Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2003
The eclipse of the back street boozer is a symptom of today’s unhealthy drinking culture
ON KENNEDY STREET in Manchester City Centre there are two smallish pubs right next door to each other, the City Arms and the Vine. Nothing special about that, you may think, but not too long ago the presence of two adjoining pubs was something unusual enough to be remarked upon. But, less than half a mile away, lining the Deansgate Locks on Whitworth Street, there are no less than seven spacious modern bars occupying consecutive railway arches. This sharp contrast illustrates how city centre drinking has changed in recent years.
At one time, city centre pubs would derive their character and many of their users from the particular area they stood in. So you would have market pubs, business district pubs, shoppers’ pubs, railway pubs, theatreland pubs, factory workers’ pubs. Visiting a pub was often connected with a particular activity, rather than an end in itself. And the pubs were spread around the city centre to match those various functions.
They could also be rather hard to find. Many councils discouraged pubs on their main shopping and business streets, with the result that they tended to be hidden away in small back streets, just like Kennedy Street, where you would only come across them if you knew where to look. In Manchester, there were at one time none on Market Street and Piccadilly Gardens, and no more than a couple along the full length of Deansgate. In Edinburgh there wasn’t a single pub on Princes Street, the prime shopping street, but the narrow thoroughfare of Rose Street at the back of the big stores was famously lined with them.
But it was widely felt that these dingy back street boozers represented an old-fashioned, male-dominated hard drinking culture, and hiding them away made pubgoing seem a furtive, almost shameful activity.. As we moved towards the 21st century, surely pubs and bars needed to become more welcoming, serve more food and appeal to women, to be places where sipping Chardonnay rather than swilling pints was the norm. So councils, after many years of deliberately restricting the supply of licences, started encouraging new, spacious, airy bars in prominent main street locations.
However, there’s nothing so certain in life as the law of unintended consequences. And what actually happened was that the dramatic increase in the overall drinking space in bars, often with large circulating areas and relatively few seats, far from leading to a civilised, café-society culture, ended up with city centres being dominated at weekends by large packs of young people roaming around clutching Bacardi Breezers with the prime intention of getting horrendously drunk. Of course people went on pub crawls and sometimes had a skinful twenty years ago, but if every pub you went in was fairly small, tucked away, hard to move around in and had its own band of regulars, you had to approach the exercise rather differently.
Obviously the changes in the design and location of pubs and bars have not been the only factor leading to our current unpleasant and disorderly city-centre drinking scene – wider social changes have been at work too. But it’s hard to believe that these problems would be anywhere near so serious if the pubs were on average smaller, less conspicuous and more spread out, and had more seats and less standing room.