Masterchefs need to apply

It’s a Sunday morning, and not for the first/last time I’m staring across a pub table at a friend who looks as though their internal organs have pins-and-needles. We’re getting older now, though the booze intake has not slowed down, leaving the recovery mode to kick in with all the pace and success of an ancient laptop, creaking and crunching its way through start-ups and breakdowns. We’re not ‘surrounded’ as such, though this is a Wetherspoons, so there’s an atmosphere all the same. Overly cheerful bar staff discuss the weekend’s football – “I like Brendan Rodgers, he’s got things right every time” – and a smattering of other similarly hungover folk are peppered around on tables all hunched over smartphones or newspapers. Not one of them is drinking alcohol, though it’s possible to buy drink from the moment the doors open at 9am, which is one of those New Labour licencing law legacies which hangs around unchecked. I note that some of the heavier drinkers at Wetherspoons are similarly prone to hanging around, unchecked.

A lone woman sits near by, her face one which has won arguments and weathered storms, a matriarch whose expression tells of penny jars and a dutiful marriage. She knows, as we know, that life was not supposed to direct her to a chain pub, on a Sunday morning, politely accepting the reheated food offered by nonetheless happy and polite men in branded shirts.

Within the context of “horsemeatscandalDRAMA” it’s worth remembering that Wetherspoons hasn’t been implicated. The world’s worst kept secret is the company’s reliance on microwaves and flash-frying, making their “curry club” nights identical to the rapid response seen in countless curry houses across the country. That said, what curries they do provide aren’t particularly bad, even if you don’t start at a round 100 before taking off points for soggy rice, cardboard-like poppadoms, a mango chutney with an apple-pie like consistency.

Their biggest failing and the source of my greatest food related angst since…well last week to be honest (post-ale festival ‘stodge’ of a Mattinsons sausage and a pint of lemonade)…has to be their ‘breakfasts’. It’s perhaps little surprise that there seems to be a single sort of man (and always men) who are spotted at early doors ordering a ‘spoons breakfast. Men who still have booze on their breath, or still have booze swirling around the brain, or who’ve been in need of proper munchies having eaten their entire kitchen stock of Battenburg cake and sour sweets. With warped tastebuds sleeping alongside most other vital organs – some more vital than others at such an early hour – it’s to be expected that the quality control is so low, but the wide acceptance of their early meals as adequate is a particularly British failing which brings to mind the oft-repeated maxim from a former line manager; “When you’re consistently below average, you bring the average down.”

The breakfast presented to me and countless friends over many hangover Sundays has always been below par, ‘acceptable’ because the hour is early, the head is sore and the tongue wants something other than real ale to taste. It is always lukewarm, because like my late-grandmother’s Christmas meals, they’re microwaved. Individual items congeal and wrinkle, sausages the colour of a baking dish, a single egg with a ripped underskirt for its white, toast which would be recognised as “warm, floppy bread” by Alan Partridge. It’s a plate which would embarrass most traditional ‘caffs’, and whilst a few cost cuttings are acceptable for the mass catering of evening meals, the state of breakfast at a company in rude health should be a point of some serious shame.

My friend and I carve our way through the barely heated food, little pats of butter secreted between the “toast” to assist with making malleable a hard, processed flower. What shadowy ghost of heat might have stuck around at the start has now floated away completely; we’re essentially eating cold food. And we don’t complain, not out loud, because this is accepted as what hungover people do between the hours of waking up and falling back to sleep. We’re guilt-filled and regretful, as any teenage masturbater caught by a family relative might be, at the satisfaction we nonetheless feel at consuming something, anything, to battle against the booze headache.

Our tepid plate, not so much fry-up as faux-up, can be placed anywhere in the current argument about lowering food standards, the increasing gap between those who can afford fresh ingredients and those who can only afford prepared ready meals. The complacency and acceptance is our own failing. The food industry hides its use of horse DNA as well as any businessman obscures his tax-evading savings, and in so many ways they’re choking us all. The horsemeat scandal engages producer and consumer with choices which must be made. It seems a long way from a reheated handgrab of reheated breakfast staples, and I suppose in the most basic way there is a distance, but the bad taste remains in the mouth all the same.

Advertisements

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.

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…

Law and Disorder

Home Secretary Theresa May is reportedly planning to introduce a ‘law and order levy’ on pubs which want to open after 11pm.

This is not something I would support. May is attempting to deal with a flawed licensing system with the wrong solution.

Labour’s changes to the licensing laws came as a welcome modernisation. Our out-dated “closing times” had to be done away with. Unlike the Daily Mail rent-a-reaction, I did not foresee rivers of booze and blood flowing down the High Streets of England. Coupled with the new powers given to Local Authorities to deal with troublesome pubs and clubs, Labour seemed to get things right on this.

Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm to introduce 24hr licenses – and remember, very few pubs or clubs actually do open 24hrs – Labour assumed an instant change to a continental drinking culture. Not so, of course, as there would have been the necessary introduction of ‘purchasing quotas’ and a statutory watered-down ale limit to facilitate that sort of change. Britain took to license liberalisation with (mostly) maturity and (some) over-enthusiasm. Hence May looking at this new ‘night-time tax”.

Pubs are struggling to stay open as it is. The smoking ban and cheap supermarket prices have eaten into the pub market share. Now add the change in social behaviour – is “going to the local boozer” such a part of every day life among the young or those on middle incomes? – to see why the publican does not always have a happy lot.

This “law and order levy” would be an unfair tax on publicans. Local authorities, in this time of economic constraint, would not shy from asking all pubs to put money into a “policing pot”. Cash-strapped independent or small holdings would go to the wall; “brand name” pubs would take the hit. Which is more likely to have reason to call out the cops – The Red Lion or a Scream pub on the edge of a student village?

Councils are able to order additional restrictions on licenses, and the extended opening hours policy is a genie not likely to fit back into its bottle. Together publicans, police and Councils should be able to continue working towards tackling what disorder exists without an additional financial burden on tax-payers (generally) or publicans (specifically).