that feels homely, that feels inviting, that isn’t in your face the whole time. A place where you don’t have shout to be heard, where the bar staff don’t treat you as if you are transient. If you can feel like a regular or a local, that’s almost the perfect pub experience really.
It interests me that with your background in the music industry that you agree with Orwell’s ‘No Music’ rule.
There’s a touch of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do here because I part-own The Social, a bar in Soho, which is very much a music venue.
When we set up The Social that was where we were at that point in our lives. I still love that place to bits. I think it’s fantastic. But what I look for as a 40-year-old bloke is quite a different thing. It’s a certain kind of calm.
Can there be a pub that is perfect for everyone?
As we researched the book it quickly became apparent that the perfect pub is going to be different for everyone. And it’s going to be different for you at different points of your life. In your 20s you might just want to go out on the pull and get smashed. But at a certain point, you want something a bit calmer. The interesting thing was coming across young people who shun the craziness of a mental pub and actually want the place where the old blokes sit drinking real ale.
So it’s not just beardy guys searching out these places?
No! Seven years ago I became that guy who cares what beer he is drinking and was just as shocked as anyone else. You should have seen the look on my dad's face when he took me to a pub and I drank the same real ale as him.
The subtitle of the book, Looking for the Moon Under Water, obviously references the Orwell article. But it also suggests that what you were undertaking is an impossible task.
There was a line we kept coming up with throughout the book, which was like a mantra to us: ‘Sometimes a good pub is just one that is open.’
As much as you’d like to seek out this perfection, sometimes it’s just the nearest one that fits the bill. The thing about a quest for perfection is that you’re going to end up disappointed a lot of the times.
In Orwell's The Moon under Water article, the big reveal at the end is that the place doesn’t exist. Having said that, one of the things we do in the book is find the pubs that he based the article on. They are all still there. The three or four pubs that he based it on. One of them is probably quite close to the ideal he was talking about.
Which one is that?
I’m giving away the end of the book now! (Laughs).
It’s the Compton Arms in Islington. It’s basically very near to where he used to live, in Cannonbury Square. It’s a pub that’s two minutes walk from Upper Street. Drunks and rowdies don’t find it because there is a big super-dome beer hall on Highbury Corner where they are quite happy to hang out.
Whether it was by accident or design, when he describes his perfect pub, it is evocative of the unobtainable. Yet this place is pretty close!
Did you notice any geographical variations? Were the pubs in the north better than the pubs in the south?
Well, I’m Welsh so I found the pubs in Wales, much, much, much better!
Funnily enough, me and Paul approached the quest from slightly different angles. Paul very much loves pubs and pub culture and that was definitely a lot stronger in the north.
On the other hand, for me it was very much about the beer. I found that London is the boom place for that. Pubs are becoming more experimental and stocking things that are brewed very locally. So for me, London became a real hub point. I’ve got probably four breweries that have opened up within two miles of my house in the last six months.
It's not all rosy though, is it?
We tried to focus on places where the situation wasn't quite so rosy. Where good pubs were the exception rather than the rule. There are a lot of places out there where people are trying very hard and really struggling. In London you can walk out your door and find four or five pubs that are good. It’s glory days for London pubs. They have all these punters wanting to try different kinds of beers. As ever, London is its own island, really.
You found micro-brewers setting up in the most extraordinary of places.
One of the brewers I interviewed in the book, runs a brewery called the Kernel, which has been around 18 months. He’s already multi-award winning and his brewery is just under a railway arch underneath the railway line that goes out to Kent near London Bridge. They’re always in these most inconspicuous places and these people are churning out magic in these horrible disused places.
There’s this idea that micro-brewing equals good. Is that true? Did you come across any awful micro-brewed beers?
You come across a lot more terrible mass-produced beers. I try to see the good in everything even if the only thing is that it’s got a high alcohol content!
Do you see these pubs being swamped by the pubcos? Or are they fighting back?
One of the more intriguing points for us, towards the end of the book was the fact that licensing laws have changed so that people can set up pubs in disused shops, simply by changing the licensing agreements. To me that makes perfect sense. If you’re living in a community where your local pub is under pressure, why not double as a post office and corner store, as well?
There’s an example in the book of a guy who has opened a pub in an old butcher shop. He didn’t need much capital. He didn’t need to buy into a lease, he didn’t have to deal with a pubco, he bought directly from the brewers. It became this little cottage industry.
If we can have more people doing that then we’re OK. The pubcos can swallow up the big pubs and homogenise them – the one in Hartlepool is the same as the one in Harlow, which is the same as the one in Hastings. But these little independent pubs can be individual, they can be eccentric. They may only serve 20-30 people in the community, but at least they’re all happy.
What was the most memorable experience you had in a pub during your research?
It was the pub on Lundy, a little island in the Bristol channel. I went with my dad. We went on a paddle steamer. You can only go there in the summer and you can only go when the weather is good. We had two or three attempts trying to get there. The weather was bad and it was cancelled.
You’re on the boat for four hours before you touch land and then you’ve got two hours on the island. There’s not much on Lundy. There’s a nature reserve for bird-watching and a coastal nature reserve with amazing sea-life. And a pub.
The pub is phenomenal. My dad has been going there once a year for donkey’s years. It’s just this most perfect boozer and they’ve got two beers on tap, brewed by St Austell’s in Cornwall, specifically for the pub.
It’s incredible! They’re selling pickled gulls eggs on the bar. Orwell would have loved it. You don’t get any drunks or rowdies in there. Two hours after you start drinking a big horn goes on the boat and you’ve got five minutes to sprint back down the hill to the boat. If you miss it, you’re screwed. The next boat is three or four days later.
What advice do you have for people looking for a good pub on their travels? Are there any tell-tales signs for pubs to visit and those to avoid?
If you get someone who looks like they’d rather be checking Facebook. If it immediately seems like your considered a pain in the arse for just being there, leave immediately. There’s always another good pub around the corner.
Looking For The Moon Under the Water – The Search for the Perfect Pub is published by Orion Books. It can be ordered on Amazon now.