Friday, 3 November 2017

Letting others do the heavy lifting

Following our recent three-blogger trip to Leicester, Richard Coldwell has done a series of posts looking at each pub in more detail. One thing that struck him was the lack of other customers in several of the pubs. While you wouldn’t expect Tuesday to be the busiest day of the week, this does seem to suggest a wider malaise, which he reflected on in his report of the Horse & Trumpet (which was after I had left to get the train home).
Sadly, half empty pubs, particularly out in the sticks are a feature of Tuesday night in modern Britain...

...Please don’t let the Great British Pub end up like Rugby Union – it’s there all around us, the chattering classes never stop talking and reading about it, but only the true supporters regularly go to watch it, unless it’s a test match!

It does seem to be a depressingly common phenomenon that people sing the praises of the Great British Pub but expect others to do the heavy lifting of actually keeping them in business, something eloquently expressed by Rowan Pelling in an article from a couple of years ago entitled We love pubs and churches, but don’t want to use them.

I blogged about this at the time, and made the comment that it was all very well to say “use them or lose them”, but what we do as individuals is unlikely to make much difference to the fate of any particular pub. However...

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.
And people who say, entirely sincerely, that they are pub lovers are not immune from the pressures and trends of modern society that curtail the opportunities they have to actually visit them. Forty years ago, many pubs were sustained by people on drinking occasions that their present-day counterparts wouldn’t contemplate.

Nobody can accuse Richard, Martin, Paul or me of not doing our bit to keep pubs alive, but on that occasion, and many others throughout the year, we were essentially pub tourists, just having a pint or half in each. and observing whether or not they had the baseload trade to keep them ticking over. Pubs, apart from a handful in city centres or near main-line stations, are not going to make a living just from pub tourists. They need regulars, not casuals.

I would list “visiting pubs” (and specifically that, not drinking beer) as one of my main leisure interests. So far this year, I’ve been in 158 different pubs, and further planned trips are likely to take the total above 170. But, across that total, I’m unlikely to drink more than about 600 pints, or just 11½ a week. Even assuming I only drank in one pub, that would need fifty of me to give the pub a viable turnover of two barrels a week.

And, of those 600, I probably won’t have drunk more than forty in any single pub. I used to have a local which I would visit most weeks to the extent that I could be called a regular, but unfortunately various changes, mainly revolving around TV football and reserved dining tables, have made it much less congenial from my point of view, and I hardly go in there any more except to deliver the local CAMRA magazine.

Talking of which, on my distribution rounds I used to visit some pubs, such as the now-demolished Moss Rose/Four Heatons where, whatever day of the week or time of day I went in, some of the same people always seemed to be there. They gave the impression of being not only regulars, but of virtually living in the pub. This was summed up brilliantly by the article by Rob Warm from a few years back on the Pubs of Manchester blog entitled The Pub Shaman of Prestwich. If you’ve never read this, it’s absolutely essential.

The author talks of the “red-faced, slightly dishevelled men who not only drank in pubs, but lived in them”, and says of his father “the solitary pint in a smoke-filled vault poring over a fixed odds coupon and going through a packed of Bensons. That’s what he preferred.”

Drinking isn't like that any more. Drinking is now leisure, not work. The shamen are all dead or dying. Replaced by aggressive kids or bored couples. The rest of us just pour a glass of wine at home. And pubs get boarded up or sold or burnt out or demolished. They change interiors each year to try and remain interesting – but that has the exact opposite effect. Besides, the people who made them interesting are gone. And most of the stories have gone with them.
There used to be a regular cast of characters who were seen in the various pubs around the centre of Stockport. They knew all the news and gossip on the pub scene. But many of those pubs, like the Spread Eagle and the Tiviot, are now gone, and so are most of the characters who once defined their atmosphere.

The old-fashioned, wet-led boozer is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and with it has gone the six nights a week, six pints a night men who used to keep them going. That is why so many pubs, even if they’re still in business, are so quiet for much of the week. Depending on casual trade may work for food-led pubs, but if your main business is selling drink, you will struggle without a strong core of regular customers, unless you’re in a city-centre location with a lot of footfall past the door.

12 comments:

  1. Absolutely spot on,it is the vanishing 'cast of characters'that I note most often in my rounds delivering items to about 100 pubs quarterly. These go along with the ever decreasing levels of support for pool teams/darts etc.and were the mainstay of many pubs weekdays,paying the operating costs,leaving the weekend busier days for landlords to make hay. They are as I say,completely vanishing,not diminishing slightly.We are losing something culturally here in a big way.I also am in the tourist bracket,despite having a high strike rate on visiting pubs nationally as a hobby.In many ways a very sad piece here,but frighteningly accurate for all fans of the pub and pub culture-without mentioning more importantly those whose livelihoods depend on the trade.I now in many areas am finding it very hard to seek out the aforementioned pubs and having to research hard to come across them.

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  2. I wonder what we'd have observed in the Wetherspoons in Leicester. Spoons (or Stoegate or similar) seem the last resort of the professional drinker, e.g. in Rotherham recently.

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  3. I present my pub quizzes on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings and I've noticed this decline over the years. When I started (in 2000) in a freshly converted Ember Inn (one of the first) there was a good number of regular drinkers at the bar on a Tuesday/Wednesday night. Now, 17 years later, on a Tuesday night we stil get about 50 people attending the quiz, but there are rarely more than 10 other people in there at 9 o'clock when I start. It will have been busier, earlier, with diners (and a few drinkers) and a few more drinkers drift in during the quiz.

    I am constantly amazed (and very grateful) that I still get such numbers attending the quiz, but if it wasn't on, the pub would be a bit like the Mary Celeste on a Tuesday night...as you describe above.

    I'm not sure what the long term solution is, though. Some form of entertainment to get people in, but what type. In this modern electronic age it is harder to interest people in the traditional pub games and pursuits - maybe you replace the dartboard with a screen and an Xbox style game that people can play and others watch...but as an old fart, I don't really know about that sort of stuff.

    It is clear that the basic boozer is no longer as attractive as in yesteryear and to survive they need to offer other things...but what? To quote a much loved Corrie character, "I don't really know!"

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  4. Thanks for the link to the Shaman posting. Great read.

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  5. We are very lucky in Leicester to have two very well supported sports teams which give most city pubs a massive boost on match days. If it wasn't for this there may well be less viable pubs in the centre.

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    1. It's increasingly the case that going to the pub is seen as a special occasion thing rather than as a part of daily life. I'm sure many licensees will report much more fluctuation in trade through the week tha there used to be.

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  6. "the six nights a week, six pints a night men"

    This. This is the stark reality that is so unpalatable to the anti-drink lobby and indeed to society in general that we dare not speak of it in any context other than alcoholism/problem drinking. CAMRA don't really acknowledge the 6/6 men, vital though they are to the types of pub they profess to be in favour of preserving.

    The last time I regularly drank in pubs with a core of 6/6 regulars was probably about 2004. They were mainly around retirement age then, and many are no longer with us. Those that are might be drinking at home now, or have cut down on medical advice etc. Many of the 6/6 men also happened to be smokers.

    Never say never, but this is one of those declines - like those who regularly attend evensong, and those who instinctively call a Marathon bar by its correct name - which is probably irreversible, sadly.

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    1. Indeed, it is very seldom acknowledged that the rose-tinted vision of the "traditional community pub" was sustained by people drinking at levels that would make Dame Sally Davies blanch.

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  7. Pub shamen? Are you having a laugh? Good god.

    The poor lad in question is clearly romanticising a crap alcoholic father that abandoned him & his mum in order to get pissed in grotty pubs. A stupid and sad man that ruined his life & died early & wasted any potential he had. Whether that be as a husband & father, career success or any other notable achievement worthy of respect. Pub Shamen is not worthy of respect, it's worthy of pity.

    A man you yourself would not emulate, I wouldn't, and none of your other commentators would. When we see these people, we pity them, not respect them. We thank whatever god we have we are not them, even those without a god. We hope we never end up like that.

    If pubs require these people to survive then they are clearly places that feed on the desperate & addicted & deserve the decline they get. Any decent respectable pub would not feed off these sad cases.

    The lad has an excuse to romanticise it. It's his dad. However crap, the only one he had. The rest of us have no such excuse.

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    1. Who says we are romanticizing or wishing to emulate? You tend to assume others opinions very quickly with little information. Perhaps its power is we know this story. Your holier than thou attitude can wear a little thin. Exchange your lake for an ocean every once in a while.

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    2. As so often, you reduce everything in life to a joyless utilitarian calculation, Cookie. Of course I don't hold up the "Pub Shaman" as a role model, but if everyone stuck religiously to public health advice, there would be no pubs.

      I don't support or condone illegal drugs, but rock music would have been a whole lot duller if no musicians had ever taken any.

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    3. Referring to alkies as "shaman" is clearly romanticising something deeply sad. You pity these people not hold them up as mysterious attractive role models. The fact of your own lifestyle choice not to be an alkie/shaman reveals an hypocrisy in romanticising the ill & sick.

      Stories like this do the puritans job for them. They reveal the lie of "responsible pubs". The point you make is pubs cannot survive with only the custom of people that drink moderately like you or me and require punters who drink like them. That pubs need alkies to survive. Maybe true, but that is exactly what the temperance movement have been saying for a century. Interesting you agree with them.

      A further hypocrisy is the inconsistency with your own claimed conservative views. If you believe that a socially conservative life style holds the best outcomes for heath, wealth & happiness (as even a casual look at the world backs up), a lifestyle that you give every appearance of adhering to as your personal choice, then romanticising alcohol dependency and the state dependency of an abandoned family, as lost generation of “pub characters” all to keep a few pubs open is not consistent with a conservative political world view.

      Holier than thou, maybe, but that’s not difficult when alcoholism & the misery it creates is being romanticised and touted as the answer to pub decline so long as you put some rose tinted glasses on and decline to see it for what it is.

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