George Orwell is, of course, best known for his political writings – Nineteen Eighty Four, Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London and, of course, his Cerys Matthews biography, Homage to Catatonia. When he wasn’t busy being political, satirising the BBC or annoying T. S. Eliot, he was a man who enjoyed a good pint.
Unlike his contemporaries Dylan Thomas and Nina Hamnett, Orwell wasn’t an excessive drinker (although he was an excessive smoker, as alluded to by his essay Books vs. Cigarettes). He favoured the simple pint of beer, though never lager.
I have mentioned his once-favoured watering hole, the Fitzroy Tavern, in these pages a number of times before. However, this was not his perfect London pub. His perfect London pub was a little place called The Moon Under Water.
The Moon Under Water, despite what the photograph on the right may imply, was entirely fictional. It formed the title of a 1946 essay for the Evening Standard in which he set out his description of what he considered to be the perfect London pub.
He describes it as being two minutes from the bus stop and on a side street – this would more-or-less fit the Fitzroy, the Wheatsheaf and the dearly departed Beer House, Orwell’s three favourite hostelries. He says that despite this, the Moon is entirely free from drunks and rowdies, “even on a Saturday night.” Yr. Humble Chronicler does know of such a bar in Soho, but I’m afraid I’m keeping it to myself.
He says that the whole place should be “uncompromisingly Victorian,” but not in a fake way. I’m with him on this, partly because I hate the sleek, modern West End bars where the staff are very pretty but can’t pour a decent pint to save their lives (if you can even get a pint, that is). I know of several London pubs that are broadly Victorian in decor, including several in the West End. To my mind, the most uncompromisingly Victorian pub in London is the utterly beautiful Princess Louise in Holborn, which for many years boasted that it had last been redecorated in 1890. Then a few years ago they redecorated it again, but fortunately kept the old fixtures and fittings.
The clientele, Orwell suggested, should largely be regulars who are there for the conversation. This is interesting, as Orwell was not a naturally gregarious fellow, and often found it difficult to talk to people about anything other than politics.
The range of food he suggests should be readily available would not, I suspect, be found in any non-gastro-pub in London. Cheese, pickles, caraway seed biscuits and liver sausage sandwiches are unusual bar snacks today, and as for his suggestion of mussels, given that most pubs can’t even microwave properly, I certainly wouldn’t trust them with shellfish. A hearty lunch is a possibility, though rare due to the aforementioned dependence on the microwave (here, even the Fitzroy falls down).
Some of his criteria are simply unknown today – he considers the serving of beer in a handleless glass to be a “mistake.” Strawberry-pink china mugs, his favoured drinking vessel, are entirely alien to the modern drinker (though Orwell admits that even then they were a rarity in London).
He says that perhaps the most desirable quality of such a pub is that it should have a decent garden, although he admits that he knows of only three such pubs (none of which he names). I myself have encountered none in the City or West End. The King’s Head in Islington has a small garden, not accessible to the public, and the Dolphin in Hackney has a patio out back (at least, I think it does, I was drunk at the time). There are many more out in the suburbs.
Although Orwell’s pub was never real, the Wetherspoon’s chain of pubs was set up with his essay in mind – hence the large number of such pubs with the word “Moon” in the title, including several Moons-Under-Water. I suspect Wetherspoon’s was not what Orwell had in mind, given its straight glasses, young bar staff, lagers, fake-Victorian decor and heinous numbers of chavs. They did boast (possibly they still do, it’s a while since I’ve been in one) of having no music to allow conversation, as Orwell stipulated, but I suspect this was also to keep overheads down – no music, no royalties.
So, Orwell’s pub remains but a dream, and with pubs closing at an alarming rate, I suspect it will some day become entirely irrelevant. Which is a shame. I’d like a strawberry-pink china mug one of these days.
http://www.whitebeertravels.co.uk/orwell.html#moon - The full essay.
http://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/08/09/puttin-on-the-fitz/ - In which the Fitzroy is discussed.
http://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/08/16/a-bright-cold-day-in-april/ - George Orwell, the West End and Nineteen Eighty-Four.