time, gentlemen, please

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.

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Fringe thinking about binge drinking

A professor at Chicago University has advised the Government on how to deal with binge drinking.

I suspect this guy – Richard Thaler – knows nothing much about the British drinking culture….

But that is just one factor of this story. I thought this kind of ‘State knows best’ advice mindset had been deposed at the last election. “Behavioural economics”, as the story calls it, is questioning what is not merely ‘tradition’ but polite, ordinary behaviour. Rounds at the pub is probably the best way to keep checks on outgoings – the additional cost of buying for a small group should persuade most sensible people out of drinking excessively. If you don’t want to ‘keep up’ with the people you’re drinking with, then don’t.

Pubs are closing at a record rate, and whilst I don’t want to encourage people to get ratted just to keep the local open, I can’t see how previous or current Government policy is helping to stem the tide. There are numerous threads to the problem – the smoking ban, the Licensing Act and its tangled bureaucracy, increased duty on alcohol and little support for small/micro-breweries…I am against ‘minimum pricing’ on booze because the costs can be soaked up (if you will) by supermarkets whilst hitting publicans hard. There’s no incentive for landlords to stay open outside city centres, and even within busy towns traditional pubs are shutting at an alarming rate.

This professor seems to be interesting in ‘engineering’ social behaviours. If I’m out with some mates around town, it’s up to us to decide when the next ales are bought. I don’t see suggesting some kind of tab system in a city centre pub is feasible for this situation, never mind the endless combinations of groups going out for a quiet ‘un or an all-day bender. This idea seems targeted at young first-time drinkers, but as ever with Government advisers, is stretched out to fit everyone. “Prevention is better than cure” shouldn’t be advice outside the Department for Health.

I understand why Governments need to deal with ‘binge drinking’, and the related problems of pubs closing and supermarket buying power. It seems, as ever, the best advice tax payers are ultimately charged for is ‘micromanage’. Tab systems in British pubs as a ‘solution’ to a round-buying ‘issue’? It must be a slow news day. It just has to be. The sour taste in my mouth after reading this just won’t go away, I need a stiff drink…

Lovers coming together

Opponents of fixed-term elections appear not to have noticed that Gordon Brown’s cowardice has effectively ensured that a full-term parliament is exactly what we are living with in the present. And what joyous developments there has been in the first few weeks of the new year; is this the second decade of the 21st century…or the immediate post-war years?

I ask because both Labour and Conservative parties are doing their best to create a puritanical, paranoid, conservative [very much sic] state, of tradition and good behaviour which didn’t really exist.

Society has moved on from the vision of Mr and Mrs Smith watching their daughter go off to live in married bliss with the butcher’s son. David Cameron would like to see the time-machine rewind to these very days. The concept of co-habitation must appear to Cameron like a cryptic crossword clue; the answer must be contained inside but he just cannot fathom it out. “Tax breaks for married couples” is one of the craziest idea suggested by a serious political party in some time. How would this work, exactly? George Osborne inviting himself to weddings with bank-notes mixed in with the confetti?

Marriage is an institution perfectly suited for many people across the country, that I do not dispute. But marriage is not the end solution for just as many people in this day and age, certainly not for my sister, my parents, or the son of my boss who has 20 years of co-habitation together with a loving partner, two children, a well-paid job, and their own house. How offensive would it be for the State to award a married couple next door while penalising them for daring to live a perfectly acceptable loving life without a marriage certificate?

If the Tories’ over-controlling tendencies were not bad enough, in the red corner it’s almost beyond belief. The Labour Party would never pick on Mr Wall-Mart or Mr Morrisons, for they have expensive lawyers with deep pockets, so instead the new puritans in our Government are hoping to force out of business every corner shop owner and pub landlord. Their latest wheeze – ban everything which could make drinking more than one pint a week possible, (do “drink all you can” offers even exist?), stop grown adults from leaving the house of a week-night in case they dare want to buy more than one bottle of wine from Oddbins, and force the ID Card system on the nation by forcing bar-staff to check the identity of every customer.

It’s absolute cuckoo-bananas.

I cannot fathom how the Cabinet came up with this latest round of anti alcohol madness. Well, actually maybe I can. When they did the sensible thing by dragging the UK into the 20th century with licensing law liberalisation, they grabbed the headlines and ran away from the side-effects. Had somebody checked that each and every consequence of a new drinking culture was understood and legislated for, we wouldn’t now be in this “cocks on the table” auction between red and blue corners about who can alienate drinkers more.

Why is “white cider” not taxed as much as ale? Why can’t the Government reduce the duty on micro-breweries to encourage sensible drinking of heavier beers and ales? If the Home Office want to go after young boys and girls from council estates with drink-related crime issues whilst being too scared to admit it in case it looks like “class war” against the wrong class….tough! The majority of adult drinkers are a combination of a) sensible, and b) know how to deal with having one-or-five-too-many.

On minimum prices for alcohol, which could soon be the case in Scotland, I am not so sceptical. It may dissuade those buying booze for underage drinkers from doing so, whilst it may have the unintended consequence of pricing out students (who inject a lot of finance into the university towns they settle in) or those on fixed-incomes.

Penalising all drinkers in the hope of catching some will do nothing to increase respect from the general public. It’s another case of “Labour knows best”, of State control, of a massive reversal of the liberal democracy I once assumed was the United Kingdom.

On marriage, and on the right to drink, both Conservatives and Labour have it totally wrong. It should not be the responsibility of the State to make marriage a tax-haven, nor consider the act of drinking a pint of John Smith’s the gateway drug to violent crime.

Whatever next? Patrols of Behaviour Police dressed in cloaks and Guy Fawkes masks, I wouldn’t wonder….

Jesus Christ and John Smiths

Forty days. And forty long nights. “A bit like Jesus,” suggested a lad at work. Well, quite. Our Lord and Saviour may well have survived, as have I, on powdered soup and tea leaves.

Not wanting to appear somewhat inconsistent in my argument – as if a liberal ever would! – I decided not to buy any booze for the period of my financial kerfuffles (see Missives passim). From watching the might Berske lose to Halifax in the FA Cup qualifying to last night’s High Voltage shindig in Manchester, I endured and partly enjoyed the “dry period”. It would have somewhat invalid a stance were I to claim financial responsibility in one breath while hoiking 12 cans of best ale from the corner shop every week.

Drinking that first pint of Smooth last night returned a very strong sensory recall memory. My earliest attempts to purchase booze in a pub was at the age of 15, with my best mate at High School attempting to look awfully older slurping two pints of Fosters at the Ship. I was wearing his t-shirt and his dad’s trousers in an attempt to look older. Still was refused entry to the Blue Moon, later on, though. Never forgotten.

It took about 40 minutes to drink the first pint, last night. The tight head this morning certainly seems familiar. Unlike the Son of God I dare say my month of sacrifice has not taught others to live a different way, and my blog readership stats suggest these words may well be reaching a world-wide audience, but only of thousands rather than billions. I take the view, as I sit here in a stuffy library struggling against the pinching headache behind the eyes, that in the manner of someone from Thought For The Day, drinking in Manchester and buying a Burger King for the midnight train is a little bit like Jesus….Er….and….surely when He…erm…taught the lessons of fortitude he was thinking about…er…the pocket shrapnel one does not like counting through the early fog of the morning after?

Or…you know….something. Cheers!