Last week, my local drinking establishment closed down without much advance warning. The street its on used to have six pubs along its length; it now has one ‘cocktail bar’. From having so much of a reputation for pubs that it was said Prestonians had one for every day of the year, thus prompting the creation of teetotalism, we are a city slowly and surely drying up. The most recent figures from within the industry suggests Britain is losing 100 pubs a month: some estimates put that far higher, maybe as many as twice that amount.
What is prompting the loss of pubs in the UK? It’s not just the smoking ban, or the increase in alcohol duties, or the popularity of supermarket deals, or any other single suggestion in isolation. It’s all those things, some of them, one of them, and others aside in combination depending on area. The old fashioned boozer is on the endangered list as much as the kakapo parrot, and in its place are a dwindling number of gastropub/brand pub combos. And not to sound too much of a grump on this, but they’re not always what I need of an evening.
I’ve seen some of the regulars from my local – the blokes who would sit in the same seats, at the same time, having the same drink and often sharing the same conversation – wandering around Preston looking for somewhere else to go. It’s a ‘Goldilocks’ process, each pub being not quite friendly enough, each seat not comfortable enough, each ale not poured just right. Now I know what some of you are thinking – you’re middle aged men putting the world to rights at a backstreet boozer, you don’t really need to rediscover the ‘perfect pub’. To a degree, you’re right. We just don’t want to find the wrong ones.
Now let’s not get over-romantic. There’s some terrible pubs out there. I can see why people argue very convincingly that the death of the British boozer is just the free market working its way through oversized buildings selling lager to a dwindling number of pensioners. In a society in which email and social networks are killing off the art of conversation, in which organising nights out has been reduced to a few texts, the death of the pub exacerbates the decline of our “social society”. Anecdotal evidence for the win – the 90 year old whose only interaction with the outside world was my local twice a week may now have nowhere to go.
(And even in my local, as it happens, there’s been one or two uneasy moments. I was swung at by a bloke who took offence at my belief in the existence of black holes, as he was adamant that they didn’t exist and my ‘chatting shit’ about them being real was enough for him to roll a punch at my face. Exception rather than rule, there, though.)
So now the country faces an unusual situation. CAMRA and its real ale supporting colleagues have never been so popular. Real ale and new micro-brewers are filling pubs with much more choice than we’ve seen in years. It’s just the structure of the pub industry has not kept strong against the resilience of the brewers. In oversized franchise pubs with little interaction between barstaff and customer, you might as well install self-service checkouts for all the experience you have when drinking. These places can’t ever be “your local” because you don’t feel local when drinking there. The “custom” part of “customer” is lost when the JD Wetherspoon you’ve chosen has hundreds of people surrounding you with no space for air, never mind asking about the weather.
And so where does this leave me? I’ve tried a number of new locals, all a bit different, all not quite as comfortable, all without a jukebox which leaves me VERY frustrated because I’d happily pour £20 a night into a jukebox rather than across the bar. I’m very conscious of the pubs I’m choosing have a secondary role as somewhere to meet and greet, somewhere to wind down, just somewhere to go if you have few other options, and how friendly and social and familiar these places can be. Maybe Britain’s binge drinking problem has its origins in the new generation of drinkers only knowing chain pubs with their neon lit special offers, rather than the world-to-rights solitude of the boozer down the road? I’m worried we won’t have long to find out as each of those boozers shuts up for good.
Mine’s a Cumberland, or whichever guest’s on that takes my fancy, please. And a packet of Scampi Fries too.