January 21, 2011

What People Do In Pubs; Or, The Berlin Kneipe

Rejoice, all ye young choiring throats, round our table rings a roundelay, hey-dey-dey-hey-dey-dey, round our table rings a roundelay. Three times three is ni-i-ine, we swig our drinks like swi-i-ine, three times three and one is ten, let’s swig another one like men – two, three, four, six, seven.
            Who is that standing at the milling-bar, the swilling-bar, the rilling-bar, who is that smiling into the smoky stink-hole? (Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz).
Any man who lives in a city, and I mean really lives in a city, rather than merely working or commuting through such a place, will own that a city can always surprise. In a major capital one can never know everything, and while we may think of certain networks of streets as forming ‘our’ patch, we are nevertheless driven by the mystery of the place. Beyond the well-trodden path of tourists and the attractions they seek lies the dark urban world of the inhabitants, made bright by the light of their spirits. Let us follow a Berlin local now, and see where we end up.

We are at the door of a pub, an Irish pub apparently, in Kreuzberg, in the south. The door is iron, the frontage shabby and uninviting. No tourist would ever come here, but nor would the Prenzl’berg hipsters and, we gather, that is why it is good. There is a moment’s hesitation, for we know of only two kinds of Irish pub: the kitsch plasticity of the formulaic boozer, bedecked in made-in-China ‘authentic’ Irish breweriana and giant TV screens, and real pubs in Ireland. This one is called Mrs. Lovell, and we wonder if there is an intended illusion to Mrs. Lovett, the meat-pie making accomplice of Sweeney Todd. For a moment we are glad that we have already eaten. Suspicions fly away as the door is pushed inwards and a cloak of smoke envelopes us and, through the gloom, smiling eyes and mouths greet us as old-friend newcomers. This is not an Irish pub; it is a living room with a bar, and the hosts are happy we came.

People in pubs these days typically are there only to drink. There is nothing else to do. Gone are the days when a man met his chums at his local in order to recapitulate the terms of friendship through play and camaraderie. Cards, dominoes, even darts, are now things of the past. In the age of ‘Rockband’ nobody can play an instrument, and we sit and stare at plasma screens without sound, voluntarily hypnotised by the moving images, for we have nothing to say. Men used not only to smoke and to drink, but to philosophise about smoking and drinking. A pipe or a cigar was not idly consumed but relished; scotch drinkers and real-ale drinkers savoured. Now we drink to excess the ditch water served up to us so as not to taste it, and we occupy our mouths with the acrid tar of whatever comes cheapest simply because our jaws are idle.

Not so at Mrs. Lovell, whose proprietress is, we gather, a Berliner of said name. The man of the house, English so far as can be gathered, says only that he is ‘from Mum and Dad’ when probed about his origins. Between them, they orchestrate an evening full of song and laughter, in two languages, based squarely on a steady rhythm guitar, the raspy voice of a smoky larynx, and the percussive innovations of a man in leather and snakeskin trousers, whose kit included a single tom, a wooden table and a glass ashtray. From the darkness of a back room a man emerges with a saxophone, breathing heavily through it at first and then bending it up through the smoke and finding a clear soprano tone that shines like a light through the fog. Two men at the bar produce ukuleles and join in, and shortly enough the room fills with locals, who greet each other as long-lost pals and immediately join in song. The evening is not planned. A capella renditions of Mackie Messer and Goodbye Johnny are incongruously mixed with a choppy Dirty Old Town and a weirdly out of place Another Brick in the Wall. Everyone is experiencing an unadulterated, unregulated delight. The room smiles. The pub dog pads from table to table, wet-nosing the guests as if to say ‘stay’, and dancing barmaids – dancing because they can’t help it, not because they’re supposed to – keep the glasses filled. The Guinness is as it is meant to be, and all is right with the world.

We leave with reluctance, for soon the trains will stop running. Savouring the outside air for a minute, we duck underground and head home. We miss the last connection from Alexanderplatz, but somehow having to walk home from here, on this night, seems only right.


  1. This post is a lovely bit of escapism. "Gone are the days when a man met his chums at his local in order to recapitulate the terms of friendship through play and camaraderie." Well put. Your writing is wonderful.

  2. Thank you Benjamin. The compliment is gratefully received.


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