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:

Under The Net by Iris Murdoch

This debut novel is a head rush-inducing sprint of a read. At times it seems that the ideas are coming so swiftly to Murdoch that she barely has time to put them to paper.

This staggering prose meets the ebullience of her mildly squalid cast of writers and delinquents in Under the Net, when Jake, Finn and co go on a freewheeling pub crawl around Farringdon and Clerkenwell. There, they take in the Viaduct Tavern, the Magpie and Stump, Short’s, the Watling Street Tavern, the Skinners Arms and the George; which is described as being:

‘…an agreeable Watney’s house with peeling walls and an ancient counter with one of those cut-glass and mahogany superstructures through which the barman peers like an enclosed ecclesiastic.’

Published in 1954, the book also features some charming justifications for an evening of excessive libations. None better than this belter of a bromide we’d all do well to remember come our first post-lockdown night out:

‘“I remember”, said Dave, “you once before told me it was bad form to drink in a pub you didn’t know the name of, or to enter a pub without drinking.”’

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.

London Fields by Martin Amis

Sometimes, the desire for a drink can lead you into pubs that under normal circumstances you wouldn’t go to even if the beer was free and you were guaranteed a seat next to Sir Ian McKellen.

Frequented by darts-loving anti-hero Keith Talent, the Black Cross is a sticky, sepulchral West London local that American narrator Samson Young visits to give us an overview of an average afternoon amid the fetid atmosphere of Amis’ 1989 vision of a near-future, dystopian capital.

‘I needed the company, hair-raising though much of it was. (Keith) gave me a game of pool. He showed me how to cheat the fruit machine…Taking my life in my hands, I ate a pork pie. Only one real fight so far. An incredible flurry of fists and nuttings, it ended with Keith carefully kicking selected areas of a fallen figure wedged into the doorway to the Gents.’

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.

'The Moon Under Water' by George Orwell

Orwell’s 1946 essay is about a place that, annoyingly for all concerned, doesn’t actually exist. His dream pub is, however, described down to the finest detail.

‘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 19th century.’

Alongside Orwell’s insistence that this pub should sell cigarettes, aspirins and stamps alongside creamy draft stout in a pewter pot and a snack bar offering liver sausage sandwiches and mussels, he is also way ahead of his time in desiring the pub to be a place that welcomes a wider audience than simply groups of men in cloth caps.

‘Up at one end of the garden there are swings and a chute for the children…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.’

Orwell may have never found his dream pub. And perhaps we never will either. But, post-lockdown, that’s going to be no inhibitor to us carrying out some extremely extensive, inevitably tipsy, first-hand research of our own…

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