Opinion: What ‘Fancy a pint?’ really means

Editor’s note: Pete Brown is a British author, journalist, broadcaster and consultant specializing in food and drink. He is the author of several books on beer and pub culture, including Man Walks Into A Pub: A Sociable History of Beer. The views expressed in this comment are his own. View more opinions on CNN.


In the 1990s, a new comedy sketch show on British television exposed a nation’s habits and quirks.

One of the recurring sketches on “The Fast Show” would begin with a situation that was stressful, boring, uncomfortable, awkward — anything where the prospect of staying there becomes increasingly unbearable.

As the pressure mounted, actor/writer Paul Whitehouse finally looked away from the camera and asked, “Anybody want a pint?”

A significant portion of The Fast Show skits were filmed in pubs, as pubs are where Brits meet and interact with friends or strangers.

English literature more or less began in a pub when Geoffrey Chaucer had the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales meet at the Tabard – the only place his diverse cast of priests, millers, monks, clerks and all the rest had ever met meeting would realistically be in one place.

Likewise, there’s never been a successful British soap opera that doesn’t have a pub at its heart.

With energy, food and supply chain costs rising, the future of this major British institution looks more uncertain than ever.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan went so far as to recently warn that the cost of living crisis could be “deadly” for the capital’s pubs, which were already shaky on their feet after being hit by pandemic restrictions.

A staff member pours a pint at the Paxtons Head pub in London in early December 2020, as English businesses temporarily emerged from lockdown.

The question of how to keep the pub lights on in the economic gloom is bound to be discussed primarily in the business sections of British newspapers.

But the British pub is more important than that. People are interested in the pub because its role as a cultural institution is even bigger than its considerable contribution to the British economy. The pub is a defining pillar of British identity.

“Anybody fancy a pint?” was not (just) an invitation to drink alcohol. Even now, with Britons drinking more at home than outside, specifying a pint instead of a beer is a clear invitation to pubs in particular, where beer is still in pints and half-pints rather than the metric of 330 ml, 440ml is sold or 500ml cans and bottles.

“Fancy a pint?” means “Let’s escape to a place where there is normalcy and solace in an increasingly troubling world.”

It is well known that during times of uncertainty or fear we seek connections to the past to calm ourselves. It’s no coincidence that pubs in British cities often seem a lot older than everything else around them.

In the Middle Ages, the hanging sign above the door was common for any trading company. Well, unless you’re in an old world tourist trap like Stratford-upon-Avon, pubs are the only shops they have.

The decoration and dishes on a typical pub menu are usually closer to what the typical drinker remembers from childhood than what they have in their own home today. Whatever happens, the pub is always there, unchanging.

Patrons of The Crown pub on Blackfriars Road, London, celebrate the wedding of then Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, November 1947.
Decades later, a Piccadilly pub grinds to a halt as patrons watch King Charles III.  addressing the nation in his first speech as King of England in September.

Perhaps that’s why international reporting on Britain’s economic recovery from the Covid 19 pandemic often used the pub as a guardrail. The pandemic was the only time in history that all pubs were forcibly closed. (From March 2020, pubs across the UK embarked on a rollercoaster ride of various restrictions, which were lifted in the summer of 2021).

When they reopened, that sense of normalcy and continuity in the face of scary times resonated well beyond Britain’s shores.

How does the pub do it? Why is it different from bars elsewhere?

There are many answers. The British climate has something to do with it – the pavement cafe culture of France or the doorstep socializing of Southern Europe is not for us. For centuries, our homes were little more than places to sleep. When we couldn’t afford to heat them in winter, the pub provided warmth and conviviality.

Three friends gather at the Cornucopia pub in Southend, England, after pandemic restrictions on households mixing indoors were lifted in May 2021.

The famous British stiff upper lip may have gotten jiggier in the past few decades, but we find it difficult to open up to one another — especially British men.

Look closely, and almost every traditional aspect of the pub – drinking larger quantities of lower-alcohol drinks, shopping in rounds, ordering at the bar rather than at the table, toasting and cheers – is subtly designed to break down social barriers.

Britain’s notorious class system ends at the pub door. Indoors, your social standing is determined solely by who has the best jokes and how fast you make your rounds.

In his 1946 essay The Moon Under Water, George Orwell outlined a list of attributes that made the perfect pub. The most important of all these, he wrote, was its atmosphere. Walk into a great pub, and even when it’s empty, you still feel like the building hugs you in a hug and says, “Welcome home.”

Orwell’s perfect pub didn’t really exist: it was a compilation of the best parts of three of his favorite pubs in Islington, North London, all of which were still open at the time of writing.

But one of them, the Compton Arms, is now at risk of closure after residents complained that the pub, which was 200 years older than them in the neighborhood, was causing a nuisance.

George Orwell was one of the famous patrons of the Compton Arms pub in Islington, north London.

This is a sign of the times. When The Fast Show first asked if anyone would like a beer, there were 61,000 pubs in the UK. By the time the pandemic began, that number had collapsed to 47,000.

In the first half of 2022, almost 20 pubs closed their doors for good every week. Covid-19 has drained the already struggling pub sector and accelerated the trend towards home drinking.

Brits are drinking less alcohol overall than a decade ago and the pub now faces competition from Netflix, Amazon Prime and near-instant home delivery of food and drink, as well as multiplexes, cafes and gyms.

So is the pub an idea whose time has run out? Well, no – unless we don’t have time anymore for friendships, for spontaneous encounters that become lifelong memories, for sharing sorrows and comforts that somehow feels easier over a beer than over a coffee cup.

We use pubs differently these days. We visit her less often. But that means when we walk, it’s no longer an everyday, casual habit—it’s an enhanced experience. We go to the pub because we can’t get that experience anywhere else.

The welcoming glow on the street corner still calls out to us. And with a winter when fuel bills are a major concern despite government price caps, we may be flocking to the pub again because the price of a pint is cheaper than heating our homes.

About Nina Snider

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