The demise of the British Pub, Blimey !
« on: 2011-01-17 11:45:18 »
The land that has spawned all things western is slipping ..... our stereo-typing anyway.
Time, gentlemen An elegy on the British pub, by our obituaries editor
Source: The Economist
Author: Print Edition
THE Hand & Racquet sits in Whitcomb Street, just behind the National Gallery in London. A good position, you might think, with tourists passing. A good name, too, recalling a now-vanished tennis court from Charles II’s day. It was painted a fashionable dark navy some years ago, and acquired hanging baskets of petunias. Those have gone now, as have the windows, eclipsed by plates of steel. The painted sign is fading. The brass windowsills, which once promised “Superior Salads” and “Homely Fare” are turning a patinated green. Nothing fresh, animal, vegetable or mineral, has featured here in half a decade.
The fate of the Hand & Racquet can be multiplied across Britain. Since 2005 more than 6,000 pubs have closed. Drive through the cities, and the once-proud Victorian keystones on every corner are likely to be shuttered and dead. Roam the suburbs, and the neat brick housing estates are haunted by mock-Tudor ghosts. Search the countryside, and increasingly only the strange, too-large front windows in a cottage, or an ornate iron sign-holder projecting from a wall, will tell you that a pub once stood here. More than half the villages in Britain now have no pub at all.
The Hand & Racquet, like the others, died by a dozen cuts. The 2007 smoking ban drove regulars onto chilly backless benches in hastily improvised beer gardens, or into the street, or simply home (1,409 pubs closed in 2007; 1,973, post-ban, in 2008). Around 24,000 pubs, roughly 40% of the total, are tied to giant “pubcos”, hooked to one particular brewer, and must buy their beer from them at premium prices. Pubs, selling pints for £3.50 ($4.50) must compete with sixpacks of beer in the supermarket, or cheap plonk at £3.50 a bottle; they must also pay a swingeing government duty on beer, now ten times as high as Germany’s.
And Britons are not drinking as they used to. Communal imbibing with neighbours and passers-by is fading, in favour of the glass of wine by the television alone. And they are drinking less. In 2009, according to the British Beer and Pub Association, alcohol consumption fell by 6%, the fourth drop in five years, and the steepest year-on-year decline since 1948. Britons now drink less than the EU average, taking refuge in caffeine instead. Recession crimps beer-money, too. So, slowly, pubs go bust, realising more value as awkward private houses, with hanging globe lamps and capacious cellars and a hard-to-shift aroma of smoke, sweat and ale. Or, like the Hand & Racquet, they quietly moulder where they stand.
The Hand & Racquet’s managers may have contemplated many measures to save it. They could have knocked out the Victorian etched windows in favour of clear plate glass, letting the light stream through to the cavernous interior, or opened up the frontage, café-style, with buzzing outside tables in fresh air. They could have gone for the stripped-out-bar franchise, all pale wood and box trees in stone tubs. Rather than mere “superior salads” they could have embraced foodism, become a gastropub, let their menus swell to the size of a telephone book or served, like the Bull & Last in London’s Kentish Town, gourmet renderings of pub food in a room full of fashionably tatty furniture.
Or they could have gone overboard on the drinks side, hired a sommelier to handle their wine list and tossed out the gassy keg bitter in favour of real ales from the more than 2,500 now being brewed in Britain: beers with added raspberries, liquorice, or oysters; with “honeyed notes” and “a complex floral bouquet”, like fine wines; beers called “Swinging Gibbet”, “Scoundrel” or “Old Slug” from breweries called “Hopshackle” or “Leatherbritches”. The more roguish the name, the more cachet; the smaller and closer the brewery, the stronger the draw for jaded 21st-century palates. Such pubs can survive, like the Southampton Arms in north London, once Any Old Victorian pub with red carpets and a karaoke machine, now a big-windowed “ale and cider house” featuring wooden floors and a weekly ukulele night. Change or die, seems to be the message.
History in a name
The church can go, long since the preserve of a flower-arranging few; the local shop can go, since the distant hypermarket’s cheapness is worth the petrol; but the vanishing of a pub means, by common consent, the loss of the beating heart of a community, in town or countryside. A pub can become a sort of encapsulation of place, containing some small turning’s grainy photographs, its dog-eared posters for last year’s fete, its snoozing cats, its prettiest girls behind the bar and its strangest characters in front of it. The Square & Compass at Worth Matravers in Dorset, on the Jurassic Coast, has accumulated so many fossils brought in by punters that it has its own little museum. Most longstanding pubs have a fossil equivalent, and not merely on the human side: cases of moths, dusty farm implements or, at the Widow’s Son in Bromley-by-Bow, a hanging bundle of blackened hot-cross buns to which, every Good Friday for 150 years, another has been added.
The old names won’t go. They cling to pubs, as tenacious as the past itself
History before the 20th century is scarcely taught in Britain now, but pubs are meant to preserve it. They hold ghosts, myths, the memory of kings; Green Men live on in them, White Horses carry Saxon echoes, Royal Oaks keep the drama of civil war and restoration. The world before the hunting ban still thrives in the Hare and Hounds and the Tally-Ho; old trades survive in the Compasses, the Woolpack and the Wheatsheaf. The craze for renaming tied pubs en masse the Slug and Lettuce or the Leek and Winkle has now abated, because the old names won’t go. They cling on in the soil and the air, as tenacious as the past itself.
Pub games cling on there, too, and are having a revival of sorts. In 2006 darts boards were still in use at more than half the pubs in Britain. A “Save Our Skittles” campaign, launched in 2008, seeks to preserve the 2,500 alleys offering an ancient, wooden version of ten-pin bowling. Marbles, quoits, bat ‘n’ trap and shove ha’penny survive in pubs, and only there. That sense of gathering, competing and disputing, of disorder lightly contained in obscure sets of habits and rules, belongs in pubs, and drains away from a community once they have gone.
Their loss is also the disappearance of a kitchen, or a sitting room, or some comfortable dim place where there is warmth and a welcome, and no questions asked, all over Britain. The naffer brand of pubs have for years made Tudorbethan kitchens their model, all horse-brasses and spindle-back chairs; the more fashionable or very much older favour flagstones, open fires, dried flowers and pewter. It is all a variant on the origins of pubs in the kitchens of wayside farmhouses, where a man exchanged his own hearth for another.
He was not, however, alone there. In the pub he met his fellow men and, with them, formed a society of musers and drinkers. He mingled with people he might not otherwise meet, had words with them, was obliged to take stock of their opinions. In a highly stratified society of worker, merchant and lord, the pub was open to everyone. Only the Victorians tried to complicate matters with separate parlours and saloons based on class.
Their walls and screens survive, but reflect different attitudes. Most pubs retain a peculiarly English blend of socialising and privacy. Regulars prize maze-like or womb-like pubs, tiny rooms and dark corners; for hearths and fires, no matter what the season; for a sense of history in the layers of paper, clutter and paint; for an indefinable grubbiness and informality. In “trendy” pubs people go to be seen, either for their clothes or the sleek cars they have left in the car park; but pubs, like homes, are not about fashion statements or public preening. By the same token, the building itself often has no importance. What matters is the atmosphere, that indefinable thing that no one can put a finger on, until some alteration kills it. “Ninety-nine per cent of change in pubs is for the worse,” says one twenty-something, cheerily enough. “Attempts to modernise a pub always fail.”
Vertical and horizontal
Big brewers and their pubcos, however, disagree. For them, the old lag nursing his pint all night is a disaster. What they want is “high-volume vertical drinking”, where the mostly young stand around high tables, down their poison and move to the next drinking hole, chatting but never settling. The idea isn’t new. The Victorian gin palace was for “perpendicular drinking”: a glass quickly downed at the bar, standing up, before the stumbling exit. The fantastic lighting and glasswork of the gin palace, like the glitter-balls and mirrors of some modern city bars, are nobody’s idea of home. They pull the roaringly gregarious, not the mere quiet fancier of a drink with a mate or two. They are settings for drinking industrial-style and, since the introduction in 2003 of 24-hour drinking laws, sometimes on an industrial scale.
The drink of choice in these places is increasingly wine, alcopops or some parasolled cocktail. But the proper drink of pubs is beer. Britons spend £17 billion on their favourite tipple each year; it accounts for 60% of alcohol sales in pubs, hotels and restaurants. In ancient times it was almost all the nourishment Britons needed, “liquid bread”, a meal in itself. Pub-savers now push it as a health food, packed full of vitamins, fibre and anti-oxidants, with fewer units of alcohol than wine, and with no more calories in three pints than in a packet of peanuts. Such propaganda approaches Hogarth’s, whose engraving of “Beer Street” showed commerce thriving and plump couples embracing in a paradise of smoke and ale.
Beer is also fashionably local. Even big brewers advertise the spring water that bubbles up under their buildings, and it is this that gives a beer its taste of the terroir, like a good cheese. In Lewes, East Sussex, Harvey’s seems to run through the town like an underground stream; almost every pub is, in effect, the brewery tap, and when the town flooded in 2000 “Ouse Booze”, chemically altered by the flood water, was suddenly on sale everywhere. The tiny Lewes Arms, squashed at the foot of the castle, became nationally famous when Harvey’s beer was withdrawn on orders from Greene King, a pubco based in Suffolk. Customers boycotted the pub until the beer reappeared.
The Lewes Arms saga points to a deeper truth: pubs are loved for their subversion. Pubs made a setting ideal for secrecy, murky as a pint of mild, but also open to the unexpected: the bang of the door, the stranger entering, the sudden galvanising piece of news.
The provision of drink to all-comers was a task both sacred and profane, and pubs reflected that dangerous ambiguity. The medieval alehouse, in which Langland’s peasants drank themselves insensible, was often built in the lee of an abbey or a church from which the customers, including clergy, came direct. The Victorian gin palace was a church itself, equipped with coruscating lights and screens to dazzle the poor sodden souls who took refuge there. The “improved public houses” of the 1950s tried to look like dull suburban hotels. But no matter how pubs scrubbed themselves up or put in “family rooms”, disrepute still dogged them. No wonder that the Queen Vic in “EastEnders”, one of Britain’s most popular TV soaps, was the scene of three extra-marital impregnations, two criminal raids, two murders and, in September, a calamitous fire, probably arson, which burned it to the ground.
Drama suits pubs. They are places for pushing limits, and not just in the sense of jars and fists. A pub is where Prince Hal first tested his mettle for Crécy and Agincourt, and where the knee-high David Copperfield, on the run, confidently ordered a glass of “the Genuine Stunning”. Pubs are where the first workers’ associations met to demand higher wages, and where (at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand) proper electoral reform was first floated. “The Communist Manifesto” was jotted down, locals claim, at the Flask in Highgate, where Karl Marx was a regular. Pepys went to pubs to sing, as much as to drink. In pubs normal wariness is suspended in favour of live and let live, of free speech and free space. The words “Free House” carry on the theme, somehow, in ways a corporatised pub and a constrained landlord cannot. Americans have their guns; but the Briton has always had pubs, liberty glowing in thousands of small corners, as his weapon to beat back tyranny. John Bull lives there. When pubs are swallowed up, or die, something very much more than a beer-shop perishes with them.
Americans have their guns, but the Briton has always had pubs. John Bull lives there
This being so, many of the great and good are now striving to save the pubs of Britain. Bill Bryson, the American president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, campaigns for them as he does for hedges, post offices and red telephone boxes. Prince Charles, alongside promoting organic biscuits and the Book of Common Prayer, is desperately concerned that pubs should survive. The last Labour government briefly appointed a minister for pubs. Somewhere in the back of all their minds is that worrying remark by Hilaire Belloc, a Frenchman: “When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.”
Pub-saving efforts often focus on ways to restore the social web around them, seeking to reverse the headlong flight of Britons into solitary, online worlds. A report in 2001 by the Countryside Agency, “The Pub is the Hub”, recounted encouraging stories from near and far: of the Beauchamp Arms in Gloucestershire which now hosts a playgroup; of the Miners Arms in Derbyshire which offers computer training classes in a room upstairs; of the White Hart Inn in Suffolk, which takes in dry-cleaning and prescriptions. In some 30 rural places, consortiums of villagers have got together to buy their failed pub, spruce it up and open it again. Even in well-watered north London two pubs, the Pineapple and the Duke of Hamilton, have been saved in recent years by neighbours’ petitions and spirited press campaigns.
Relaxed opening hours have their advantages: the pub can become a community hall, as it once was. In a newly saved pub in Brighton the landlord wants writers to come in and use his Wi-Fi all day, young mums to sit and drink his Fair Trade coffee at elevenses, neighbours to leave their keys and get parcels delivered, and everyone to sign up for swims round the pier for charity. He hopes quiz nights, popular everywhere, will bring people together upstairs on sofas, rather than sitting on sofas at home.
The landlord (or landlady) dominates many of these community visions. This is as it used to be. Chaucer’s Harry Bailly of the Tabard Inn, the “myrie man” who organises the tale-telling, was a member of Parliament; well into the 19th century, landlords were often magistrates; to this day their character is meant to be attested by several neighbours. Hence the idea, slightly related to the rediscovered sterling qualities of beer, that the modern pub should promote itself as a haven of safe and regulated drinking, away from the dangers of uncontrolled home and unpoliced street, where the landlord is vicar, squire and copper together, the shepherd of his flock.
All these notions, severally and together, may help pubs to survive. But which Britain is being saved here? The model often seems to be the golden age of coaching, immortalised by Dickens, when pubs seethed to the bustle of horses, ostlers, serving maids and calls for peppered lamb chops; or, alternatively, some rural idyll of cricketers, oaks and village green. But pubs, despite a pickled tendency, are also mirrors of their times. Those that best reflect modern Britain, with its rapidly morphing cultures and increasingly unrooted sense of itself, are probably those that boast metal advertising boards, quiz machines, pad thai and stock antique photographs of people unknown to anyone; the Wetherspoon’s that calls itself the Willow Tree Walk, when the sooty tree outside it is a birch, or the Railway Tavern that decks itself with the giant, rusty skeleton of a fish. In a sense, the English pub has been reborn as the Wu Wok Chinese takeaway or the Tandoori House.
No single magic formula will save pubs. At present, the strongest current in their favour is the passion they still provoke. Britons are not similarly passionate about restaurants, cafés or shops. But by favourite pubs they measure their own lives, and Britain’s condition. They see reflected there, as in a glass, the present blights of social isolation, forgetfulness of history, cultural confusion; but they also see the forces of change somehow made to pause. Time slows; company gathers; speech is freed; beer flows, like the very lifeblood of the land. Pubs are needed, even when every social and economic indicator is running hard against them.