My daughter was playing badminton in an under-16 county match. I have spent enough time being the parent-on-the tramline, getting frustrated and trying not to coach her and interfere. After five of six years of badminton tournaments, I tend to make sure she is OK and then go and find a coffee shop and do some writing or reading. A couple of weeks ago I ended up in Costa in an artificial retail park somewhere near Ipswich (it could have been anywhere, a soulless and meaningless place). A few days later I received a bill from Euro Car Parks Limited for £90 for breaking some parking rule on ‘private’ land. Yet another for-fuck-sake moment, another site for exploitation and I hear David Harvey on YouTube telling me about accumulation by dispossession and rents.
But that’s not what I want to go on about, though it would be worthy of a post. No, what I want to talk about is the pub I went to in small-town Suffolk, not so far from Bury St Edmunds – where you can smell the boiling beet at this time of year. Like sweet public mash potato.
I didn’t want to go to a pub actually. My preference was for a safe sterile manufactured faux continental coffee shop. But the nearest one of those was in Bury St Edmunds about 4 miles away. I thought it was unnecessarily a bit far for a coffee and generic soullessness. When just 0.7 miles from the Badminton venue was a pub.
When I say small town, I guess this was a big village really. It has a secondary school, a Londis and within that, Google Maps tells me, is a Post Office. There are few new housing developments and a former council estate. The pub was a country pub, a village kind of pub, a rural pub. I knew these hostelries from my youth.
I have spent many years walking into pubs and bars on my own, but I have not done that much of it in the last 15 years, just occasionally though. But from the age of 15 to 26 I was a public house flaneur, not truly a flaneur. I would usually enter the pub as flaneur, after a few drinks I was voyeur, and then, often or not, I would strike up a conversation. A few drinks, community and conviviality, and I would be in conversation with someone or other. My brand of philosophy is forged amongst the wisdom and observation of ale drinkers on bar stools. True public philosophers, almost in the Socratic tradition.
I was more anxious today. I am out of practice. I am no longer familiar with the country pub, or indeed any pub, as I once was. As I drove into the carpark, I was trying to work out who would be in there. It is difficult to tell, everyone has newish cars these days because of the lease-buy credit racket and legislation that make it difficult to run old cars.
I felt awkward walking into the pub, what was it going to be like? Who would be in there? If it was a rural pub of my youth, it would be a mixture: could be landowning farmers, horsey types, the rural middle class. Young couples out for a quiet drink out of town. Blokes playing darts and dominoes. People at the bar. This is what I imagined.
This pub was more like a community centre with Sunday lunch-dining for families. I went into the community centre side of the pub. A father and his 8-(or so)-year-old son (weekend access arrangement?), playing pool eating chips with cheese melted on top. An older gent who seemingly came regularly for his Sunday lunch. A youngish man who put the England football match on the flat screen TV and then went off for a smoke.
I ordered a coffee and chips ‘n’ cheese. The women at the bar was very charming, very friendly and welcoming without any pretence. She was to have an important role in the pub as I will come to explain. The coffee tasted of cooking fat. A few more people arrived; alone, in couples and in groups, they had fairly strong Suffolk accents. It wasn’t the socially diverse rural pub that I remembered from my youth, but working class, with no pretence and no aspirations. That is, no aspirations to be anything other than who they were. I was a voyeur, with the cover of reading Will Davies’ new book Nervous States, looking at social media (the big psychodrama of the EU Withdrawal Agreement) and looking up at the flat screen as England played Croatia.
I considered my middle-class habitus – it must be so fucking obvious – I spend most of my life now at college dinners and engaged in academic conversation within the academy. I don’t know if I can relate to these people anymore. I spend so much time explaining to the liberal middle class about the limitations of rationality and politeness and what drove things like the Brexit vote was a resurgence of affectivity, the need for people to fulfil and to act upon their emotions and not to be afraid of their feelings. I was feeling really awkward in the situation. These weren’t the mores I was accustomed to. I wondered if I could every be part of this community.
It is poignant that I am reading Will Davies’ Nervous States.
As I say part of the pub has the characteristics of a community centre, where people can come along and have a drink and not feel too inhibited about who they are. I think I presented myself as something of an anomaly and curiosity in this setting. Who sits in a pub and reads a book, they might have thought? One of them was curious enough to ask me while we were urinating just before I left. “Out walking, are you?” Another man caught my eye in the pub and asked about my well-being out of friendliness and curiosity.
The main drama unfolded. The older guy was brought his roast dinner, which he began to eat at a low table by the fireplace. A middle-aged man at the bar was provoking him, clearly not trying to be friendly but not really trying to be unfriendly. It was just an ongoing: “Grandad, grandad, grandad …” baiting him. It was harassment, but also in a kind of covert and invasive way. ‘Grandad’ was getting increasingly agitated by it and protested.
The barwoman was excellent, in the way that women are often expected to be in these kinds of situation. She recognised that David, who was baiting grandad, needed attention. She knew that if she engaged with him, no matter how irritating and unpleasant he was, he would leave grandad alone. Again, this is something that women are often expected to do in order to diffuse domestic tensions. Men are likely to use force, not necessarily physical force, but confrontation. The barwoman used emotional labour, but I can’t imagine that she would get anything more than minimum wage for handling a difficult situation with such skill and intelligence. David, though, continued to harass grandad. Grandad eventually asked for his dinner to be wrapped up, so he could take it home. He was clearly distressed.
This was an everyday drama, there was nothing unusual about this in this pub.
Thirty to forty years ago I was spending a lot of time in pubs, many rural pubs. What struck me today was the class homogeneity, the middle class no longer want to be around a struggling emotionally unrestrained working class? The pub is in poor shape, it is basic. Much infrastructure remains from the past, but it is tired. Things have been replaced by cheap oddments. It’s all done on a budget. No lines of pumps with exotic ales, but a basic offering. The people are not looking toward good jobs and opportunities to enhance their lives. They are hanging on, holding on, creating and carving out a community and some form of relaxation amongst a very limited number of things to look forward to. It is really a stark monument to forty years of economic and social policy which has meant decline for so many (increased consumption and debt is not a healthy and sustainable way out of poverty). The devastation of pubs through Wetherspoonification; corporate welfare, through in-work benefits; the free market which has left behind a clear stratification of haves and have nots; and the all-round destruction of inclusive and diverse public life.
For so many people the last forty years, in terms of work opportunities, standards of living, quality of health and education, it must have felt like they have been going backward. I will give it its due, the New Labour government did try and mitigate for this decline – what was criminal is that it didn’t tackle the underlying causes.
If you really want to understand Brexit, then you should visit a pub like this. There must be thousands across the UK. Go in there, sit there and sense what is going on and wonder why we got to this.