‘A Public Class’ opens with a few words on the potential of the public house and a song by Aidan Moffat. As I write, a few days later, it’s the first day since September pubs can serve pints to seated customers, albeit outdoors. In the middle of looking up the lyrics of that Moffat song, I’m interrupted by a picture message of two pub colleagues—they’re standing outside that real pub, smartly dressed for the occasion, one wearing a suit. Maybe I should have been there but it was a Monday afternoon and I’d be back there at work later in the week. I’d rationalised it as just a workplace, plenty of time to go to the pub another day, but now I’m feeling the tug of the place and its regulars and the idea of the pub.
The song, ‘Where You’re Meant to Be’, along with Ruth Ewan’s words on potential, reminds me simultaneously of nights drinking in places where the regulars ask, ‘what are you doing here?’ and also that men like Moffat can move through these places with ease—with that question unasked—in a way not everyone can. Despite knowing this, despite my own experience, despite the fact that in one pub where I worked, I wore a Young’s Brewery polo shirt that came down to my knees because I knew, behind the wide horseshoe bar, I was exposed to the gaze of male drinkers, I still desperately want everyone to feel what Moffat is singing about when he sings ‘you always come to where you’re meant to be’, and won’t let go of the idea that it’s possible. Ruth describes it as a love/hate relationship. It feels intentional that the title of the event puts the emphasis on ‘public’ over ‘pub’; a return to an original meaning that suggests a return to an ideal, a finding of potential again. The idea of the public.
‘Public House’ is a bit of a contradiction in terms. It’s good to be reminded that alehouses were very much homes, opened to the public when an ale wife planted her broom in the ground outside to indicate there was ale to be drunk inside. The domestic is still present in many pub interiors today—often referring back to a domesticity rooted a little earlier than the current one, often a little out of time. The ale wives were opening their houses in preindustrial times, before the Act of Enclosure when public space was genuinely ‘common’, not like the ostensibly public but privately owned spaces we have today. Pubs are thought of as nostalgic places. Tonight our Zoom pub—a collection of different establishments depicted in virtual backgrounds making it an apparition of many pubs at once—is a place filled with nostalgia for ways of existing both privately, and politically, outside of capitalism.
A picture of a blue plaque on pebbledash introduces the Mother’s Arms, not a pub exactly, but the repurposing of one. A Northeast London pub reclaimed by suffragettes who wanted to expand their movement to include working-class women, from 1915-1920 it housed a cost-price restaurant and a nursery. This expanded idea of what a pub could be, and what functions it could have, fits with the next part of our Class, Henry Bell’s introduction to the redistributive economy of the Gothenburg system. Henry says people often think alcohol is the problem, when in fact it’s capitalism: he goes on to describe how the Gothenburg System tries to straighten out the tangle of those two things (capitalism and drink) when they come together to become deadly. The ‘Goths’ are community run pubs, the profits of which are dispersed back into the community; resembling a community hall as much as a pub, the model has historic links to the cooperative movement and in Scotland most of them were set up in mining towns where many people would have been living through displacement and deprivation. A handful of those ‘Goths’ still operate on that historic model today. But Henry notes a tension in the idea between radicalism and reform, revolution and compromise. One thing pubs are particularly good at is holding seemingly contradictory things together in close proximity.
About halfway through the evening, my notes change from bits of pub history to pub quiz answers. Pubs are political spaces and the questions set by Yara El-Sherbini and co-hosted by Hussein Mitha prod at the way a pub quiz normally operates. Instead they ask why and how we know what we know. I think of all the pub quizzes I’ve been to where the questions rely heavily on knowledge of dead white men and their musical and sporting achievements. Here, it’s a relief that those voices that often feel like the loudest in a pub exist only in questions that are phrased to poke fun at them. (Example question: ‘Donald Trump, who is half Scottish, said “The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics”, thus essentialising racial and ethnic groups. Name any five ingredients in Haggis.’) Such privilege is not rewarded in this pub quiz—points are lost if anyone on your team owns a cordless drill, which provokes a discussion in the Zoom chat box. There’s also a question about how many times in the last year you’ve apologised without meaning it, which I would have done more often had I not spent most of it furloughed from hospitality work.
I’m back at work now but still holding onto this virtual pub as a way of figuring out what parts of it we can take back with us into the real, physical, sticky and noisy pub. The pub imagined by ‘A Public Class’ is full of possibility. As the pandemic that brought us there is felt in the pub world as a force of yet-to-be-determined change, I hope that we can redefine and upset the power balances that exist here. I would like to try to use that love/hate relationship to decide on which bits can be left behind without nostalgia and which bits should be kept for everyone to enjoy from now on.
Timothea Armour is an artist writer and bartender living in Leith, interested in the ways in which social lives and networks of support can be documented in art, through writing and through informal or amateur forms of knowledge and networks of distribution—anecdote, music fandom, field recording. She is a recent student on the MLitt Art Writing programme at Glasgow School of art, a previous committee member at Rhubaba Gallery and Studios and a current coordinator of the Rhubaba Choir.
A Radical Pub Crawl was streamed live on 22 April 2021. www.dundee.ac.uk/coope… Contributors biographies:
Henry Bell is a writer living on the Southside of Glasgow. His biography of the revolutionary red Clydesider John Maclean was published by Pluto in 2018 and his latest poetry pamphlet, Inner Circle, comes out this year.
Yara El-Sherbini uses humour and play to create artworks that probe ‘how we know what we know’. Her work strives to open up who engages with socially and politically engaged art. El-Sherbini hosts pub quizzes which operate as a site for debate and dialogue around the idea of knowledge production and regularly shows work nationally and internationally, most recently, a solo exhibition Forms of Regulation and Control, CUE Art Foundation, New York, 2020. She is part of artist duo YARA + DAVINA; their work Arrivals + Departures opened at Somerset House in September 2020 and is touring internationally in 2021. yaraelsherbini.com
Hussein Mitha (they/he) is a writer and artist based in Glasgow. Their writing has featured in The Drouth, Frieze and Radical Philosophy. They have taught workshops at Glasgow School of Art, Central Saint Martins, Market Gallery, Transmission Gallery and in 2019 led a reading group at Cooper Gallery where the are currently The Ignorant Art School Sit-in #1 Curriulum Associate Occupier.
Ruth Ewan is an internationally celebrated artist whose research-led and critically engaged practice has drawn attention within contemporary art and socio-political history. Engaging with the circulation of radical ideas and social movements, her work explores the processes by which ideas take form and spread from individuals to society. ruthewan.com