Pub visits this week 1
Whoever you are, whatever the reason you’re here, the next thing you should read is the most recent column by Karen Black. Karen took over a Nottinghamshire boozer a few months ago – her first job in the pub business – and has been writing about her experiences for The Publican since February.
Why is the column suddenly essential reading? If you were minded to find fault with it, then you could. As opening gambits go, “I read in the Express today” is not one to inspire an awful lot of confidence. But the reason everyone should read Karen’s analysis of the pub trade today is that it comes – almost uniquely, as far as I can see – from the point of view of the small-town, working-class punter.
“Someone else said to me, the only proper English pubs you can find now are in Benidorm,” says Karen. “I find myself agreeing. There is an entire class of people out there crying out for proper pubs.”
This, we must understand, is the bigger picture. It’s just one that I’m lucky enough not to recognise here in a major city, while I’m sitting in the Blake Hotel (pictured below) on Thursday night, surrounded by all kinds of people, supping reasonably priced and spectacularly good beer in a nice, old-fashioned sort of room. It’s not the one that’s painted in fine detail in the pub and beer blogosphere – where we’re so excited by those isolated success stories such as the Euston Tap that we tend to overlook the ongoing backdrop of decay. But it is the bigger picture.
As I’ve said at Get to the pub.com before, the pubs that are still closing down in their dozens every week are not, generally speaking, the ones that real ale drinkers and bloggers tend to frequent very much. Karen is, essentially, bemoaning the loss of pubs for necking cheap lager and, pre-ban, smoking like a bastard. My old local in Birmingham, the New Talbot, was a pub like this, but it’s not the sort of place where I tend to find myself these days. Pubs like this may not be to your taste either. But we should put our value judgements aside here. We know cask beer is a better drink than mass-produced lager. Forget about that for now, though, because it’s a separate issue entirely.
And what’s the issue here? It’s class. There are millions of working-class folk out there who, for years and years of their lives, have loved going to pubs like the ones Karen is talking about – just as much as you and I love our Harps and our Brunswick Inns and our Coopers Taverns – and now they can’t.
Karen’s column may not end up giving us a clear or comprehensive idea of who or what she believes is to blame, or what she thinks ought to be done differently. She mentions smoking and, of course, there’s a debate to be had around that. She also suggests that some might be deterred from pubs because of “loud, dancing people, who may or may not indulge in the occasional snog”. I’m not sure what the Express has been saying, but I’m fairly sure there’s no impending legislation for a snogging ban. She doesn’t seem keen on food in pubs. Fair enough, but even at Wetherspoons the food isn’t bad enough to send you running away in horror if you’ve just gone for a pint, with no intention of eating.
Maybe the idea is for others to chip in here. And class isn’t really about whether you smoke, or eat or dance or snog in public places. There may be something in that. But overwhelmingly, of course, class is very obviously about money. Karen believes that Britain has already “gentrified pubs into oblivion”. I don’t yet share that belief – but that will be the outcome if current trends continue. And the reason is that, by and large, middle-class real ale drinkers can absorb the Chancellor’s staggering hikes in beer tax, while working-class people can’t. So middle-class real ale drinkers still have their pubs. And working-class people don’t.
Whether you or I think these are ‘bad pubs’ or ‘good pubs’ doesn’t matter a damn. What matters is that pubs are, vitally, one of the few remaining spaces that communities can share without our interactions being defined by fear and suspicion. They are among the last places where ordinary people matter. They’re the crucibles where the humdrum and the humble become the highest drama – where countless people have shed tears, spilt blood, split their sides, fallen in love, felt those moments when the light shines through and our lives briefly lift from mundane to magnificent.
Folk with less money deserve this wonderful respite more than anyone. If your job is boring, your horizons are limited, and you’re copping it worst of all from unnecessary spending cuts, then getting to the pub is a need, not a want. But working-class people are copping it worse than the rest when pubs close down as well. If another boozer bites the dust, and we shrug our shoulders because it didn’t offer a choice of six hand-pulled, cask-conditioned ales, then we’re as bad as the bankers.
A lot of old boozers were swept up by the PubCos and run in to the ground. With tied beer and fixed prices the landlords hands are tied and the punters don’t turn up. A new landlord comes in and the whole sorry cycle starts again. There’s permanent lease signs up on some of the pubs and you go in and see a different face behind the bar every few months. The PubCos won’t give up the pubs and aren’t interested in investing in them. There’s a lot of ‘locals’ that this has happened to.
The problem of high staff turnover is a big issue too – wanna go to a pub where the bar staff know you and your pint is already waiting on the side for you? Not today because the landlord has changed again and its a whole new relationship to build. People want familiar faces, a place where they’re known and people know what they like. Basics really.
Alongside this, places like Wetherspoons have sucked up the working class drinkers because of cheap beer and food. Do a pub crawl around Castle Markets in Sheffield during the day and you’ll visit loads of empty pubs (if they’re not already closed) until you get to the Wetherspoons which will be rammed.
well put sir. although i am still ambivalent about the euston tap: lovely beer but the stairs make me weep x
I think the Pubcos may be coming round (slowly). Our local at the end of our street was bought by Everards, refurbished and re-opened shortly after we moved in (5 years ago).
It then had two landlords who tried everything but both failed. I know one of them from years ago and he said he was screwed by tied-in beer prices. He just couldn’t make any profit, no matter what he did.
It was then empty for a year until Everards did a deal with a local landlord – allowing him to locally source food and beer
(Not so) amazingly it’s worked. There is a proper atmosphere in there now. We went in on Christmas Day and it was packed out. The most “community spirit” I’ve ever felt in a pub. I just hope Project William gets the results it deserves everywhere.
Thanks for the comments, folks. And oooh, because I played a gig at the Five Lamps a few years back – glad to see it’s recovering from the experience!
Isn’t it also Everard’s who’ve used that same model (with great success) elsewhere in Derby, at the Brunswick Inn?
Enterprise Inns have made a similar arrangement with Thornbridge at the Greystones in Sheffield too. We may be looking here at The Way Forward.
Everards bought the Brunswick nearly 10 years ago when it was already an established independent real ale pub with an onsite brewery, so I think it was more a case of “if it ain’t broke..”. Whereas the Project William model seems to be more about breathing life back into pubs where the generic pubco model has failed miserably