No tips please, we’re British

I hate tipping, not because I am intrinsically mean but because of the anxiety it induces. You pitch up at some glam hotel, after a gruelling flight, then the guy next to the concierge takes your bags to your room, and, as you go, you fumble in your pockets, searching for the mysterious notes and coins, even as you try to estimate the right amount to tip the porter. Tipping is yet another toxic byproduct of America’s tragic past and should be treated like an invasive species This is a complex equation at the best of times, as it involves so many imponderables: the state of the local economy, the

The horror of gastropubs

Last week saw the publication of the 14th annual Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs of Great Britain, a list consumed by middle-class foodies as eagerly as a £27 fish finger sandwich served on a piece of slate, washed down by a non-alcoholic cocktail in a jam jar. Couples scroll through former drinking holes transformed into Michelin-starred restaurants with ‘wacky’ names such as the Unruly Pig and the Scran and Scallie, noting the ones they have been to and others to put on a gastronomic bucket list – the bucket probably being what their sweet potato fries are served in. It’s a far cry from George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘The Moon Under

How Jeffrey Bernard led me to London’s rudest landlord

On a recent Sunday evening, the Shaftesbury Theatre in Soho was packed to the gills with a crowd celebrating a dramatic tribute to a landlord: the best kind of landlord, the landlord of a pub. And not just any old pub, but the pub he ruled with an iron fist for 63 years until his retirement in 2006. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Norman Balon, sole proprietor of the legendary Coach and Horses. ‘London’s rudest landlord’, as he was known; it said so on the matchboxes. On for one night only, Norman Balon – It’s All True was a play written by the person who took over the lease, Alastair Choat.

What makes the perfect pub?

From Geoffrey Chaucer’s Tabard and Martin Amis’s Black Cross to Thomas Hardy’s Buck’s Head Inn, literature is as replete with pubs as are villages and high streets up and down the land. It is no surprise. They are atmospheric settings for a plot, and places of inspiration and contemplation besides; many authors have written their novels while sitting within them. Above all, they are one of the essential stitches in the fabric of British life. In the words of Hilaire Belloc: ‘But when you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves – for you will have lost the last of England.’ Before my father came to this country in

I’ve found the only gastropub worth eating at

The gastropub, an invention of the early 1990s, is a terrible idea. They burst on to the scene when breweries were made to sell off many of their pubs for a song to make way for competition, encouraging Marco Pierre White wannabes to snap them up and replace cheese sandwiches and pork scratchings with kidneys on toast and anything that could be put together in a kitchen the size of a shoebox. Many of them have food prepared off-premises but charge restaurant prices. There are no proper tablecloths, the glasses are made to survive if dropped on concrete floors and it all feels a bit like going round to your

Fellowship of the Lamb: how we’re saving Tolkien’s pub

I’ve just bought Tolkien’s pub in Oxford. Well, to be more precise, I and more than 300 fellow drinkers have bought the Lamb and Flag, the 400-year-old Oxford pub where the Inklings group of writers – including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – drank. Like so many pubs across the country, the Lamb and Flag closed, in January last year, thanks to the pandemic trading slump. Across the road, the Eagle and Child pub also closed, in 2020, because of Covid. Tolkien and Lewis drank there, too – they called it ‘the Bird and Baby’. It remains shut. What rare survival stories these two pubs are – or were. The

Does Britain care more about pubs than schools?

Politics is about priorities: what do we consider to be important? I worry that Britain doesn’t attach enough importance to children and their education. As the first lockdown eased in the summer of 2020, I was unhappy that pubs reopened before schools. I thought that said something about our priorities as a nation An interview by Liz Truss in New York gives me no reason to change that gloomy view. During the interview, atop the Empire State Building, the PM was naturally keen to talk up the benefits of the energy price support package to be set out on Friday. That package, she was keen to say, will cover not

Why George Orwell’s ‘perfect pub’ deserves to be saved

Eleven days after turning 45, I sent my first ever letter of complaint to the council. A real coming of (middle) age. The topic of my complaint? My local pub. I followed the British protocol for complaining – I made it clear I’m ‘dismayed’ and ‘appalled’ and hope people can ‘see sense’ – about an issue that has instilled such rage in me that a stiff drink is required. You see, my local, the Compton Arms in Islington, north London, is under threat of closure. This is no ordinary pub. Tucked away from the busy stretch of Upper Street, on a picture-perfect back road, is an establishment that has been

The country pubs within touching distance of London

You don’t need to venture too far out of the big city to find yourself the perfect rural drinking hole. Craving a blissful afternoon sipping on drinks al fresco and watching the sunset? On a mission to try a smashing Sunday roast lunch with all the trimmings? Or simply keen to spend some time surrounded by nature? Then why not retreat to a country pub, many just a stone’s throw from London – accessible by car, train (if you can dodge the strikes) or even bike. Go for lunch, a pint, a birthday dinner, and stay for the chilled vibes away from the city smog. Here are seven we’ve chosen

The best thing about the Isle of Wight? There’s not a gastropub in sight

This summer promises to be the hottest on record, which is not great news for those of you anxious about the coming climate apocalypse, but better news for those planning a holiday at home – which has become my default position of late. In truth, I haven’t left the country since before the pandemic, and I’ve only been able to make a couple of extended trips to the Isle of Wight – and it’s a place that I’ve come to love deeply. Rather like Mansfield Park’s Fanny Brawne, I can only think of the island, and why it appeals to me so. Might it be the sparkling weather? Or the

In search of Britain’s oldest pubs

‘When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.’ So said Hilaire Belloc. Thankfully there’s little sign of England, or indeed Britain, being down to its last pub – but which was its first? As ever with these debates, a definitive answer is hard to find: accurate record-keeping wasn’t a priority several centuries ago, when the pubs pulled their early pints. But here are a few of the boozers with a claim to be the country’s oldest. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans This watering hole is first on the list because it has Guinness World Records on its side –

Why do British galleries shun the humane, generous art of Ruskin Spear?

Where do you see paintings by Ruskin Spear (1911–90)? In the salerooms mostly, because his work in public collections is rarely on display. Until the National Portrait Gallery closed for redevelopment it was, however, possible to study Spear’s splendid portrait of ‘Citizen James’ (Sid James) peering from a black and white TV screen, and his oil sketch of Harold Wilson wreathed in pipe smoke, the epitome of political cunning. Both were strikingly more convincing than their companion array of anodyne commissioned images. Like his beloved Sickert, Spear painted commissioned portraits but also took to making enigmatic ‘unofficial’ portraits based on press photographs — or, in the case of Sid James,

How likely is a false positive from a Covid test?

Positive thinking The government wants us to test ourselves for Covid-19 twice a week, using lateral flow kits which will be freely distributed. What is the risk of being ordered to self-isolate as a result of a false negative? — While the NHS claims that these tests produce false positives in 0.1% or fewer cases, an evaluation by Porton Down and Oxford University last year found a false positive rate of 0.3% in a hospital setting, rising to 0.39% in the community — in other words, about one in every 256 tests. — According to the Office for National Statistics infection survey, in the week to 27 March one in

Why it’s a good time to invest in a pub

It’s obvious from the body language of Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey that negative interest rates — much talked about this week — are the last device he ever wants to use. Deployed with mixed success in Europe, this monetary equivalent of Pulp Fiction’s adrenaline jab in the heart is a desperate remedy against deflation, recession and banks’ reluctance to lend. UK banks have been given six months to prepare for the possibility, while Bailey has been talking up the likelihood of rapid recovery as vaccinations advance and Brexit trade disruptions fade. So by the time the banking system is ready, the negative-rate tool should be back in the

It’s time to call last orders on Britain’s rubbish pubs

Oxford is famous for its pubs. Inspector Morse reveals that they are as much a part of the city’s life as any of its colleges. The insatiable undergraduate demand for cheap beer has meant that pubs like the Turf Tavern and the Eagle and Child have permeated (and intoxicated) the minds of students for centuries. So when the Lamb and Flag closed last week, it was as much a story as any of those bizarre murders John Thaw used to stick his nose into. No Jag-driving detectives are needed to work out why it has shut. A year of missed terms and lockdowns dramatically cut the pub’s revenue. Owned by neighbouring St

Is any song more lucrative than ‘Happy Birthday’?

Last orders The new tier restrictions have made life difficult for pubs. How many are closed? — According to the British Beer and Pub Association, 16,500 of England’s 37,000 pubs have had to close for everything except takeaway owing to their being in Tier 3 areas. — Of the 21,000 pubs in Tier 2 areas, 14,000 have had to remain closed because they are unviable if they can’t serve drinkers without also serving a substantial meal. — That leaves 732 pubs in Tier 1 areas which can open more or less as normal. — The number of pubs has fallen by 22 per cent this century. However, 2019 saw the

How we became a nation of choirs and carollers

Between the ages of 15 and 17 I had a secret. Every Monday night I’d gulp down dinner before rushing out to the scrubby patch of ground just past the playing fields, where a car would be waiting. Hours later — long after the ceremonial nightly locking of the boarding house — I’d sneak back, knocking softly on a window to be let in. I’d love to say that it was alcohol or drugs that lured me out. It wasn’t even boys — or, at least, not like that. My weekly assignation was with Joseph and Johann, Henry, Ben and Ralph. My addiction? Choral music. Better than some and worse

What can pubs serve as a ‘substantial meal’?

When the new tiered restrictions come into force this week, many pubs and bars around the country will be wondering if they can keep their doors open. While Tier 3 venues have effectively been forced to close, pubs in Tier 2 (which covers around 50 per cent of England) have been told they can only serve alcohol to customers alongside a ‘substantial meal’. But what counts as substantial? Environment minister George Eustice attempted to clarify this on LBC radio this morning, when he suggested that a scotch egg would probably count, as long as it was brought over on a plate.  But Mr Steerpike has noticed that ministers seemed to

Wishful drinking: pubs have always been good at bending the rules

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy has a running skit about the alehouse in his heroine’s home village where her father, and quite often mother too, disappear for hours at a time. People aren’t allowed to drink on the premises, so are strictly limited to ‘a little board about six inches wide and two yards long, fixed to the garden palings by pieces of wire’. But as the locals don’t like drinking while standing outside, they all head into the landlady’s bedroom and perch on her bed, chest of drawers and washstand while supping ale. And if anyone comes to the door during these sessions, the landlady, as she

Dublin double act: Love, by Roddy Doyle, reviewed

Far be it from me to utter a word against the patron saint of Dublin pubs, Roddy Doyle. Granted he’s a comic genius, his dialogue comparable with Beckett and that this, his 12th novel, is garnering rave reviews in America. But is not Doyle’s trademark conversation between two men in a pub not just a little interminable? Love follows on from Two Pints (a play), Two More Pints and (last year) Two for the Road – two men chewing the fat on news events from 2014 to 2019. Squibs compared to Love, which is bigger, deeper, longer — but still two men in a pub. Joe and Davy, fifty-plus drinking