In my part of north London—but it could be the gentle suburbs of any city now—when you take a walk on a Sunday afternoon, close your eyes and take a deep breath, you can imagine yourself in the grounds of a Bisto factory. I live in the epicentre of four pubs which on Sunday now solely exist to serve up traditional British roast dinners; and the omnipresent fug of the stuff drifts through the streets and greens of the suburb. It is but one piece of evidence of the restuarantification of the traditional English pub. Others being you can’t get a seat simply to have a beer, screaming children, and the deathwalk maze of their buggies and toys on the way to to the bar.
Last week we decided to go for a walk through our local common, do some sketching and generally enjoy the fallen leaves of autumn. But the real focus was a visit to a historic pub and to sit by the fire with a traditional pint of ale. Since I have never been to this pub I was greatly looking forward to it, but on arrival the cutlery on the tables advertised another story. Each table in the main saloon was laid out for diners, and even the satellite rooms were stuffed with punters stuffing themselves. Each table in the saloon was empty: but to stop us sitting at these empty tables the staff invoked the magic word “booked” as if that justified their emptiness. The pub had become a restaurant. When I challenged the staff on this point they did not deny it (and did so curtly). That anyone should come into a pub solely for a pint of beer was evidently both beyond and beneath them. My partner whose walking stick advertised a disability was given short shrift. No, they would not find her a seat by the fire (and there was room); no, she could not sit at an empty table, and if we wanted ONLY a drink we should have to go outside. And it was cold.
Outside a dismal congregation of tents of no character covered the lawns which would have been beautifully awash with autumn leaves were they not drowned in a flood of tents. These had charmless wooden seats and inefficient heaters and cold people trying to pretend it didn’t matter. And thus, one of the glories of England, the traditional pub, dies.
And with them go the little knots of social fabric where neighbours gather, now and again, not to do the blitz and binge drinking of the young but to catch up on gossip, see what’s happening in the neighbourhood, see old friends, mourn those recently departed, to tighten the knots of the social fabric and keep our communities alive: this is far more beneficent than email round robins.
Of course the publicans will tell you economic necessity is forcing this trend. A steep one evidenced by CAMERA’s claim that 21 pubs are closing a week. Governments attack them with duties and taxes, landlords rip them off in leases and rent (along with houses too) and Supermarkets undercut them on prices. The British Beer and Pub Association (PBA) claims we have 14 times higher tax rates on beer than Germany. It has now come to the point where a bottle of wine, which will keep you and a friend happy for an evening, is cheaper than meeting a mate for a pint. The intent by consecutive governments to get us to ape the cafe societies of the Mediterranean in a country bereft of a suitable climate is removing the one traditional guard against that climate: beer by the settle. Another wound caused by these closures or restaurantification is a concomitant blow to the fragmentation of our society. Roughly pubs reflect the demographic of their area but they were still the last bulwark against stratification where people of different jobs, classes, educational levels met and where the academic could take advice from the mechanic, and more importantly remind each other that the other exists: that there are those outside our limited social network who are of equal value. In days when we are all mourning the loss of social mobility the loss a place where social mixing was effected and encouraged should be equally worrying.
Over the past ten years this decline has been dramatic. A decade ago I would saunter up to a local in my area to see the place packed with a cross section of the community. Now—on a Friday night even—the place has empty seats and I have never been in, sometimes on consecutive nights, when I have seen the same bar staff, thus removing a constant, where the landlord or lady would know your drink and welcome you by name. Not all of us can be members of a Piccadilly club but having a good local with good company was pretty damn close if not better.