How George Orwell influenced the 21st Century pub

Image caption George Orwell's article on what makes a good pub is still influential 70 years later

Seventy years after George Orwell published an essay on what makes the perfect pub, BBC News examines how the author's views are influencing the micropub movement.

As one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century, George Orwell's impact is still felt decades after his death.

Big Brother, the ominous leader of Oceania in his chilling dystopian novel 1984, is mentioned frequently whenever CCTV or surveillance is on the agenda, while the concept of Room 101 has become a shorthand for people's pet hates and biggest fears.

But Orwell's influence is not restricted to debates about the security state, as a trip to a local pub can show.

On 9 February, 1946, Orwell wrote an article for the Evening Standard warmly describing his favourite pub, the Moon Under Water, a small backstreet establishment with no music, china pots with creamy stout and that crucial ingredient: a welcoming atmosphere.

The Moon Under Water may itself have been a fiction, a composite of Orwell's favourite London pubs, but its importance as a symbol of the friendly local lives on.

Image copyright Google
Image caption The Compton Arms in Islington, one of the pubs used by Orwell as the basis for his utopian Moon Under Water pub, is still standing today

DJ Taylor, who has written an acclaimed biography of the author, said the essay shows Orwell's love of the pub as a traditional institution.

"The whole question about Orwell and pubs is very interesting," he said.

"It was a symbol of working class life that he tended to sentimentalise."

What constitutes the perfect pub was the topic of Orwell's last essay for the Evening Standard, with previous articles covering other aspects of typical British life, such as how to make a good cup of tea.

And, despite never existing, Moon Under Water left a sizeable legacy.

Seventy years on the essay's criteria for the perfect pub - which includes old-fashioned Victorian decorations, a snack counter, barmaids who know their customers and a garden - are still cited by ale aficionados looking for the ideal spot for a pint.

And landlords running a new breed of pub say Orwell's rules are key to a revival in real ale drinking in the UK.

Image copyright Anthony Seminari
Image caption Martyn Hillier outside The Butchers Arms in Herne, the first of the new breed of micropubs

Rise of micropubs

The micropub does what it says on the label: it's a small pub, often only one room, and it focuses on providing good beer, a good atmosphere and a quiet, friendly place for people to talk, perhaps while nibbling a light snack (though it's not likely to be the liver sausage or mussels favoured by Orwell).

The majority have no music, television, games machines or other features of pubs that go against the criteria set out by the author, who railed against "modern miseries" like glass-topped tables, "sham roof-beams" and fake wooden panels. Many don't even have wi-fi - naturally, this was not a concern for Orwell.

In 2005 only one - The Butcher's Arms at Herne in Kent - was in existence, with only a handful around the UK in 2010, but the popularity has exploded in recent years, with the Micropubs Association saying 162 establishments were up and running by the end of 2015.

Martyn Hillier, who still runs The Butcher's Arms and was awarded last year by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) for his role in reviving pubs, said the reasons for their success were similar to the principles laid out by Orwell.

"When I started the concept people asked what the rules are, and it's basically about having a good pub that gets everyone talking to each other," he said.

"It's all about selling good beer and meeting interesting people."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionWhile traditional pubs close, Kent is about to see a doubling in the number of micropubs in the county

Four years after opening his pub in an old butcher's shop, Mr Hillier gave a presentation at Camra's annual general meeting in Eastbourne, where he showed people how easily they could set up micropubs.

The talk proved influential, and since then micropubs have popped up in former barbers, post offices and other empty premises.

Tansy Harrison and Graham "Grum" Newbury, who also hail from Kent, opened Bridge Street Ale House in a former antiques shop in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, in the summer of 2014, having previously run bigger pubs for larger pub-owning companies.

It was the first micropub to open in North Staffordshire, and has since been followed by three more, all of which focus on real ale, cider and encouraging conversation.

Image copyright Bridge Street
Image caption Grum Newbury and Tansy Harrison opened Bridge Street Ale House in Newcastle-under-Lyme in July 2014. It's won a number of awards, and they opened a second pub, London Road Ale House, last year

Mr Newbury says the move has been a success founded on sticking to the principles of "proper" pub fans, and giving licensees a better chance at achieving a balance between work and their private lives.

"All I want in a pub is a guarantee the beers are good, I don't have to be looking over my shoulder and I don't have to compete with a TV or jukebox," he said.

"With everything these days people can just stay at home and entertain themselves with films, computer games or whatever - people come to the pub for social interaction."

The rise of micropubs has been welcomed by Camra, which has been campaigning for more pubs to focus on traditional cask beer for more than 40 years.

Tim Page, chief executive of the organisation, sees direct links between them and the cherished ideals of Orwell.

"Much of what he was describing is characteristic of what micropubs seek to represent," he said.

According to Camra, 29 pubs are closing across the UK every week, down from more than 50 about 10 years ago.

Mr Page sees the rise of micropubs as "a positive development" after many troubling years for the industry.

Image copyright Google
Image caption The Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar in Islington is one of several London pubs that were frequented by George Orwell, one of the pubs he was inspired by when he came up with his ideal watering hole, the Moon Under Water.

Echoes of the Moon Under Water may be visible in the modern micropub, but how do the pubs that helped inspire the author 70 years ago fare when compared to his criteria today?

Lizzie Arnold is the manager of the Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar in Islington, one of several back-street London pubs used by Orwell to come up with his criteria for the perfect pub.

It may play music on the weekend, but she says its focus on atmosphere and beer means its old patron would still enjoy it.

"It's always busy in here, it can get quite crazy, but we don't do food and we've got a good few regulars. I like it that way," she said.

"People come here for the atmosphere, they don't come in shouting or whatever, even on match-days [Arsenal's stadium is nearby]."

Image caption Orwell, second from left, in his BBC days

Orwell's ideas today

Seven decades on not all of Orwell's ideas on pubs have endured: the smoking ban has done for the tobacco-stained roofs of old, few pubs sell aspirin behind the counter (though some double up as village shops), and boiled jam rolls have fallen out of culinary favour.

However, Mr Hillier hopes the micropub's focus on quality beer and a convivial atmosphere will continue in much the same way as Orwell set out in his 1946 essay.

"At first I didn't know that much about the history of pubs, so it was quite interesting to see that I related to what he was saying," he said.

"I'm just going back to how pubs used to be."

For DJ Taylor, Orwell's attachment to his own era - not to mention a contrarian streak - makes it difficult to predict if we would have seen him in a micropub, a pink china mug of stout in hand.

"He was very much a traditionalist when it came to licensed premises," he said.

"It's hard to say what he would have thought about them, but he would have certainly taken a serious interest."

How micropubs were born

  • The Licensing Act 2003 was passed, making it easier to convert old shops and houses into pubs
  • It came fully into effect in November 2005, with Martyn Hillier saying it was crucial in allowing him to open the first micropub, in Kent
  • Mr Hillier's seminar to Camra's annual general meeting in Eastbourne in 2009 showed others how to open their own pubs
  • The second micropub, Rat Race Ale House, was opened in Hartlepool soon after
  • Last year there were 162 members of the Micropub Association

And regardless of whether Orwell would have approved of the micropub, Mr Page believes that its future is rosy.

"The pub is a really great meeting place, because it's one of the few places where people can go that goes across the class divide," he said.

"It's more than a place to go and have a drink - that's what Orwell was saying, and it's what micropubs are saying."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites