Now, I am a non-smoker of many years’ standing, something which one or two commentators on this blog have failed to appreciate in the past. In a restaurant, offered the choice, I would have tended to go for the non-smoking section (assuming I had no smoking companions with me) but I was never all that bothered about smoke in pubs and in general preferred to share the crack with the smokers rather than sitting in splendid isolation in the non-smoking room.
I do make a patchy effort to remain within shouting distance of the official guidelines on alcohol consumption, so my life is not one long round of pub crawls. I am aware of a considerable number of pubs that have closed since July 2007, but there is only one that I used to regularly visit – the Railway at Heatley near Lymm, shown in the picture. Ironically, this had for a number of years banned smoking in the main bar area. As always, the story isn’t entirely straightforward, but this was a traditional drink and chat pub with a food sideline, in an area where most other pubs had a heavy emphasis on dining. It was thus the type of pub that would be much more at risk from the ban and so it has proved. It closed its doors in the Autumn of 2007 and has been up for sale with Fleurets ever since. In the meantime, the building has steadily deteriorated. When the Railway opens its doors again as a mainstream pub then, and only then, will I be convinced that the pub trade is on the rebound.
But the real difference is that the atmosphere has gone – both literally and figuratively – from large numbers of pubs, even the ones that do well enough from the food trade. There used to be a scattering of customers throughout the day who just popped in for a drink or two and a chat. A high proportion of them seemed to be smokers, or in groups including smokers, as pub-type people always were much more likely to be smokers than the average of the population. Now, a lot of them have disappeared, and those who remain often seem a touch lost and disoriented, especially when miserably trudging outside for a fag. It is as if people are unthinkingly going through the motions of their old routines even when the significance has been stripped away. The role of pubs as a social centre has greatly diminished.
As an example, there’s one pub I regularly visit on the fringe of the urban area. There used to be a group of customers who came in who were very much country folk rather than townies. They brought dogs and (well behaved) kids with them, and most of the adults were smokers. They made a distinctive contribution to the ambience of the place – but now, they no longer visit at all. Nobody has stepped into the breach to take their place. The pub still seems to do OK, but its social mix is less rich than it once was. Incidentally, this pub had banned smoking in about 75% of its public area some time before the ban came in, a solution that all its customers seemed happy with.
And, recently, I called in a pub in rural Staffordshire. The food operation on the lounge side seemed to be ticking over, but it also had an extensive, well-appointed public bar with a pool table. There was not a single person in it – something that I’m sure would not have been the case before July 2007. Even in Stockport town centre, many of the pubs outside the ranks of the usual flagships are very quiet in the evenings in a way they never used to be.
Much of the old welcoming, convivial atmosphere has departed from pubs forever, and despite one or two commentators detecting a few green shoots I am convinced there is much more pain to come. So many pubs now have a kind of sad, empty feeling about them. It will probably be said in the future that the smoking ban achieved what the Kaiser, Lloyd George and Hitler all failed to do and killed off the British pub as it once was understood.