Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 1997

* Revenge of the Band of Hope *

The anti-drink lobby have had a pretty bad time in the past fifteen years. Licensing hours have been extended, the rate of duty, although still too high, has fallen in real terms, and it has been scientifically proven that moderate drinking is much better for you than total abstinence. But the pro-drink case has a soft underbelly in the form of the drink-driving issue, and the miserable zealots have attacked on this front for all they are worth.

The road safety case for reducing an already low legal limit is at best pretty marginal. And since when have anti-drink campaigners been road safety experts anyway? Indeed, it could well be argued that people who drive to the pub and successfully stay within the legal limit are showing precisely the qualities of self-restraint and careful unit-counting that they are trying to encourage in the population at large. But they know that this is the one issue on which they can still sway public opinion with their tired old message about the evils of drink. They have adopted a line of argument which makes a shameless play on the emotions, rather than being prepared to take part in calm, rational debate.

They know very well that cutting the limit will make little or no difference to road casualties. It will do nothing to deter the hard core who knowingly ignore the current limit. But it will lead to the closure of thousands of pubs, bring about a huge reduction in visits to pubs outside urban centres, and force millions of responsible, law-abiding people to take stock of their drinking habits in a way they never had to before. That is why they are so keen to campaign in favour of it. It may not be Prohibition by the back door, but it would be a definite step in that direction.

* The English Ethnic Restaurant *

Recently, I've more than once come across an approving reference to pubs serving what is described as "pubby" food, that is, hearty pies, game, lamb chops and suchlike. The idea of developing a distinctive English-styled pub cuisine has its attractions, but in a wider context it may not be such a good idea. In the past generation, our eating habits in this country have changed beyond recognition. There has been an incredible spread of restaurants and takeaways offering various exotic cuisines, so it's now far easier, particularly in urban centres, to eat Indian, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Thai or Turkish food than "traditional English". More often than not, it's these places, rather than pubs or hotels, that people choose to visit if they want a distinctive, high-quality meal without breaking the bank.

Now, there's much to be said for "traditional English" food, and undoubtedly there are dangers in pubs launching themselves into risky attempts to serve authentic foreign dishes. But it would be regrettable for the future of pubs if they completely closed their eyes to these developments, and interpreted their role so narrowly as to become just one amongst many ethnic dining experiences, in this case Olde English. Pubs, after all, are meant to be all-inclusive and appeal to a wide range of tastes.

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