I worry about the British pub. I worry that something which is part of our culture is slowly being eroded. When people talk to me about social media I often compare it with the conversation in a pub but I realise I’m slipping slowly out of date and that the analogy is rapidly becoming meaningless. What I mean is that the pub “chatter” is full of opinion, gossip and argument and it is fuelled by the pub environment. The majority of the conversation is uninteresting to anyone but the immediate participants. Anyone dipping into a pub for a couple of hours is not expecting to be informed or to be treated to standup comedy. You dip in, maybe contribute and then leave – it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. Over time though, through those little snippets you get a feel for personalities, local news and issues, and the informal hierarchy. You feel part of something.
The role of the bar is changing slowly but surely.
When I was younger almost all pubs were drinking establishments. Go back further and they were all drinking establishments and predominantly male. They played a role in society that is pretty much akin to the Queen Vic depicted in Eastenders or the Rovers Return in Coronation Street; a hub in the community. Think about it… none of the other soap operas that we import has that link. The British pub is a unique establishment unlike anything in the rest of the world. In the more recent past drink and alcohol consumption was incidental. Sure there was some hard drinking going on but there was also an ecosystem which varied by time of day, day of week with younger and older groups interacting. Deals were done, arguments were settled, and relationships were forged.
For whatever reason things have changed even in rural communities. It shocks me to see the number of local pubs which have been adapted into restaurants. There is a bar but it functions as a transition area to meet up before going through to a table. Worse still the gastropubs look uniform with pastel shades and the prices are generally high. Drinking pubs, particularly for the young are geared around drinking but not in a social way. Excuse me for sounding extremely old but the loud music and discounted shots is not my idea of a social event. It is catering to an audience but excluding others at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, the moment pubs moved away from offering a film-wrapped aged cheese sandwich the die was cast. Food never used to be part of the offer other than in pubs offering accommodation. Now it seems impossible to run a pub that doesn’t provide a decent menu. The result is that, in villages in particular, there is nowhere for locals just to go out and relax. You can’t afford to eat out every week. The clientele are irregular visitors spending large amounts rather than locals spending a few pounds when they call in for a couple of hours.
The economics are clear. The reason pubs have had to become gastropubs is because our drinking habits have changed. Hundreds have gone by the wayside in the last recession. Introducing food was a way of making more margin or of survival. You can apply the same economic principles to the pub as we have done to local shops and the Post Offices and they are all struggling to survive. Gastropubs are a symbol of a wider malaise rather than the malaise in itself.
When I look around my own town I can see the battle underway. There are pubs which have closed in the last ten years which have been converted to accommodation, never to return. At the other end of the scale there are traditional boozers which have the same customers regularly coming through the door. They know what they want and they cater for them. The landlords tend to be the experienced ‘old lags’ who know how to run things efficiently. Then there are a large group fighting to attract custom in a vicious marketplace. They are trying everything to differentiate themselves through music, food, live entertainment, cocktails, wine, happy hour, karaoke and sport. They change their persona at the weekend to attract the younger audience or change their opening times to catch any bit of trade they can.
I don’t envy landlords. They used to be part of a monopoly business and could bar those who didn’t behave. In the battle for footfall their hours are extending, their capital outlay is increasing and their returns are falling. We are changing as a society and the pubs have to change with us. I just don’t think we will be better for it. Ironically, with the current trends our locals will make us drunker, poorer, deafer and less sociable.