Friday, 29 May 2020

Striking a happy medium

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote how taking a whole population approach to the “war on obesity” could have many undesirable consequences. One aspect of this is that the higher the number of calories in any food item, the more it is considered to be a bad thing. However, to a large extent, calories are what food is all about. The quantity of calories is a rough approximation of the total amount of nutrition it contains. We need a certain number of calories to survive, and chomping away at celery and lettuce isn’t going to provide much sustenance. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, until maybe three generations ago, for the majority of the human race getting hold of sufficient calories to sustain them was a daily struggle.

Now, of course, we are in general more fortunate and prosperous, and more people find they’re eating too much than too little. If you want to control your weight, then obviously it is desirable to know how many calories your food contains. But publication of calorie information can be a double-edged sword, with people who are less weight-conscious using it as a yardstick to judge how much value for money various dishes offer.

Very often, a lower-calorie alternative to a standard product is simply less appetising, and eating a smaller portion of the full-fat version may be a better option if you can exercise the necessary self-restraint. Many products that boast of being low in calories actually achieve this simply by containing less in the first place. This is particularly true to some potato-based snacks that can be puffed up to appear bigger while weighing no more.

A parallel can be drawn with the alcoholic content of drinks. The fact that they contain alcohol is, by definition, the feature of alcoholic drinks that distinguishes them from soft drinks. That is their fundamental point. Yet it is not a simple case of people either gravitating towards those with the highest alcohol content, or indeed the lowest.

Wine and spirits tend to come in a relatively limited range of strengths, and little is made of the differences between them, although I have seen some complaints about the high alcohol content of some full-bodied red wines. Beer and cider, by contrast, are available across a wide spectrum of different strengths.

However, it’s certainly not the case, as some commentators seem to imagine, that most drinkers gravitate towards those with higher strengths. Indeed, it’s only really a subset of problem drinkers who take that attitude, and most beer sold is of relatively modest strength. Beer is not just a method of delivering alcohol, it also offers flavour and refreshment and, particularly in social settings, there’s a strong incentive for the effects of alcohol to only be felt subtly and gradually.

People tend to view beers as falling within particular categories, so wouldn’t be particularly bothered about choosing a 3.7% ordinary bitter over a 4% one, or the other way round. This explains how the brewers of Stella Artois were able to reduce its strength from 5.2% to 4.8% with very little consumer kick-back (prompted, of course, by a certain amount of government arm-twisting). The fact that it is widely considered to be not what it was has much more to do with cheapening the recipe. But cut it to 4% and few would be interested any more. On the other side of the coin, it its dying days the strength of Boddingtons Bitter was upped to 4.1% in a bid to reverse its decline, only for it to lose more sales as drinkers felt that took it out of the ordinary bitter category. Indeed, the dining pub chain Brunning & Price dropped it as a house beer because their customers, many of whom were drivers, found it just that bit too strong.

2.8% might be an acceptable strength for a mild, but the various pseudo-bitters that were introduced at this strength to take advantage of the lower duty rate found few takers. If you essentially wanted an ordinary biter, the low strength was a deterrent, while those seriously wanting to cut consumption would go the whole hog for an alcohol-free beer. It is possible to brew a tasty light mild at around 3.0%, but none of these beers really cut the mustard as bitters.

As with food, if you’re aiming to limit your alcohol intake, it may well be a better option to drink less of the normal-strength version, than the same quantity of the less appealing one that has a lower alcohol content. While we have alcohol-free beers, which provide at least some of the sensation of drinking the normal variety, it’s very hard to conceive of calorie-free food that would be remotely appetising.

Friday, 22 May 2020

If you reopen it, will they come?

Earlier this week, I blogged about a Twitter poll I was running about people’s attitude to returning to pubs post-lockedown. This has now finished, with the following outcome:

Ye Olde Fleece Inn in Kendal ran a similar poll with perhaps surprisingly different results: The figure for “I would go now” is 43% in my poll, but only 32% in theirs. However, if you take the first two options as being equivalent, it’s 64% in mine but a full 81% in theirs. Even so, if two-thirds of customers are willing to return, it should provide a reasonable foundation for business.

I speculated on whether attitudes varied according to how often people went to pubs, which could potentially distort the result. This prompted me to create a two-dimensional poll on SurveyMonkey breaking down the answers according to frequency of pubgoing. However, the result was that it made virtually no difference, with 71% being willing to return to pubs in July, with or without the weighting. Realistically, pubs aren’t going to open before then anyway.

(It should be pointed out that the free version of SurveyMonkey limits the total number of responses)

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Front or back of the queue?

A concern that has been expressed by many in the trade is that, even when pubs are allowed to reopen, many of their previous customers may be very wary of returning to them due to continued fear of contracting the virus. A number of surveys have been created to gauge the strength of this feeling, including one I did myself that finishes tomorrow.

However, a drawback of surveys of this kind is that they make no allowance for how often people actually visited pubs in the first place. This is something we saw at the time of the smoking ban, when a number of surveys showed that a majority of people would visit pubs more after it was implemented. This may well have been true, but if you only went once a year before, but then stepped it up to twice a year, it wouldn’t make much difference overall. And, as we all know, the actual effect on the trade of pubs was the exact opposite of what these surveys suggested.

So I thought I would create a two-dimensional poll that identifies people’s responses depending on how often they visited pubs before the lockdown, as shown in the panel below. It’s limited to a maximum of 100 responses, so I’ll attempt to analyse the results once it’s complete.

Edit: I have now closed the survey and removed the web form as it has reached the maximum number of responses.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Over the past couple of days, I’ve spotted a couple of eloquent and poignant blogposts about what we are currently missing through our pubs being forcibly closed, and what we stand to lose forever if we’re not careful.

First, by Simon Cooke on A View From Cullingworth, I miss the pub:

I miss the pub, the changing set of folk who I have a passing chat with, even the occasional full on row. I miss thinking at nine o'clock, "I'll go to the pub for a couple of beers", then picking up a magazine or a paper and heading there. Some days that magazine won't get opened because there's folk to talk to, maybe a joke or two, but other days you'll just spend a quiet hour there. For so many, it is a refuge from loneliness and something to look forward to at the end of the day.

As yet the government hasn't told us how it's going to reopen the heart of the community, whether there'll be as Head Rambles describes in Ireland, a set of ideas that involve no standing, restricted sitting, half closed loos, no live music and no football. I fear that government, trapped in the shining headlights of this virus, will chose cowardice and condemn pubs to a soulless oblivion and those of us for whom that pub was a big part of our social engagement to a life stood looking out the kitchen window wondering what to do.

I miss the pub. And will miss it more when it's closed for good.

And, from The Bar Biographer, You’re on your own:
Davy has been at his bedroom window most of the day for the last eight weeks. He goes out for a walk sometimes but can’t be bothered others; there’s nothing happening, nowhere open. Of course. But still he stands there, looking out from his second-floor tenement flat.

The main reason is maybe because he can see both the Alexandra Bar and The Crown Creighton from there. His real favourite, The Duke Bar, is just out of sight but two out of three isn’t bad. In normal times, he pops in to one or more of those bars most days. Just a couple, mind, he’s not a heavy drinker. He goes for the chat, maybe some dominoes. Not too many folk frequent both the Alexandra and the Creighton but Davy is a non-denominational socialiser; for him, the thing is to get out and about, for its own sake...

...No, the prognosis for the bar, club, hotel trade is not at all good (I claim the prize for the understatement of the decade) and pub lovers – whether punters or licensees – are on their own. Don’t expect any help from politicians, Twitter’s circuits of self-congratulation, the Edinburgh-based lobbyists, and most academics. The only way they will bend is under sustained pressure.

My prediction – and I fervently hope to be wrong - is that, as bars across Europe gradually open their doors again, those in Scotland will be at least 3-4 months behind, and probably the last in Europe to reopen. And with restricted trading likely to continue for a while after that, a reasonable estimate is that more than half of Glasgow and Scottish licensed premises will be gone for good by the end of 2021.

Pessimistic maybe, but that is where the present evidence points. Who knows how long Davy will be standing at his window?

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Hard cases make bad policy

In contrast to smoking, there has been a growing weight of evidence of a strong correlation between obesity and being at risk of dying from coronavirus. This has sparked a number of reports that Boris Johnson is planning to abandon his alleged “libertarian” instincts and promote an action plan to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis. A number of people have suggested that his own experience of the disease has somewhat spooked him, both into resisting a swift unwinding of the lockdown, despite the adverse consequences to the wider economy, and now into wanting to crack down on obesity. He has certainly struggled with his weight over the years, apparently scaling 17½ stone before being hospitalised, and there does seem to be a whiff of the zeal of the reformed smoker about this conversion.

However, on an international scale, things aren’t necessarily so clear-cut. Lower rates of obesity in France, Italy and Spain are often given as an example we should follow, but all of those countries have suffered very severely. In contrast, New Zealand, which has a higher rate of obesity than the UK, has hardly been touched, while the USA, often singled out for its high obesity rate, has still done considerably better than us overall, with the areas of the South and Midwest frequently seen as obesity hotspots being among the less affected regions. Germany and Sweden both have obesity rates little below ours, but both have had a much lower rate of coronavirus deaths.

The track record of measures using the price mechanism to affect eating and drinking habits has not been a good one. Neither minimum alcohol pricing, now in force in Scotland for two years, nor the sugar tax, have had any noticeable impact on the problems they were claimed to address. Indeed, very often the main impact is to put further strain on the budgets of poorer households.

If the price of one category of food or drink is increased, it is likely to lead to substitution with another, opening up the possibility of all kinds of unintended consequences. And attempting to divide food into “good” and “bad” categories can all too easily have perverse results, such as banning the advertising of natural and wholesome items such as orange juice, cheese and meat.

Another front in the war on obesity is the reformulation of food to make it contain fewer calories. However, the experience of recent years has shown that the potential here is fairly limited. If you reduce one undesirable item, you just end up increasing another to compensate. Less fat is more sugar and vice versa. Attempts to change the recipes of products such as biscuits and chocolate have simply made them much less palatable. Making food taste like sawdust is a pretty crude way of putting people off eating it. In reality, very often the only option is simply to reduce the portion size, and if you go too far with that people may just choose to eat two.

We may end up seeing new restrictions placed on businesses that make it harder for them to operate and make a living. One that has been proposed in recent years but so far rejected is requiring all food businesses, however small, to provide calorie counts on their products, which could be well-nigh impossible to achieve and drive them out of business. And there’s little evidence that calorie counts actually affect people’s choices. Indeed, in some cases people may choose higher-calorie options as they feel they’re getting more “bangs per buck.” Actually containing less food as such isn’t really much of a selling point.

It’s also likely that takeaways, which are a traditional bĂȘte noire of anti-obesity campaigners, will come under fresh assault. There’s no reason why takeaway food should be any less healthy than that eaten in restaurants or cooked at home, and this all too easily comes across as a snobbish condemnation of working-class diets and preferences. Indeed, there’s a strong whiff of class prejudice about the whole project. Clamping down on takeaways will also disproportionately affect ethnic minority communities.

If you look at the actual figures, the higher risk from coronavirus isn’t spread evenly across the whole population of overweight people; it is very strongly concentrated at the higher end. The widely quoted figure of a 37% additional risk applies to those who are morbidly obese, with a BMI of over 40. It’s not people just carrying a few extra pounds. Yet the danger is that the “war on obesity” will mainly comprise indiscriminate, broad-brush measures that affect a huge swathe of the population.

There is a clear parallel with alcohol, where consumption guidelines have been adopted and widely promulgated that tar even pretty light drinkers with the same brush as those with a major problem. Of course morbid obesity, just like alcoholism, is a serious health issue. But it needs to be tackled through a targeted approach, not by making everyone feel guilty. And nobody who enjoys a few drinks but is currently pointing the finger at the fatties should imagine that their pleasure will be left undisturbed.

Last week, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Throughout the whole of human history, it has only really been in the period since then that most people have easily been able to get enough to eat. Worldwide, there are now more overweight people than malnourished ones. This age of abundance is completely unprecedented , and it’s not surprising that the human race is taking some time to adjust. But, over time, it’s likely that obesity will tend to decline. The rate of obesity has already plateaued or begun to fall in most developed counties, and now there is a strong stigma against being seriously overweight amongst higher income groups. In the future that is likely to spread through the entire population.

It has to be questioned what right the State has to seek to control the behaviour of adults purely for their own good. As the great philosopher of liberty John Stuart Mill said, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Against this argument is inevitably set the burden put on the NHS – and thus on taxpayers – by health problems arising from obesity. But it’s important to remember that the NHS was created to serve the people, not the other way round. The social compact on which it is founded depends on the assumption that people are fallible human beings, not saints, and it will be there for them whatever the cause of their illness. If we start making a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving sick we embark on a dangerous slippery slope. And it should always be remembered that, in terms of whole life healthcare costs, it is actually the clean-living who live into extreme old age who end up costing the public purse more.

So my prediction is that any “war on obesity” started by the government will be largely ineffective, will get a lot of people’s backs up, and will create a whole raft of unintended and undesirable consequences.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Something in the air

With discussion about coronavirus now moving to talk of the programme for unwinding the lockdown, one idea that has been floated is to allow pubs to open their beer gardens, but not inside bars. It’s doubtful how many pubs would find this viable, especially if the customers were expected to adhere to strict social distancing, and in any case it’s likely that, as soon as it was permitted, we would end up with a prolonged spell of rainy weather.

However, this has prompted MP Mark Pritchard to call for restrictions on smoking in beer gardens if it is implemented;

If cafes, restaurants and pubs with outside areas open next week, then new rules on smoking in external public areas should be introduced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. "Outside seating should not be dominated by smokers exposing customers to secondary smoke.”
Not surprisingly, Simon Clark of smokers’ rights group Forest has criticised this demand:
Mr Clark said businesses should be free to choose their own policy on smoking outside.

"Imposing new rules that may reduce the number of customers who are tempted back after the lockdown restrictions have been eased could hinder their ability to get back on their feet," he said.

"If Mr Pritchard has evidence that smoking outside poses a risk to non-smokers he should produce it.

"Smokers should obviously be considerate to those around them, but we don't need more rules to govern our behaviour."

Mr Clark added that in the past Mr Pritchard had expressed a personal dislike of breathing in cigarette smoke.

"It is quite wrong for Mr Pritchard to use the Covid crisis as an opportunity to tackle one of his pet hates, especially when there is no risk to the public."

It should be remembered that smoking continued to be permitted in outdoor areas because it was felt that there was little or no risk to others from environmental tobacco smoke. (The same is true indoors, of course, but that’s another matter). If people don’t like it, that’s up to then, but it seems a warped sense of priorities to be more worried about the risk from second-hand smoke than from coronavirus. There’s also plenty of evidence that smoking actually acts as a prophylactic against the disease.

For most of the year, the only people in beer gardens are smokers, and their tolerant friends, because they simply have no alternative. Then, every year, as regular as clockwork, antismokers see that the sun has come out, emerge blinking into the light, and to their horror find that there are already smokers in the beer garden.

There’s nothing to stop licenses to voluntarily choose to ban smoking in all or part of their beer gardens, if they feel that their business will benefit. But they should remember that smokers, over the course of year, are the people most likely to use beer gardens in the first place. Can they really afford to lose that trade? Despite the ban, smokers on average still spend more time and money in pubs than non-smokers, presumably because many non-smokers are prissy, health-obsessed people who don’t find pubs attractive in the first place. On cool, overcast days, non-smoking sections of beer gardens are deserted.

If smoking in outdoor areas was to be wholly or partly prohibited by law, it would make it much harder for the pub trade to recover. And what’s the betting that, once imposed, it would never be relaxed again?

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Making a rod for your own back?

Although we in the United Kingdom are still awaiting any kind of official announcement, countries around the world are now publishing their programmes for the progressive relaxation of the coronavirus lockdown. Last week it was the turn of Ireland, which has many economic and social similarities. Their lockdown was somewhat more severe than ours, particularly in terms of travel restrictions, and they are proceeding very cautiously, and certainly much more slowly than the Czech Republic, which I reported on a couple of weeks ago. However, arguably any light at the end of the tunnel is better than none, as the sheer uncertainty of its duration has for many been the most stressful aspect of the lockdown.

It is noticeable that pubs and bars will be right at the back of the queue, not being allowed to reopen until August 10th, while restaurants will be able to trade from June 29th. As I have set out it in the past, it’s very doubtful whether such a distinction would be workable in this country, where many pubs effectively trade as restaurants, and many restaurants have identical licences and planning status to pubs.

However, the trade bodies representing Irish pubs have written to the government proposing a set of measures that would allow some pubs at least to open six weeks earlier, as set about below:

At first sight, this seems to strip pubs of most of what makes them attractive in the first place, and has been pooh-poohed by many in the trade in this country. However, they could well be workable for many food-oriented establishments, and for Wetherspoons, who already have a remote ordering app and table service in place ready to go. Surely some pubs being able to open is better than none at all.

On the other hand, there must be a risk that such restrictions, if they prove workable for some pubs, will be kept in place for much longer than six weeks, thus ending up delaying, or even permanently preventing, the remainder from reopening. And there is a question mark as to what extent the trade should get involved in devising restrictive regimes to operate within. Wouldn’t it be better to await government proposals and then respond to them? As I have said before in connection with the Portman Group’s heavy-handed approach to advertising regulation, “If you’re going to be crucified anyway, it’s little consolation that you’ve been allowed to build your own cross.”

Some in the British pub trade seem to have reacted to the lockdown simply by wringing their hands and saying it’s all too difficult. But pubs are going to reopen eventually and, being realistic, it’s highly likely that initially they will have to operate under some restrictions, so it makes sense to plan for that rather than dismissing it out of hand.

It’s hard to see any pubs – or restaurants – being workable under the strict social distancing guidelines currently in operation. But the two-metre rule was something plucked out of the air, rather like five-a-day and fourteen alcohol units per week. It perhaps served an initial purpose, but it’s not really a sensible yardstick to use going forward.

It’s not difficult to envisage a somewhat relaxed social distancing environment under which pubs were required to operate for a period, including measures such as an overall capacity restriction, no standing at the bar (and possibly a post office-style queue for ordering), no more than four people at a table and groups required to be at least a yard apart. Presumably by this time relatives living in different households, and friends, will be allowed to meet socially in small numbers. The issue of toilets which is often raised is a red herring – the risk of transmission from very fleeting proximity is negligible, and no more than that from passing in a supermarket aisle.

And I have to say that in many of my local pubs, at lunchtimes when there’s no football being shown, it wouldn’t really be too difficult for the customers to keep six feet apart anyway.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Corona effect

A month ago, although it seems far longer, I wrote: “I have had some thoughts on how the coronavirus crisis is likely to affect the pub and brewing industries, but I really don’t feel it appropriate to comment on this until there is at least some sign of light at the end of the tunnel.” However, now that there is at least talk of a progressive unwinding of the lockdown, I thought I would return to the subject. What follows is really just a series of speculative bullet points rather than fully-developed arguments.

  • Obviously, with pubs having been closed for what looks like at least three months, it is likely to do significant damage to the pub trade, and indeed the wider tourism and hospitality industry. However, it remains to be seen to what extent people are going to flock back. As Tandleman has said, some will be back in the pubs like a rat up a drainpipe, while others will be much more cautious. Ironically, in view of the previous trend, wet-led pubs may recover more quickly than food-oriented ones. There may also be a problem with pubs initially having to operate under various restrictions such as limiting capacity.

  • Some existing pubs probably won’t reopen, while many projected openings of new bars that are in the pipeline will be abandoned.

  • It will encourage the long-term shift from on- to off-trade drinking. However, I suspect it won’t give a huge boost to mail-order beer because of the increased cost aspect. Some specialist off-licences that decided to close for the duration, even though not legally compelled to, may have cause to regret that choice. Customers will remember who did stay open.

  • It is also likely to precipitate the long-heralded shakeout of the microbrewery sector, where many have been saying for some time that there is considerable oversupply. However, perhaps perversely, it may be the “hobby brewers”, who can shut down and reopen with little financial pain, who ride it out, while those a little bit bigger who relied on brewing to make a living may call it a day.

  • Some substantial breweries that depend mostly on on-trade sales may not survive. All breweries apart from the very smallest will realise that there is a benefit to offering bottled and canned beer as another string to their bow, although achieving distribution is always going to be crucial.

  • It will enforce a substantial financial retrenchment upon CAMRA, which is heavily dependent (some might say too dependent) on income from beer festivals. Given that they involve a lot of people crammed together in a small space, festivals may be one of the last things to return to full health.

  • It will accelerate the decline of High Streets, which have been pretty much dead during the lockdown. Even before, they were increasingly becoming social spaces as opposed to just retail spaces.

  • In contrast, it will strengthen the role of physical supermarkets as essential suppliers, especially given that there have often been long waits for home delivery slots.

  • It will accelerate the move from cash to card payments, which I wrote about here.

  • It will punish independent retailers in areas such as clothing, furniture and electrical goods at the expense of major supermarkets and homeware stores that were able to stay open selling a range of products.
But a lot will depend on how willing people are to resume their previous habits as opposed to exercising greatly increased caution for an extended period of time. And that, at present, we just do not know. However, while they were criticised for it at the time, some encouragement can be taken from people’s willingness to visit beauty spots and seaside resorts on some of the fine days we have had during the lockdown. Pubgoers, after all, have never been known for being amongst the most fastidious sections of society.

I’ll also add the point I made on Tandleman’s blog, that it's easy to say that pubs don't really matter in the overall scheme of things, but they are only a subset of the wider tourism and hospitality industry, which is the third biggest sector of the economy. Until that can be restored to something approaching normality, we're still going to be in the economic doldrums. And it can't really function without what could be broadly described as “eat-in catering”.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Over by Christmas?

Although it now seems only a distant memory, yesterday marked five weeks since pubs, bars and restaurants were instructed to close due to the cornonavirus crisis. However, over a month in, thoughts are now turning to the process for relaxing the lockdown. In a possibly unguarded moment, government minister Michael Gove stated that he couldn’t rule out pubs not being allowed to reopen until Christmas, although neither did he say this was likely.

However, this was seized on in the ex-newspaper known as the Independent, where one Jane Fae stated that she wouldn’t be too upset if Gove’s speculation came to pass. Reading the piece in more detail, though, it seems that this has a great deal to do with her own “long and difficult relationship” with alcohol. And it becomes evident that it’s not pubs in general that she objects to, but just ones that don’t fit her preferred model.

In Italy, when I socialised with friends and family, even late into the evening, it was as likely at a cafe or gelateria (ice cream parlour) as anywhere alcohol-focused. The difference, compared to the UK, was marked: most town centres boast spaces where families can and do go out on an evening.
But, of course, if she took the trouble to look, she would find that many modern British pubs sell far more food than drink and bend over backwards to be welcoming to families (much to the dismay of some of us). It is the typical negative stereotype of pubs as dysfunctional drinking dens that remains so popular with people who scarcely ever visit them. And many pubs offer a wide range of social activities, support their local communities through charitable events, and provide a social outlet for lonely people who otherwise would have very little human contact.

It’s also, as I’ve discussed before, impossible to come up with any kind of watertight distinction between “pubs” and “eating places”, given that many pubs now function primarily as restaurants anyway, while many places that present themselves as restaurants actually have a licensing and planning status that is identical to pubs. It seems that lockdown has simply given free rein to people’s censorious tendencies across a whole range of activities. “Isn’t it great that nobody’s now doing [insert particular thing I don’t like]?”

Obviously the lockdown has a severe economic cost, and the time will come when this, and the associated human suffering it creates, will be felt to exceed the benefits. Ultimately that is a political decision, but it is a decision that will have to be made. Tourism and hospitality are the third largest economic sector in Britain, and the economy won’t be able to return to anything like health until they are able to function. It goes far beyond just pubs. I’m not going to make any specific predictions, but I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to enjoy a pint in a pub well before Christmas, much to Ms Fae’s chagrin.

Meanwhile, in a faraway country of which we know nothing, the Czech Republic have published a lockdown exit timetable that will see indoor areas of bars open again on 25 May, or four weeks from next Monday. Regardless of the current swirl of speculation, are we really likely to be that far behind?

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Shop your neighbour

The coronavirus lockdown has given encouragement to two of the less edifying aspects of the British character – the curtain-twitching love of informing on your neighbours, and the liking of the police for taking an over-zealous approach and making up the rules as they go along. Both of these tendencies were combined when no less than the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, Ian Hopkins, made a public statement that the Shakespeare pub in Farnworth, near Bolton, had been serving drinks during the lockdown, and would have its licence revoked.

However, egg on face was in order when, as the Manchester Evening News reports:

But council licensing officials have now confirmed they had found 'no evidence' it had broken the rules during a visit two days later.

In his radio interview, the chief constable said The Shakespeare in Farnworth would have its licence revoked for allegedly letting drinkers in through the back door.

However, when the Manchester Evening News contacted the owners of the pub, they denied any wrongdoing.

A spokesman for Hawthorn Leisure, which runs the pub, said at the time: “There is absolutely no truth to suggestions that The Shakespeare in Farnworth has been serving drinks during the lockdown.

“Hawthorn Leisure has been strictly adhering to Government guidance, and the pub has not been open since it shut its doors on Friday night.

"Furthermore, our manager and her husband are both self-isolating due to pre-existing health concerns.

I’m not denying that any pubs have been breaching the lockdown conditions, but most of these cases seem to have been false alarms. Some have been genuine mistakes arising from observing the licensees doing cleaning or repairs, or engaged in permitted trading activities such as providing takeaways. But others have undoubtedly been driven by malicious intent, with people working out a grievance against the pub in question. As reported here, the lockdown has provided a golden opportunity for people with a grudge to inflict police harassment on others , no questions asked.

And surely someone in such a senior position as a Chief Constable should make absolutely certain they are on firm ground before making public accusations of this kind against businesses. Somehow, though, I doubt whether a public apology will be forthcoming. This is only one of a long list of examples of police overreach during the lockdown, with their colleagues in Lancashire recently excelling themselves.

If we were ever to end up with something like the East German Stasi in this country, they would clearly have no problem recruiting officers – or informants.

Interestingly, the Shakespeare is a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, although from the description it sounds as though the original features have been rather garishly painted over, and it has a pretty down-market pub offer. I’ve driven past it a few times in the past, but never been tempted to venture inside.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

We never have drink in the house

I recently ran a poll on Twitter asking whether people were drinking more or less during the lockdown, despite being unable to visit pubs. The results were mixed, but despite my readership probably containing a considerably higher proportion of regular pubgoers than the national average, a rather higher figure said they were drinking more as opposed to cutting down. On the other hand, over the past three weeks I’ve seen a number of people saying that, since the pubs have been closed, they have pretty much entirely stopped drinking. For them, the two things are inextricably bound up with each other, and if you take the surroundings of the pub away, drinking becomes a pretty pointless exercise. Now, that’s an entirely reasonable point of view, and I certainly wouldn’t criticise anyone for a minute for adopting it. However, it’s important to recognise just what an outlier it is in terms of general social attitudes.

Over the past sixty years, the UK has seen seen a steady increase in the proportion of alcohol sold through the off-trade in comparison with the on-trade. In the 1950s, the on-trade accounted for over 90% of sales, but it has now declined to only 31%. Beer in fact was the last market segment to make the switch, with the tipping point not happening until 2015. A major factor in this has been the growth in the market share of wine, which typically is not associated with pubs, and is rarely done well by them.

There are a wide range of reasons for this which I considered in this blogpost from eleven years ago. One of the key elements is changes to lifestyles, with homes having become much more pleasant, and families doing a much wider range of activities together in them. The archetypal symbol of this change is a family sharing a bottle of wine over a meal, something than would have been unknown in ordinary households in the 1960s. But it extends into many other areas, such as entertaining friends and family, holding barbecues and watching TV sport.

There was an obvious aspirational aspect to this a trend. Drinking wine with dinner was a marker of a middle-class household, as was having a cocktail cabinet. Certainly when I was a small child, my parents would never keep alcoholic drinks in the house except for the Christmas period, but that had changed by the time I reached the legal drinking age.

It was also a question of changing gender roles. The households where all drinking was done in the pub tended to be ones where it was overwhelmingly done by the husband, who might take his wife along to the pub on Saturday evening. But, with couples wanting to share roles and responsibilities and abandon such rigid demarcation, that became less and less acceptable. That, incidentally, was one of the reasons behind the decline of the traditional Sunday lunchtime session, because women were no longer happy to stay at home cooking the dinner while their menfolk were in the pub with their mates. Back in those days, too, the woman who drank at home was often viewed as someone to be pitied rather than an example of emancipation. “Has she been at the cooking sherry, then?”

There was also a moral aspect to this, with “we never have drink in the house” being seen as a statement of rectitude, even from people who drank a lot in the pub. You still sometimes hear CAMRA blokes say “I never drink at home” as though it is a good thing. Yet, as I argued here, the attitude that somehow drinking at home is inherently less worthy than drinking in the pub is old-fashioned, silly and divisive. Each can be good or bad depending on the context. And the people who say that either tend to be single men, or older married men whose children have flown the nest.

The persistence of this view means that many beer enthusiasts fail to appreciate the reality of how the vast majority of ordinary people approach the subject of drinking. Most adults in this country probably do not visit a pub or a bar to have a drink (as opposed to eating) from one month to the next. They have no inbuilt loyalty or affection towards pubs as a concept, and on many drinking occasions going to the pub is not even an option.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Mail disorder

I’ve seen a couple of messages on Twitter urging people to buy beer directly from breweries rather than from supermarkets during the lockdown. That’s all well and good, but it has to be recognised that it comes at a price. Beer is a heavy and bulky commodity, and shipping it around the country is expensive. That’s why, compared with clothing or books, mail order for beer has never really taken off outside a specialist niche. When many people will have been laid off from work and feeling the financial pinch, paying more for their beer will be the last thing on their mind. And businesses shouldn’t expect to be “supported” by the general public, unless they can provide a product people want to buy, at a price they’re happy to pay.

Having said that, I thought that, as I was saving money from not going out, I might take a look at what was available out there. I don’t want to buy beers I wouldn’t consider normally, or things that might turn out to be a pig in a poke, but I could see if I could find some beers from favourite breweries whose products we never see locally. So I looked at some that people had highlighted on social media, but quickly ran into the familiar problem of cost. While the headline prices may not have been that much above undiscounted prices in the local off-trade (although they always were higher), once you added on shipping costs, typically around the £8 mark, they became prohibitively so.

One twerp on Twitter predictably asked “how does that compare with prices in the pub?” but that really isn’t the point. A pub isn’t just a beer shop, it also offers atmosphere, hospitality and conviviality. The only valid comparison is with other off-trade prices, which are often only half as much for beers that may be a bit more familiar but, to be honest, are often of comparable quality. I looked at several breweries that all fell into the same category. And another problem is that the shipping cost is often not made explicit until very late in the process.

Another drawback is the time taken for delivery, so delayed gratification is inevitable. Plus you are subject to the notorious vagaries of couriers. Last year, I ordered a mixed case of ciders as a birthday treat. But I was out when it was delivered, so it was left with a newsagent in the town centre with no parking. Fortunately I was able to collect it by parking (legally) on double yellow lines, but that would have been of no use so someone who didn’t drive, or who wasn’t physically able to carry it fifty yards.

However, I did notice on Wadworth’s website that they were currently waiving delivery charges. So you can get a mixed case of twelve of their beers for £32, or £2.67 a bottle, which is still above shop prices, but not prohibitively so for something I like and never see locally. So I went for one of those, although it hasn’t arrived yet. You can also get twelve bottles of the 5.5% ABV Bishop’s Tipple for just £25, and, if that takes your fancy, 24 cans of 6X for just £38.50, or just £1.60 a can. The prices for Thatcher’s cider are also more reasonable – the main brands are available in supermarkets, but the “Cider Barn” specials aren’t.

If you’re happy to pay a substantial premium to get hold of beers that you can’t find in local shops, then that’s fair enough. Indeed I stated above that I just have. And, in the current situation, it may provide a lifeline for people for whom visiting shops is impossible or highly inconvenient. But, for reasons of cost and convenience, it has to be recognised that mail order beer is always going to remain a niche market.

And, unless you’re particularly snobby or fastidious, the range of beers that is now available in supermarkets and other off-trade outlets is such that most palates will find it at least adequate. For example, just confining it to British ales, my local branch of Home Bargains had stocks of Oakham JHB and Inferno, and Adnams’ Southwold Bitter, for £1.00 and £1.09 respectively, none of which you would sneeze at. And my local Morrisons stocks Cheshire Cat and Eastgate Ale from the Cheshire-based Weetwood Brewery for just £6 for 4.

And please don’t suggest that I should support a local business by getting a case of Tarquin Crudgington’s Bowel-Purger Railway Arch Murky IPA. If I didn’t fancy it before, I still don’t now.

Edit: The individual case prices for Hook Norton beers are pretty reasonable, but you need to add a whopping £9.50 on top of them for shipping. As with the Wadworth’s, I might have found a mixed case more tempting.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The cash machine stops

The coronavirus crisis has resulted in people being strongly encouraged to use contactless payments wherever possible to minimise the need for physical contact associated with using notes and coins. This has led to warnings that it is likely to accelerate the widely foretold death of cash, which may have largely vanished by the summer as people never return to using it. While obviously many people value the convenience of making payments by card, the elimination of cash raises serious issues for both the general functioning of society and for individual freedom, which I touched on a couple of years ago.

It is estimated that there are 1.6 million unbanked workers in the UK, and there must be many other non-workers who have no access to banking facilities. While there may be technological solutions that can address this issue, their interests cannot simply be breezily dismissed. Added to this, there are many people, not by any means entirely elderly, who have a strong preference for using cash and are uneasy about card payments, even though they may theoretically be available to them. Is it reasonable to ride roughshod over their wishes in the name of progress?

Over the past couple of years, there has been a growing trickle of pubs and bars deciding to go entirely cashless and stop accepting cash payments. This may be understandable if, as has happened in a few cases, the establishment has been the victim of multiple robberies. However, in most cases it is simply signalling that they want to be perceived as modern and forward-looking. It is essentially profoundly snobbish. It is in effect saying that they are not interested in the business, not only of people who have no access to card payments, but of those whose preference is to avoid them. They are putting up a sign that the poor, the old and the conservatively-minded are not welcome. Our friend Cooking Lager made a good point when he said:

One obvious issue is that going cashless creates a disconnect between people and money. It makes it harder for children to grasp the concept of money, if it is just numbers on a screen rather than something tangible in their hand. It also makes budgeting more difficult for adults, both in terms of limiting your spending on a night out, and also in a more general sense of managing your expenditure through the month. It’s hardly surprising that so many people seem to get into unmanageable debt when they hardly ever see the stuff.

When this concept was first mooted more than twenty years ago, what was proposed was “digital wallets” which could be topped up in the same way as a pay-as-you-go mobile phone. This would have helped to make it more manageable, but instead what has happened is that people end up using debit cards and having a multiplicity of transactions taken directly from their current accounts. I was always brought up to keep a separate record of banking transactions and reconcile this to the statement at the end of each month, but if there are dozens of cups of coffee and rounds of drinks on it, this becomes completely impractical.

I always used to find it useful to draw a distinction between significant items of expenditure that justified recording individually, and routine everyday spending that didn’t need to be identified in detail, and thus were appropriate to be paid for in cash. I knew that in a typical week I would spend £XXX or thereabouts, so that was what I would withdraw from the cash machine. Fortunately, a couple of years ago the practice of imposing credit card surcharges was outlawed, so from my point of view the most workable solution is to allocate one particular credit card to everyday contactless transactions, which I can then view the balance of online and pay it off in a single sum at the end of the month. But not everyone has the luxury of having a credit card.

Charities have reported a fall-off in donations, such as those received by bar-top collection boxes in pubs, due to the reduction in cash usage. Yes, of course you can make donations by card, but it’s a much more considered process and not remotely as spontaneous. Last year, I even saw a street beggar with a card reader, which just seems wrong. The absence of cash will also inhibit small, casual gifts and loans between friends and relatives. It will make such everyday activities as sharing out a restaurant bill, and carrying out a collection for a departing work colleague, much more formal and remove any element of anonymity. And it’s not hard to visualise people in situations such as abusive relationships wanting to build up a cash reserve that is hidden from scrutiny.

There are extensive areas of what might be called the black and grey economies that currently run on cash. Requiring all of this to operate by bank payments will obviously bring it out into the light and subject it to the scrutiny of the tax authorities. Some may see this as a good thing, but it may cause many informal or ad hoc economic activities to cease to happen entirely. And, if cash is unavailable, some form of alternative barter economy or unofficial currency may evolve to replace it.

A cashless society is dependent on connections to power and communications for every single transaction. However, the foundations of our modern technological society are more fragile than many imagine. While coronavirus has driven many to adopt cashless payments, it has also exposed our vulnerability to shocks of this kind. Many of us remember being subjected to power cuts in the 1970s, and in recent years the failure of successive governments to support the construction of new capacity has left our power generation system teetering on a knife-edge. Organised hacking attacks have sometimes brought large swathes of the Internet to a standstill, while some banks’ IT infrastructure has fallen over for days on end. In 1909, in his oddly prescient short story The Machine Stops, E. M. Forster described how a universal, interconnected, technological society could slowly but surely be brought to its knees if things stopped working.

There are also wider implications for civil liberties, which have been highlighted from both sides of the political spectrum. For example, this article in the Guardian says:

Engineering public consent for cashlessness is a subtle process. People may indeed enjoy a new payments app or contactless card, but financial institutions then use that to justify the gradual removal of the cash infrastructure – such as ATMS – in order to deliberately make cash harder to use. This feeds back, making digital seem relatively more convenient, “inspiring” more people to choose it.
While the free-market Mises Institute says:
Cash has been the target of the banking and financial elites for years. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is being used to frighten the masses into accepting a cashless society. That would mean the death of what’s left of our free society...

...Being bound to computers for transactions kicks the door wide open to hardcore surveillance of personal activity and location data. Being eternally on the grid means relentless taxation and negative interest rates, which the Federal Reserve is already gearing up for.

These concerns fall into two main areas. One is that people will be subject to constant surveillance of exactly where they have been and what they have spent their money on. It’s all too easy to say that the innocent have nothing to fear, but who can honestly say that they have never done anything that they would prefer not to be exposed to the light of day? And it isn’t difficult to imagine a range of scenarios where this information could be used to target or stigmatise people in various ways.

If all transactions are on the record, it also opens up many possibilities for being able to control people. For example, certain types of transactions could be blocked if they were felt to be undesirable, either for the individual or society as a whole. Businesses that were felt to be acting against the public interest could be prevented from accepting payments. And the entirety of your financial life would be potentially laid open to the grasping hand of the State, either through negative interest rates or outright confiscation.

Of course, these concerns may be dismissed by some as examples of the tinfoil hat mentality. But any student of history will know that the benevolence of those in authority is not something that can be guaranteed. And, if you lived today in Russia or China, would you be happy for the State to have such detailed oversight of your everyday activities? It’s ironic that some of those who, before Christmas, were ludicrously accusing Boris Johnson of wanting to erect some form of totalitarian state, are now amongst those who are the cheerleaders of a trend that contains such potential for making that outcome a reality.

Ultimately, the continued existence of cash represents a bulwark of freedom against both governments and corporations. Yes, many people may find contactless payments for everyday transactions convenient, but if we as a society allow cash to entirely disappear, we will have also said goodbye to a large measure of our liberties.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Small isn’t beautiful

The current lockdown means that we’re reduced to drinking at home, if at all. The closest equivalent to the pub pint, at least in terms of volume, is the familiar 500ml Premium Bottled Ale, which fits comfortably into a brim-measure pint glass. OK, it isn’t an Imperial pint, but you can’t really get pint bottles of ale (lager, for some reason, is often sold in pint cans), and even if you could they would actually come right up to the brim. In fact, the typical pub pint, at least in the North, is probably closer to 500ml than 568ml. The Samuel Smith’s bottled beers, which are 550ml, certainly give you more beer than you would normally get in the pub.

However, in recent years 500ml bottles have steadily been losing ground to the smaller 330ml bottles and cans. Just three weeks ago (although it seems more like three years) we had a presentation at our local CAMRA branch meetings from representatives of Robinson’s brewery, who confirmed that the smaller size was where the growth was, while the 500ml bottles were in decline.

In particular, these have been taken up enthusiastically by the burgeoning craft sector. You won’t really find anything presented as “craft” in a 500ml bottle. Part of the motivation is to differentiate themselves from what are perceived as old-fashioned “boring brown bitters”. Plus it can’t have escaped their notice that they can get away with charging virtually the same price for a third less beer.

One argument advanced for smaller bottles is that they give the beer less chance to warm up, which is perhaps valid for chilled lagers, but hardly applies to ales and stouts. And they also allow you to try more different beers for the same given volume. However, if all you want is *one beer* while you’re sitting back to watch yet another rerun of Inspector Morse, and are happy with something familiar and trusted, that’s irrelevant.

I can see the point of smaller bottles for especially strong beers, although where the cut-off point should be set is a moot point, and maybe for specialities that you wouldn’t want to drink in quantity. But, speaking personally, for normal quaffing beers they just aren’t enough, so I end up wanting two to feel that I’ve had a decent drink, which obviously means at the end of the day I have drunk more and spent a lot more. Obviously everyone’s free to choose whatever bottle size they prefer, but I really fail to see the attraction of the smaller ones. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of choice available in the larger and more pub-like size.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Turn it down!

The Morning Advertiser recently reported on a study showing that 80% of people had cut short a visit to a pub, restaurant or café because of excessive noise, with 75% saying they would eat out more if venues were quieter. This is a particular problem for the deaf or hard of hearing who, contrary to popular belief, do not generally live in a world of total silence, but often find it a real struggle to pick out sounds.

I have to say this chimes with my experience – it’s not at all uncommon to go into an unfamiliar pub at lunchtime or early evening and find yourself confronted with a wall of sound that makes it impossible to hold a conversation. The same can even happen with televisions, which can sometimes be turned up to a deafening volume. Bar staff often seem oblivious of the effect the noise level has for people actually out in the public areas.

Obviously not all pubs are the same, and there may be a justification for loud music in a late-night venue aiming to create a lively atmosphere. But, in the general run of pubs, there’s really no reason for it at all. Of course there is a place for music in pubs, but the whole point of background music is that it should be precisely that, rather than completely dominating proceedings.

This is really a separate issue from the type of music being played. Obviously everyone has their own preferences, and will generally be happy to hear their favourite genre being played at a somewhat higher volume than other people would be. But music being played in a pub with a broad appeal needs to avoid causing too much annoyance to any customers, and it has to be accepted that some genres such as hip-hop or thrash metal are likely be less generally tolerable than others. All too often, music is chosen for the benefit of the bar staff rather than the clientele.

I’m certainly not dogmatically opposed to music in pubs, but I do feel that the widespread view that a lack of music results in a lack of atmosphere is a mistaken one. And, if you really don’t want your eardrums assailed, in plenty of places you have the choice of going to a Wetherspoon’s or Sam Smith’s pub, who don’t play any at all.

This news item has been on my list to comment on for a couple of weeks, but obviously recent events have rather curtailed the flow of blogging. At the moment I’d happily endure any kind of racket for a decent pint of Bass! I have had some thoughts on how the coronavirus crisis is likely to affect the pub and brewing industries, but I really don’t feel it appropriate to comment on this until there is at least some sign of light at the end of the tunnel. And I very much stand by my comments in the final paragraph of my post on the subject from a couple of weeks ago.