I have not always or only worked in cafes. As Aksel Tjora and I construct a proposal for a companion volume to our Café Society, to be entitled Bar Society, it is only appropriate that I come clean and acknowledge that at a certain time of day I can be seen escorting my laptop … well, to what? To a bar certainly, this being a fairly transhistorical and transcultural term for a ‘public drinking space’, but can I be more specific?
The establishment of special places for the consumption of ‘ale’ and other forms of alcohol has a long history. The selection of the word ‘bar’ here is deliberate: it is an inclusive term, unlike alternate terms like ‘pubs’ for example; pubs have their own discrete histories. Bars may be defined as retail business establishments that serve alcoholic drinks – beer, wine, liquor and cocktails – for consumption on the premises. They cover a heterogeneous array of public drinking spaces, ranging from subterranean dives to elite and exclusive foci for relaxation and entertainment. Often it is possible to classify bars by the type of drink on offer (real ale, wine, liquor); by form of entertainment (blues, jazz, comedy, quiz, dance, karaoke, topless); or by type of client (neighbourhood, college, biker, gay). But bars often evolve and change type: a bar intended as a blues bar might become a biker bar if most patrons are bikers.
The term ‘bar’ seems to derive from the counter from which drinks are served. Patrons may sit or stand at the bar, be served by a bartender or sit at tables. The word ‘bar’ in this context was used as long ago as 1591 by the dramatist Robert Greene.
Bars have long been important meeting or ‘third’ places. Often they were foci for togetherness, bonding and belonging and occasionally for resistance and protest too. They also attracted the harsh attention of authorities. The sale and/or consumption of alcohol was prohibited in several countries during the first half of the twentieth century, including Finland, Iceland, Norway and, most notoriously, the USA (there is a comprehensive literature on the illegal American ‘speakeasies’ or ‘blind pigs’ of this era). Some contemporary Muslim countries prohibit bars for religious reasons. In countries where bars are commonplace, age restrictions on bar entry, on their location and on the types of alcohol that can be served remain common.
I tend to write in bars, although I have occasionally been known to do sociability. As with cafes, I do not to have specific criteria for likeable bars, although I confess to an affinity with austere Hopper-like establishments. Sometimes if my laptop needs re-changing I seek a table near a plug (and I know which tables in which bars allow for this). I am as content looking in as looking out and do not sulk if ‘my’ table is occupied. I have over time frequented a number of bars in the vicinity of the Middlesex Hospital and UCL. Most recently I have opted for the TCR Bar in, as you might well anticipate, Tottenham Court Road. Notwithstanding the high staff turnover I am recognized and ‘my’ table, near a plug, is often prepared for me even as I enter. I settle and am left alone unless I choose to chat. It is a companionable solitude and I like the cosmopolitan anonymity. I can write undisturbed yet have the option of a time-out to either converse or play le flaneur. Noisy music is no problem; in fact I seem to like it. Given a choice, I would opt for jazz (from almost any era as long as it’s edgy).
London looms less large than it used to prior to my retirement in 2013. But I have resources in my village of Mickleham, nestling at the foot of Box Hill. The Running Horses, in the centre of the village, and the King William IV, 100 metres from my front door, are lovely and engagingly different pubs. If Aksel and I have our Bar Society proposal accepted I will elucidate in sociological detail. A phrase or two will have to suffice for now.
The Running Horses dates back to the 16th century and may well have been part of Mickleham Manor. In the 18th century it became a significant coaching in and post house (a highwayman’s putative escape route is familiar to us locals). It was renamed the Running Horses following the dead heat between Colonel and Cadland in the 1828 Derby. And the historical gobbet I love most: James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill, lived just behind the pub for a while. Robin Taylor was its manager, and the supreme host, for my first decade in the village. Now a Brakespear pub it is struggling to retain its allure (but doing ok).
The King William IV dates back to the 18th century. It was originally an ale-house for Beaverbrook’s estate staff. Like the Running Horses, its fortunes have waxed and waned. For several years I was banned by its ex-accountant owner (I had foolishly tried to mediate between him and local residents outraged by his clients’ parking, earning the soubriquet ‘fucking son-of-a-bitch’, accompanied by a veiled threat: ‘I know people in the police’); ah well. Its new owners have turned things around, and some.
In the Running Horses I have a choice of tables and wifi access. In the King William IV I usually sit outside, with the heater turned on when necessary. They offer attractive alternatives. Locals generously ignore me, unless they want to wind me up that is.
I should mention also a Dorking pub, the King’s Arms, to which I sometimes adjourn after playing badminton on a Monday evening. Needless to say, I secrete my laptop in my sports bag. Monday evening is ‘quiz evening’. I stay semi-detached while writing at what tends to be the same table.
So bars matter, like cafes. Hopefully more sociological explications will ease themselves onto my website.