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.