As Rowan Pelling argues in an article entitled We love pubs and churches, but don’t want to use them, the same is increasingly happening with pubs. There are endless campaigns to “save the Red Lion from evil property developers”, and dinner party guests discuss how sad it is that the old pubs are closing, but the harsh truth is that people in general are going to them less and less often. “We love to complain about the decline of our institutions, but want someone else to do our praying and drinking,” she says.
Exactly the same can be said of many other long-established categories of business – libraries, post offices, traditional butchers, local bank branches, independent corner shops, even High Streets in general. The chattering classes embrace them in theory, but shun them in practice. You get the impression that a lot of people want large swathes of the country to become some kind of Merrie England theme park populated by cheeky Cockneys and gurning yokels, while they sit at home waiting for the Ocado delivery which they will pay for by mobile phone banking.
“Use it or lose it” is a glib phrase that is too often casually used without considering the implications. In practice, few of us are likely to be able to make any difference to the success or failure of businesses through our own custom alone, and it’s not reasonable to expect people to inconvenience themselves out of a sense of principle. But, collectively, it has to be acknowledged that the sum total of our decisions as a society is what has driven so many cherished institutions to the wall. As far as businesses go, people vote with their feet, and they have increasingly voted against pubs.
Pubs used to thrive in large numbers because pubgoing was woven into the fabric of everyday life. For a variety of reasons, that link has increasingly become disentangled over the past few decades, and that’s why so many have closed. The people writing broadsheet newspaper pieces bewailing the death of the pub are likely to find compelling reasons why popping in for a quick one three or four times a week simply isn’t practical.
Incidentally, it’s not the first time that Rowan Pelling has written perceptively about the decline of pubs – I have previously linked to one of her pieces here. A far cry from her days as “Editrice” of the Erotic Review.