The actor Eddie Marsan caused an almighty hoo-hah when he tweeted this a couple of days ago: “I don’t like pubs, where I grew up pubs were often the place when men talked bollocks and then came home and beat up their wives. I like dinner parties, people share ideas and men often take their wives. I’m sorry if that makes me a traitor to your definition of my class.”
He was responding to an anonymous twitter user who had accused Marsan, son of a lorry driver and a dinner lady, of elite associations with leading centre left politician. He had claimed that Chris Leslie, Chuckles Umunna, Jess Phillips or John Mann could not have been at a march for the NHS because they were “probably at one of Eddie Marsan’s dinner parties”.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, a prominent Corbynista commentator, replied: “Eddie, just so you know, it is actually possible to go to the pub and not beat your wife. Best to not rely on the prejudices of all your luvvie dinner party guests.”
Eddie came straight back: “When I was a kid, growing up on a council estate, there was a link between alcohol & domestic violence. I shared my experience, you take a cheap shot. Shame on you.”
Now, I know this is a real Twittersphere bubble kind of story but bear with me – it’s genuinely quite interesting, because it’s a miniature illustration of Britain’s weird hang-ups over class. We are simultaneously more class obsessed than we’ve ever been; and less class bound than we’ve ever been.
The pub used to be intimately associated with the working-class culture that Marsan was immersed in as a boy; it’s now democratised to the extent that middle class journos make a virtue of defending it.
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George Steiner, in his beautifully constructed monograph ‘The Idea of Europe’ sketches out the differences between Europe and the British Isles by way of their distinctive drinking cultures: “An English pub, an Irish bar have their own aura and mythologies. What would Irish literature be without the bars of Dublin? Where, if there had not been the Museum Tavern, would Dr. Watson have run into Sherlock Holmes? But these are not cafés … So long as there are coffee houses, the ‘idea of Europe’ will have content.”
English drinking culture is very ancient – coaching inns and post houses were dotted along the highways that criss-crossed medieval England, to give a resting place for the horses and sustenance and comfort to travellers.
In the nineteenth century, pub culture develops, alongside the premodern rural inn culture, its own distinctive ‘aura and mythology’, to service the new urban labouring class created by rapid industrialisation. Then came the working men’s clubs and brass bands in the North and gin houses in London.
Scotland had its own working class pub tradition: the Gothenburg houses, which were strongly associated with the working class Temperance Movement. A small measure of alcohol was doled out to labourers at the end of the day.
But along with the old working class, which saw its power diminish throughout the twentieth century, pub culture has been expanded in an enormous variety of directions, from interchangeable gastropubs ‘by Wetherspoons’, to small craft beer producers, to sports bars, to the point that it has become divorced from the social role which it used to fulfil.
So believe me when I say it – sometimes, something happens in the Twittersphere which captures something actually quite important.