(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)



I can remember when English pubs used to smell of old fashioned beer. That was in the days when the mere act of passing a saloon bar on a hot day was to find oneself assailed by the reek of stale ale. Depending on the state of one's stomach, that warm fruity blast of alcohol could be either titillating or debilitating. Nowadays many pubs are furnished with electric fans which simply swallow the boozy bouquet in one gulp, leaving the air as sanitised of aroma as a pint of chilled lager.

Drinkers in post-war Liverpool had the choice of imbibing beers produced by a handful of breweries, Higsons, Walkers, Bents and Threlfals who excercised a virtual monopoly. Not that it mattered much to the beery brotherhood who rarely exercised their limited choice. Instead, they usually chose to engage a particular beer, and often stayed married to it for life. Taking up beer drinking in England is a rite of passage on a par with marriage, the difference being that while men often leave their wives for the delights of the bar, very few ever make the reverse trip.

I can still recall the fierce arguments concerning the relative merits of Bent's Bitter over, say, Walkers. Those parochial arguments, conducted with the same fervour that Parisian cafe society was debating existentialism, left me cold, as Bitter simply gave me heartburn. I never really got into drinking until the eighties when the lager revolution dispatched the enfeebled aristocrats of English beers to the guillotine.

As late as 1970 there were bars in Liverpool which barred entry to women and there were many more which hosted men only rooms. I don't think the ladies were missing too much as the landlords made hardly any concessions to the women. For instance, all of the glasses in the pubs were designed for men. If a woman wanted a gin and tonic she usually received it in whisky glass so small that after the tonic had been added the liquid level was such that the addition of ice, had such a decadent item even existed, would have been impossible.

By the seventies improvements were being made, and although the spirit glasses were still only designed to hold a double whisky, paper cocktail umbrellas were being unfurled even in the driest of pubs. Almost surreptitiously the French and Germans achieved, in the shape of wine and lager, the first successful invasion of England in a thousand years. The most successful of the early Wine bar/Bistros in Liverpool was a huge place called Kirklands, which had once been a bakers by appointment to Her Majesty Queen Mary.

In a thrice English Cottage loaves had been usurped by Baguettes and, overnight, women drinkers were de rigeur. The bar of Kirklands was always strewn with gorgeous wine-bibbing women. The ambience of the place was a cocktail of Gallic flair and Scouse humour. Unlike the Norman conquest, the continental dominance of England's watering holes was not to endure, as the remnants of alcohol's Ancien Régime were planning a counter assault on the alien viticulture.

Although created by promotional consultants catering to the needs of the English market, the next wave of invaders arrived bearing the insignia of the Emerald Isle as theme pubs, whose motifs consisted of Shamrock and Guinness, burgeoned almost overnight. The speed of the assault was such that it felt as if old Liverpool had never been. Pubs that had once borne mundane English names were now called 'Dirty Nellie's' or 'Scruffy Murphy's' as despite the English breweries' propagation of all things Irish the old racial hatreds relentlessly insinuated themselves into the mock and mocking nomenclature. I mean, who in Ireland would dream of trying to entice patrons into a pub which sounded like it might well be playing mien host to the bubonic plague?

The truth of the idea that ideology creates its own history was never made more clear than in the creation of these sham shrines to Shamrock, which were transformed so hastily that some of the three legged cooking pots, those signifiers of 'Irishness' which festooned the mock beams, still bore the labels, 'Made in Taiwan'. I was recently drinking in an Irish theme pub called 'The flute and Firkin' in Hardman street. It is a huge barn of a place, and as I listened to the newly arrived students extolling the authenticity of their surroundings I wanted to scream at them,

" Ten years ago this was a Ford dealers'!"

Instead I allowed my mind to drift back to the eighties and the four

Our language
bestows our cultural
identity on us

wonderful summers I had spent in the company of my wife on the West Coast of Ireland.

Marian was born in Ireland but at the age of two moved with her family to Southern England and so speaks with a pure home counties accent, which serves to underline my belief that the geographical location of one's birth is immaterial as it is the language we inherit which bestows on us our cultural identity. I mention this because the only adverse encounter I ever had in a real Irish pub occurred in County Sligo when, on our entry into the bar, a local Yahoo burst into rendition of "These are my mountains", with the obvious intent of putting two Brit interlopers in their place. He was sorry he did because Marian, her beautifully modulated voice dripping with venom, looked him straight in his eyes and spat,

"They used to be mine too but I wanted to see what life was like without the smell of pigs!"

The one man choir blinked and spent the rest of the time that we were there staring at the bland head of his Guinness.

That incident apart, I have only the fondest memories of Irish pubs. I loved the casual utility of those small pubs which doubled as grocers or post offices where the genial host would serve you beer and then bacon rashers lovingly wrapped in brown paper and string parcels. I remember too the pub where we bought butter and the lady behind the bar wrapped it in a cabbage leaf to keep it cool.

Of course not all Irish watering holes are small and folksy. One of the best times I ever had was when Marian's cousins took us to a country club in Tralee. I suppose it was the Irish love of dancing that helped determine the design of the place because there was a huge dance floor and a stage where the band played. I was in good fettle, having had a fair amount of whisky.

The combination of Bushmills and Guinness was enough to keep me dancing all night. Then came the moment I will never forget. The band struck up with a lively tune and I immediately went into my Saturday Night Fever routine and just as I was emerging from a Travolta twirl I noticed that everybody was standing stock still and singing. It was the national anthem! Everybody laughed at my choreography for clowns and simply put it down to the fact that I was a Brit. Imagine boogying to the Stars and Stripes in Texas! I can hear the cocking of hammers from here.

Quite the most amazing experience we shared was when we were camping near the town of Newcastle West. We had been drawn to the town because of the beautiful river that flowed alongside the main road. At that point the river was very shallow and a mass of shimmering ripples as it bored and bounced over the numerous rocks. Many species of ducks abounded. When we went into the local pub we were greeted by the landlord and his wife with great friendliness. They had only moved back to Ireland that very year after having spent thirty years in London. They invited us to attend what they called the Duck Dance. At first I thought it was a gathering of Chuck Berry enthusiasts as he was the only person I knew who performed a dance by that name.

However, it transpired the Landlord and his wife were raising funds to ensure the safety and maintenance of the ducks we had seen thriving on the river. We agreed and went back to the tent to but on our best duds and before long we were back into the pub which was by then a heaving throng of drinkers. There was a darts competition and the entrance fee was fifty pence with the winning pair taking all.

Now I don't know whether it was the fact that we were camping in a country where it rains so often that it is the only place on earth where being born with webbed feet is not considered to be a disability, or that we simply looked needy, but the landlady did her damndest to help us win the cash prize by pairing Marian and myself with the two best darts players in the pub. Needless to say we lost badly as my skill with a dart is only surpassed by my expertise with a croquet mallet and Marian had never played in her life.

At about eleven o'clock everybody went to a local hall where there was laid out the most stupendous array of food I've ever seen. There was everything from chicken wings to beef sandwiches, and, ironically, confait of duck! I

Would it be possible
to find fish
and chips in Tokyo?

have never seen so much food and drink put away as that night. The party was still going on at two in the morning when the landlady asked us if we'd like to go back to the pub for a 'stay behind'! At five in the morning I was blowing for tugs to tow me back to the tent but mien hosts insisted that we stay in their spare bedroom. I was so grateful as our tent was not only likely to be damp and uninviting, it was at least a mile away!

As I dragged myself back to the reality of the 'Flute and Firkin' I saw two Japanese tourists tucking into chicken Madras and rice. How very cosmopolitan I thought, and then wondered if it would be possible to find fish and chips in Tokyo. I don't think so because the Japanese are more resistant to alien cultural forms than us. As I was observing the Japanese tourists one of them placed on the table a wireless lap top computer and began to dial in to the internet, no doubt checking his e-mails in Kyoto. Clever enough to do that, I thought, but not smart enough to realise that you are being ripped off by subscribing to an adman's version of England. Or maybe that's what he was writing about!

Dear Mamasan, please buy up all the old Samurai gear you can get your hands on as I am opening a bar called 'The Mikado' in Liverpool. Brits love all that imitation stuff.

Yours truly


I suppose Marshall McLuhan was right, the world is a global village but the problem is that so many of us are being treated as global village idiots.  ##



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