Unable to speak your mind any more

CORNER REFUGE: The Blue Ball stays true to its calling.
CORNER REFUGE: The Blue Ball stays true to its calling.

On a wet day late in November, 1972, an English side called North-West Counties played the All Blacks, captained by Ian Kirkpatrick, in Workington. North-West won 16-14.

The result must have been expunged from New Zealand's collective memory because it was complete news to me and therefore seemed dubious.

We were apprised of this dark chapter of New Zealand rugby history, even before we had taken delivery of our first pint on our first visit to Grantchester's Blue Ball Inn.

Our accents had given us away and the rugby reminder came from none other than Jeremy Clarkson.

Well, he certainly looked very much like the gaffe-prone Top Gear presenter if you added on a few years and gave him the ruddy complexion gained from years as a horticulturist.

In fact, it was Peter Owen (nickname Tree God) who, with great glee at the rugby memory, informed us, "I was there". He would have been 14 at the time but that fine hour of North-West rugby had not dimmed with age.

The banter immediately established common ground and we were invited to join Peter and a group of locals who included two painters in white overalls (Picasso and Claude), a Norwegian gene sequencer and, Mick, who does something with trees to make woven fences.

We covered many topics in the next couple of hours but one of the first and most important was the parlous state of the English pub, of which the Blue Ball, just outside of Cambridge, is apparently one of the last genuine and imperilled examples.

The ravages of business rates, beer duties and smoking bans have claimed many establishments such as the Blue Ball, with the result the drinking person's most conducive environment is under severe threat.

The self-effacing inn could, but for its gold signage and blue sign, be easily mistaken for nothing more than the end dwelling in a wall of attached houses.

If you miss it, you soon arrive at a handsome former vicarage which once housed the famous war poet Rupert Brooke but now hosts novelist and prime cad Jeffrey Archer and his wife.

The Blue Ball has an ordinary front door and, once inside, you feel as though you have walked into a rather gloomy front room which for some reason has a large open cupboard in one corner. And in the cupboard is someone - in this case a comely wench of about 70 - serving beverages or, more accurately, pulling pints.

The green walls are covered with framed photos and pictures claiming relevance to the locality, and the varnish- less wooden floors and humble furniture put patrons immediately at ease.

The special character of the Blue Ball is defined more by what it does not do than what it does. It does not do lager, coffee or food, does not have a television or pokie machine, and does not muck around with the usual bamboozling array of tipples. There's plenty of choice as long as you like one of two tap beers, and wine that meets only one of two descriptions - "red or white".

What the pub does do is provide a convivial backdrop for drinking beer (kept at optimum temperature), conversation and community networking.

In winter, the pub is warmed by a cosy fire but today the group into which we are welcomed is sitting in the small backyard garden where you can smoke to your heart's discontent.

Now I have to confess I am not a pub man. English beer, or real ale, tastes to me like a liquid pumped from a murky drain, which has then had all the goodness extracted from it.

If I have to drink something other than red wine, I would rather have a cold lager or a cup of tea.

Nor, when I am home, do I seek the company of drinkers at the local establishments.

But in biking around the Cambridgeshire countryside like the Famous Five, my pal and I have found ourselves quite frequently supping at village hostelries in a quest to find the heart of real England.

Peter and Mick turned out to be the core of the regulars who welcomed us and Peter's hates - "soccer", the media, the British tax system, politicians, business regulations, southerners, immigrants, jeans on middle-aged men - launched us on a wide-ranging conversation, which could have plumbed some sinister depths had it not been for general p...-taking, profane self- regulation, good humour and, importantly, diversity of opinion.

And, yes, it was cynical, outrageous, unfair, unreasonable and politically incorrect. But it struck me that, in these over-sensitive times, it might be frank conversation that is more endangered than the English pub.

The loss of the ability to unguardedly speak your mind would be a great pity because the robust exchange of views, in this case among drinking buddies in a public place, seems to me to be a healthy way of getting things out in the open, where views can be honed and bolstered or attacked and mocked.

Much better than having silent beliefs stewing in private and proponents seeking out only the like-minded on websites and other closed forums.

The Blue Ball and its patrons strike a noble blow for free speech and are happy to take the consequences. Your round, I think.

The Press