Great British pubs, but is UK Plc no place for the public house?
Pubcos, regulations and shiny globalisation might be enemies of the ‘local’ – but the perfect British pub is still out there
British pubs and brewery group Greene King are doing well this year. Asked why they were enjoying higher half-year profits, the 212-year-old Suffolk based firm told reporters this week that hard-pressed consumers struggling to cope with economic pressures were seeking solace in their local pubs.
Pubs have always been a place to escape the workaday, to celebrate our wins, cushion our losses. But is, as the headlines routinely scream, British pub culture now seriously under threat?
Answers come by the tankard in “The Search for the Perfect Pub”, a recently released pub crawl-meets-liquid social history. In it, Paul Moody and Robin Turner trawl the Kingdom to distil how business interests, weak political will and an authenticity sapping idea of “progress” have ganged up on the traditional watering hole, threatening our last vestige of freedom, a “liquid escape from the daily grind.”
This, the authors think, is something even non pub-goers should resent; each boarded up public house severs another link to our shared community-drinking heritage, a gut-lining history than can be traced back on these islands to the Roman roadside tabernae circa 43 AD.
In the two years the writers spent ascertaining just how much pubs matter to us, they had to fight against the brave new identikit boozers and dive deep to locate the real, rustic wheat amongst the sports-bar chaff. Their book is subtitled “Looking for The Moon Under Water”; George Orwell’s search for a utopian pub of that name (he fantasised about it in an Evening Standard column in 1946) mirrors their own.
Pub chain JD Wetherspoon today owns 14 The Moon Under Waters – though none will match up to Orwell’s stringent list of attributes of which has the perfect pub, where motherly barmaids call you ‘dear’ and which sells “tobacco as well as cigarettes.” As Robin Turner writes in a blog entry, “In days of ‘vertical drinking establishments’, most people’s experience of pubs is about as far from the Orwell version as it’s possible to get.”
Our pubs, says campaigner Josie Appleton, convenor of The Manifesto Club (“for freedom in everyday life”), were once “buzzing with real life. Prostitutes, gaming, deals being done, people having affairs, a sense of intensity and illicitness.” Now they’re all about polite after-office chats.
Yes, they’re clean and serve good food, but ‘pubtivists’ bemoan the prevalence of CCTV cameras, bouncers, the no-smoking rule, and woeful lack of live music due to a complicated permit system.
Like so many growth businesses, pubcos have traded personality for profit – but they are not solely to blame. As Appleton says in the book, we are living in cosseted, over-regulated times – where the middles classes consume wine at home or at gastro pubs, and the lower classes take to supermarkets’ cheap booze or drink in city centre super-pubs run by large companies.
I take slight issue with gripes about gastro pubs. Blurring the line between pubs and restaurants, they have filled a niche, attracting punters trading down from eating out at expensive restaurants and those happy to avoid busier venues full of rowdy twenty-somethings or aggressively drunk groups of men. The food at gastro pubs is surprisingly good, even Michelin standard, and they can attain a community ambiance.
The pub isn’t dead quite yet. We learn that if we were to visit five UK pubs a day, every day, it would take us 28.5 years. However, of the country’s 52,000 pubs, some 50 close a week. But the well-run ones are not going out of business. As Richard Dollimore, chairman of the Newcastle and Northumbria branch of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) tells Paul Moody: “the good pubs, with good vibes and decent ale, will always do well.”
Moody and co-author Turner locate many pubs of independent spirit across the country, from London to Edinburgh, Devon to Blackpool; the book is in part a guidebook to the most fascinating watering holes in the country (one only wishes they’d thought to include an index).
We discover the Pack o’ Cards in Combe Martin, Devon. Shaped like a deck of cards, with 52 windows, 13 doors and four floors, the inn (you can stay here too) was built by a “gambling squire” in 1680. Others take a bit more gumption to reach: The Marisco Tavern on Lundy Island requires a two-hour voyage across the Bristol Channel; a klaxon signals the last boat back – miss it, and you have to wait three days for the next one.
“Everyone’s perfect pub is out there,” writes Robin Turner. “If you’re looking for it, you’ll know it when you find it.” This book can only help the search.
(The Search for the Perfect Pub: Looking for the Moon Under Water, by Paul Moody and Robin Turner, Orion Books RRP £14.99)
(Main caption on blog landing page: Detail of the book cover)