The practical drunkard—pub etiquette

King William IV and the Sweet William, Leyton. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Alderman’s editor at large and managing editor look at the customs and traditions of pub drinking. Andy Hamilton talks about how to survive, prosper and do the right thing in the British pub, while Paul Fishman says something about that fine and subtle ritual, the pub round.

Etiquette: safety and respect

The word etiquette might conjure up images of the upper crust politely serving tea and cucumber sandwiches, yet it is less about the social elite and more about good manners and respect for our fellow man—organised sympathy and kindness, if you like. As Stanley Crouch, the essayist, novelist and poet, said “The high point of civilization is that you can hate me and I can hate you but we develop an etiquette that allows us to deal with each other because if we acted solely upon our impulse we’d probably go to war.”*

No truer word could be spoken about the British pub. Not so much now, but there was certainly a point during my drinking history when many pubs seemed just on the edge of a riot. Indeed, my old local used to be frequented by all the freaks and drop-outs of society, disparate groups rubbing shoulders with each other. Picture the bar scene in Star Wars, but odder, and you’ll be close.

This is why, of all the places one can drink, the pub needs a strict code of etiquette and anyone scared of their local or just passing through would be well advised to learn the code, and fast. Not just for personal safety, but out of respect for fellow drinkers—and the Great Tradition, without which we are nothing.

  1. Acknowledge the pub bore if he or she acknowledges you, but try for a swift exit. Keep eye contact to a minimum or risk a 20 minute conversation about washers or paint. This is especially serious if you are in the pub with just one other person, as you’ll also be putting them at risk.
  2. Try to get the first round in if possible, but if someone insists otherwise, don’t push it.
  3. If you miss your round and have to go home, offer to pay, and if someone misses their round and offers to pay you must decline their money.
  4. Always offer to help if someone is buying more than one drink. This is not only good manners, but it saves half the beer ending up on the floor, avoiding as it does that age-old balancing trick.
  5. Treat the bar staff like human beings. Make eye contact and if possible make some comment about the weather, someone in the pub or even the top they are wearing. (Be careful with this last line of conversation.) It can be a lonely job behind the bar if all people see is someone serving drinks. Of course at busy periods the opposite behaviour should be observed. You might consider returning your empty glasses to the bar when you order another round or leave.
  6. If you get to choose the venue try to match the right watering hole to the right person or people. There might be people who would enjoy a wake in a strip bar, or a business meeting in a nightclub, but a quiet pub works for both. This can also be quite subtle; if one of the party likes fine wine, then try to match this.
  7. Even if the watering hole is full of people you find attractive, keep your attention on who you are with.
  8. Don’t check emails, reply to texts or, worst of all, take a call, especially if you are with only one other person.
  9. Don’t immediately use your phone or tablet to look up a fact you are discussing, it takes you out of the conversation and will take away the enjoyment of guessing. This goes for pub quizzes, too. Being entertaining and courteous is more important than being right. In fact, being right is also a little against the spirit of being in the pub.
  10. If a seat isn’t taken and someone asks for it, pass it to them with a smile. Don’t keep it just because your coat is on it.
  11. Men only: in the toilet do not stand next to someone if you can help it. Just two urinals? Use the cubicle. You needn’t close the cubicle door if you’re only urinating; please do if something graver is occurring.
  12. If you spill someone’s drink, offer to buy a new one. If you can’t afford it then apologise, offer yours and leave.

Notes on the pub round and the Great Tradition

Sometimes people will say of deceased comrades something like “Mike didn’t say much, but he was always cheerful and he always bought his round”, or “Sharon didn’t have a good word to say about anyone and should never have killed that man, but she always bought her round”. And drinkers always know who habitually skulks in the toilets when it’s their turn, and who always buys a cheap drink on their own round and an expensive one on everyone else’s. The fellowship of the round is a thing. It’s a tribal custom; if the pub were a church, the round would be a sacrament.

litres-of-beerPart of it is practical and mindful of the bar staff. If you order individually at a busy time pubs will probably love you as much as restaurants love people who spend an hour dividing their bill after a meal, while not much admiring your easygoing nature and generosity of spirit. It’s not a bloodless piece of social utilitarianism, however, like car sharing, or Sweden. The customs of the tribe should bring you together, and the spirit in which you observe them reveals your character. A big part of the round is to make drinking comradely.

Since this is a list piece, here are three observations, taken at random. Andy has already hinted at basic right conduct above.

  1.  Here’s a cricketing analogy. Before the age of television umpire referrals, batsmen would have to accept the umpire’s decision. Sometimes the umpire would give you out when he shouldn’t have; sometimes he wouldn’t give you out when he should have. The thinking was that the good/bad decisions evened out over a match or a career. Some players have always been better than others at accepting the moments of bad luck with equanimity. It used to be thought to be characteristically British to show a stiff upper lip, to accept the blows of fortune with grace and good humour; it sort of still is, or we’d like it to be. So if you land fourteen single malt whiskies after round after round of Old Swill budget ale, you smile and pay up, pay up and play the game. The decent comrades will know and remember, and do something to even things up another time, while if you’re drinking like an accountant you’re not enjoying yourself.
  2.  To continue the cricketing analogy. Every team has a mix of players. There are the predictable, safe, assured types you can depend on. For their round they’ll get you exactly what you asked for with quiet efficiency. You like them; everyone likes them. Then there are the more flash, intuitive, artistic types. They sense the moment and don’t ask for an order, they just buy. Suddenly you find yourselves with unasked for whisky, shots, liqueurs from dusty bottles, sparkling wine (depends on the pub), gin, coffee with shots in it when you’re tiring, weak but refreshing shandygaff when you need to plateau for a spell. Sometimes they’ll bring you something that brings pools of pre-bile saliva to your mouth. Sometimes they’ll bring you a beautiful surprise. Accept it and drink up, drink up and play the game. Or pour the unwelcome drink away; quietly if you want to be tactful, and with a flourish if that’s how the night is going and your buyer is the sort to take it in the right way. The thing is to appreciate all the styles in the team. cf. The 2014 England cricket team.
  3.  I’ve a friend who habitually cuts into rounds, brushing aside the buyer and saying “I’ll get these because I’m fabulously wealthy”. This may seem insufferable, but in fact he’s showing great delicacy and tact. A capitalist in the boardroom, he’s a communist in the pub: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. And it’s doubly selfless, because he’s distracting from the embarrassing inequality with deliberate brashness, and by making himself look uncouth he’s also redressing the balance, giving the recipients of his largesse the moral superiority to weigh against his financial superiority. Some don’t get it, and they don’t get it in different ways. You have to understand that to play the game properly you mustn’t assume he’ll get every round, you mustn’t overstep the mark when you order and you must outwit him at least once in a session to buy a round yourself, and it should be the best one you can’t quite afford. Such are the beautiful subtleties of the round.

Andy Hamilton and Paul Fishman (Bristol, June 2015)

Gin in the morningAndy had his first alcoholic drink at eight and has never looked back. He now works as a freelance drunkard and does many booze related things to earn a crust. These include taking people out into the woods and teaching them how to make booze from wild plants, writing about booze in his books, the bestselling Booze for Free, the in-depth treatise on beer, Brewing Britain, and more recently the book he is working on, Wild Booze and Hedgerow Cocktails. He often writes for the Telegraph and occasionally for the Guardian. He’s also been know to help various establishments design their own signature drinks. Andy is known as one of the politest people in the drinks industry, he never swears and is always convivial and never an incompressible drunk. Honest. And he really is the editor at large for Alderman Lushington.

Twitter: @andyrhamilton Website: The Other Andy Hamilton

Fishman-bucketPaul is a freelance writer, editor and all-round ink-slinger; he’s also the managing editor of Alderman Lushington.

Website: Twitter: @fishmandeville


* This saying by Crouch (read about him here) is widely quoted, but I don’t know where it comes from. (If you’re in a pub, don’t look it up on one of your devices.)

Image credit

Header: ‘King William IV and the Sweet William, Leyton, E10’: Ewan Munro, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).