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pubs

Could all this help the neighbourhood pub?

Is it wrong to poke around in the ruins looking for something to be optimistic about? Maybe, possibly, all this will help revive the neighbourhood corner pub.

Of course we can only ever be tentative and won’t be remotely surprised if things go in the opposite direction, towards disaster, but indulge us.

First, we know that city centres are struggling as many people continue to work from home.

The narrative has coalesced around coffee and sandwich shops but central pubs, too, rely on commuters hanging around for a pint or two with colleagues.

Without birthday drinks and leaving drinks and fuck-it-it’s-Thursday drinks, they’re reliant on determined, deliberate pubgoers.

The few times we’ve been into town lately, pubs and bars have seemed quiet – handy for distancing purposes but not if you want to pay staff, pay suppliers and keep the lights on.

Local pubs out in the suburbs, meanwhile, though also struggling, seem to be doing a little better.

After all, sticking your nose in at the local is low commitment: you wander round and if there’s space, you stay; if not, you wander on, or get takeaway. And if it gets uncomfortably crowded, you can go home.

The Foresters Arms, a pub near us, has struggled through the last few years with periods of closure, changes of management and a basic Guinness-n-sport offer in an area which has all but fully gentrified.

Now, though, it’s buzzing seven days a week. We’ve never seen it so busy or so alive. Peeking through the side door on our daily walks we’ve noticed quite a few of the regulars from The Drapers Arms in the (sensibly distanced) crowd – not their first choice, perhaps, but maybe somewhere they’ve come to appreciate in recent months.

We’ve certainly become less fussy. On Monday, at the end of a long walk to Keynsham, we ended up drinking Peroni in an edge-of-town pub and loving it. Well organised, spacious and friendly beats central in 2020.

On that note, we’ve also wondered if this might be the saving of some of those big inter-war pubs you find on the outskirts of towns.

A year ago, people talked about ‘rattling round sterile barns’.

Now, as our ideas of busy and close have been forcibly re-calibrated, that’s distinctly more appealing.

Categories
pubs

The pub isn’t as mysterious or special, it’s just small, that’s all

What makes English people think the pub is so special? Is it some special quality of the decor, the culture that surrounds it, or something else?

Ray Oldenburg, the American author of The Great Good Place which we mentioned in yesterday’s post, gives over several pages to a consideration of the English pub as an example of ‘the third place’.

Acknowledging that for most English people, the local pub is the default third place, he is nonetheless scathing of the way it is sometimes written about:

The pub’s favorable press is often romanticized. Writers are quick to proclaim its mystique, especially in comparison to ‘imitation’ pubs on the Continent. A barrage of platitudes are leveled at attempts to create the pub elsewhere: ‘Real pubs are found only in England!’ ‘Only an Englishman knows what a pub is!’ ‘An outsider couldn’t possibly create a pub!’ There is some truth to these prideful claims, if only because the pub is part of the larger culture that nurtures it. But there is no magic in porcelain beer pulls, smoke-tainted pictures of Teddy, or mementos of the local cricket team. Nor do the quaint signs, etched glass, and idiosyncrasies of pub behaviour lend the English public house its essential warmth and verve.

You’ll note that he does concede that the pub is special. It’s just that, in Oldenburg’s view, the explanation is very simple: unlike the third places of other nations, pubs are small.

Or, in social-commentator-speak, ‘pubs are built to the human scale’.

Remember, now, that Oldenburg was writing in the late 1980s, just as the modern superpub was coming into existence, and at a time when the vast interwar pubs were largely forgotten out on ringroads and housing estates. His focus was on the pubs most often written about, especially by Americans, and particularly in London.

He backs up his argument by quoting Frank Dobie’s 1946 book A Texan in England – a book and writer we must admit that, until this, we’d never heard of. You can read more about it at the Pub History Society website, which says:

In the autumn of 1942, Cambridge University instituted its first Professorship in American History. Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, New York, was invited over to blaze the trail but he stayed only one term and was then asked to nominate his replacement. The man he selected was one of his Columbia University colleagues, a Texan named J. Frank Dobie… Never intending to set out to write a book about his life at Cambridge… Dobie eventually put pen to paper because ‘experiences within myself as well as without made me want to say something.’

Dobie apparently became rather fascinated by the pubs of Cambridge and pub culture in general, devoting an entire chapter to one particular pub, The Anchor.

We have a copy on order, of course, but for now, though, here’s the line that Oldenburg quotes, with reference to The Anchor:

If they operated such an establishment in America, they’d make a barrel of money. They’d enlarge it to take care of more and more customers and keep on enlarging it until it grew as big as Madison Square Garden, or else became a standardized unit in a chain. Long before either stage, however, it would have lost the character that makes the snug little public houses and inns of England veritable ‘island of the blest’.

It’s hard not to read that and think of the rise of the Wetherspoon pub chain on the one hand, and the rise of the micropub on the other.

Tim Martin has acknowledged his debt to Ray Kroc’s business model for the expansion of McDonald’s across the US so, in a sense, Dobie predicted the future.

And at the same time, he foreshadowed the backlash, too.

Based on our experience of drinking in The Drapers Arms, Oldenburg was on to something: it doesn’t matter that the building isn’t traditional, or that the fixtures and fittings aren’t authentic Victorian, because the space sends the right signals to the pubgoer’s brain.

Categories
pubs

When the first, second and third place are all the same

The third place isn’t work and isn’t home; it is somewhere you mingle with others; and it is vital to the healthy functioning of communities.

The concept was developed by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, to which we were pointed by Stan Hieronymus while working on our own book 20th Century Pub.

Though primarily focused on social life in America, and especially on the 20th century tendency to build vast new suburban settlements without cafes, coffee shops or bars, its arguments are universal.

For example, there’s this on the value of the neighbourhood bar as pressure valve:

My suspicion is that a good tavern keeps ‘steam’ from building up more than it provides a means to ‘blow it off’… The ethnologist is likely to argue that there is a need to ‘let off steam’ and to do so collectively. Attention to the world’s many cultures soon reveals the prevalence of all manner of wanton reveling. Celebrations are institutionalized in the form of feasts, festivals, junkets, religious holidays, saturnalian binges, organized drinking bouts… It is characteristic of such events that everyday norms and decorum are ignored; that the spirit of revelry affects all and not just the few; that the madness is manifest in public and not privately, and not casually, but with a serious intensity.

It’s been on our minds a lot lately as we find ourselves denied access to not only the third place (pubs) but also to the second place, commuting from one room in the house to another for work each morning, and back again in the evening.

Ordering people not to go out, not to gather, might seem reasonable and easily managed if you’re not someone for whom gathering is important. But if, like most of us, stopping off at the third place is how you cope with the struggles of the first and second places, it’s easier said than done.

Some handle it by scrambling around for synthetic substitutes for maintenance therapy. In our experience, virtual drinks with friends or family over video aren’t anything like as much fun as the pub. But it does soften the withdrawal symptoms.

New rituals are emerging, too: the can or bottle held up to the webcam so that others on the call can see for themselves what you’re drinking; the unspoken agreement that someone must ‘chair’, inviting others to speak when the babble gets too much; and the calling of ‘time, please, ladies and gentleman’ as peering at the screen begins to fatigue.

Virtual pubs are a good idea, they’re necessary, but will anyone voluntarily subject themselves to the experience once the real thing becomes available again? Not often, we suspect.

Other people (though less, perhaps, than press and social media would have you believe) can’t cope, so they break the rules.

Upsetting as it can be to hear that this is happening, it’s not surprising.

For those who live alone, or in unhappy households, removing the option to meet friends on neutral ground is necessary but no less brutal.

As Ray Oldenburg and others argue, spending time in the third place is not merely a pastime or preference – it’s a deep-seated, basic human need.

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breweries london

Why so many breweries in Waltham Forest, all of a sudden?

I paid a flying visit to Tap East the week before last to see my brother. While I was there I tried the Pilsner by Pillars Brewery.

“Do you know it’s made round the corner from where we grew up?” asked my brother.

“Brewed on an industrial estate in Walthamstow – isn’t everything these days?”

And then the two of us took a moment to ponder on how weird that is and how far things have come for beer in Waltham Forest, with several breweries and talk of a rival beer mile.

Pubs that were on the brink of closing have been ‘rescued’ and you certainly don’t go short of a Sunday roast and a hazy pale ale.

And while it’s easy to moan about gentrification, this isn’t a case so much of pushing out existing traditional businesses because there are way more decent places to drink now than there ever were.

When I was young, Walthamstow wasn’t really a big drinking destination. It was somewhere young families settled. You might have a few in The Village or The Goose or whichever local pub tickled your fancy but, generally, people went up town for serious nightlife.

And there were no breweries at all, not one, in a borough with about a quarter of a million people. The Essex Brewery closed in the 1970s and the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, later Brodie’s, didn’t come along until much later.

Talking this through with Ray, we concluded that Waltham Forest these days is the perfect combination of shed-loads (literally) of bona fide industrial estates, not just converted railway arches; with good transport connections; and an increasingly young, wealthy demographic.

That must make it a great seedbed for new breweries and a good option for established breweries looking to move or expand.

We asked London beer experts Des de Moor and Jezza for their opinions, by way of testing our assumptions.

The latter, editor of the excellent Beer Guide London, confirmed my perception of a recent explosion: “That section has certainly grown remarkably in the last year or two in particular.”

And both Des and Jezza came up with the same overarching explanation. Des happens to have been giving this some thought lately as he’s been working on an imminent new edition of his CAMRA guide to London pubs. Here’s how he expresses the challenge for London brewing businesses and the appeal of Waltham Forest:

Your task is to find an ‘up and coming’ area that already has, or is near to somewhere that has, a bit of hipster buzz, and over the coming years is likely to attract a population who will drink and talk about your beer, but still has relatively affordable industrial space and where you won’t have a problem getting an on-licence… Walthamstow, and particularly the area where all the new breweries are opening up, to the west of the historic centre along Blackhorse Road, is one of the few places that scores highly on all these factors. This is part of the Lea Valley, historically one of London’s largely industrial areas as the risk of flooding from the Lea discouraged housing development.

Jezza and Des also highlighted a point we’d missed which is that the local council has been keen to encourage craft breweries and other businesses, “even to the extent of partnering in a pub that showcases breweries in the borough” as Des put it, referring to the Welcome to the Forest Bar.

What about the Pilsner, though – was it any good? Yes, rather to my surprise, it was absolutely fantastic – really crisp and clean, as if it had been brewed in a Bavarian city somewhere rather than round the back of my old primary school.

Perhaps the next step could be to build a sprawling Munich style beer garden down by the reservoirs…?

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion pubs

You can’t judge a pub on one visit

One of the reasons we are doing #EveryPubInBristol is because we did #EveryPubInPenzance and discovered that we couldn’t always judge a pub from the way it looked.

We like to think we know pubs reasonably well and there were five pubs in Penzance that just never appealed based on the way they presented.

We decided to go to them all before we left and we found that one was much better than we’d expected and was added into our regular route; three were actually fine; and only one was genuinely bad. And because of our general interest in the history and culture of pubs, almost everywhere had something for us to observe or learn from, good or bad.

However, 252 pubs into our Bristol mission, we’ve started to question whether one visit is really enough for some pubs. So much of what makes up an experience in a pub is transitory – the staff who were on, the other punters during your visit – before you even get into what the beer tastes like, changes to the decor, and so on.

When pubs get refurbished and new managers take over, we do try to make an effort to revisit as this kind of thing can drastically change a place. But other changes might be more subtle – perhaps we visited during the day when there’s a calm older crowd and missed the fact it has a DJ and dancing on a Saturday night. Perhaps we visited on a particularly rainy or sunny day when the usual crowd stayed at home or went to the park. Perhaps the bartender who made us feel so welcome left for another job a week later and the place just isn’t as friendly now.

We think this is why it’s easier to judge places that have an identifiable guv’nor or guv’nors – that their personality, for good or worse, sets a fairly consistent tone for the place. And you can tell a lot by the regulars that they gather around them and the behaviours that are and aren’t allowed.

In contrast, the hardest places to form a view on are often managed houses, where staff and management turn over constantly. It’s hard enough to imprint a personality over what the pubco or brewery has decided is the in look this season (usually several years out of date) even when you do have a steady team.

There’s a pub between our house and the centre of town which constantly switches between being a decent pub with acceptable food and drink to a complete kitchen and cellar nightmare. We end up visiting every six months to see what phase it’s in. To be fair, we probably wouldn’t bother at all if it wasn’t on our way home.

This of course is where a good local CAMRA branch comes in useful, particularly if members are attuned to factors beyond beer quality – it’s great to get local intelligence on which pubs have changed hands recently and a hint as two whether the change is for the better, or the worse.

We suppose, in a roundabout way, what we’re saying is that pubs are like living things. That’s great news if you like exploring pubs because over the course of five years, 250 pubs might equate to 1,000 pubs, in terms of the experience of visiting them.

And another thought: perhaps this is why pubs that don’t change – that can resist it for, say, 20 years or more – feel so special.