British pubs are closing at the rate of 39 a week, and we now have more supermarkets than pubs, which seems so disturbing that if I met anybody who welcomed the development I’d be tempted to hit them. The causes, I admit, are complex and probably irreversible. They include the narrow margins the pub lessees are required to operate under by the pubcos (we’re already in hell, as you can tell); the smoking ban; the preference for eating out over drinking, and for wine over beer; the cheapness of supermarket booze; and the government’s beer duty escalator, set last year to rise at 2 per cent above inflation annually until 2012 and unlikely to be revoked in the Budget in spite of increasing pressure from MPs.
Alistair Darling said the escalator would provide revenue to help the old and the poor – a provocative remark, given that these are the very people most likely to make use of the traditional British pub. But I should have known from those periodic photographs of Tony Blair queasily sipping pints while supposedly bonding with his constituents in Sedgefield that the government I voted for would do nothing to help the Dog and Duck, and I don’t believe Gordon Brown is any more of a pub man.
The beer duty escalator is, in reality, a capitulation to the health lobby, whose concerns over binge drinking are all too well founded. But these binge drinkers are not pub goers in the sense that most British men – if not many New Labour ministers – have been for two centuries. If someone cut up rough in the pubs of my young manhood, the place would fall silent, and he would be on the end of a dozen censorious stares. If he slurred and stumbled when ordering a drink, then the landlord, whom he probably knew and liked, would gently advise him to go home. But it wouldn’t come to that. The old-style pub was full of professional drinkers, so to speak, and the ability to hold one’s booze was highly prized.
Binge drinking comes from rootlessness in every sense. Alcohol provides an escape from the anomie that is the defining condition of corporatised, globalised, urban Britain, and if it can be consumed in the depths of some pounding lager depot, then no limits apply. A still faster way to oblivion is to buy cheap beer from the supermarkets, which use alcohol as a loss leader, and can readily absorb the beer duty. It is now being argued, by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) among others, that the duty should be frozen on beer sold in pubs, as these are valuable community hubs. But the government, in its priggish way, appears to want to make schools the hubs of communities. Ministers are blind to the natural foci – post offices and pubs.
If, as a journalist, I am sent on an assignment to any British town, I go into a pub to take the temperature of the place. I inveigle myself into a conversation with drinkers at the bar. Note those terms “drinkers” and “bar”. You can’t so readily talk to people eating at tables in pubs. Food pubs are much more atomised places, lacking the correct pub dynamic. Most decent British pubs are now driven to attract what one landlord I know wearily calls “the grey brigade”: genteel, retired folk, who will motor out to a pub for a pint and fish and chips for him, a tagliatelle with pesto and a white wine for her. Having consumed this, they immediately go home, giving a staccato rhythm to pub life.
Most pubs now serve food, because the modern Briton, like the snail, moves about on his stomach. But this is another defeat. Pubs are meant to be about drinking, and the unwinding conversation that results. The landlord in my favourite pub knows this, and will never leave condiments on the tables. Instead, they are handed out with the food, to be taken away afterwards. And no drinker is ever told, “You can’t sit there. It’s reserved for a party of four who are coming to eat.”
Readers, especially female readers, might detect a misogynistic note in this article. I am on difficult ground here. After all, the president of CAMRA is a woman. But I liked the male orientation of pubs. It was an antidote to married life, and I could appreciate that from the atmosphere of a pub even before I was married. Pubs tended to be dark, a troglodytic refuge. This was off-putting to women, but I like dark places. I look much better in the dark, for one thing. And given the high divorce rate, and the crisis of masculinity caused by the deindustrialisation of Britain, I would have thought we needed more rather than fewer places where men can socialise together.
But what do I know? I will be adrift in the largely publess Britain of the future. An old man roving the country, occasionally stopping strangers, who will hurry on, embarrassed at my apparently surreal or fantastical inquiries: “Wasn’t there a Red Lion around here . . . or was it a Blue Boar? . . . Excuse me, but I’m looking for the Blacksmith’s Arms . . .” l
Andrew Martin’s latest novel is “The Last Train to Scarborough” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)