Paul Kingsnorth on pubs
Farewell, then, to the smoky old pub. As a ban on smoking in most pubs looks set to become law, it seems that the hazy, convivial, unpredictable atmosphere of the traditional local is on the way out. The edgy, boozy, glamorously grimy institutions that inspired Samuel Johnson, G K Chesterton, George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton are to be legislated into history, in the name of public health. In their place, we can no doubt look forward to an uninspiring, government-approved selection of depressingly hip wine bars, all steel and smokeless dining spaces, in which "consumers" (not "customers", and certainly never "locals") partake of their sensible daily allocation of alcohol units from glasses marked with health warnings, and none of the bar staff risks the certain death that would come about by straying within ten metres of a smoker.
This vision may not turn out to be too much of an exaggeration, for the traditional boozer is under attack from all directions. The rising tide of officially sanctioned puritanism currently sweeping the country is one problem: go out for a quiet pint and a fag on a Friday night and you stand a good chance of being accused of manslaughter, or at the very least alcoholism. A sensible extension of the licensing laws, bringing us into line with most other European countries, is vilified as "24-hour drinking" by hysterical journalists. Drinks companies, under pressure from an increasingly confident it's-all-for-your-own-good public health lobby, talk of putting stickers on glasses to warn drinkers how many units they are consuming. Staying at home is starting to look like fun by comparison.
All of this, of course, is supposed to prevent drink-related violence, binge-drinking and illnesses caused by cigarettes. But, ironically, an authoritarian alliance of this official puritanism and corporate power is ensuring that the very places where responsible, regulated drinking is most likely to happen - traditional locals - are disappearing, to make way for vast town-centre drinking sheds run by corporations whose only real interest is shareholder value.
The decline of the traditional pub has been going on for a while, but it appears to be accelerating. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), a staggering 26 pubs close every month. In the countryside, the 7,000 rural pubs that remain are closing at a rate of six a week. More than half of the villages in England are now "dry" - publess - for the first time since the Norman conquest.
There are various reasons for this decline. Puritanism is one of them, health fads another. As society becomes more and more self-obsessed and image-conscious, growing numbers of us would apparently rather spend our spare time watching Gillian McKeith force-feeding seeds to fat people than pop out for a swift half. A smoking ban, say worried landlords, would nudge many small pubs over the edge.
But probably the biggest reason for the spiralling decline of the traditional pub is the increasing power of the corporations that now own more than half of them. Until fairly recently, most pubs were owned by brewers. In 1989, though, the Thatcher government introduced legislation to tackle the six biggest big brewers, whose dominance was approaching monopoly proportions. Brewers with more than 2,000 pubs were ordered to sell off their excess, and offer at least one "guest beer" brewed by a rival. This was supposed to lead to more choice for drinkers and more opportunity for smaller brewers. But the canniest brewers spotted a loophole: though they weren't now permitted to own more than 2,000 pubs, there was nothing to stop any number being owned by a company that didn't make beer. So instead of selling some of their pubs and keeping the rest, the big brewers simply set up new pub companies, or "PubCos", to which they sold all their pubs on the understanding that those companies would buy only their beer. Result: monopoly rebranded.
Today it is the PubCos, not the brewers, who call the shots. The ten biggest PubCos own more than half of the UK's pubs, and the two biggest own a quarter between them. And unlike the big brewers, which did at least exist to sell their product through pubs, PubCos are, in essence, property companies, whose properties just happen to sell drinks. If their shareholders can be kept happier by flogging off pubs for housing, or closing down locals with a small turnover and concentrating instead on high-street binge-drinking sheds (known in the trade as "high-volume vertical drinking establishments"), then this is exactly what the PubCos will do - and are doing.
But perhaps we shouldn't drown our sorrows yet, for the pub has always been a robust institution, and there are signs of hope. In the past year, new alliances of landlords and drinkers have been set up to fight the corner of small and traditional pubs. Above all, though, there are heartening lessons to be drawn from history. The first government campaign against binge-drinking, for example, was in 975, when King Edgar issued a law limiting the number of pubs in each village to one. In a historical echo of those stickers we may soon see on our pint glasses, Edgar also decreed that all drinking vessels should be a standard size: four pints, divided into eight parts by pegs set inside the tankard. No one was allowed to drink down further than one peg at any one sitting.
It sounds like a system of which new Labour could be proud. Alas for Edgar, the result was not quite what he intended. Every self-respecting pub-goer regarded the new law as a challenge, and competed to drink as much as possible at every sitting - literally taking each other down a peg or two, sometimes five or six. Ten centuries later Edgar's law is forgotten, and despite the continuing disapproval of those who know what's good for us, plenty of us are still, unashamedly, in the pub. "When you have lost your inns," wrote the poet Hilaire Belloc in the 1930s, "drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England." I'll drink to that.
An island of dusty rooms and dirty plates
Robert Chesshyre on hotels
The hotel receptionist, head down over a book, made no attempt to greet us. The manager appeared. "Karen," he said sharply. "Sorree," she said, and - slowly - rose to check us in. "Is there any 'choice' of room?" we asked. She repeated the word, washing it round her mouth like a strange new taste. We explained that, if there were several rooms that met our needs, we would like to see them. Views; space; layout; noise: all differed, we explained. She pondered the implications of this novel notion, and said "No". "Is the hotel full?" Again, "No". "Well, in that case, why can't we see other rooms?" They would be full the next night. "We are here first . . ." we protested. She handed us the one key.
The room was poky, poorly laid out and gave on to the kitchens, which blasted forth a noise like a small jet warming up. It was, of course, the extractor fan, which - if past experience were anything to go by - would remain on until at least midnight. Back, hauling our luggage, to reception. Little madam scowled. We asked for the manager. He did give us another key, and we found ourselves in an improved room. It overlooked the car park, but was quiet, sunny and more spacious. Fifteen, somewhat tense, minutes after arriving, we were able to unpack and unwind.
This was "somewhere in England" (as wartime broadcasts put it to confuse the enemy). The tragic thing is that it could have been anywhere in England. Britain is sold on an image - beefeaters, Shakespeare, royalty, rose-entwined cottages - that includes coaching inns and venerable hotels. Invariably, such hotels have history. If Dick Turpin didn't stay there or good Queen Bess pass by, then the gunpowder plot was hatched beside the inglenook fireplace or Nelson slept with Emma Hamilton.
My trade as a journalist takes me where the only accommodation is overpriced (the above room was £145 for a Saturday night), poorly staffed, wretchedly maintained, "take it or leave it" hotels. I travel with few hopes, but I often wonder what foreign visitors, enticed by the heritage hype, feel.
At this hotel, the sink plug didn't work and, despite polite complaint, wasn't fixed; the desk drawer was broken; the breakfast room was dreary, and the service snail-like; the courtyard beyond the bar was dominated by another extractor fan - the ashtrays were full, the ground littered with fag ends and napkins; the garden beds had not been weeded in a season.
A short time before, I had stayed at a "14th-century coaching inn". The room was filthy - I couldn't face going barefooted; the shaving light, operated by a piece of ragged string, didn't work - nor was it repaired, despite my mentioning it each morning; there was no soap and no water glass; the window to the (also filthy) shower room had no latch; one of the few pieces of furniture was a sordid stool that a junk shop would have burned.
The plumbing rattled, but at least, unlike the kitchen extractor fan - this time the sound ricocheted in an alleyway - it was intermittent. Chewing-gum wrappers remained untouched on the stairs; one of the dirtiest corners was an alcove display of brochures lauding the hotel's past glories. I scarcely slept because of drunken partying by other "guests" - a ubiquitous hazard.
Breakfast was at 7.30. I was met by a woman in a stained overall who glanced meaningfully at her watch - her hope clearly being that I was too early and she could tell me so. The only laid-up tables were in a dark corner where it was virtually impossible to read a newspaper. Throughout breakfast, the woman noisily shifted other tables in readiness for a lunchtime event.
Near Birmingham, I could write my name in the dust on a ledge just beneath the bar counter. The chairs were greasy, and the hotel "lake" a regatta of chip packets. I had been "upgraded", but my room had no natural light and a broken trouser press.
In the Black Country, I was kept awake by children on a school trip, high on booze and charging up and down the corridors; in west Yorkshire, in what passed itself off as a fancy restaurant with a menu in French, the teenage waiter, when asked for chilled Chablis, brought warm red wine - he looked genuinely perplexed that there might be more than one wine ("choice" again). Having finally gone with him to the wine racks, I got my glass of wine with my bill.
In a Pennine town, the bedroom light strobed. Each day I pointed out that it was unusable and that the only other light was impossibly dim. Each day I was promised it would be fixed. For all I know, it is strobing still. On Merseyside, the illuminated pub sign was outside my window and the curtains were so flimsy that I had to hang blankets to douse the light.
There were islands of dust round each piece of furniture, and a dirty plate under the bed. One night, a staff "farewell" party beneath my room went on till the early hours. My phoned requests for a little less noise were met with straight lies - "We'll be finished in 15 minutes". By appearing in my pyjamas, I finally got them off to bed. Breakfast was served by two visibly hung-over young people.
This room had a four-poster - always much trumpeted, as if sleeping inside a rickety frame beneath a dusty canopy will transport you to the saucy days of Moll Flanders or Nell Gwyn. (Its real purpose is to justify another 20 quid on the bill.)
I have come to two conclusions. The first is that the cause of such dire hotels is ignorance. From the young man who couldn't tell Chablis from red plonk to "mine host" manning the oak-beamed bar convinced he is a reincarnation of Falstaff, hotel staff swallow their own propaganda. If one complains, the response is incredulity.
The second thought is that most guests are, like me, there on business for one time only, or they are tourists on a one-off trip. It may be tedious for the staff to face gripes that the sink has no plug or the drawer falls out, but by the next night the visitor will be two counties away encountering someone else's broken shaving light.
Shabbily run hotels must hit the tourist trade and damage the economy; they certainly depress the guests - I think this is why so many people whisper in hotel dining rooms - and they set low standards for young people coming into the business.
At the first hotel, the same receptionist was on duty as we left; once more the manager cajoled her to the counter - this time to accept our money. No "goodbye"; no "thank you"; no smile. Just indifference.