Reading lists

The best pubs in literature

With a bank holiday approaching and no open pubs in sight, Rob Crossan rounds up the finest literary ones to indulge in, instead. 

Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Bonhomie. Bravado. Bonding. And let’s not forget booze. The British pub excels at providing all of the above, usually with a side order of pork scratchings and a charity box for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

As memories of spending the evening in a humble hostelry become ever dimmer, thank goodness for the books that provide us with glorious depictions of all types of tavern, from the bucolic rural inn to the most nefarious urban dive.

Here’s five of the most visceral descriptions of the greatest, the scariest and most memorable pubs put on the page:

Lesser Bohemians
Faber & Faber

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

Like a boozy Mrs. Dalloway with cigarettes and sex-drive rather than bonnets and bouquets, our gloriously free-form, disordered protagonist, set alongside McBride’s chaotic eruption of soaring, atmospheric prose, is perfect for capturing the rush, babble and clangour of pubs on a Saturday night.

Liberated from the conventions of plot (nothing really happens in this book except a small town woman moves to North London and sleeps, drinks and smokes with an older man) there’s immense scope for McBride to take us into the fug of 1990’s Camden boozers.

‘Feast of the crowd. Pub. Saturday night. Rites of laughter. Crisps. Fag. Pint. Flatmate declares he’s off for a slash, deserting me to the boots and bag-straps.’

Don’t come to this book if you want naturalistic descriptions of pub furniture and lager brands. This is a claustrophobic, unadorned piece of disjointed observation and dialogue. But The Lesser Bohemians is superb at taking us back to the last decade where the majority of young people didn’t give a damn about their health. It’s also a record of the dying rasp of when pubs were still places that almost seemed to suck you into them with their eye-watering miasma of tobacco smoke, peanuts and urinal cakes.

Last Orders

Last Orders by Graham Swift

Whilst other authors put pubs as ribald places full of action and drama, Graham Swift, in this 1996 novel, focuses on a group of elderly gents as they gather in their Bermondsey local The Coach and Horses to embark on a day trip to the Kent coast to scatter their friends ashes.

‘I suck an inch off my pint and light up a snout. There’s maybe three or four other early birds apart from me, and the place don’t look its best. Chilly, a whiff of disinfectant, too much empty space….Makes you think of a church. I sit there watching the old clock up behind the bar…The bottles racked up like organ pipes.’

It’s the best description of an empty pub, past its best but still beloved, that we have in English literature. Wonderfully, this books back and forwards time narrative means we get to meet the male protagonists in their younger days too; still in the same pub, but with a little more vim and vigour in their limbs and loins.

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