George Orwell’s Moon Under Water versus the real thing

Moon Under Water, George Orwell, Evening Standard, February 1946

George Orwell: My favourite public-house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights.

Moon Under Water, Andrew McConnell, Gertrude St, July 2012

Tomatom: First, the public house is called the Builders Arms and it is also close to the tram stop on Gertrude St. The entrance to the casualy dumbed down fine dining restaurant The Moon Under Water is just around the corner, barely off Gertrude St, on Gore Street. With a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre up the street opposite Andrew McConnell’s other restaurant Cutler & Co, you are guaranteed a bit of edge on the street, if not a few metres around the corner.

Its clientele, though fairly large, consists mostly of “regulars” who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as for the beer.

Its regular clientele has swapped from the impoverished and the grungy to cashed-up and smart. The Builders’ Arms restaurant is booked out weeks ahead. At $75 a head for four courses, a regular chair (for the Wednesday to Sunday that it is open) is a dream for most. And with the frequency that the menu changes, gourgeous though the food is, one visit a week is adequate.

If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its “atmosphere.”

You wouldn’t describe the beer coming first at The Moon Under Water. It’s the delightfully light yet flavoursome food of Andrew McConnell, followed by wine. The atmospehere is white. The interior is starkly white, another design from Projects of The Imagination. The clientelle is white apart from, one black, two Indians and four Asians the night we visited.

Can I mention the food again?

To begin with, its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham roof-beams, ingle-nooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak. The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed bull’s head over the mantelpiece —everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century.

True, the Builders Arms building passes for something Victorian-ish although any ugliness from the nineteenth century has been given a metaphorical (if not physical) whitewash. There are no glass-topped tables that I spotted (but let me know if I’m wrong) and with a thorough makeover all remnants of sticky carpet, bass players and nicotine stains are gone.

Oh, if you do want to smoke you can in the garden or on the tables on Gertrude St.

In winter there is generally a good fire burning in at least two of the bars, and the Victorian lay-out of the place gives one plenty of elbow-room. There are a public bar, a saloon bar, a ladies’ bar, a bottle-and-jug for those who are too bashful to buy their supper beer publicly, and, upstairs, a dining-room.

Make that a public bar, pub bistro downstairs, beer garden and smart restaurant (also downstairs). I do wonder what is upstairs. Offices? Or perhaps someone lives there.

Games are only played in the public, so that in the other bars you can walk about without constantly ducking to avoid flying darts.

Games?

In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of a decorous kind.

Karaoke would be interesting although I believe it is the Cellar Bar at The Newmarket (once a hotel) where cabaret is mixed with fine dining.

The barmaids know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone. They are all middle-aged women —two of them have their hair dyed in quite surprising shades—and they call everyone “dear,” irrespective of age or sex. (“Dear,” not “Ducky”: pubs where the barmaid calls you “ducky” always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere.)

Oh to be called “ducky”. “Dear”, even.

Unlike most pubs, the Moon Under Water sells tobacco as well as cigarettes, and it also sells aspirins and stamps, and is obliging about letting you use the telephone.

Hmmmmmmm…

You cannot get dinner at the Moon Under Water, but there is always the snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels (a speciality of the house), cheese, pickles and those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses.

But it’s only open for dinner. Haven’t spotted the liver-sausage sandwiches on the menu yet.

Upstairs, six days a week, you can get a good, solid lunch —for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll—for about three shillings.

Upstairs?

The special pleasure of this lunch is that you can have draught stout with it. I doubt whether as many as 10 per cent of London pubs serve draught stout, but the Moon Under Water is one of them. It is a soft, creamy sort of stout, and it goes better in a pewter pot.

On tap you could have a Mountain Goat Steam Ale. Or by the bottle a Alhambra Negra or perhaps a local Abbotsford Invalid Stout.

They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drink to be transparent, but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china.

Out of china?

The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden. You go through a narrow passage leading out of the saloon, and find yourself in a fairly large garden with plane trees, under which there are little green tables with iron chairs round them. Up at one end of the garden there are swings and a chute for the children.

The big surprise is the garden liberated from its dingy past it has a vibrant feel of a European courtyard. There are iron chairs and wobbly tables. Fortunately there is nothing for kids. Oh, and technically, the garden is the Builders Arms – there doesn’t appear to be fine dining out there.

On summer evenings there are family parties, and you sit under the plane trees having beer or draught cider to the tune of delighted squeals from children going down the chute. The prams with the younger children are parked near the gate.

Well, summer isn’t here yet. But there certainly won’t be family parties in The Moon Under Water although there may be in The Builders Arms. I really hope there won’t be any squeals from children and none of those urban assault vehicle-sized prams to clog up the place – but that’s just me when I drop a small fortune on food.

Many as are the virtues of the Moon Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.

See above.

And though, strictly speaking, they are only allowed in the garden, the children tend to seep into the pub and even to fetch drinks for their parents. This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding children —and therefore, to some extent, women—from pubs that has turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be.

It certainly is female friendly which is good news.

The Moon Under Water is my ideal of what a pub should be —a t any rate, in the London area. (The qualities one expects of a country pub are slightly different.)

But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Moon Under Water.

On yes there is but it ain’t in London.

That is to say, there may well be a pub of that name, but I don’t know of it, nor do I know any pub with just that combination of qualities.

I know pubs where the beer is good but you can’t get meals, others where you can get meals but which are noisy and crowded, and others which are quiet but where the beer is generally sour. As for gardens, offhand I can only think of three London pubs that possess them.

But, to be fair, I do know of a few pubs that almost come up to the Moon Under Water. I have mentioned above ten qualities that the perfect pub should have and I know one pub that has eight of them. Even there, however, there is no draught stout, and no china mugs.

And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.

Me too.

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3 Responses to “George Orwell’s Moon Under Water versus the real thing”

  1. Vivien

    I checked again last time I was in Gertrude St. Apologies – you are right.

  2. Vivien

    The place across the road from Cutler & Co is a dialysis centre, not and alcohol and drug service.