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Is This The End Of The Great British Pub?

Is This The End Of The Great British Pub

The link between TS Eliot, author of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, and comedy punk band Splodgenessabounds, composer of “Michael Booth's Talking Bum”, is tenuous, at best. The first is a Modernist master, arguably the most important poet of the 20th century. And the second, a Bromley-based Oi! collective who also recorded “Blown Away Like a Fart in a Thunderstorm”. But as is so often the case, all paths lead to the pub.

Because it was in the pub, among the beer mats and ashtrays, optics and pickled eggs, that Splodgenessabounds based their searing 1980 hit, “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please” (it got to number seven). And it was in the pub where Eliot set a section of “The Waste Land”, the landlord’s crisp demand, “HURRY UP PLEASE, IT’S TIME,” cutting through the Cockney chatter concerning Lil and her new teeth. That’s the thing about pubs. You can usually find the answer to any question there, whispered by the resident poet, or snarled by a local punk. The actual truth is irrelevant and, more often than not, plain wrong (In vino veritas, my ass). What matters is the very existence of the four-pint seers and Pilsner philosophers, slumped in their usual seats, their presence as reassuring as the sun’s daily climb.

Pubs are Britain’s secular church, their wobbling stools and battered bars the pews and altars of our one true religion. And just like the Church of England, pubs have their high churches (ornate gilt fittings, marble clad loos and polished snugs) and low (scuffed lino floors, MDF partitions), too. It’s somehow fitting that the very ‘secret of life’ was discovered in a pub. Well, announced anyway, when Francis Crick burst through the doors of The Eagle in Cambridge, around lunchtime one February day in 1953, to declare that he, along with James Watson, had come up with the structure of DNA. When you’ve discovered the very fabric of life, where better to shout it than down in the local.

As to the perfect pub? Well, in the words of the pub bore, “each to their own, and horses for courses”. Some may yearn for the clatter of fruit machines tempered by the hypnotic drone of the 2.15 from Haydock. Others crave silence, save the clang of cash register and squeak of rubber sole on sticky floor. The Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London, might be a fictional Yorkshire boozer and to a rather gauche pair of American tourists, it could appear a trifle, well, rude. But with its flat caps and pointed stares, chessboard, antlers and pints of bitter, it seems to me a bucolic vision of pub perfection. Just don’t go asking about “the sign of the wolf”.

That said, I’d prefer Wetherspoons to The Queen Vic in EastEnders, the one place where a quiet pint is but a distant dream. The Rover’s Return is far superior, just like The Jockey in Shameless, a place where ecstasy is sold alongside the dry-roasted nuts. While The Green Man, in British cult classic The Wicker Man, is one of the greatest of them all, complete with a writhing Britt Eckland, smoke, succour and fiddlin’ locals. Unless, that is, you’re a highly religious virgin policeman. In which case it’s a dangerous dump. But the ideal pub is utterly subjective. That’s why our loyalties can be so fierce. The local is “our” place, as much as any home. Change is seen as the enemy, progress all but unbearable.

George’s Orwell’s Moon Under Water, published in the London Evening Standard in 1946, is so often quoted that it’s rubbed shiny as a brassy foot rail. Yet his desires are timeless. “If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first,” he wrote, “but the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its ‘atmosphere’.” He wants a welcome (Hello “Dear”, never “Ducky”), as warm as his seat by the fire, “draught stout on tap”, a beer garden and decoration in “the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century.”

Yet, if recent reports are to believed, all this could be a dusty relic of a past long gone. And in a country where the pub no longer exists, any variation is irrelevant. According to the guardians of real ale and traditional pubs, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), over 5,500 pubs have closed since start of 2008, and currently 18 are closing per week. The reason? A perfect storm of recession, increasing overheads, tax on beer, ban on smoking and cheap supermarket beer. Why bother going down the pub when you can do what you want, for cheaper, at home. “It’s quite a sad situation,” says CAMRA’s Jon Howard, with admirable understatement. This isn’t gradual decline, more utter decimation.

So is that it? Tata to all that, pip-pip and cheerio? Last orders, gents, it’s time to go? The end of the world as we know it is nigh. Bid farewell to The Firkin, cry cheerio to The Chequers. Bonsoir, toodaloo, goodbye. The old world has shuffled off to the men’s for one last leak, never to return. When our pubs all depart, it’s not just the end of a quiet pint. “But,” in the words of Hilaire Belloc, “when you have lost your inns drown your empty selves for you will have lost the last of England.”

***

Before you hasten to the local municipal baths, though, to drown your sorrows in the most literal of ways, dry your eyes and unclasp that fist. Because there’s a light at the bottom of the pint. There are still over 50,000 pubs in the UK, many of them in the highest of spirits. The pub is not dead. It’s just had to evolve to survive. 

“Reports of the pub’s death are totally exaggerated,” says beer writer Pete Brown with a smile. “British society needs the pub to bring us together. We’re shit at socialising without alcohol. We’re a bit grumpy, don’t say hi in the street. But you can find every social convention in pub. It encourages sociability – the ordering at the bar, the rounds of booze … all are excuses to socialise.” He takes another sip of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, sits back and looks around. 

We’re in The Gunmakers in London’s Clerkenwell, small but perfectly formed. The floors are wooden, the walls uncluttered by excess ephemera. There’s a good range of ale on draught, a small bar (at one end of which sits a solo drinker, lost in his crossword) and plenty of tables in which to settle down and while away an afternoon. The place is full with office parties and locals alike, cheeks just flushed and top buttons undone. Once in, it’s difficult to leave.

“All the stuff about beer tax and falling sales are true,” admits Brown as we settle into a second pint. Bearded, warm and eloquent, he’s the country’s finest writer on beer. Books such as Man Walks into Pub and Shakespeare’s Pub combine loosely worn erudition with pristine prose, miles removed from hop-dry tomes of the traditional real ale aficionado. He’s the sort of person with whom you’d happily while away any number of late night lock-ins. “But the main problem why pubs are suffering is Xbox, and broadband, and plasma TVs and bookcases full of cookbooks. There’s been a seismic change in comfort and convenience at home.” He pauses and looks around. “A hundred years back, you had to go to the pub on a cold night, because it was warmer than heating your home. Beer alone is no longer enough to draw them in. It’s about atmosphere and quizzes and real ale you can get nowhere else.”

The good news, according to Brown, is that since the annus horibilis of 2008, where 50 pubs were closing each week, landlords have started to innovate. About 20 pubs a week are still closing. But some are opening, too. “What’s dead is the pub where the guv’nor polishes the wooden bar and queues form outside the door at 12.’ Anyway, as Brown points out, pubs have been closing ever since their peak of 1870. The decline is nothing new.”

Alcohol is the oil of Britain’s social engine, long soaked into the fabric of national life. People have gathered to drink together ever since early man found that natural fermentation turned sugars into ethanol. And got you pissed. God only knows how many caves and primitive shelters rang to the familiar refrain of “You’re my bescht mate,” but by Roman times, there were taverns dotted along all those nice, straight, new roads. 

And as history marched on, so enterprising folk turned their homes into alehouses, and the taverns were joined by inns, offering bed, booze and shelter. Serving highwaymen and pilgrims alike, much of the beer was provided by monasteries and abbeys, proto-breweries profiting from both piety and peril. 

“By the 18th century,” notes Brown, “taverns, alehouses and inns (which were, at one point, licensed as entirely separate establishments) all gradually merged and became different kinds of ‘public house’.” Then came the Beerhouse Act of 1830 that allowed homeowners to brew and sell their own beer for one payment of two guineas. In short, to set up their own pub. Some 30,000 beerhouses followed soon after.

“There are more than 1,000 brewers now,” says Brown, draining the last of his pint, “more than we had in the Thirties, most of them making real ale, a living product, that undergoes a secondary fermentation in the container in which it’s served. Bearded, be-sandalled real ale used to be laughed at. But it’s totally changed now. The negatives have disappeared.”

Rupert Ponsonby is the co-founder of The Beer Academy (beeracademy.co.uk), and the man responsible for getting beer lists into the likes of Le Gavroche. He’s a self-confessed beer nerd, as well as expert, obsessed with the finer points of hops, IPAs and ABVs. And he agrees with Brown. “The biggest factor changing the image of cask ale is the plethora of breweries now springing up all over the UK.”  The Gunmakers is the perfect repository for them, an old pub with a new heart. 

Jeff Bell, the owner, was a lawyer. He’s a beer writer, too. He‘d look after the place when his mate went away for a few weeks. When he was offered the chance to take it over, he seized it. “From my perspective,” he says, glass of wine in hand, “I get really irritated about the media talking down the beer industry. It implies that one’s business is rubbish and everyone thinks they can bag a discount.” He’s only half smiling. “They say, ‘Well, you need it more than me’. Yeah right! People think that all pubs are struggling.” He nods at one of his punters, then carries on. “For example Ping Pong, that chain of Dim sum places. They took over lots of old pubs and now three have been changed back into their original incarnation.” He takes another sip of wine and wanders back towards the bar.

“This pub’s very much part of the community,” says Clark as we finish off our pints.  “Look around. No jukebox, no fruit machines. Nicely painted but not overdone.” Jeff uses Twitter to promote new beers, and to create an old fashioned pub community. New technology, but age-old intentions. Brown happily admits you have to be cleaver and hard working to run a successful pub these days. “But the pub will never disappear,” he says as we leave the warm cocoon and venture out onto the bitter streets. “The difference between good and bad is the landlord. The pub is an extension of the landlord’s personality. That’s why chain pubs don’t work. The pub at my uni had shit food and shit beer. But it was still a great pub. Tony ran it with a fist of steel. Some of it can be mythologised. But regulars with pub have such a personal relationship.”

He admits to being a bigamist when it comes to his own local in Stoke Newington. ‘In The White Hart, there’s a great beer garden, OK beer and it shows the match. And The Jolly Butchers has amazing beer, hipsters and posh food. I love them both the same.”

Ponsonby goes further, arguing that there’s not one solution for every pub. “Thank God. That would be mono-dimensional and boring. A pub is like a football club - each has its own feel; and its customers are like loyal supporters, almost animal in their fervour. For this to be true, the club (pub) must really stand for something.”

This could be real ale (a product that, according to Ponsonby, is ‘our national heritage, something that sets us apart from the rest of the world’), or keg (pasteurised) beer, or even bottles. It might be rare ciders, darts tournaments, quiz nights, disco evening or even drag night, or food: that great pub divider.

Because over the years, gastro-pub has moved from term of affection to abuse. Too often, new owners clothe a restaurant in pub’s clothing, pretending they’re running a local with a few pork bellies and lamb shanks thrown in on the side. When it reality, they want the pub bit thrown away with the previous night’s empties. It annoys the hell out of Brown. “You walk into one of these places and ask for a pint. ‘Do you have a reservation?’ ‘Nope, I just want a pint. Are you a pub?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Then why can’t I get a pint?’ That’s why most gastro-pubs are shite.”

I agree. Pubs that serve food can be wonderful place. As long as they don’t forget that the pub comes first. 

My local, The Cock and Bottle, does a mean salt beef sandwich at lunch. Proper tucker, no mucking about. And I find it hard to resist the golden allure of scampi in a basket. But on the whole, if in a pub, lunch means a starter of prawn cocktail crisps, a main of roast chicken flavour and some cheese and onion to finish. A packet of scratchings is always welcome (Mr Trotters, of course, which, in the interests of full disclosure and all that, is part-owned by me. And Rupert Ponsonby). But nothing that detracts from the true task of drinking pints and talking shite. 

Food upstairs, or in a separate room, is fine too. Even Orwell agreed in The Moon Under Water he wrote ‘Upstairs, six days a week, you can get a good, solid lunch, for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll, for about three shillings. The special pleasure of this lunch is that you can have draught stout with it.”

***

Tom Kerridge is one of the country’s most talented chefs, and the only publican with a two Michelin star rating at The Hand and Flowers in Marlowe. And he feels that thing have never been better. “Yes, pubs are closing all around us, but they will rise again from the ashes and prove to be the centres of communities and the strongest form of eating houses in Great Britain.” His cooking is sublime, at once gutsy and precise, a mixture of big flavours and exquisite technique. 

But doesn’t his theory go against the idea of a boozer just selling booze? “No. People’s attitudes to drinking have changed over the last 20 years. No longer do people have a lunchtime drink or two, and it is not very often that you find people drinking eight or nine pints on a Tuesday night. People meet up these days in high-street brasseries, bistros and pizzerias that are cheap and affordable and not full of aggressive drunk men. As publicans we have to compete with the likes of Zizzis, Pizza Express and Prezzo rather than just offering quiz nights, darts teams and pool competitions. Affordable but high quality food is the way forward.”

He sheds no tears over the decline of the old breed of pub. “There are many very talented young chefs in this country that are looking for opportunities, not to win Michelin stars, but just to run a business for themselves. And the cigarette stained, frosted windowed boozers that are closing down are ideal places for these young chefs to start their businesses.”

He does, though, understand the pressures of the modern pub trade. “There is a problem, however, with so called pub companies and breweries that try to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of every building on high rents and tied lease beers, leaving the profit margins very small and giving pub landlords a minimal return on their time and investment.” He agrees that pubs are closing, but argues that that the great British boozer has never looked so strong. 

The King is dead, long live the King? Is good food the way forward? As Ponsonby points out, “Diversification is not the right route for everyone. Some good pubs will go, and that’s a pity. Some pubs will stay as mainly wet, with no food offered; but others have realised that a food offering can provide an extra source of income, provide customers in quieter times and bring in customers who wouldn't have broached a pub doorway when pubs served no food and smelt of cigarettes and stale beer." 

All agree that it’s no longer acceptable to just open a room with beer, sit back and await the punters. There’s little doubt the pub plays a less central role in our lives than it did 50 years back. And the days of the nicotine-stained, lady-free boozer has long passed. But Britain without the pub, “one of the basic institutions of English life” in the words of Orwell, is unthinkable. Now, the pub has to pay its way, sing for it supper. Rather than rest, half-cut, on its laurels. 

“It’s a really good time to be a beer drinker,” says Jon Howard. “I don’t think that the pub will disappear. The pub is a very resistant beast. It’s a fundamental part of Britain.”  Ponsonby concurs. “The pub will never disappear; but it will re-invent itself. And wear a wider range of hats. The pub is central to our national identity. It's us.” Brown though, does strike a note of caution. “Most of these breweries formed in the past five years. But the explosion of new breweries can’t carry one, as beer drinking down and pubs are closing. It can’t keep going but while it does, it’s amazing.” 

So chin-chin, bottoms up, cheers and down the hatch. To paraphrase another boozer-obsessed punk group, Sham 69, “Hurry up, I’m going down the pub”.