Review of The Pub and the People by Mass-Observation

It is a pity that this large and careful survey could not have had a short appendix indicating what effect the war has had on our drinking habits. It seems to have been compiled just before the war, and even in that short period of time beer has doubled in price and been heavily diluted.

Writing at a time when ‘mild’ was still fivepence a pint (between 1936 and 1941 rearmament only raised it by a penny), the Mass-Observers found that in ‘Worktown’ the regular pub-goer was putting away, on average, between fifteen and twenty pints a week. This sounds a good deal, but it is unquestionable that in the past seventy years the annual consumption of beer per head has decreased by nearly two-thirds, and it is the Mass-Observers’ conclusion that ‘the pub as a cultural institution is at present declining’. This happens not merely because of persecution by Nonconformist Town Councils, nor even primarily because of the increased price of drink, but because the whole trend of the age is away from creative communal amusements and towards solitary mechanical ones. The pub, with its elaborate social ritual, its animated conversations and – at any rate in the North of England – its songs and week-end comedians, is gradually replaced by the passive, drug-like pleasures of the cinema and the radio. This is only a cause for rejoicing if one believes, as a few Temperance fanatics still do, that people go to pubs to get drunk. The Mass-Observers, however, have no difficulty in showing that there was extraordinarily little drunkenness in the period they were studying: for every five thousand hours that the average pub stays open, only one of its clients is drunk and disorderly.

Working on the more old-fashioned provincial pubs where the various bars are still separate rooms and not, as in London, merely one long counter separated by partitions, the authors of this book have unearthed much curious information. In a short review it is impossible to dilate on the complex social code that differentiates the saloon bar from the public bar, or on the delicate ritual that centres round treating, or the cultural implications of the trend towards bottled beer, or the rivalry between church and pub and the consequent guilt-feelings associated with drinking; but the average reader is likely to find Chapters V, VI and VII the most interesting. At least one of the Observers seems to have taken the extreme step of being initiated into the Buffaloes, about which there are some surprising revelations. A questionnaire issued through the local press, asking people why they drink beer, elicited from more than half the answer that they drank it for their health – probably an echo of the brewers’ advertisements which talk of beer as though it were a kind of medicine. There were some who answered more frankly, however: ‘A middle-aged man of about 40 of labouring type says, “What the bloody hell dost tha tak it for?” I said for my health; he said “Th’art a — liar”. I paid for him a gill’.[1]

And one woman answered the questionnaire thus:

My reason is, because I always liked to see my grandmother having a drink of beer at night. She did seem to enjoy it, and she could pick up a dry crust of bread and cheese, and it seemed like a feast. She said if you have a drink of beer you will live to be one hundred, she died at ninety-two. I shall never refuse a drink of beer. There is no bad ale, so Grandma said.

This little piece of prose, which impresses itself upon the memory like a poem, would in itself be a sufficient justification of beer, if indeed it needed justifying.


[1] A gill is a quarter of a pint except in areas indicated by the accent, where it is half a pint. Peter Davison, from the Complete Works, XIV, 1833.

The Listener, 21 January 1943. Orwell was paid a fee of £2.2s for this review.