‘Death of the Backstreet Boozer’

The pubs we’ve lost in greatest numbers aren’t the big ones on main roads — they’re the often smaller, more intimate establishments on back streets and estates, where people actually live.

Further evidence to support this view arrived in our Twitter timeline earlier this week:

And this summary struck home with particular impact:

The map referenced (irritatingly uncredited at first, though they’ve since apologised and given him a shout out) is from Ewan’s incredibly comprehensive London pub blog Pubology. Do go and explore it, and bookmark it, if you haven’t already. There are maps for many other postcodes (e.g.) many of which show a broadly similar picture — red and yellow dots in the backstreets, green on the arteries.

In the new book we give a bit of thought to how many pubs are closing, and which ones, concluding that it’s easy for middle class commentators to shrug closures off because it’s not their pubs that are disappearing. This is another angle on the same issue.

We know @urbanpastoral is right from our own compulsive wandering: if you stick to main roads in London, or any other major city, there are plenty of pubs. But cut back a block and the story can be quite different. We’ve seen it with our own eyes — walked miles on the secondary route without seeing a single operating pub, even if the buildings remain, converted for residential, retail or some other use.

Coincidentally, on the same day, we came across a note of a parliamentary debate from 1961 in which one MP, William Rees-Davies, saw this coming:

I do not think that alcohol is evil in itself. I find that drinking with meals is more beneficial than drinking without a meal. I do not want ‘pub’ crawling to continue. That is why I coined the word—I thought it was quite attractive at the time—the ‘prub’. I believe that we shall see a social change in our time and the ‘pubs’ will become all-purpose restaurants. I believe that we shall see the larger ‘pubs’ taking over and the smaller ‘pubs’ gradually turning in their licences.

(He was MP for Thanet, by the way, which just happens to be micropub central.)

It all makes sense in commercial terms of course and big pubs on main roads have many advantages. Backstreet pubs don’t get as much passing trade, obviously. They can be a nuisance for those who live near them, and are harder to police. (More on this coming up.) And smaller pubs especially, without room for kitchens, waiters, gardens, pushchairs, and so on, are at a particular disadvantage in the 21st century.

Of course there are many, many exceptions — Bailey wrote about one earlier this week; and our old Walthamstow local The Nags Head is another. It’s funny, now we think of it, that those lingering backstreet pubs are often (to indulge in wishy-washy feelings for a moment) the nicest, being all the better for their seclusion and semi-secrecy.‘D

As it happens in our new neighbourhood, along with quite a few food-heavy ‘prubs’ on the A road, we’ve got a couple of surviving back street pubs. We’ll have to keep an eye on them. And, of course, drink in them as often as we can manage.

QUICK ONE: (A Comically Small Portion of) Food for Thought

Auguste Escoffier in pop art colours.

In 1973 the food critic Henri Gault published ‘The Ten Commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine’, crystallising the new movement then sweeping French gastronomy:

  1. Thou shall not overcook
  2. Thou shall use fresh, quality products
  3. Thou shall lighten thy menu
  4. Thou shall not be systematically modernistic
  5. Thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you
  6. Thou shall eliminate brown and white sauces
  7. Thou shall not ignore dietetics
  8. Thou shall not cheat on thy presentation
  9. Thou shall be inventive
  10. Thou shall not be prejudiced

(This is the translation given by Paul Freedman in Ten Restaurants That Changed America, 2016. There are many subtly different versions around.)

From this side of the 1980s, Nouvelle Cuisine is a bit of a joke — huge plates, tiny amounts of silly food, very expensive. What yuppies ate. But that list made us think about changes in beer that were taking place in the same period with the rise of micro-brewing and ‘alterno beer’.

Of course some of those commandment don’t directly map (overcooking, sauces) but how about if we rewrite them a bit?

  1. Thou shall not stew good hops.
  2. Thou shall use fresh, quality products.
  3. Thou shall lighten thy beer.
  4. Thou shall not be industrial.
  5. But thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you.
  6. Thou shall eliminate brown beer (UK) and yellow beer (US).
  7. Thou shall be transparent about the strength and ingredients of your beer.
  8. Thou shall not prize marketing over quality.
  9. Thou shall be inventive.
  10. Thou shall not be prejudiced.

Of course there are a million exceptions to each of those ‘rules’, as there were in Nouvelle Cuisine as actually practised, but that doesn’t feel to us like a bad summary of where — in the very most general sense — people’s heads were between about 1963 and, say, 2015. (We say 2015 because, in very recent years, something seems to be changing. But that’s just a gut feeling which we’re still probing.)

This feels like a connection Michael Jackson, Charlie Papazian, Garrett Oliver or even Sean Franklin must have made at some point but a quick Google (time is short this morning) doesn’t turn anything up. Pointers welcome in comments below.

To finish, here’s another quote from Freedman:

Nouvelle Cuisine of the 1970s… had two missions that have since gone separate ways: to exalt primary ingredients simply prepared, and to advocate variety resulting from breaking with tradition — new combinations such as Asian fusion.

That sounds a bit like the break between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’, doesn’t it?

The Young Ones

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

Young people might not go to pubs but they certainly go to Wetherspoon’s.

A discussion about this broke out in comments a few months ago. Our position then, as now, is that people shouldn’t be too pessimistic: the pub is too ingrained in our culture to be abandoned overnight, and people are often drawn to it as they get a little older. But we have been observing with this question in mind and it’s true: ‘proper pubs’ (smaller, characterful, brown, bordering on grubby) do tend to be dominated by people in their forties or older.

(Research for our forthcoming book suggests that it has always been that way, really, despite repeated efforts by brewers to make pubs appeal to younger drinkers who they feared losing to the cinema, coffee bars, burger restaurants, discos…)

The reasons for that seem obvious to us. It’s partly a matter of atmosphere but more importantly, we’re certain, one of cost, with pints of even quite ordinary lager or ale costing between £3.50-£5. People on minimum wage part-time jobs, living off student budgets, or even pocket money, can’t afford to spend £15 before they even start to feel mildly merry. A few weeks ago a young couple (perhaps 19 or 20-years-old) sat next to us in the Farmer’s Arms and made a half of bitter each last an hour while they listened to the band, rolled their own cigarettes, and counted coppers for their bus fare home. It didn’t look all that much fun.

But there is one kind of pub where we’ve noticed the clientele skew consistently youthful and that’s the Wetherspoon’s chain. It’s odd, that, in some ways, because it doesn’t necessarily match the stereotype of a ‘Spoons drinker, and there are certainly plenty of older people there, too. But from what we’ve seen, and dredging our own 20-year-old memories, it does make sense.

‘Spoons is an easy place not to drink, for one thing. The younger drinkers we’ve noticed are often on hot chocolate, frothy coffee or pounding cans of energy drink. A typical party, sat near us about a fortnight ago, between them had one pint of bitter, two of lager, a can of Monster, and a pint of Coke. They were all eating, too, treating it almost like a diner.

Which is another point in its favour. The menu is large, varied, and makes eating out, at a table with cutlery, accessible in towns like Penzance where otherwise it’s a tourist-price ‘bistro’ or Domino’s pizza with not much between. We’ve quite often seen groups of what must be sixth-form students having their tea together, perhaps prior to the cinema or some other activity.

It has room for the packs in which young people like to roam, too. Groups of six, eight, ten, with piles of rugby kit, or guitars, or costumes for a party, rarely struggle to find three tables to line up in banqueting formation.

And, being huge, it is relatively anonymous. They can shout, squeak, flirt and generally mess about without actually being the centre of attention, which they certainly would be in most other pubs in town. When Boak used to drink in the Walnut Tree in Leytonstone in the mid-1990s this was the main reason — because it felt safe and mixed, because she and her friends could sit in a corner and not be bothered.

If you’re a young parent, south of 25, ‘Spoons also seems to work. It is big enough and sufficiently noisy that your kid’s shouting and crying barely registers, and there’s plenty of room for push-chairs, colouring books and all the other accoutrements.

The question is, does all this breed new pub-goers, or only new ‘Spoons-goers? And that’s part of a bigger question about whether Wetherspoon pubs are really pubs, or only some strange, pub-like fast food outlet. It must be heartening, surely, that young people are out at all. If it was purely about cost, they’d be at home or in the park drinking supermarket beer which is cheaper again but, no, there’s an irresistible pull towards a shared public space.

It’s Not Just Beer: the Craftication of Everything

Illustration: perfume.

Not being habitual wearers of perfume we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘niche fragrances’ until last week when we heard a report about them on the radio promoting this exhibition at Somerset House.

Now, bear with us as we stumble clumsily through the history of an unfamiliar world: for a long time, it seems, there were two types of fragrance — established brands, and cheaper substitutes, both equally conservative. Then, in the 1970s, a third way began to emerge:

L’Artisan Parfumeur was the result of a challenge, a plaisanterie. Due to his training as a chemist, a friend asked Jean Laporte if he could create a banana scent to wear with a costume of the same fruit to a gala evening at the Folies Bergères. This was quickly followed by grapefruit and vanilla fragrances… He experimented and created original scents with ‘natural essences’. With the success of his first line of fragrances, Jean Laporte was named L’Artisan Parfumeur – the craftsman of fragrance – by perfume enthusiasts.

It’s our old friend natural vs. chemical! And grapefruit! Accounts of the birth of artisanal perfume often also mention ‘passion’.

In the decades since niche perfume has become a significant segment of the market as summarised by Reuters:

Niche brands differ from their bigger rivals in that they focus more on the originality of the scent than the packaging and the image projected via a celebrity. They also usually use higher concentrations of perfume extracts and more natural ingredients which tend to last longer…

There are now niche perfumes designed to evoke everything from fairground log flume rides to a seduction ritual in Mali. Some are stunts, not really designed to be worn so much as collected and shown off, while others have become bestselling standards in their own right. The only rule seems to be that they shouldn’t smell of, you know… perfume.

You’ll be glad to know that niche in perfume, like craft in beer, ‘is ceasing to become meaningful as a descriptor’ at least in part because bigger producers have jumped on the bandwagon and also bought out smaller houses (Reuters again):

Estee Lauder Companies which owns Jo Malone – which used to be regarded as niche – just bought Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle and consolidation is set to continue as big groups hunt for what could be the next big perfume brand

But, anyway, perfume isn’t the point — it’s that this hammered home how easy it is to see everything from within a silo and thus fail to recognise that developments in your field are part of wider changes in society. Craft beer (indie beer, boutique beer, whatever you want to call it) developed at the same time as, and alongside, things like modern sourdough baking, natural wine, niche perfume, upmarket street food, gastropubs, and no doubt a thousand other class-bending trends in fields about which we know nothing.

Niche, the perfume world’s choice of descriptor, is an interesting one because in a sense this is about levering a space between, and maybe a bit to the left of, existing polarised segments.

  • Beer > Craft Beer < Wine
  • Perfume > Niche Perfume < Brand/Designer Perfume
  • Camping > Glamping/Boutique Hotels < The Hilton

Whether you like it or not, this bit in the middle seems to fulfil the needs of a generation whose members perhaps don’t understand class the way their parents and grandparents did, and who are every bit as appalled by tacky gilded visions of LUXURY as they are uninspired by the mainstream bog standard.

Suggestions for other sectors where boutinichecraftification has occurred, as well as for further reading, are very welcome — leave a comment below.

QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities

Sometimes you just want to watch whatever is being broadcast; other times only a particular film will do, even if costs. Is that also how beer works these days?

Last week the cultural and political commentator John Harris (@johnharris1969) took a pause from the frenzy of post election analysis to make an observation about beer:

Tweet: "The 'craft' beer worry. £3.50 for a can/bottle of Beefheart IPA (or whatever). This: £1.25 from Lidl, & very nice."

Our instinctive reaction to this was, frankly, a bit dickish: ‘Ugh, what is he on about?’ Much as we imagine he might have responded to a Tweet saying, for example: ‘Why buy the expensive new Beatles reissue when Poundland has a perfectly good Best Of Gerry and the Pacemakers for £2?’

But of course, in a sense, he’s right: if you aren’t obsessed with music, wine, clothes, or whatever, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend loads more money on a version of that thing that is no more enjoyable to you than the readily available, budget version just because of peer pressure or marketing.

The problem is, once you do get into beer, the generic doesn’t always cut it. If you just want something to absentmindedly sup while you socialise or watch TV then whatever is on special offer this week is probably fine, but if you’ve got a particular yen to wallow in the pungency of American hops then LIDL’s Hatherwood Green Gecko just won’t do the job. If you’re really in deep you’ll probably even turn your nose up at about two-thirds of supposedly ‘proper’ craft IPAs, too. And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.