The Best Of Curmudgeon - 1995
Highlights from Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Columns during 1995
(Please note that individual article headings were not introduced until November 1995)
A few weeks ago I was in a country pub feeling a little peckish, but reluctant to spend six quid on a big elaborate meal that I didn't have the appetite for. A sandwich would have been ideal, but the menu offered nothing remotely resembling one. It's very disappointing how so many pubs, which may serve excellent full meals, just don't do sandwiches, and how a lot of those that do just give you a boring choice of beef, ham or cheese. Yet when they are on the menu, soup and a sandwich is often the biggest seller. Surely there's an opportunity for some enterprising licensee to follow the lead of many excellent sandwich shops, and offer a really interesting choice of sandwiches with different sorts of bread and a wide range of imaginative fillings. If you know of any local pubs that do something out of the ordinary in the sandwich line, please let us know.
We're now seeing guest beers appear in large numbers in big brewery pubs where you would never have believed them possible five or six years ago. But why is it that, so often, "guest beer" seems to be taken as meaning "strong bitter", and nothing else? I was recently in the Old Mill at Cheadle Hulme where, in a range of six beers, there were no dark beers at all, and apart from the standard Tetleys, nothing weaker than 4.5% ABV.
While the likes of Old Speckled Hen, Royal Oak and Pendle Witch are all fine brews, such a range doesn't begin to do justice to the vast spectrum of beer styles now available. Why no stouts and porters, which have made a great comeback in recent years? Why no old ales, or milds? And why is it so rare even to see an ordinary bitter of 4% or less as a guest beer? Also, quite apart from the issue of choice, is the lack of a normal-strength alternative a responsible idea in pubs where many customers arrive by car?
* * * * *
Drinkers everywhere will welcome the government's decision to stop funding the Health Education Authority. Rather than concentrating on genuine health issues this self-important body insisted on banging on in a nannyish way about the importance of drinkers sticking to ludicrous "maximum" safe limits of 21 units a week for men and 14 for women, even when it became clear that these had been scientifically discredited. The HEA was a misuse of taxpayers' money and won't be missed.
If you're planning to enjoy all-day Sunday drinking this summer, or indeed any Sunday drinking at all, steer well clear of the district of Dwyfor in north-west Wales, where you still can't drink legally in a pub at any time on a Sunday. Until 1961, all the pubs in Wales were closed on Sundays. In that year, a system of local referendums was introduced, held every seven years. The first round immediately opened the pubs in most of the country, and since then Sunday opening has progressively spread to all of Wales apart from this one district.
In the name of deregulation, the government have said that the 1996 referendum will be the last, and if Dwyfor votes to stay dry on Sundays then (or indeed any other district chooses to go back to it) then it will stay dry for eternity. Isn't this one issue where a bit of high-handed action would be welcome, to sweep away this expensive and anachronistic system? The turnout in these referendums is generally very low, and it's a case of a small and fanatical minority trying to impose its narrow-minded Victorian values on the rest of the community.
Sunday closing in Wales has anyway always been a hypocritical business. Private clubs have been allowed to sell alcohol, and lock-ins in pubs have not been entirely unknown, so the locals have been able to get a drink if they wanted, but it's the tourists who suffer. Considering the degree to which the economy of Dwyfor depends on tourism, it's a shame they get such a grudging welcome. One can understand (but not condone) some residual resentment against the English, but when modern tourists in North Wales are just as likely to come from Holland, Germany and Denmark, are the Welsh not guilty of cutting off their nose to spite their face?
* * * * *
What was the political colour of the government that finally brought Sunday opening to Wales? The same as that of the only Chancellor since the war to actually reduce beer duty (in 1959). And the same as the party which brought you all-day opening and guest beers in the 1980s. That's right - unpalatable as it may be to many left-inclined members of CAMRA - it's the Conservatives, not Labour, who have introduced real reforms to improve the drinker's lot.
Historically, the Left in British politics have supported the cause of "temperance", while the Right have defended the rights of the drinking public. It was the radical Liberal, Lloyd George, after all, who introduced licensing restrictions during the First World War. Fittingly, when he was raised to the peerage, he took the title Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor. Even today, there is a strong residual prejudice on the Labour benches that the working man would be better off at home reading Fabian tracts than down the pub swilling ale.
It's very doubtful whether a Labour government during the 1980s would have shown the same enthusiasm as the Tories for liberalising licensing laws. Labour haven't exactly been very vocal on the need to reduce beer duty in Britain to save our brewing industry, and a majority of them voted against extending Sunday hours. And take any potential piece of future anti-drink legislation, from restricting alcohol advertising to bringing in even harsher laws against drink-driving, and it's impossible to imagine Labour taking a softer line than the Tories.
Anyone casting their vote purely on the basis of what it will do for the man or woman in the pub demonstrates a rather blinkered viewpoint. But if you do make that your yardstick for where to put your cross, there's only one way to go, and that's to the right.
If you were around in the Seventies you'll remember that dreadful vinyl upholstery in cars, which didn't breathe at all and stuck to your clothes as soon as the sun came out. Fortunately, consumer demand has now banished it to the dustbin of history, and even the cheapest car now comes with comfortable cloth seats.
Why is it, then, that we still have to put up with "leatherette" seating in pubs, which has exactly the same effect when the place is packed with sweaty bodies? I suppose you can tolerate it if it's been there for many years, but what on earth possesses pub designers to put it in new? Are they suggesting that the customers are likely to spill so much food and beer that the seats need a wipe-clean covering?
One of the worst local examples is in the Crown on Heaton Lane in Stockport, where perfectly good cloth was replaced with nasty vinyl when the place was done out as an alehouse a couple of years ago. The upholstery there is a particularly smooth and squashy variety and really does detract from a visit to what is, in most other respects, an excellent pub. Just up the road, in the Bridge Inn on Georges Road, 1960s vintage vinyl has recently given place to very smart cloth in the lounge, which improves the appearance and comfort of the place no end, and provides an excellent example for the Boddington PubCo to follow.
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From time to time I've complained to friends about exorbitant food prices in some pubs, only to receive the reply "well, the prices may be high, but the portions are enormous". What, though, is the point in serving portions so big that they defeat a normal healthy appetite? The result is a lot of wasted food and a lot of overfaced diners. Pensioners in particular are likely to find 18-inch cod and bucketfuls of chips seriously offputting.
Big portions don't even necessarily represent a good deal, as the overheads which may make up over half the price of pub food are much the same whatever the size of the portion. Wouldn't it be better for these pubs to offer normal-sized portions at lower prices, but maybe keep the option of expensive monster meals for those who really do have the appetite to tackle them?
I recently read an interview with David Thompson, the Managing Director of Banks's, in which he said that this country was seriously over-pubbed, and that 10,000 pubs would have to close by the end of the decade. Now I think that's a very questionable proposition - I can't, for example, bring to mind a single area of housing built this century that has enough pubs.
But, assuming that he is correct, why on earth are the brewers spending millions of pounds up and down the country adding extensions and conservatories to their pubs like there's no tomorrow? Wouldn't they be better off just leaving the money in the bank, or even using it to cut beer prices?
The real reason is that extending some pubs and neglecting others turns the statement that we're overpubbed into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's the same old lie that has been used by both commercial and public sector organisations for many years, that by concentrating your operations into fewer but supposedly better outlets, you give the public an improved service. It isn't true for hospitals or post offices, and it certainly isn't true for pubs. It's all about saving money and increasing profits, not giving customers a better deal.
Given the choice, most of us would prefer to drink in small cosy pubs rather than big soulless barns, no matter how many "facilities" they may have. Britain may have enough drinking space in its pubs, but in terms of numbers, it has 10,000 pubs too few, not too many.
The traditional form of seating in pubs is to have benches fixed around the walls. This design was used because it works. It's flexible, as you can spread out coats and papers, or huddle close together, it's sociable, as everyone faces in towards the centre of the room, it's adaptable to different-sized groups of people, and it gives a room a distinctive quality of "pubbiness". It's no coincidence that all of what we regard as the finest pub rooms in the area, such as the toplit snug at the Swan with Two Necks, or the wood-panelled lounge at the Nursery, have fixed wall seating.
So why is it that modern pub designers so often go for having individual loose chairs grouped around tables instead? These may give a place the atmosphere of a gentlemen's club, or a Continental bistro, (or, at worst, a works canteen) but they certainly aren't right for pubs. They mean that people tend to cluster around tables in inward-facing groups rather than talking amongst each other, and make the place less sociable. They make the person who's just popped in on their own for a pint and a quick read of the paper feel ill at ease, and they're awkward too for groups of more than four. The Woodstock in Didsbury is a pretty decent new pub, but it would be much better if it had wall benches rather than loose chairs and tables.
Maybe the modern designers are subconsciously afraid of making pubs seem too much like pubs, for fear of putting people off. But pubs have nothing at all to be ashamed of - it's poor service that deters customers, not distinctive design. So come on, you architects, give us some wall benches in your new pubs and refurbishments, and the more the better.
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I was sitting quietly in a pub minding my own business, when the whole place was suddenly disrupted by customers making a real nuisance of themselves. They were shouting at the tops of their voices, running up and down the room, jumping on the seats, ripping beermats up and throwing them in the air, and generally annoying everybody else in there. Were they obnoxious drunks, or football hooligans? No, they were small children running amok out of their parents' control.
Anyone who ever dares to complain about the bad behaviour of children in pubs is likely to be told that it's nothing compared to how adults go on when they're drunk. But how often do you witness offensive drunken behaviour in pubs? In the vast majority of places, scarcely ever. Adults may become a bit rowdy and boisterous, but they normally know where to draw the line.
If children are to be allowed in the bars of pubs, instead of allowing their natural exuberance free rein, surely other customers have the right to expect that they display a reasonable standard of behaviour, and that licensees have a duty to enforce that standard, just as they would with grown-ups.
There's been a lot of publicity about the 700 jobs being created by the new John Lewis and Sainsbury's stores next to the A34 at Heald Green. Cheadle MP Stephen Day got himself into a bit of hot water by expressing less than total enthusiasm for this project, and pointing out that for every job created, another one was probably being lost in a small local shop which was forced to close as its customers deserted it to travel in their cars to the new retail park.
But, it's a valid point, and with the opening of such a huge new pub as the Moon Under Water in the centre of Manchester, you have to ask whether it applies to pubs as well as shops. I'm not knocking the Moon at all - it's a bold new venture which has much to be said for it, and in many ways sets new standards of customer service. But, given the generally poor state of the pub trade nowadays, the only way it's going to succeed is by taking trade away from other pubs.
It's also in a location where there are very few people living within walking distance. To get there, particularly in the evenings, most of its customers are going to have to make a special journey in by bus, train, tram, car or taxi. You're not going to do that every night of the week, and you might forgo a few quick ones in the pub at the end of your street in favour of one special big night out. I'm not against keen competition, but you can't have competition without having winners and losers. If this new mega-venue does well, will it be designer bars or Sainsbury's off-licence losing out, or will it be small community locals?
Samuel Smiths have had a lot of bad publicity recently, but I doubt if many tears will be shed over the demise of Museum Ale. There are some beers that you can respect, but aren't to your own taste, but this was one in which I could see little merit and quite frankly found positively unpleasant, even though I'm a fan of Old Brewery Bitter. Sam's could do a lot worse than use the redundant handpumps to revive Tadcaster Bitter, an excellent 1036 OG beer much lighter and hoppier than OBB, which they brought out in the mid-eighties but withdrew again after less than a year, despite it winning many friends in this area.
Part of the problem was that they had reduced the gravity of OBB from 1041 to 1038 to compete on price with other brewers' ordinary bitters. With the introduction of Tadcaster, they could have restored OBB to its former strength, giving them a distinctive and contrasting pair of ordinary and premium bitters. The opportunity is still there, but when Sam's are clowning around promoting nitrokeg, you can't see them doing anything quite so sensible. In an era when more and more established brewers - even once-sleepy Hydes - are expanding their range and producing seasonal beers, Sam's one-beer real ale portfolio looks seriously behind the times.
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Last month, wine expert Jancis Robinson appeared on the cover of the "Radio Times" to promote her new ten-part TV series, "Jancis Robinson's Wine Course." There was also a sixteen-page pull-out in the magazine on the subject of wine. Nothing wrong with that at all - it's good to see alcoholic drinks of any kind getting some positive TV coverage.
But can you imagine for a second the BBC giving anywhere near the same amount of exposure to beer? This despite the fact that beer, not wine, is our national drink, we still spend more than twice as much on beer, and beer is at least the equal of wine both in the richness of its heritage and the variety of styles and processes. Despite all the progress which has been made in improving the appreciation of beer, the patronising, ill-informed snobbery still persists that wine is a subject worthy of serious study, while beer is fit for little more than throwing down the throats of yobboes.
* Fake Pies *
Why is it that, when you order what is described as a "pie" on a pub menu, so often what you end up with is basically a bowl of stew with a puff pastry topping? A proper pie should have a pastry case both top and bottom, and the whole thing should be cooked together, allowing the juices of the meat to soak into the pastry, rather than the pastry being added as an afterthought. Do they put up with these fake pies in Wigan, I wonder?
* Not so Great Exhibition *
This year's hot summer and the relentless rise of Caffrey's have put a critical spotlight on the issue of beer quality. Will this mean that the tide which has been running strongly for the past twenty years in favour of the "beer exhibition" pub is finally going to turn?
The concept originally came about because of the severe lack of choice. For example, in Birmingham in the mid-seventies, there were only seven real ales available within the entire city boundaries, and one of those in only six pubs. Enterprising free trade licensees decided to stick ten independent brewery beers on the bar, and not surprisingly were rapidly swamped with customers. Before long, the big brewers were jumping on the bandwagon, and next thing they were imposing "Tut & Shives" and the like as a marketing concept on pubs where there was no real dedication to beer.
But quality has always been the Achilles heel of the beer exhibition. Looking after ten different beers properly must inevitably require more effort than looking after three, especially when you've never had some of those beers in your cellar before. Some licensees have the necessary skill and commitment, but many don't. And with the best will in the world, there will be times when the trade is slack and the beer remains in the pipes for too long. Even in the best-run exhibition pubs, the quality won't be so consistently good throughout the opening hours as in a three-beer independent brewery tied house with the same standard of cellarmanship.
They also encourage fragmentation of the market. One of the factors making the British pub special has always been that it caters for a wide cross-section of society. Now, though, we are seeing pubs being targeted towards narrow groups - the family dining pub, the kiddies' fun pub, and the serious beer drinkers' pub. The more people who care about beer who drink in the multi-beer "freehouse", the fewer there are to complain when their local switches over to nitrokeg. And is it fair on a community to turn its local into a Tut & Shive which puts nine-tenths of the population off?
I don't say that a beer exhibition can't be a good pub too, and you're welcome to believe that your favourite falls into that category. But there isn't really room in the market for more than one or two in each big town. The concept has been vastly overdone, and there are too many now which do the cause of good beer and good pubs no favours. Certainly no CAMRA branch today should be holding them up as an example for the general run of pubs to follow - but will any have the courage to tell "enterprising" licensees frankly that they have too many handpumps on the bar?
* Drink-Drive Confusion *
This Christmas we will as usual receive numerous exhortations not to drink and drive. A simple slogan for a straightforward message, you might think, and I too would certainly want to discourage anyone from behaving illegally or irresponsibly. But do you know what it really means? Does it mean "make sure you obey the law on drinking and driving"? If so, why not say that instead? And if it means something else, then what? And who decided it?
Surely it would greatly help the cause of road safety if drivers were given a clear, consistent and unambiguous message from all quarters that "don't drink and drive" means "stay within the law", and not something else entirely, which isn't spelt out and has no legal standing.