Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 2013
The first ten years weren’t bad, but the second have been disastrous for the British pub
THIS MONTH marks the twentieth anniversary of this column, which originally began in “Opening Times” in May 1993. I’d wager it’s the longest continuously running opinion column in any local CAMRA publication.
Ten years ago, I reflected on developments during that period and reached the conclusion that, while there had been some negative trends, overall there was still much to celebrate: “While you’re less likely now to find a good pint simply by going in pubs at random, the best pubs now are better than ever before. There are plenty of superb drinking establishments about, both old favourites and ones that have sprung up in the past few years. And the choice and quality of beers available, if you’re prepared to make a little effort to seek them out, is enormously better than it once was.”
However, during the following ten years, things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. While many new breweries have opened up, and the choice of beer in specialist pubs has shown a further massive expansion, for the pub trade as a whole, things have been little short of disastrous. At least a fifth of the pubs that were open in 2003 have now closed, and it is hard to make a road journey of any length off the motorway network without encountering a depressing sequence of boarded-up pubs. Beer sales in pubs are 37% down over the ten-year period.
This is the result of a perfect storm of adverse factors. The trade has been battered by the twin punches of the smoking ban and the duty escalator, while there have been two related but distinct trends of the general demonisation of even moderate alcohol consumption, and the growing view that drinking needs to be ringfenced from the routine of everyday life. People place far more emphasis on not touching a drop in “normal” situations than they used to. Just “going to the pub”, without involving a meal, is something that is becoming no longer an acceptable leisure pursuit in polite society.
Outside of urban centres, many of the pubs that survive have gone over to food to such an extent that they are now in effect restaurants, not social meeting places. In a sense that is an inevitable reaction to the changing market-place, and pub owners can’t really be blamed for doing it, but it still renders them radically different places. Where the all-purpose pub does survive, its trade often seems thin and apologetic, and far from the parade of human nature that once could be seen. The trade is also much more concentrated towards the traditional weekend busy periods – lunchtimes and early evenings can be utterly dead.
Sadly, pubs, as a seven days, fourteen sessions a week, institution, are a shadow of their former selves. Over the years, I have had great times in pubs that I would not have missed for anything, but I suspect if I was just embarking on the world of adulthood today, regular pubgoing would not even feature on the agenda. Yes, there are still good pubs to be found, and good times to be had in them, but their overall place in our national life is greatly diminished from what it once was, and that trend shows no sign of abating.
A further unwelcome feature of recent years is how some who claim to stand up for pubs have sought to gain short-term advantage from an accommodation with the anti-drink lobby that ultimately can only end in tears. The success of pubs depends on wider social attitudes. A society in which the regular, moderate consumption of alcohol is viewed in a relaxed, tolerant way as a normal part of everyday life will have thriving pubs. On the other hand, pubs will struggle when alcohol is widely regarded in a censorious and disapproving manner.