Friday 10 May 2013

Socially unacceptable supping

A recent arrival on the North-West beer blogging scene is Seeing the Lizards. One point that the author Matthew Lawrenson has addressed is how just going to the pub for a drink has become much less socially acceptable over the years, something that I have referred to on more than one occasion. His post is very true and perceptive.

When I was learning to drink in the late 70s and early 80s, it was entirely normal for responsible, respectable people to just go for a drink or two in a pub. Now, by and large, it isn’t. Many blog readers who regard drinking and pubgoing as a specific leisure pursuit may struggle to appreciate this, but the vast toll of closed pubs in all kinds of areas bears witness to a profound social change.

This has manifested itself in all kinds of subtle ways. Workers are far more reluctant to drink any alcohol at all at lunchtimes, and even to go out at all to the pub for a snack and have a soft drink. To some extent this stems from employers’ policies, but it still happens even when there is no such constraint. They are also far less keen to meet up for drinks after work.

There’s also a much greater unwillingness to drive after drinking any alcohol whatsoever, despite being well within the legal limit. This doesn’t mean that people find another way to go to the pub, they simply don’t go at all. This has implications for most of the other trends I mention. To some extent related to this, the comfortable middle classes are far less likely to be found drinking in pubs than they once were.

Thirty years ago, it was noticeable how a large proportion of pub customers, especially in the more “respectable” pubs, were courting or married couples. Now, unless having a meal, they’re hardly seen at all. In particular, the established middle-aged couple just “going out for a drink” have pretty much entirely vanished.

Lunchtimes throughout the week used to see a variety of customers, whether local workers, unemployed, retired or just on a day off. That has largely disappeared too, and many pubs no longer bother opening at all on weekday lunchtimes. My local pub used to be busy on weekend lunchtimes with groups of social drinkers, who often knew people from other groups and engaged in banter with them. Now, it’s virtually deserted apart from a smattering of diners. When you do go in a wet-led pub at lunchtime or early doors most of the remaining customers often seem to be deadlegs.

Before the ban, smokers used to be some of the keenest traditional drink and chat customers, but now they are banished they are no longer there, or at least much more rarely there.

Pubs can still be busy on weekend evenings, but the traditional baseload trade that used to sustain them during the rest of the week is greatly diminished. People will go out for a skinful on Friday and Saturday nights, but they’re no longer going out for a couple on Mondays and Tuesdays. I go in a few pubs where the old ways still prevail, but virtually all the customers are now over the age of fifty, and that pattern of pubgoing will be gone in twenty years’ time.

It often seems that the only form of alcohol consumption that is acceptable nowadays is slumping in front of the telly once all the chores and responsibilities are done, and cracking open a bottle of Old Speckled Hen to watch the latest Midsomer Murders. Responsible, employed people in relationships just don’t go to the pub for a casual drink any more.


  1. You are not wrong. Times have changed. One thing you mention is that is “comfortable middle classes are far less likely to be found drinking in pubs than they once were”.

    Not sure pubs were ever really the pursuit of the middle class to any great extent. Seems to me pubs were more a pursuit of the traditional respectable working class. A class that has diminished and fragmented with many adopting middle class lifestyles. I dislike pejorative snobbish terms like “chav” but that comes from recognising that both snobbishness has found a new respectability and there has also been a bit of an expansion of a none working welfare class. The BBC had an interesting, not entirely accurate, new set of social classes which seemed to me for all its faults a more accurate way of looking at contemporary class structures. Pub going isn’t an activity of those new classes and when it is, it is an event. The glass of wine, after the kids have been put to bed, is the new pub.

  2. Its possibly the opposite in london with most of the trendy middle class folk frequenting the pubs but generally not being quite as open or chatty(myself included) as more working class folk. Yet whenever I leave the city the only people in the pubs are the ones you mention. I miss lunch time pints myself but agree the smell of booze would be noticed and frowned upon.

  3. Martin, Cambridge10 May 2013 at 13:18

    In my extremely middle-class Cambridgeshire village there is almost no custom that is not linked to an event; the pub quiz, Sunday lunch, frequent music and comedy nights, village committees, the dreaded beer festival.

    My wife takes me to our Beer Guide pub regularly because she enjoys different real ales; we rarely see any other couples just drinking. This is a vastly different picture to 20 years ago.

  4. Agree with all of the above. In many ways the decline of the pub is symptomatic of a wider trend for increasing isolationism that has been going on for years. Instead of going to the cinema, people watch Sky Movies; instead of going to the bridge club, people play computer games; instead of playing a team sport, people go running by themselves.

    It would be interesting to see statistics for the proportion of leisure time that people spend shut away in their own homes now compared to 30, 20 or even just 10 years ago.

  5. @Matt I think a city centre lifestyle is quite different from a provincial urban town or village and I think for Europe relatively recent. Factors like living without a car, using the tube, living in a small flat, wider choice of entertainments all alter lifestyle in regard to propensity to go out. It also requires a certain level of prosperity. The office cleaners travel into the city not live there.

    @Mudge as for modern work practice, I'm not sure american work practices with the absence of drinking are as such a tyranny. I don't see a lot of colleagues desperate for a lunchtime pint but unable to imbibe. In fact a culture that expects you to be social, drink your way up the ladder is a form of tyranny if that isn't your cup of tea. You could look at it as freeing people from having to booze with workmates when they really would prefer to go home.


  6. While some workplaces may have had a "drinking culture", is that necessarily any worse than a culture of ostentatious non-drinking? And, in my experience, those who chose to stick to soft drinks were not ostracised.

    And, whether good or bad, it can't be denied that the decline of lunchtime workplace drinking has been devastating for pubs.

  7. "Not sure pubs were ever really the pursuit of the middle class to any great extent."

    While pubgoing has always been primarily a working-class pursuit, in the past there was a very distinct category of "smart" pubs frequented by the comfortable middle classes, including many of Robinson's Cheshire estate. These pubs have now, in general, gone over pretty much entirely to food.

  8. While some workplaces may have had a "drinking culture", is that necessarily any worse than a culture of ostentatious non-drinking? And, in my experience, those who chose to stick to soft drinks were not ostracised.
    The issue is the tyranny of the majority in culture. The minority have always had a gripe. That was people who didn’t want a soft drink, they wanted to go home. That is now those that want to go supping when they are actually paid to work. But, yes a culture of drinking is worse than none drinking because the purpose of work is not to meet the social needs of people but economic needs.

    And, whether good or bad, it can't be denied that the decline of lunchtime workplace drinking has been devastating for pubs.
    So what. Human liberty is more important than the survival or otherwise of grotty pubs. Seeing the world through the prism of what is good for pubs is too narrow. Lots of benefits can accrue from social changes that happen to shut pubs and by and large the price is and was worth it. Smoking bans being the best example of a beneficial change that was worth the cost of closed pubs.

    While pub going has always been primarily a working-class pursuit, in the past there was a very distinct category of "smart" pubs frequented by the comfortable middle classes, including many of Robinson's Cheshire estate. These pubs have now, in general, gone over pretty much entirely to food.
    The middle class establishments may have adapted to the changing wants of the middle class and actually expanded as that class has. The working class pubs are the ones getting knocked down. If we accept that it is good that people enjoy prosperity then we have to accept it as good that they no longer see a great need for the working class pubs they have abandoned. The closure of these grotty pubs is a good thing as it frees up the resources for what people actually want, like £10 dine in offers from a M&S Food store.

  9. More pubs gone.

  10. I'm afraid I just don't see this at all. In Bristol, the city centre pubs are full of office workers at lunchtime and knocking-off time. The suburban pubs are quiet at this time because most people work in the centre. In the evenings, the suburban pubs are busy (at least towards the end of the week and the weekend) There are many "established middle-aged couples just out for a drink", as well as young lads, retired people and the rest. This isn't just my local, it's most of the pubs. Although most of the suburban pubs do food, they are still largely wet-led. Given some of the other comments on here, I wonder if Bristol might be a special case.
    Right. It's Friday, it's gone six and I'm off for a beer. If my local isn't rammed, I will post back and eat my words.

  11. A couple of weeks back I was in a local pub for the regular folk session. They called time at 11.00, and there were plenty of people still there - not just us folkies either. On the 11.30 walk home I passed several bars with blinds down and/or chairs on the tables - and one which was buzzing, with no sign it'd be closing any time soon. 11.30 on a Wednesday night.

    I think you're right about weekday lunchtimes - sadly - but weekday evenings still vary a lot.

  12. I think from previous comments, Bill, that Bristol is rather untypical of the rest of the country - as indeed is Chorlton.

  13. Back for my tea now. Pub rammed. Usual demographic: builders (6), garage mechanics (2), window cleaner (1). retired bank manager (1), company directors (2), computer programmers (2), lighting cameraman (1), retired solicitor (1), retired copper (1), stairlift installer (1), aerospace engineers (2), Dumpy Little Bloke I Don't Like and Who Doesn't Like Me (1). These are just the ones I know to talk to, about a third of the total. Four Established Middle-Aged Couples (that I could identify), one with their son. A bunch of young lads playing darts. No trendy media types, no craftistas in daft hats. Just normal people having a drink. Maybe Bristol is untypical of the rest of the country but having said that, I was in a pub in Shaftesbury, Dorset yesterday at about 4.00pm and there were roughly 12 people in there when I entered, rising to about 20 when I left an hour later. It's probably too crude to talk about a North/South divide but the pub scene isn't as dire in some places as some contributors make out.

  14. Professor Pie-Tin10 May 2013 at 21:23

    I have to say on this one,old cock, you're talking out of your jacksie.
    Good pubs are busy - shit ones are not.
    'Twas ever thus.
    I'm just back from the Friday evening six pinter and my local was busier than I've seen it for a long time across all demographics except the early 20-year-olds.
    And they're at home pre-loading and skinning up ahead of a trawl around town they probably won't start until 10pm and if I was a couple of decades younger I'd be with 'em.
    I sometime sympathise with your
    apocalyptic vision of the future of pubs but you do beging to sound like Corporal Frazer after a while.

  15. Ah, someone else who comes out with the "pubs are closing because they're shit" line.

    As I have said in the past:

    "Yes, many pubs offer crap service, but that isn't the reason they are closing. In the 1970s, pubs were selling twice as much beer as they are now, but many were heroically awful in a way that is unknown now.

    "It may be the case that Pub B closes instead of Pub A because it offered worse beer and service, but that most emphatically isn't why pubs are closing en masse.

    "And, in some cases, might poor service be the result of poor trade, not the cause?"

  16. All the pubs I go to are busy, but then all the pubs I go to are good pubs, so its probably selection bias.

  17. Or maybe you only go to them when they are busy.

  18. It's almost like pubs and the people who used to use them have been, I dunno, denormalised. ;)

  19. Back from pub having been there for last hour. More couples (postman and bank executive, recruitment consultant and childminder plus their son), antiquarian bookseller, painter & decorator, retired builder, delusional bloke who thinks he's an honorary Native American (there's one in every pub), Irish bloke working on some industrial project, numerous retired teachers. Plus some people who were there when I last posted. A reasonable mix of people, I think, all just out for a drink. Don't write pubs off just yet.

  20. Mudgie - Pubs weren't always busy though of course you are right in the main, that the way those pubs that survive and when they are busy has changed.

    We have established that. And while pubs were all pretty ropey in the past,that just won't do now.

    Cookie has the right of it. People have changed. Good pubs will still thrive. There are less of them because less are needed.

  21. Professor Pie-Tin11 May 2013 at 08:05

    Mudgie - there are 26 licenced premises in the Irish town where I live.
    Only three of them provide food.
    Before Ireland introduced the smoking ban way before the UK and since the advent of the worst recesssion in the country's history there were 29 pubs.
    The three that have closed were dog rough.
    The rest of reasonably well run and always busy.
    I suppose the difference between here and the UK and the reason why so few of them have closed is that every single one of those pubs is privately owned.
    Go figure as the Yanks say.

  22. Well, I could easily say that there are more pubs and bars in Chorlton than there were ten years ago, so everything in the garden's rosy. But obviously that wouldn't be representative of the whole. It would be interesting to see some statistics for the number of pubs in Ireland and beer sales in pubs, comparable to those we have for the UK.

  23. Several commenters have confirmed that my broad analysis is basically correct. And it cannot be denied that:

    * Beer consumption in pubs has fallen by well over half since 1980
    * Large numbers of pubs have closed, in all kinds of areas
    * The remaining trade is much more concentrated towards weekend evenings
    * Large numbers of pubs now pretty much entirely concentrate on the food trade
    * Lunchtime drinking by workers is now much less common

    Could all these trends have been averted by pubs being better run? Do pigs fly?

  24. Going for a lunchtime pint isn't a problem at the company where I work, but not many people, myself included, do so. There are several reasons for this; first the nearest pub is largely food oriented and expensive. There is another pub, which is slightly further away, but still within comfortable walking distance. The trouble is it's run by a person who is totally lacking in "people skill" (a miserable b*st*rd in other words!, and this pub too is expensive, (I'm talking getting on for four quid a pint!).

    The first pub is busy, as being en route to places like Hever Castle and Penshurst Place it attracts the passing tourist trade. The second pub, being tucked away, is very quiet at lunchtimes, (I often walk past during my lunchbreak, and there's rarely more than a handful of people in there).

    There is another reason, apart from that of cost, why I rarely go for a lunchtome pint when I'm working; and that is I feel sleepy early afternoon at the best of times, and a pint or two would see me nodding off. Now that WOULD be frowned on!

    When I rhink back to 30 years or so ago, when I would go to the pub at lunchtime at least once a week, I'm surprised I got any work done in the afternoon. The truth is, I don't miss knocking back the pints at what could sometimes be quite hurried lunchtime sessions. It's different when one is on holiday, of course, but I really don't think work and drink mix very well.

  25. Cooking,
    here is me sticking up for Lager drinkers ;-)

  26. Think your last line is a generalisation too far, unless you've had MORI on the case.

    I'd hold myself up as an exception but I suspect you might say I'm not typical. But who is? And where is? Who is the Joe Public we need to be testing your theories against and where does he live?

    (Not having a pop, but pushing back a little, in the spirit of civilised debate...)

  27. It's a rhetorical exaggeration, certainly, but in talking to work colleagues and relatives it certainly seems to be the case that the kind of casual social pubgoing that was commonplace thirty years ago is much rarer now - something that the legions of closed and empty pubs bear witness to. Varies according to where you live, of course.

  28. Lunchtime drinking is definitely now the preserve of students, the unemployed and the retired - the target market of Wetherspoons of course.

    But as for couples not going for a drink, or for people not going for a couple of pints on a midweek evening, I honestly see very little evidence that this is true.

  29. From memory the Pub was the focal point of me and my friends teenage life, Friday night being particularly special with the promise of the weekend ahead.

    The beer I seem to recall was crap, notably Watneys, utter *isswater.

    Pubs were smoky, busy, and the best crack was playing skittles.


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