I noticed a letter in a recent copy of the Lynn News under the heading ‘Scraping the barrel’. It referred to some political activists as ‘leading lights who only speak to each other in Hampstead pubs’. Having been down to Hampstead and visited some of the classic pubs there, such as the Flask, Holly Bush and the Duke of Hamilton I am not sure that this is such a bad thing as seemed to be implied in the body of the letter. They all sold fine beer, seemed to be frequented by perfectly normal people who were going about their business in a calm and sensible way. I didn’t really note the topics of their conversations, but I guess it was the usual beer, football and food. Sure, politics may have been mentioned – pubs have been a hotbed of political intrigue since they were invented. People have always gathered in pubs to swap stories and discuss events. Back in 1712, the government passed the stamp act which levied a tax on newspapers, and many pubs became a place where the news was read to or by the people who could no longer afford to buy their own paper. You might sometimes see the etched glass or stained glass in an older pub advertising the news room or reading room, and I guess it is inevitable that people would discuss the stories and possibly even organise in pubs. Chartists met in pubs, the Littleport rioters started at the Globe Inn, and the Gunpowder Plot was hatched in the Duck and Drake in London. Freemasonry can be traced back to the Goose and Gridiron in St Paul’s churchyard in 1717, six years before the first Grand Lodge was formed, and pubs have often been associated with political parties. In the days before secret ballots, it was common for candidates to provide free beer for their supports on polling day.
However from the tone of his letter, I guess our correspondent is not aiming to celebrate the glorious part that pubs have played in our democracy, but rather to suggest that opinions expressed in the pubs of Hampstead somehow have lesser validity than those expressed elsewhere. This is a worrying trend – I have, for instance, noticed the frequent reference to ‘luvvies’ in the letters page in recent weeks. Are we really at the stage where opinions expressed by certain members of society, or in certain places lose their validity? Can someone explain the ground rules to me? How much more credence should I give to an argument put forward by a dockworker in the Minerva in Hull compared to that of an actor in the Flask in Hampstead? Are women allowed to have opinions or is it just men? What about an actor in the Riveters Arms in Scunthorpe, or a factory worker, who sets out his stall in the Holly Bush? Who should we listen to and whose opinions should we dismiss?
To me, this is a minefield, but I think that I have an answer. Why do we not address the content of the message rather than rubbish it due to the person who delivers it, or the location in which it was delivered? Let’s listen equally to those ‘who only speak to each other in Hampstead pubs’ and those who discuss well in the Lord Napier. Then we can attack the arguments and not the people who make them. No doubt, despite my best efforts, there will be people who continue to marginalise whole groups of people – but leave the pubs out of it.