Monthly Archives: May 2009

The moon under water

Many years ago George Orwell wrote an article specifying what the 10 things that he thought the perfect London pub should have. Country pubs were different and he didn’t go in to the details. His ideal pub was called “The moon under water”.

Rather terribly there is course a chain version of these pubs now. This supposedly was the template for the Wetherspoons chain of pubs. The only thing that they seemed to listen to George about was his dislike of music. Everything else they seemed to get wrong. Wetherspoons pubs have had a complete atmosphere bypass, and I think the idea of several pubs all being exactly the same, being exactly as crap as each other and using his name would have wounded George. One line from his article is thus,”If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its ‘atmosphere.'” On that rationale, would you ever choose a Wetherspoons?

Actually here is the article…


Evening Standard, 9 February 1946

My favourite public-house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights.

Its clientele, though fairly large, consists mostly of “regulars” who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as for the beer.

If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its “atmosphere.”

To begin with, its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham roof-beams, ingle-nooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak. The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed bull’s head over the mantelpiece —everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century.

In winter there is generally a good fire burning in at least two of the bars, and the Victorian lay-out of the place gives one plenty of elbow-room. There are a public bar, a saloon bar, a ladies’ bar, a bottle-and-jug for those who are too bashful to buy their supper beer publicly, and, upstairs, a dining-room.

Games are only played in the public, so that in the other bars you can walk about without constantly ducking to avoid flying darts.

In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of a decorous kind.

The barmaids know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone. They are all middle-aged women —two of them have their hair dyed in quite surprising shades—and they call everyone “dear,” irrespective of age or sex. (“Dear,” not “Ducky”: pubs where the barmaid calls you “ducky” always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere.)

Unlike most pubs, the Moon Under Water sells tobacco as well as cigarettes, and it also sells aspirins and stamps, and is obliging about letting you use the telephone.

You cannot get dinner at the Moon Under Water, but there is always the snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels (a speciality of the house), cheese, pickles and those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses.

Upstairs, six days a week, you can get a good, solid lunch —for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll—for about three shillings.

The special pleasure of this lunch is that you can have draught stout with it. I doubt whether as many as 10 per cent of London pubs serve draught stout, but the Moon Under Water is one of them. It is a soft, creamy sort of stout, and it goes better in a pewter pot.

They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drink to be transparent, but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china.

The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden. You go through a narrow passage leading out of the saloon, and find yourself in a fairly large garden with plane trees, under which there are little green tables with iron chairs round them. Up at one end of the garden there are swings and a chute for the children.

On summer evenings there are family parties, and you sit under the plane trees having beer or draught cider to the tune of delighted squeals from children going down the chute. The prams with the younger children are parked near the gate.

Many as are the virtues of the Moon Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.

And though, strictly speaking, they are only allowed in the garden, the children tend to seep into the pub and even to fetch drinks for their parents. This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding children —and therefore, to some extent, women—from pubs that has turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be.

The Moon Under Water is my ideal of what a pub should be —at any rate, in the London area. (The qualities one expects of a country pub are slightly different.)

But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Moon Under Water.

That is to say, there may well be a pub of that name, but I don’t know of it, nor do I know any pub with just that combination of qualities.

I know pubs where the beer is good but you can’t get meals, others where you can get meals but which are noisy and crowded, and others which are quiet but where the beer is generally sour. As for gardens, offhand I can only think of three London pubs that possess them.

But, to be fair, I do know of a few pubs that almost come up to the Moon Under Water. I have mentioned above ten qualities that the perfect pub should have and I know one pub that has eight of them. Even there, however, there is no draught stout, and no china mugs.

And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.


So what on earth was Tim Martin thinking when he used the name for his pubs?

There are some changes that have happened since Orwell’s article. Almost every pub serves stout now (sadly, generally only one kind). And there is no chance of bringing smoking back to the pub. And of course sacrilegiously I sometimes like music in a pub. Not always. It depends on the general noise level. I can deal with what my father calls “Wallpaper music” when the pub is quiet. That way the pub never feels totally empty. But it should never upset the possibility of conversation.

But what do you all think? What makes the perfect boozer for you?

How I write

One of the things I find so difficult about writing a novel is that you have to have a plan. Even if you don’t think you are planning anything, then you have to remember that you have planned to write a novel. And even that thought can upset some kind of delicate balance in your mind. Things are different with a plan.

Surely, though, you would think that there must be some planning going on, even in a short article. Even then you are deciding to write about a particular topic. Not really. Not for me anyway. I tend to start, write, do more writing. See if I can find a strand of an idea in there and throw away the other stuff.

For example… And this is absolutely true… Last week’s short story about Amber started off as an article about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. I didn’t decide at one point, to shelve the Gladwell article and start writing fiction. The Gladwell stuff went in the edit. I don’t think there is any connection between the book and the short story even. As far as I can objectively tell the two are separate. I think the story had more to do with the Laura Marling album I was listening to at the time.

I got a bit stuck on stuff to write about the Gladwell book and so I noodled off onto something else. I’m guessing other people don’t do the same, but I don’t really know. Perhaps I am an outlier after all?

The book is interesting in that it talks about how you have to work hard (more than 10,000 hours work before you become truly proficient in anything). It also talks about how society, timing and luck are very important to your likely success. In many ways, it is the opposite of a self-help book. Too many books offer the promise of “how to succeed in 14 and a half steps” this book says, “to succeed you need to work like crazy, for ages, and even then it’s not likely to happen”. It is a bit of a downer, I guess. Not because that’s depressing, it isn’t. It’s bound to be really hard to be commercially successful, otherwise it would be devalued and everyone would be doing it and then it wouldn’t exist. Successful by that rationale means being surprisingly more successful than others. It’s only because you have lots more money than people that your large bank balance means anything – just ask somebody in Zimbabwe what they think.

The depressing thing is that this is what is seen as successful. Being a good and decent person is success. Being happy is success. Being rich means something else.

In Gladwell’s book he talks about outliers and at the beginning he talks about a town in the United States where people are the least likely to have heart disease. It’s not that they eat better than people in other places nearby. It’s not that they do more exercise. It is that they are less stressed. Working too hard is stressful, so is working too little (somebody is always after you for something). Most people know each other, most people check in on each other and see that they are okay. Most people learn to live with each other. They live in a community rather than near a community like most people do today. It’s no surprise that we’re all looking for books on how to be successful. It’s just a shame that so few people get a chance to discover what success really means.

Wow that was lots different than what I wrote last time about Gladwell. Maybe this is me just trying to justify why I haven’t finished the novel yet. I mean, maybe I don’t have to finish the novel to succeed. Yeah, right.


Amber lay on the sloping bank, her feet cooling in the river. She looked across the river to a house. A dragonfly hovered in front of her nose. Dragonflies do live up to their name, she thought. They seem so old. Amber felt old, too old to be lusting after young boys, well, young men. On the opposite bank of the river, in the garden of the house, were three such young men. They were probably about 25 and they were mowing the lawns. She had been walking along the river and one of their naked torsos had caught her attention. She hadn’t really thought about it but suddenly her feet had felt quite hot and tired. Perhaps cooling them in the water might be good after all.

Amber stopped, sat and took off her shoes. She suddenly wasn’t sure about the water. It looked clean enough but it had only really been warm for the last few days. The water was liable to be freezing. She didn’t have a towel to dry her feet afterwards either. But she decided that it would look better if she was cooling her feet. Otherwise somebody looking might have thought she was just there watching. She wanted it to be clear that she had just stopped to cool her feet. That the lawn mowers had probably arrived afterwards and that their noise was probably an annoyance rather than anything else.

But the noise was perfect. The drone of the mowers, the slipping of the stream, the birds calling out to each other. Amber wondered if there were bashful birds? A Zeppelin-like bee came poot-pooting past. It was doing a pretty fair approximation of the lawnmowers. The breeze was making the grass tickle Amber’s fingers. The sun was warming her face and chest. Amber experienced the summer version of “did-I-leave-the-gas-on?” which is “did-I-remember-sunblock-this-morning?”. Which of course she had. What about her feet? The water was probably washing it off. It was supposed to be waterproof, but she had never really believed that, when the children were young she had always rubbed sunblock back in the moment they had come out of the water. She started wondering how the children were doing. Neither of them had called for a few days. What were they doing? She hoped they were happy.

Amber caught herself. She had forgotten the moment she was in. For a second she wondered if any of these three had called their mothers recently. Of course they had, she decided, they were good boys. Despite the sun on her the running river was robbing Amber of her heat. It was probably time to move on. Amber began to worry as she often had in the last few weeks. Even in the perfect situation she didn’t seem to be able to live in the moment. Her brain kept cycling on.

She wondered when she last did something impulsive. Something tried to tell her that just stopping and admiring the view had been impulsive. But not really, she knew it wasn’t really. She had worried what people who saw her would think. There are no bashful birds, she thought.

And with that she stood up, and threw herself into the river. She righted herself and launched herself upwards, breaking the surface of the water. She started treading water and shouting, “Help, help”.

Her dress, waterlogged, had stuck itself very tightly to her body. All three of the young men who had been mowing the lawn heard the noise, downed tools, and started running towards Amber.

“Interesting,” Amber thought, “I wonder what I should do next?”

“No,” another part of her brain said rather firmly, “we will just have to find out what happens next. For now, it is not for us to decide.”

Fish and chips

Fish and chips is in some ways the English national dish, and I love it. But there are some important considerations about fish and chips that you have to bear in mind. Personally I think mushy peas are a very important ingredient. And then we have controversial salt and vinegar situation.

There is no question for me. I believe the only option is to have both; adding the vinegar first and the salt second. Some people will tell you that you want the vinegar second so that it soaks the salt in. Nonsense! The vinegar washes the salt off. No question. And that’s just wasting salt. People don’t die in salt mines just so you can waste some of their hard mined salt!*

I like mushy peas but it’s easy to go too far with them. My friend fourstar and I can no longer eat in a certain pub after fourstar demanded peas with menaces.**

But most recently a plate of fish and chips got me in even more trouble. I was out at the pub with a bunch of Formula One related friends from sidepodcast. One of them ordered fish and chips and then I was hooked (sadly that pun was intentional). I decide I needed a plate for myself.

A short while later the food arrived. But due to overcrowding, my plate of fish and chips was hiding a terrible secret. Under half of the plate is a table, just as you would expect, but under the other half of the plate is simple fresh air.

I carefully unwrap my knife and fork from their napkiny delivery blanket. I take the fork and gently cut some of the fish away from the main body. Then I stab the chunk I have created and a the plate goes for it. It makes the suicidal leap onto my lap. For a moment I foolishly try to keep everything together on my lap before the oily fish slips down my right leg to its destiny.

I collect everything back together on the plate. I decide I probably can’t be trusted with anything more. A short while later our waitress returns to ask if everything is okay. She notices that I don’t seem to have touched mine.

“Ah, yes,” I say, “I accidentally dropped mine on the floor. I think it’s probably ruined my trousers.”
“Would you prefer something else less dangerous?”
“What do you have?”, I ask.
“A packet of crisps?”

I decided that while a packet of crisps would be less dangerous, the moment had passed.

* Unless of course you spill some salt in which case you must throw more salt over your shoulder to stop dragons from coming and eating you.

** To be fair, fourstar simply asked them to substitute the vegetables that came with the pie for the peas that came with the fish and the waitress refused. Fourstar said we’d never come back if they didn’t. They didn’t. And we haven’t been back – except once by accident.