I cut my drinking teeth in the late 1970s, a period that surely will come to be seen as the all-time heyday of the British pub. Annual on-trade beer sales exceeded 37 million bulk barrels (over 10 billion pints), a post WWI record, and more than two and a half times the current level. And the pub trade had achieved a level of acceptance and respectability that it never did in the previous boom period of the late 19th century when the temperance movement was still an active force (which it of course now is again). Drinking in pubs had become a normal part of everyday life, something most people did from time to time. I remember my father saying to elderly aunts “it’s OK to go in pubs now, they serve food”.
It has been suggested that on this point I am looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Now, I recognise that back then the range of beer and food was often much more limited, poor cask beer was commonplace, many pubs had a sense of entitlement that led to a “take it or leave it” attitude to service, a cliquish, unwelcoming atmosphere could often be encountered, and there was a whole stratum of dirty, grotty bottom-end pubs that has now largely disappeared.
But it is a matter of recorded fact that pubs were shifting vastly more beer in those days, and so thus demonstrably far more popular than they are now. My subjective memory is also that going to the pub for a drink was, for far more people, a routine everyday activity. Apart from town-centre redevelopments, and areas of inner-urban depopulation, pub closures were virtually unknown.
Today, there are still some thriving and busy pubs, although a lot fewer than there once were, and the best pubs are in many respects well ahead of their counterparts of thirty years ago. But it is all too obvious that much of the pub trade is now scratching along on very thin pickings, and equally obvious that pubs in general have lost a lot of their broad social acceptability. I am struggling to think of the last occasion I went in a pub (except on a Friday night) and couldn’t find anywhere to sit. The last job I had where it was commonplace to go to the pub at lunchtime at least one day a week I left in 1988.
Middle-class people may eat enthusiastically in dining pubs, but you just don’t see them drinking in pubs in the way they once would. I vividly recall an occasion in the early 80s when my father and I went in a pub in one of the better-off parts of Cheshire, and encountered a gang of “golf club types” standing around the bar sounding off about the latest BMW models and Poppy’s gymkhana results. It wasn’t one of my most enjoyable pub experiences, but you rarely see it now. Drinking – and I mean drinking – in pubs has morphed from the staid and respectable to Mark Dredge’s realm of misbehaviour. It has become, to some extent, denormalised.
And, however good individual pubs may be nowadays, I make no apology for looking back nostalgically to the days when pubs as a whole were doing two and a half times the business, when there were half as many of them again, and when visiting them just for a drink was a core part of national life rather than something peculiar and vaguely antisocial done by oldsters, oddballs, students and drunks.