The enduring appeal of the local
— research commissioned by Greene King
In the late 1930s Tom Harrisson and his colleagues at the Mass-Observation Unit conducted what is probably the earliest, and certainly the most extensive, study of pub-going. Centred on 'Worktown' (Bolton) but venturing to Blackpool in the holiday season, the team of social anthropologists did little else for nearly two years but sit in pubs and observe the complex rituals of behaviour that subtly underlie everyday life in the local.
Their report The Pub and the People was not published until the Second World War was nearly over — ostensibly because of paper shortages but more probably because the country had more on its mind than the apparent 'frivolities' of the snug or saloon in a Lancashire town. And yet, as Harrisson and his colleagues showed so clearly, the pub as a British institution towered over its rivals for attention, commitment and, indeed, 'donations': "Of the social institutions that mould men's lives between home and work in an industrial town, such as Worktown, the pub has more buildings, holds more people, takes more of their money, than church, cinema, dance hall, and political organizations put together."
Today, little in reality has changed. There may now be rather fewer pubs in relation to the population and many certainly look rather different from the vaults and taprooms of old. But as this project focusing on the 'local' has shown, and in line with our work on all aspects of pub life on and off over the past thirty years, the pub retains its unique position in British society, and for much the same reasons as in Harrisson's day. As he noted then, it is …"the only kind of public building used by large numbers of ordinary people where their thoughts and actions are not being in some way arranged for them; in the other kinds of public building they are the audiences, watchers of political, religious, dramatic, cinematic, instructional or athletic spectacles. But within the four walls of the pub, once a man has bought or been bought his glass of beer, he has entered an environment in which he is a participator rather than a spectator."
This idea of participation is crucial to understanding what pubs, and locals in particular, are all about — why people are attracted to them and why they endure as a focus for social networks even in the digital age of online communities, texting and other forms of 'instant' communication. We may go to the pub 'for a drink', but 'having a drink' (rather than just 'drinking') is essentially a social act surrounded by tacit rules — a special 'etiquette' that gives us a sense of inclusion and belonging that is independent of our status in the mainstream world. In this sense the pub is very much a social leveller — something that was apparent even in the Middle Ages. As Theodore Leinwand notes in his study of Shakespeare's plays, in the 15th century, alehouses, taverns and inns were " … sites … where people of disparate status mixed…[which] brought men, high born and low, into relation, fostering a propinquity that might secure, adjust or threaten hierarchies."
The special features of the local — the layout, the decor, the music in some cases, the games, the etiquette and ritual practices and, of course, the drinking — are all designed to promote positive social interaction, reciprocity and sharing. In this sense the British pub has much in common with dedicated drinking places in other parts of the world. In Austrian lokals, for example, the anthropologist Thomas Thornton observed that " … intimate social groups…come into being there, even if only to last the night. Benches surround the tables, forcing physical intimacy between customers. Small groups of twos or threes who find themselves at the same or adjoining tables often make friends with their neighbours and share wine, schnapps, jokes and game-playing the rest of the evening."
In almost all drinking-places, in almost all cultures, the unwritten laws and customs involve some form of reciprocal drink-buying or sharing of drinks. This practice has been documented in drinking-places from modern, urban Japan and America and rural Spain and France to remote traditional societies in Africa and South America and has long been recognised by anthropologists, sociologists and even zoologists — so fundamental is this practice to the survival of any social species.
The combination of the special factors of the local and its near equivalents in other countries ensures that it is often at the centre of community life. In Poland, for example, the Karczma is where contracts are sealed, village disputes settled, celebrations held and marriages arranged , while for Guatemalans in the US, the bar is a meeting-place where "one may seek out others, develop friendships, and if needed, find temporary assistance in a loan or lodging or obtain information about jobs." In New Zealand, Theodore Graves and his colleagues observed that " … the pub is probably the most important working-man's club. Men from all ethnic groups come there to be with their friends; their alcohol consumption is a by-product of this socialising. This does not mean that the consumption of alcohol is an unimportant part of pub activity. Otherwise a man might as well meet his friends in an ice-cream parlour or coffee shop. One of the major functions of moderate alcohol use is to promote social conviviality. But it is the conviviality, not the alcohol, which is of central importance." As we will see in later sections of this report, exactly the same is true of the British local.
Countless other studies in many other parts of the world confirm the universality of the role of special drinking places. The British pub, like its 'foreign' counterparts, meets timeless and global human needs — that is why it survives and will continue to do so despite the many other opportunities we have for 'joining' and for networking. We may sign up to an online community to communicate with like-minded people who share our interests across the globe, or we may reveal selected aspects of ourselves on Facebook. These are, however, 'non-local' by definition. They are what the late urban planner Melvin Webber, predicting over thirty years ago the internet trends that we witness today, called 'community without propinquity'. They are, in a very significant sense, different. They may extend our social and professional lives and allow much wider patterns of interaction, but they do not replace the more traditional and timeless face-to-face activities that take place in the special social institutions created to facilitate them — central among them, the pub.
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