What makes a perfect pub? For George Orwell, wistfully writing in 1946, there were ten precise criteria - including motherly barmaids, draught stout and tobacco available at the bar. Settled into a tired but comfortable sofa for my first visit to The Bear at Home, a free house in North Moreton, Oxfordshire, I can see a few of my own favourite pub features, including a fire, pork pies, a dog, a plentiful supply of newspapers and, yes, draught stout.
My own local, Father Ted's in Kilburn, lacks the dog and the fire - but boasts different charms, including Sid Waddell quotes painted on the wall, Arsenal-on-demand, a 24-hour licence and cheap Guinness. Both pubs share Orwell's prime criterion, atmosphere.
Any attempt to define a perfect pub is, of course, hopelessly subjective. But Orwell's question, “what makes a perfect pub?” may yet become academic.
According to startling figures from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) released last week, there are now 39 pubs closing in Britain each week. Were the closures to continue at that rate, last orders in Britain's last pub would be called for the final time one evening in June 2037.
The closure rate has been creeping upwards for the past six or seven years. Publicans point to a cluster of factors, including the smoking ban, and the wide availability of cheap beer and wine in supermarkets and corner shops - which makes it far more prudent to get sozzled at home (where you can smoke if you must) instead of down the pub.
Delicensing pubs became an increasingly tempting option as house prices soared; why fight gamely on to make an underperforming boozer work, went the logic, when converting the building into flats could bring riches?
More than half of Britain's small villages now have no local and it is a trend, darkly mutters the pub industry, that could get worse. The most recent burden on publicans' shoulders is increased beer tax (up 18 per cent last year, according to the BBPA, at a cost of £520 million). The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) asserts that about 2,000 pubs have closed in the past 12 months, with the loss of 20,000 jobs.
Added to that, further threatened tax hikes place at risk an estimated 75,000 jobs - and many thousands of pubs. “If anyone thinks this will plateau at six a day, they are wrong,” said Shepherd Neame chief executive Jonathan Neame at last week's meeting of the All Party Parliamenty Beer Group: “Twenty five per cent of pub stock could close unless something is done.”
Throughout Britain's long love affair with its pubs there have been many peaks - and fewer troughs. The first Licensing Act came into force in 1552, and a government survey 25 years later concluded that there were about 24,000 alehouse keepers in England, one for every 142 citizens.
Uncounted were the swisher taverns and inns, which did not fall under regulation until the 18th century - when the term “public house” first entered the national lexicon. The Puritans tried, but failed, to suppress the national pastime and by the beginning of the 19th century, the century of Beer Mania, there were 50,000 pubs for a population of nine million.
All these facts are culled from Fergus Linnane's Drinking For England: The Great English Drinkers and Their Times. It would have made an ideal read for a quiet afternoon in a small, up-against-it village local, marvelling at boozy glories past and ruefully contemplating the imminent death of the British pub. Yet here in the Bear at Home, trade is brisk - and the people-watching too compelling to concentrate on a book.
Molly, the pub's plump golden retriever, pants gently by the bar as conversation swirls under the wood-beamed ceiling. Within my earshot the occupants of one table, by the fireplace, are discussing Flaubert's Parrot (“I do quite like Julian Barnes”), another group is agonising over a crossword (“Avatar! It's avatar!”) and a third is musing whether to put a trellis over the garage. The lunch service (fully booked) is winding down and a group of four pensioners heads for the door, evading a chocolate-smeared, pink-bibbed toddler and the smoker pacing crunchily outside on the gravel.