Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 1996

* The Luck of the Irish *

Take a run-down pub, paint it green, orange and white, fill it with fake Irish tat and rename it Paddy's this or Riley's that, and there you have it, an instant Irish theme pub. It's hardly surprising that the recent wave of Irish makeovers has attracted so much criticism.

But some of the better executed conversions, in particular the various Scruffy Murphy's outlets, actually have a lot to be said for them as pieces of pub design. They may be pastiche, but it's a pastiche of something with genuine character and atmosphere. The designers have obviously taken a lot of care to obtain authentic memorabilia and to build in cosy snugs and boxes, partitions, black and white tiled floors, wood panelling and impressive mirrored backfittings. The encouragement of live traditional music in "Irish" pubs is another big point in their favour.

In short, what they've created, underneath the Irish veneer, is real pubs, and, unless they've destroyed an interior of character in the process, which has not generally been the case around here, there's nothing you can really object to in terms of the fabric of the place. If only half as much effort had been applied to many of our "Victorian" pubs, which so often are no more than a few Victorian trimmings applied to a modern plan - whoever heard of a raised seating area in the last century?

With a bit of luck, once the vogue for Irish pubs has passed, they'll be able to turn them into some very nice English alehouses without needing any structural work at all.

* When in Rome (or even Dublin) *

A friend suggested that people who normally drink ale or lager, but switch to stout in Scruffy Murphy's, are being in some way hypocritical. But is that any different from choosing chow mein in preference to chicken and chips in a Chinese restaurant? On my rare visits to "Irish" pubs, I must admit myself that I feel I'm entering much more into the spirit of things with a pint of Guinness in front of me, and if the only real ale available (if any) is Tetleys or Worthington, I'm not really missing much.

* Free to Mislead *

It's all too common nowadays to go into a pub proclaiming itself to be a "free house" and find yourself confronted by a choice of beers no wider or more interesting than you would find in any brewery-owned pub. Some are owned by the ever-growing number of pub chains; others are independently-run but have a loan tie with one of the big breweries. Some pub chains, such as Wetherspoon's, do feature a range of beers from different brewers, although still largely dictated by head office rather than the individual manager. Many, though, offer a selection even more limited than in a national brewer's pub where the licensee exercises his right to stock a guest beer.

It's naive to imagine that the words "free house" imply a forest of handpumps - more than ever, you have to go inside and look for yourself what's actually on the bar. But, on the other hand, if all you find is Draught Bass and Worthington Best Bitter, you have a right to feel misled. If the term is to retain any meaning, should there not be a tighter legal definition restricting it to pubs where the individual licensee (and not the owning company) is genuinely free to buy at least some of his draught beer from whatever supplier he chooses?

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