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The secret history of British pub myth-making

The next day, with a screaming hangover, a niggle of suspicion started to work into my damaged brain.

Australians remembering Bob Hawke at the Turf Tavern in Oxford.

Australians remembering Bob Hawke at the Turf Tavern in Oxford.Credit:Nick Miller

And a little research revealed: it had almost all been rubbish.

Not intentional rubbish. Our mate had done his research, culled from the corners of the web, and relayed it faithfully to us during our perambulations.

But the bottom line is: don’t trust a pub.

They’re not ledgers of history. They sell beer. And they will make up stories if it helps.

Bob Hawke hoists a cold one.

Bob Hawke hoists a cold one.

If only I had remembered this lesson a month ago, when I joined with other journalists in recalling that famous time Bob Hawke set a beer drinking record.

At the Turf Tavern, an old pub at the heart of medieval Oxford that I’ve visited more than a few times, hangs a sign bearing a proud memorial to a story everyone knows.

“Whilst here at Oxford University in 1963 at the Turf Tavern Bob Hawke, former Australian prime minister entered the Guinness Book of Records after downing a yard of ale in 11 seconds”.

The first clue had been right in front of me. 1963? Hawke was at Oxford in the 50s. But beer tends to dull dates and maths.

The next day a colleague told me we’d been duped. The whole incident had happened blocks away at University College.

One of Oxford’s traditions is “sconcing” – a penalty for a breach of etiquette such as forgetting to wear your gown to dinner in the college dining hall. You must then compete to drink a yard of ale from a “sconce pot” (not a glass but a silver or pewter tankard) faster than the “sconcemaster”, or buy a round.

Hawke, in his memoirs, confirms this version, reporting he “inadvertently achieved notoriety as a result of one of the quaint and ancient customs of my college”.

“Some bastard had borrowed [my gown]… I was too broke for the fine and necessity became the mother of ingestion. I downed the contents of the pot in eleven seconds, left the sconcemaster floundering, and entered the Guinness Book of Records with the fastest time ever recorded.”

But pub walls are more widely read than memoirs.

And so when a press release landed in my inbox this week, with the laudable aim of putting a blue plaque up in Oxford to memorialise Hawke’s time there (an idea supported by Gareth Evans, honorary fellow of Magdalen College, and Kevin Rudd, affiliated with the university’s China Centre), the proposed location was the small lane “which leads to the Turf Tavern where Hawke set the world record”.

And a story about the plaque plan in the Oxford Mail repeated the mythic location without qualification, further blurring the Googlability of the truth.

I told the man proposing the idea that it didn’t happen at the Turf.

The location of the plaque “doesn’t matter”, he replied, adding that University College would make more sense.

Meanwhile, back at the Turf, another sign claims “it is alleged that here, at the Turf Tavern, Bill Clinton, whilst at university during the Sixties, ‘did not inhale’ while smoking illegal substances”.

Hmmm.

Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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