Pubs – how different were they 40 years ago?

British pub

Cigarette machines, jukeboxes, beer mats, soggy red carpets and terrible wine. Pubs divided up into snugs with dark conspiratorial corners. You daren’t nudge a bloke with a drink in his hand unless you wanted your face rearranged. And closing time was 10.40pm with the lights switched off and chairs stacked around you to encourage you to leave.

When I started going to pubs around 1979, that was the world you entered. Pubs opened at 11am and closed again at 3pm – re-opening around 7pm. The curious afternoon closing rule was only lifted in 1987. It was a practice dating back to the First World War allegedly to encourage munitions workers to return to the factories – presumably plastered by that stage.

There were pubs that could carry on serving if they had cooked food available. The bar at a polytechnic in Liverpool opened all afternoon by having a chip frier fizzing in the background. I don’t remember seeing anybody eat a single chip! Or pubs just had a “lock in” either in the afternoon or after closing time at 10.40pm. Those pubs were normally frequented by off-duty cops so they didn’t get raided.

If you needed to phone a mate who hadn’t turned up, there might be a coin-operated public phone box in the pub or you could ask the landlord to use his phone. This was normally produced from under the bar and might have a padlock on it or a coin slot or you just paid an agreed sum. The world before smartphones!

Ordering anything other than beer was a leap into the unknown. I once asked for an orange juice at a pub in northern England and was given half a pint of bitter by a disgusted landlord. Clearly the idea of drinking a fruit juice in a pub was entirely unacceptable. And you could forget tea or coffee!

Wine was a place you didn’t want to go. I remember one pub with the white wine on the spirits rack and a dispensing tap fixed at the bottom. I dared myself to try this beverage and it was warm, rancid vinegar. There was no selection of wines. Forget asking for a Sancerre or a Sauvignon Blanc – it was either red or white and rose if you were lucky. Seem to remember Hirondelle was the brand of choice in the 70s.

You could do “off-sales” in some pubs. My local in east London had a special door that led to a counter where you could buy beer to take home. There was a plastic flagon you were given that was filled up with three pints – and was then reusable. Interestingly, with the current Coronavirus, pubs have been lobbying to be allowed to do takeaway service for both drink and food again.

Regarding food, there were no gastro-pubs in the 70s or very much in the 80s. Posh nosh tended to mean a Ploughman’s lunch – cheese and pickle sandwich with some trimmings. A Ploughman could be quite nice in a country boozer but in the city, it was soggy and tasteless fare. Snacks were the usual dry roasted peanuts and Scampi Fries. Oh – and pork scratchings if you wanted to loose some silver fillings in your mouth.

Paying by credit card in the pub was difficult until the 2000s. Either it wasn’t accepted or there was a high minimum spending limit. I’m still amazed that I can now buy a single pint and just tap my card. Believe me, there was time – not very long ago – when that was the stuff of science fiction in the British pub.

Appearing on BBC Question Time in 1980

1980 television

In 1979, the BBC launched a new political discussion show called Question Time – presented by Sir Robin Day. Somehow, a friend of mine got tickets to be in the audience and so, aged 16, we went along to the studio. Robin Day was elsewhere that day and the programme was hosted by the veteran Canadian broadcaster Bob McKenzie.

At that time, I’d started to get involved in left-wing politics and had developed a curious and unconvincing cockney accent – ditching the cut-glass posh voice my mother had instilled in me. I also still had the Irish Republican convictions that my Irish Republican grandmother had indoctrinated me with from an early age. I later became a lot more nuanced on that issue.

During the show, I stuck my hand up and got to make a point about the vote being taken away from Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom. This was a typical piece of Margaret Thatcher spite aimed at Irish people.

Me on Question Time in 1980

The British Nationality Act (passed in 1981) was being discussed in parliament and she was clearly keen on trimming the rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom. Subsequent analysis has suggested she thought they all voted Labour and so needed to be disenfranchised. Being half-Irish – I was not impressed.

Anyway, with my newly found cockney accent, I made my contribution and was roundly put down by Bob McKenzie. Should mention that the poor man died a year later. I hope the stress caused by my angry teenage words didn’t contribute to his demise!