Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2015
There does not have to be a trade-off between better beer and worse pub interiors
ONE OF THE founding texts of CAMRA was Christopher Hutt’s brilliant polemic “The Death of the English Pub”, first published in 1973. From the perspective of 2015, the English pub back then might have seemed in rude health, but in the preceding decade it had experienced a dramatic upheaval. He describes the tidal wave of brewery takeovers and closures, the loss of distinctive local beers, the spread of pressurised dispense, and the rationalisation policies that deprived many villages of their last pub.
He reserves some of his strongest vitriol for an attack on the brewers’ large-scale wrecking of pubs – imposing ludicrous, contrived themes that rapidly dated, knocking lounge and public bars through into one, and removing small rooms and cosy snugs to produce an easily-supervised open-plan interior. In its early years, CAMRA very much took this on board, strongly criticising pub operators for insensitive refurbishments and creating the laudable National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.
However, as the focus has shifted from tradition to innovation, priorities have changed. The economic recovery has given brewers and pub owners more money to invest, and they have been up to their old tricks again. Sadly, though, much of this has been welcomed, with praise being lavished on “light, airy, open-plan” interiors, modernity in its own right seen as a virtue, and one scheme even applauded for “removing obstructive internal walls”. Yes, beforehand, these pubs were often a bit down-at-heel, and the changes have also generally included a wider and more enterprising beer range. And, given that, some have criticised anyone raising objections for being negative and churlish. “Would you prefer it closed, then?”
But a pub isn’t just another retail outlet, it’s somewhere people actually visit to spend time socialising. It is passed down through the generations, so you will often hear older customers talking of things forty or fifty years ago. Of course pubs cannot set their face entirely against change, but destructive, gimmicky alterations will never stand the test of time. Is it time for CAMRA to return to standing up for pub interiors as well as beer?
The return of sticky vinyl seat coverings is a backward step for pubs
OLDER READERS will remember that dreadful vinyl upholstery in cars of the 60s and 70s, which didn't breathe at all and stuck to your clothes as soon as the sun came out. During the same period, many pubs installed upholstered “leatherette” fixed seating, often superseding plain wooden benches, which had exactly the same effect when the temperature rose and the place was packed with sweaty bodies. In the 80s, as with the car market, there was a swing against this, with more comfortable and breathable cloth seat coverings often replacing vinyl. At the time, it was seen as providing a more up-market image.
However, more recently, the tide seems to have turned, with many recent refurbishments ditching the velour and moquette in favour of a return to shiny plastic. I suppose there are benefits in that it is more durable and easier to clean, but it seems to be part of the vogue for giving pubs a “harder” appearance that goes against the earlier trend towards being cosy and comfy. Replacing carpets with bare boards is much the same.
And, when the weather gets a bit warm and humid, the effect on human flesh through cloth is exactly the same is it used to be, making the experience of going to the pub a bit tacky and uncomfortable. It’s designer vision being put ahead of customer convenience. Nobody’s going to walk out of a pub because it has vinyl rather than cloth seating, but, like removing beermats, it’s another of those little niggly annoyances.