Short arms, deep pockets
By William Greaves
There is one familiar expression in the English language which appears in no international phrasebook – for the simple reason that foreigners would be able to make neither head nor tail of it.
The phrase is: ‘It’s my round.’ It has a number of variations: the assertive ‘No, no, it’s definitely my round’, the quizzically aggrieved ‘Whose round is it?’ and even the faintly aggressive ‘It can’t be my round again, surely.’
When two or more people assemble to quench their thirst in a public place anywhere east of Dover or west of the Scillies, a bill is pushed under the saucer each time a new batch of drinks arrives. Or a beer mat is marked, slate chalked or spike spiked. Upon departure, the final tally is then added up and divided among all present. Fair – but unsporting.
No nation which invented cricket could seriously be expected to comply with a code of conduct so morosely bereft of complication that all the niceties of lifemanship and etiquette are swamped by simple arithmetic. So the difference between the British pub and every other kind of alien bar is that, here, we pay before we sip. Correction: one person pays before everyone sips.
So the British pub – and the atmosphere which prevails within – is unique in so much as every new order is a personal gift by one patron to all his or her friends or colleagues.
But who is that one patron? Here is the nub around which the very British game of ‘pubbing’ revolves. For not only is the ‘round’ (defined in my Collins Concise as ‘a number of drinks bought at one time for a number of people’) deeply engrained in the national ethos, it is also deliciously ill-defined in the matter of whose turn it is to dig deep.
There was a time, before bitter gave way to Budweiser, when such a question would never have had to be asked. Tyro drinkers would be so overawed by their surroundings – and the dangers that lurked within – that they would nervously ape their experienced elders. In other words, they would learn by natural instinct when it was their turn to put hand in pocket.
Some years ago, in the days when newspapers lived in Fleet Street and the round often assumed titanic dimensions, I became aware that standards were falling. Appalling laxities like tossing a coin or engaging in a game of spoof in order to determine who should pay were creeping in to replace the proper order of things. Some players even sank to the unpardonable depths of ‘round avoidance,’ arriving late, enjoying several drinks and then, in the nick of time, spotting someone across the room with whom they ‘must just grab a word.’
It was not entirely the young students’ fault. A new and impetuous generation may well have sprung, improperly dressed, upon the scene – but who can learn when the teachers have forgotten how to teach? In those darkest hours, I realised that The Word had to be spread before a glorious national heritage was allowed to wither on the vine.
The result of this initiative became known throughout the pubs in that street of shame as Greaves’s Rules. Under their auspices not only were rounds ordered but tribunals commissioned and even sentences passed. Once-respected men today walk shoeless down Oxford Street for having transgressed against them.
It was a fragile claim to eponymous immortality – and certainly not one I sought to patent in documentary form – but this website has now invited me to publish those same edicts as a reminder that nothing in our history is so sacred that it cannot be forgotten.
And so, for whom it might concern, here are Greaves’s Rules. Pin them up above or near the bar counter. Then even foreign visitors might stumble across some thinly understood enlightenment.
- When two or more enter the pub together, one – usually the first through the door – will begin proceedings with the words “Now then, what are we having?” He or she will then order and pay. This purchase is known as “the first round”.
- This player, or “opener”, will remain “in the chair” while other friends or colleagues come through the door to join the round. He will remain in this benefactory role until either (a) his own glass sinks to beneath the halfway mark or (b) another drinker finds himself almost bereft of his original refreshment and volunteers to “start a new round”.
- In the absence of new arrivals, any player other than the opener may at any time inquire whether it is “the same again?” On receiving his instructions, he will then order and pay for “the second round”. (N.B. The second round is the last one to be specifically numbered. Beyond that point, nobody wishes to be reminded how many they have had and, anyway, no-one should be counting.)
- The round acknowledges no discrimination. All players, regardless of sex, age or social status, are expected to “stand their corner”. (Pedants might like to note that we are talking here of the only “round” in the English language that also contains a “corner”.
- Any new entrant, joining the session after its inception, is not expected to “buy himself in” but should be invited to join the round by whoever is in the chair (see Rule 2). If, however, he is greeted by silence he may either (a) buy a drink just for himself or (b) attempt to buy a round for all present. If (a) or, worse still, (b) is not acceptable to the congregation then the new entrant has been snubbed and should in future seek out more appreciative company. There is one important exception…
- For reasons of haste or poverty, a new arrival may insist on buying his own with the words “Thanks, but I’m only popping in for one”. If he is then seen to buy more than three drinks, he will be deemed a skinflint, neither broke nor in a hurry to get home, and will be penalised for his duplicity by being ordered to buy the next round.
- Although everyone in the group is normally required to buy at least one round before leaving, the advent of either drunkenness or closing time sometimes renders this ideal unattainable. In such circumstances, any non-paying participant will (a) have “got away with it” and (b) appoint himself “opener” at the next forgathering. However, any player who notices on arrival that the round has “got out of hand” and has no chance of reaching his turn before “the last bell”, may start a “breakaway round” by buying a drink for himself and all subsequent arrivals. This stratagem breaks the round in two, keeps the cost within manageable proportions and is the only acceptable alternative to Rule 5.
- When a pressing engagement elsewhere precludes further involvement, it is wholly unacceptable for any player who has not yet been in the chair to buy a round in which he cannot himself be included. In such circumstances Rule 7 (a) and (b) therefore apply.
- In the event of any one glass becoming empty, a new round must be called immediately. This should not necessarily be called by the owner of the empty glass, however, because this place the slower drinker at an unfair fund-saving advantage. (N.B. Whereas it is permissible for any member of the round to decrease the capacity of his individual order – “just a half for me, please” – the opposite does not hold good. A large whisky, for instance, maybe offered by the chair but never demanded of it.)
- Regional variations. In various parts of the country, a particular establishment will impose its own individual codicil. In one Yorkshire pub, for example, the landlord’s Jack Russell terrier expects to be included in every round. Where such amendments exist and are properly advertised, they must be piously observed. We are, after all, talking about religion.