Now, this is not just another smoking ban post, and indeed many of these closures date back to before 1 July 2007. The smoking ban was just another nail in a coffin that was already under construction. But it is clear that something profound has happened to the British pub since its heyday in the late 70s.
That is when I first learned to drink, and back then pubs were a ubiquitous, taken-for-granted institution, running through the whole of society. They varied hugely, from the basic to the snooty, but every pub seemed to have its regulars, its casual drinkers and, often, those who had just come in for a bite to eat. The “pub lunch” was very popular, but nobody would ever confuse it with a “restaurant meal”. Each pub had its own character, and usually its own cast of characters too.
But somehow, in the following thirty-odd years, something has changed. Many of those pubs have closed, and many of those that remain have gone over to food to such an extent that they are now in effect restaurants, not social meeting places. In a sense that is an inevitable reaction to the changing market-place, and pub owners can’t really be blamed for doing it, but it still renders them radically different places.
Where the all-purpose pub does survive, its trade often seems thin and apologetic, and far from the parade of human nature that once could be seen. The trade is also much more concentrated towards the traditional weekend busy periods – lunchtimes and early evenings can be utterly dead. I go in pubs at times when they once were heaving and find them virtually deserted.
Sometimes, you come across a pub that still “works” as most pubs used to in the late 70s, but it is so rare as to be something worth remarking on, and also something largely characterised by customers over the age of 50 who remember how things used to be.
Overall, we as a society drink a bit more (maybe around 10%) than we did in the late 70s, but our relationship with alcohol has changed. It is no longer something to be enjoyed in moderation (and often with a vague sense of naughtiness) as part of everyday life, but something to be consumed more deliberately when other responsibilities can be set aside. People place far more emphasis on not touching a drop in “normal” situations than they used to. Just “going to the pub”, without involving a meal, is no longer an acceptable leisure pursuit in polite society.
And that is why pubs, as a seven days, fourteen sessions a week, institution, are a shadow of their former selves. I suspect if I was thirty-five years younger, and just embarking on the world of adulthood, regular pubgoing would be something that would not even feature on the agenda. Yet, over the years, I have found such pleasure, solace and companionship in pubs that it is desperately sad to see their place in society so much eroded.
Pubs continue to do much better in Inner London, and indeed in the centres of other big cities, than in the country as a whole, which is maybe why this trend has received so little attention from the journalistic profession.