Generalisations about beer culture pubs

The Pub Remains the Default

The Buckingham Arms, Westminster, London.

People worry about pubs: they’re in decline, disappearing, not what they used to be. If they do survive, argues M. Lawrenson, it will be as the preserve of the oddball, the poseur, the ‘connoisseur’.

But, while we suspect that there will be fewer pubs in a decade’s time, we also feel confident that they’re too useful ever to disappear completely.

When we’re visit old stamping grounds and tell friends we’ll be in town, despite our frightful middle class tendencies and impending middle age, no-one ever says, ‘Let’s have dinner’, or ‘Let’s go for a coffee’ — it’s always ‘Which pub?’

They’re spacious, generally comfortable, and open later than almost any other establishment. They usually sell something to eat, even if it’s only a bag of crisps. Where could be better if, after nine in the evening, you need to spend two hours with someone at a location convenient for their house in one suburb and yours in another?

Everywhere we have ever worked, the pub has been the default location for ‘leaving dos’, celebrations, (real) team building exercises (as opposed to contrived ones), and even difficult conversations. Sometimes, the pub felt like a compromise — perhaps the wine drinkers and the trendy young ‘uns sulked, crying ‘Can’t we go somewhere nice?’ — but it did the job better than any other venue.

They’re still where we find ourselves after weddings and christenings, in neglected back rooms, with neatly-trimmed sandwiches and unbuttoned uncles. When people bang on about pubs as ‘community assets’, is this what they mean? It ought to be.

Perhaps we’ve over-optimistic on behalf of the pub, though, and maybe this instinct is dying out. We’ll have to ask around.

9 replies on “The Pub Remains the Default”

A point I have made on my blog is that the appeal of pubs has become much less universal and more geographically limited. There are some areas where pubs continue to thrive, but others – particularly inner-city and working-class areas – where they are already pretty much dead. For example, pubs are not exactly prospering in this suburb of St Helens, as reported by Merseyside Pub Guide, and there are plenty of other places very much like it.

Many people have a kind of “folk memory” of pubs which is very different from how they actually operate now – for example, the real-life Rover’s Return would probably have closed down years ago.

There was an article in a local paper that spoke about pub closures. The head of the restaurant and hotel association lamented the lack of government support for those small businesses, while, a few lines earlier, he’s quoted saying that most of the pubs that close are those that do not offer good quality.

A pub that is well managed and offer a good experience to patrons will always have more chances of survival than one that doesn’t. People still love going to pubs, the fact that they cannot afford to do it so often anymore means that they are more selective, which can’t be a very bad thing in the long run.

That argument is a bit arse-about-face, though. Obviously in an overall declining market, broadly speaking it will be the less well-run pubs that close first, but the fundamental reason they are closing is that the market is declining, not that they are badly run. And to claim that it’s a good thing that pubs’ appeal will become more “selective” sounds very much like Spinal Tap’s response to their diminishing audiences.

I don’t know what the situation is like over there, but here, when even the head of the trade association concedes that most of the pubs that have closed weren’t good ones to begin with, there’s is a point to the argument of a declining market becoming more selective as well. I see sometimes walking around town two (or more) pubs, almost next to each other, and only one of them is full, or at least has some business going. This reminds me that some people claim that cities like Prague have way too many pubs, and to some extent, they do have a point.

The question is what do this people mean by “not good”.

That said, and as someone who loves pubs, I don’t think the government should give a blanket support to them. Pubs in most villages, for example, are subsided as it is already in the form of ridiculously low rents of municipal property (I should add that I like that policy, as I see village pubs as an important part of the community).

I pretty much agree with everything you say (doesn’t make for a sparkling response 🙂

I find M.Lawrenson’s view unduly pessimistic and I’m pleased to say, I think it’s highly unlikely too. Despite a decline in pub visits & pub no.s, I think crafties & beardies make up a small proportion of the pub-going population.

Despite my wish for it to not be so, many people love pubs & yet don’t give a hoot for beer range, etc. Not all of them are content to sit at home every night with the TV, internet, etc.

I hope the slow but sure trend of debt-ridden pubcos disposing of pubs to shore up their finances, and thereby opening up the possibillty of an independent pub to succeed where their hard-pressed tenants hadn’t.

It’s always good to get a mention on a “real” beer blog.

I’ll admit my views are probably skewed by the fact I tend to visit pubs on Sunday and Monday afternoons (my days off). Even the Wetherspoons in Lancaster was nearly empty around 7:30pm yesterday. The problems of University cities out-of-term…

Stuff like that does make me wonder why a lot of pubs bother opening before 4pm. I always go in and find the barman doing the crossword or a manager using the time for staff training (“which way up do the glasses go in the washer?”) rather than much actual drinking going on.

One pub manager I know is getting grief from his employers for taking £2k less a week than he “should be doing”. As far as I can see, he’s doing nothing wrong. The customers just aren’t there a lot of the time.

With all this going on in front of me, I do wonder whether there’s any actual future for the pub industry. Can you blame me?

In my discretionary pubgoing I am overwhelmingly a lunchtime drinker. In general, the only times I am in pubs in the late evening is at CAMRA events.

But, given that restriction, I find loads of disappointingly empty pubs and stale, borderline cloudy, lingering-in-the-pipes beer.

My parody blogpost is all too true, sadly.

So who was in suburban pubs at lunchtime in the good old days? Pensioners and unemployed people? Perhaps the odd passing sales rep?

I’m trying to remember my parents’ pub when I was a kid, and I’m sure lunchtime was always quiet.

I guess the central point of this post is that pubs aren’t blacksmiths or corset-menders: they’re still fundamentally useful, but just not (as you say) to as many people, on as many occasions. To think they’re doomed is overly pessimistic.

Let’s check in a hundred years time, though, and the winner gets a pint in the pub/can of lager in a bus shelter (delete as applicable)…

UPDATE: my Mum says of lunchtime trade at the Artillery, ‘Sometimes we would take as little as £3.00, when beer was about 70p a pint.’

I dearly hope that pubs don’t disappear. As an ex-pat now living in the US one of the things I miss most about the UK is the pub culture. There’s nothing quite the same over here – the bars are nearly always sports-focused, or over-crowded, or playing loud music (or all 3). It doesn’t help that the beers are (mostly) either not-good (PBR, Bud etc.) or high in alcohol (tasty, don’t get me wrong, but at 7% you think twice about having 2 let alone 3 or 4). Pubs are ingrained in our culture – we navigate by them and they’re the default meeting place or after-work destination.

And maybe it’s true that pubs are often open with few (if any) people actually in them. But frankly that’s one of the key appeals – you can find one for a quick pint at almost any time of the day/week (well, post 11am anyway). My wife and I frequently head out for walks or cycle rides and in the UK they’d often involve a pub on the way back. Out in the US options are few and far between.

Perhaps this idea of pubs isn’t a viable business model these days, but there’s definitely something different (special?) about them that doesn’t exist in other countries – certainly not the US – and it would be a real shame if it disappeared.

Comments are closed.