[Walking the World is a new monthly weekend column. It features different Pagan and Heathen writers from outside the U.S.A. bringing varied perspectives to The Wild Hunt. Today we feature Christina Oakley Harrington, the founding director of Treadwell's Bookshop in London.]
In 1989, when the 26-year-old me turned up in London looking for fellow Pagans, I was directed to a strange thing I’d never heard of – the pub moot. Moot is an old English word for meeting, and the pub, well, is an institution. In 1989, everyone met in the pub – rich, poor, women, men, dogs, and children. Women in suits jostled alongside punks in mohicans, and the kids chased the dogs. No one had friends around to their homes as that was a bit too private.
‘Let’s meet at the pub.’
Pagans, since the 1970s at least, had a tradition of corralling off at a corner table, an alcove or even the upstairs room. Virtually all pubs have upstairs rooms. If you turned up on the requisite night, as mentioned in the classified ad in your Pagan magazine, you would see a bunch of people, anywhere from 3 to 20, with a copy of the magazine on the table as your subtle clue.I remember this process well: dressing up to be recognised (patchwork skirt with droopy hem); taking the tube to an unfamiliar neighbourhood; clutching directions to an unknown street and pub (The Rose and Crown? Damn, or is it The Black Horse.) Doubts arise. Is this the third Tuesday of the month? Entering shortly after 7 p.m., I look around nervously, edging over to tables with groups where the women seem to be wearing medieval-ish dresses and blokes are in green tee-shirts. A bearded man drinking a mug of ale says ‘Looking for the moot, love? Have a seat here.’
“Where you from?’ slowly turned into “What have you read?” and even more slowly to, “What are you looking for?” I respond, “Kindliness, a good dose of paternal advice, and stern instructions on what books were ‘rubbish.'” An older woman named Moira, if I recall, launched in with a tirade of advice about who to stay away from, who did it all wrong, and what I had to watch out for. They all gave me names, phone numbers, and lots of things to do and events to attend. “You’ll be all right, love. We don’t bite.”
It’s 2014. Times have changed. Pubs are going out of business at an alarming rate. Brits are drinking at home or drinking coffee, and pub culture is said to be dying. As a Pagan, I can chat and debate from the comfort of my own laptop. There is no need for me to get wet or lost, or to go up to a table of four strangers in a bar. I don’t really need to meet anyone in person in order to ask a hundred questions to determine if I am suited better to Druidry or Heathenism. Facebook is at my fingertips.
Is the pub moot dead? I did an informal survey of Pagans across England and Wales, and the results fascinate me. Some have seen their area’s moots grow in number and size over the past 15 years. This is the story in Gloucestershire and parts of the Southwest, where one informant speaks of monthly gatherings of 20 to 30 people. In London, we used to have one very large moot of about 80 people. Now there is a handful that attracts under 10 each time and are loved by their regulars. In a few places, the whole moot thing is dwindling away, say those who live there.It looks like the pub moot as an institution is possibly in danger, but not across all regions. To quote Monty Python, “It’s not dead yet.” The Pagan Federation and the Centre for Pagan Studies have both recently been encouraging people to start a local moot if there isn’t one, and to support those that are still going. Pagan Dawn has committed to keeping its moot listings up-to-date.
I found myself asking, “What does it matter?” After all, if Brits generally are using the pub less, then why should we keep trying to keep alive our meetings there?
The answers spring to mind the moment I conceive of a Pagan Britain without the pub. It is, first and foremost, a ‘public house.’ It is homey without revealing your home address. It is inexpensive; a person on welfare is as able to be there as a millionaire. There is privacy; both the privacy of the quiet alcove or, if your group is large, the upstairs room. The secrecy of the pub meeting has a wonderful history. Revolutions were planned in the upstairs rooms of English pubs. Secret societies founded, and civil rebellions plotted. In more recent times, those rooms have housed Pagans and occultists. It’s a tradition.
Just after I’ve roused myself all up about the greatness of the pub, I talk it over with my friends. One is a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t drink, and the other has two children. These Londoner Pagans hang out in warehouse art galleries and coffee bars with frequent trips out to parks. “The pub is not my scene, man.”
They don’t stop there. They paint vivid images for me, which bring back flashbacks of my own pub moot days. When it goes wrong.When the pub moot goes wrong, it is not good. The organisers can attract a regular, creepy guy who is a know-all, old-timer who bigs himself up to the new starry-eyed young women. There is always the monotone bore and the raging alcoholic who starts emitting random shouts. Then, after a few folks have had a few too many, the arguments about the arcana of occult trivia can get quite heated. (Tzaddi is not the star, anyone?) My friends rightly point out, too, that the pub makes not only bores but also armchair experts. Paganism may be cultivating bulls*t artists by the very structure of its social patterning.
After sleeping on it for a night, I’m going to vote to put my weight behind the efforts to revitalise the British pub moot here in my home community. It is something we’ve given to the world. Brits didn’t invent pride marches; didn’t champion military headstone rights; but we did invent the pub moot.
In doing so, we’ve taken up a long British tradition which says, “Mate, here’s a private space, with good ale, in which your lot can be as eccentric as you like without frightening the horses. Good on ye.”