‘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.

Pubs and class

Inspired by an interesting post at Tandleman Towers (which was itself kicked off by this one over at Garrard’s gaff) I just rang my Mum and Dad and asked them: “Why don’t working class people go to the pub so much these days?”

Now, I should explain that, although I am now terribly middle class (I nearly bought a cheese dome in Peter Jones the other day) my folks are and always have been working class.

I live in London; they live in a small industrial town in Somerset. So, we have very different experiences of and feelings about going to the pub these days.

Here’s my perspective: I don’t bat an eyelid at paying £3.40 for a pint. I’m very blase about pub closures (“The ones that are shutting are probably horrible anyway, so who cares?”). I’m spoiled for choice, with loads of great pubs within an hour of my house on London’s excellent public transport system.

And here are the reasons my folks gave for their gradual abandonment of pubs in the last few years:

1. It costs too much — a pint should cost less than £2, surely?

2. The traditional pubs in town are cold, unfriendly and have a poor range of beer. Sometimes, says Dad, “it’s like walking into a hostile Wild West saloon”.

3. The newer pubs are almost like nightclubs, with DJs, dancefloors and offers on alcopops. To note: young working class people are going to those in some numbers, because they can get drugs and pull there, unlike at the distinctly unerotic Rose and Crown or Bunch of Grapes.

3. The nice pubs in the area are out of town, in the surrounding villages. Drink driving’s now taboo and there’s no public transport to speak of. Cabs are too expensive.

4. Working class homes are nicer now than they were in the 60s and 70s; it’s easier to get quality beer and spirits these days; and it’s relatively cheaper than it used to be. So, staying at home isn’t necessarily a compromise — it’s quite nice!

5. As it happens, they are going to the pub for the first time in a while tonight, and the draw is free live music from a local blues band. Otherwise, they wouldn’t bother.

Interestingly, they didn’t think the smoking ban was an issue, although my Dad smokes and my Mum used to, and actually thought it had improved some of the local pubs.

Food for thought. I need to digest it.