Tuesday, 26 December 2017

That was then, this is now

Over the past forty years, there have been dramatic and very noticeable shifts in the way pubs actually function, and in the ebb and flow of customers through the day. One of the biggest changes has been all-day opening, which was introduced in 1988 but took some time to become widespread. In principle, you can’t really argue against this, but it’s undeniable that it has transformed the drinking landscape. Before then, there was a clear division between drinking and non-drinking time, and the afternoon break defined the rhythm of the pub day. Very often, the approach of closing time at 2.30 or 3 concentrated the mind on getting that final pint in.

Nowadays, opening all day has become general in town and city centres, but many pubs in locations where there is less footfall have instead responded by ceasing to open at all at lunchtimes during the week. Oddly, this seems more common in the North than the South, where many pubs still keep to the traditional afternoon closure. But one phenomenon it has led to is a busy period of drinking in the afternoon, from 3 or 4 pm, onwards, something often noticed by Martin Taylor on his GBG-ticking travels. This is associated with the common knocking-off time of self-employed tradespeople. Many pubs are now opening their doors at exactly the time in the afternoon when they were once closing them.

The session where the effects of all-day opening have been most acutely felt is Sunday lunchtime. When it was restricted to a couple of hours, it was often one of the busiest and most convivial of the week, a time when people could relax and let their hair down before going home for a good lunch and a snooze. But, with the extension to 3 pm and then to all day, this unique, concentrated period has been progressively eroded and now, except in dining pubs, it is often completely dead. The introduction of Sunday trading in shops from the early 90s onwards has also been a factor here. I've written in the past about the changing face of Sunday lunchtime drinking in my local pub.

Sunday has also become the biggest day of the week for televised football, which inevitably changes the dynamics of pubs. As you will have gathered from reading this blog over the years, I’m not the greatest fan of football in pubs, but given that Sky Sports exists they can’t really afford to ignore it. But it has to be recognised that, when the big match is on, all other activities in pubs go out of the window, in particular just popping in for a quiet drink and a chat.

Another major change in pubs has been the ever-growing presence of food. Despite what some claim, there was no shortage of pub food in the 1970s, and in fact I’d suggest that, in absolute terms, there may well have been more food sold on weekday lunchtimes then than there is now. But it has steadily encroached into the evenings and weekends, and more and more pubs now present themselves as essentially eating houses where few go just for a drink, and would feel out of place if they did. Of course to a large extent this is a response to changing market conditions, and pubs can’t really be criticised for embracing food, but it has dramatically changed them.

In the past, there used to be plenty of pubs that had a mix of drinking and dining customers, which led to a wide-ranging customer base and could product a good atmosphere. But, as pubs have gone one way or the other, that kind of multi-purpose pub, while it can still be found, is becoming ever rarer. And a noticeable difference is that diners in pubs are much less likely to talk to other groups than drinkers. This is exacerbated by the redesign of interiors to replace wall benches, which face into the centre of the room and promote sociability, with individual tables surrounded by loose chairs, where customers only focus on the other members of their own group.

In a wider context, it is noticeable that a lot fewer people now just go to the pub for a drink, as opposed to going out drinking. A good pub can provide a valuable “third space” where people can engage with each other more freely and intimately than they can at home or in the workplace. It used to be commonplace to see various groups – friends, workmates, couples, family members – just enjoying a pint or two, but it’s now seen much less often. While this was perhaps a particular feature of the lunchtime session, it applies in the evenings too – I’ve remarked before how at one time it was common for established married couples to just go to the pub for a drink as a change of scene, but it’s much less so now. The best conversations I ever had with my father were in the pub over a pint, but how many fathers and sons do you now see there? Martin Taylor has remarked on his travels how you still see this kind of thing in city centres, particularly with reference to Sheffield, but in other areas it’s increasingly rare. And the “smart” pub, where better-off citizens would gather over a drink to discuss their BMWs, investments and foreign holidays, is pretty much entirely dead. The solid middle classes may eat in pubs, but they don’t drink in them much any more.

Now, you may say that this is just an exercise in nostalgia. Of course pubs, like everything, change over time, and perhaps I’m just lamenting that things are no longer the same as they were in the years when my view of the world was formed. And that’s really the point – to reflect on just how the dynamics of pubs have changed. I’ve enjoyed many late afternoon sessions myself, which I could never do before 1988, and the tradespeople gathering in pubs at that kind of time are finding fulfilment in pubs in a way that was once impossible. Readers will no doubt point out examples where the old-fashioned conviviality still prevails. In my experience, very often it’s in the Sam Smith’s estate that pubs still work like they used to do. But it can’t be denied that, overall, the drinking trade in pubs is much thinner and less rich and varied than it once was – the statistics on closures and the collapse of beer sales speak for themselves.

13 comments:

  1. In Islington in the benighted time before cell phones, if I wanted to speak to Baz then I'd find him down the Soggy Gusset or maybe the Muddy Duck.Taxi John would be in the Catamite's Sack, or if he wasn't one of his colleagues would be there enjoying a lunchtime *cough*... a shandy, Jezza could be found down the Workers Club & Trotsky. Everyone had their local in their manor. You went in a rubba because of the people in there, the beer was pretty much unimportant, you ordered a 'pint' of whatever bitter or lager or in my case a bottle of IPA because every pub had it. If you didn't need to keep a clear head that afternoon or had to face the Benefits Office you drank Barley wine. Mornings and lunchtimes were the time you connected with people and you connected with them in pubs. "Has Iron Pete been in yet, Dave?"

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  2. The other Mudgie !26 December 2017 at 13:37

    Pubs ceasing to open at all at lunchtimes during the week being more common in the North than the South might be because there's less money in the North than the South.

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    1. Yes, that might be true and incomes in the South are higher but with lower housing costs and, I believe, lower pub prices in the North it might not be the correct explanation.

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    2. Yes, I don't think it's as simple as that. Cornwall is the poorest county in England.

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    3. The other Mudgie !27 December 2017 at 22:19

      Yes, Cornwall is the poorest county in England and that's why they all eat pasties rather than proper meals.
      Seriously though Cornwall isn't really a county of southern England, it's a separate country, or rather it should be.

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  3. I think it's important that pubs (If they can) separate the bar from the dining area so customers can go in to eat or drink but not compromise each other. Obviously the architectural layout can put restrictions on this, though.

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  4. But my point was that it produces a better and more inclusive atmosphere if there's a mixture of drinkers and drinkers in the same space, rather than segregating them. Obviously if diners come to dominate, then the drinkers feel forced out.

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  5. Christmas Day in my village local was 12 to 2, just like those old times. The bar was rammed full of locals, unfortunately for a lot of them this will be their only visit of the year.

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  6. I really miss those pre-1988 Sunday lunchtime sessions. As you point out Mudge, they were definitely one of the busiest, and often the most convivial sessions of the week.

    You were almost guaranteed to bump into people you knew, and even if Sunday was your sole visit of the week, it was not one to be missed.

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  7. When venturing North am also struck by the number of pubs, even in smaller towns and urban suburbs, that don't open till 4 or 5pm on weekdays. Am sure must have come across the odd few in southern towns that do the same; but none are springing to mind off the top of my head. Such opening reductions in the South tend to appear only in small village and 'isolated with just a hamlet' pubs, and seem more focused on just early in the week: not opening till the evening on Mondays and Tuesdays; or, in some cases, not opening at all on one or both those days.

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    1. I discussed this recently with reference to Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire. The town has six or seven pubs, but only two are open at lunchtimes during the week, and some of the others, including the new micropub, don't open at lunchtime on any day of the week. If you're not serving food, there's now very little trade on offer at lunchtimes.

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  8. The North being more industrious than the south, most people are engaged in honest work during the day.

    It is unsurprising that in the south there are enough scroungers and dole scum to keep the pubs open.

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    1. We middle class pen pushing southerners can retire on our private gold-plated pensions at around 60, with 10 to 15 years of happy afternoon drinking left in us. Grimy northern working class types work on till their state pensions, then drop dead within the year.

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