Saturday 26 April 2014

You lookin’ at my bird?

I was prompted to create the current poll by a Twitter discussion about this blogpost by Seeing the Lizards, and replies by Boak & Bailey. Pubs cover a wide spectrum of clientele, and you always run the risk that, if you venture into somewhere outside your comfort zone, you will be made to feel, by verbal or visual cues, that you are not welcome.

I can recall a handful of occasions when I was a speccy, geeky 20-something where I was barracked or made fun of in pubs. Generally I just kept quiet, drank my pint and left. Now I’m a speccy, geeky 50-something nobody seems too bothered – I just blur into the generality of older male pub customers.

I did toy with splitting the poll into separate male and female sections, but decided that would point towards a particular agenda, which wasn’t my intention.

Let me make it clear I don’t remotely condone threatening or insulting behaviour in pubs, but the point needs to be made that what comes across as offensive to one person may simply be robust banter to another. A pub where no customer ever made a jokey remark to another customer they didn’t know would be a very dull pub indeed.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Raising the bar

Eyebrows were raised by a press report last week of comments by scientist Dr Kari Poikolainen, a former World Health organisation alcohol expert, that drinking only becomes harmful when people consume more than around 13 units a day. Not surprisingly, Julia Manning, from think-tank 2020Health, countered by saying: “This is an unhelpful contribution to the debate. It makes grand claims which we don’t see evidence for. Alcohol is a toxin, the risks outweigh the benefits.” Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

Now, I’m not advising you to go out and drink 90+ units a week, but there is a kind of fundamental truth in what he says. As I’ve repeatedly said, the current health guidelines represent a kind of lowest common denominator figure that is at the bottom of a gentle U-curve of risk. You certainly don’t encounter a cliff-edge of danger if you exceed them. People’s metabolisms vary so widely that it is impossible to state with certainty that x amount of alcohol will be OK, while y will be harmful.

And there is a kind of widespread folk wisdom that it is around the levels he states – maybe an average of about six pints a day – that drinking does start to become problematic. For example, here I quoted Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s: “He rails against the government’s 21-units-a-week dictum. “The doctor who came up with it said there’s no medical foundation to it; 70 to 80 units a week.” As a limit, or a recommendation? He laughs.”

Of course it is a fundamental feature of all such public health guidelines that they are set a little below what most people would consider a “normal” level, so a majority is made to feel guilty. The “five-a-day” nonsense is just the same. And, while drinking five pints a day is maybe not a prescription for optimal health, the risk of it doing you serious harm, especially if you’re a sturdy bloke, are greatly exaggerated.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Do you ever get a feeling of déjà vu?

Sometimes I get an idea for a blogpost, only to realise I’ve said pretty much exactly the same thing before. Yesterday I was in Joule’s excellent Cross Keys in Chester and thought a few words of praise would be in order, but there’s very little I can add to my thoughts from a couple of years ago. The Cross Keys – once a Boddington’s pub – is basically a single room, but has been very tastefully refurbished with glittering mirrors, wood floors and extensive bench seating (complete with a few scatter cushions).

It’s difficult to avoid the feeling, though, that the Joule’s pub estate is ultimately dependent on some deep pockets. If taking failing pubs over and carrying out lavish refurbishments as proper pubs rather than family-focused eateries was such a good commercial prospect, then surely others would be doing it, but rather conspicuously they are not. Their recent revamp of the previously run-down Butcher’s Arms at Forsbrook in Staffordshire is a good example. Still, why not just enjoy them and not worry about who is paying for it all?

On the bar of the Cross Keys is the vintage Carling Black label font pictured on the right, now non-operational, of course. And this reminded me of another point I’ve made in the past, that the working classes almost to a man now shun cask beer. It was a beautiful sunny day, not particularly warm, but the sun was pleasant if you were out of the wind. While I was there, a sequence of fairly down-to-earth looking groups and couples came in, and pretty much every bloke went for a pint of Grolsch, even though there were six cask beers on the bar and the Joule’s Pale Ale was in excellent nick.

Is cask beer seen as just too difficult, poncey and precious? And is that maybe a reason for stocking Bombardier and Cumberland Ale rather than 57 varieties of stuff the average drinker has never heard of?

Sunday 13 April 2014

Faith in the future

We are often told that the British pub is in headlong decline, with a tidal wave of closures and pubgoing increasingly becoming irrelevant to the majority of people. However, our two largest British-owned brewers, Greene King and Marston’s, are bucking this trend by opening large numbers of new-build pubs, which are generally pretty big establishments, not dinky little niche bars. They don’t get the recognition they deserve, though, as they’re family-oriented dining pubs located on retail and leisure parks, and thus far from the CAMRA stereotype of community local or multi-beer alehouse.

My namesake (actually Paul Mudge) writes of one in Stafford on the CAMRA forum (registration required):

At a time when CAMRA quite rightly criticises the loss of pubs for conversion to other uses, such as ‘supermarkets’ ( which are neither ‘super’ nor ‘markets’ ), maybe CAMRA should do more to congratulate those companies whose confidence in the brewing and pub industries extends to building and opening new pubs. I would suggest that the three ‘New National Brewers’ are investing the most in new build pubs and a week ago Greene King opened one 2½ miles from my house. It is just half a mile from the county town’s Market Square and is the first proper pub, rather than a bar as part of a larger development, to be built in the town for nearly thirty years when the then Big Six National Brewers dominated the industry.

This new pub is well designed with plenty of the natural light that is sadly missing from those soulless high street drinking barns cheaply converted from premises such as a redundant Woolworths site, and as a spacious building on a large site it has plenty of room for toilets on the ground floor which many of us appreciate. Three cask beers were on the handpumps including Greene King IPA (winner of the Bitter category and overall runner up at CAMRA's 2004 Champion Beer Of Britain Awards) at just £1.99 a pint which is a good 10% cheaper than would be paid at either of the nearby ‘pubs’ of a chain reputed to offer low prices. It was no surprise that there’s an emphasis on food, much of which I fear will be microwaved, but the menu looked inexpensive, the beer and burger at £4.99 or two meals for £8.49 for example probably indicating the best value pub in town.

I have written about the recently-opened local example of the chain here. I concluded that it was a lot better than you might expect and in a number of respects, such as natural light, bench seating and general quality of materials, a definite cut above your average Wetherspoon’s.

And there’s a very interesting blogpost here from Phil Mellows about the Sycamore Farm in Burnley (pictured).

This represents an important shift in the make-up of the pub market and in consumer behaviour. It suggests that at least once or twice a week there are thousands of families who, rather than cook and eat at home, will go out for a meal. And it's the pub industry that's increasingly providing the kind of relaxed atmosphere and the price-point they need.
But he concludes – a point with which I would entirely concur:
So far, so good, but is this really the only future of the pub? I can't help but look beyond the balance-sheet and worry that to help fund its expansion into this new breed of pub-restaurant Marston's will, by the end of 2015, have sold off 500 other pubs, at least 200 of them earmarked for conversion to supermarkets.

Some thought needs to go into what we might be losing here. Much as I can admire the likes of Sycamore Farm as an industry observer, as a pub-goer I'd never go near the place.

I have visited its sister pub, the Evenwood Farm in Runcorn, a couple of times for meals with family members. Early doors on Friday evening it was absolutely rammed. But I have to say that on both occasions, while the portions were generous to the point of being overfacing, the food was pretty poor even by the standards of chain pub microwave cooking.

I have sometimes been accused by commenters of wanting all pubs to be the same, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. I value and celebrate diversity in pubs, but within that I’m quite entitled to say that I prefer one type of pub to another and regret the fact that the sort of pubs I like have steadily declined, while pubs in general tend to increasingly conform to a common stereotype.

These family dining pubs obviously aren’t my kind of pub, and aren’t where I’d choose to go and read the paper on a Sunday lunchtime. But they certainly meet a demand and their success is undeniable. Surely it’s a good thing for the future of the pub trade to get people visiting somewhere that is at least a vague approximation to a pub rather than an establishment that bears no relation to one. Beer enthusiasts sneer at them at their peril.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Spoons not even on the bench

Someone said to me on Twitter: “I would have thought Spoons were right up your street – no music, cheap beer and grumpy old blokes.” I certainly recognise and appreciate those qualities in Sam Smith’s pubs, but somehow they just don’t seem to gel for me in Spoons. An obvious difference is the frequent presence of screaming kids in Spoons, which are rarely encountered in Sam’s, but, thinking about it, the key reason is that Spoons pretty much entirely avoid bench seating.

Regular readers will know that this is a long-standing hobby-horse of mine which I have written about previously here and here. Bench type seating, whether fixed or free-standing settles, has been long associated with pubs and is a characteristic feature of traditional pub interiors. It is highly flexible in accommodating groups of different sizes and, when quieter, allowing customers to spread out coats and bags. It also promotes sociability by getting drinkers to face the centre of the room and interact with each other rather than looking inward at their own little groups. You are much more likely to talk to people you don’t know where there are benches. In short, it just makes an interior seem more “pubby”. Plus it maximises total seating capacity.

I’m sure it’s a deliberate policy on the part of Spoons to furnish their pubs with free-standing chairs and tables as it is their intention to make them look less like old-fashioned pubs. Much the same is true of dining pub chains such as Brunning & Price and Vintage Inns. But a much greater use of bench seating would give them some of that atmosphere the lack of which is often considered one of Spoons’ greatest failings. Take, for example, the Waterhouse in central Manchester, which occupies a row of early 19th century terraced houses. With fixed seating, it would be a marvellous rabbit warren of cosy, characterful snugs. Without it, it’s just random loose furniture in a series of small rooms. At their worst, the bigger, open-plan Spoons with rows of tables in the centre of the room look more like works canteens.

A further issue with Spoons is that very often they seem to have eight different beers on but nothing I actually want to drink. The basic concept of a balanced beer range seems to completely elude their managers. It might be an idea if in each region they had as a permanent beer a classic “ordinary bitter” characteristic of that area such as, say, Thwaites Original in the North-West. This could replace the forgettable Ruddles and ensure there would always be something reasonable to fall back on even if everything else was either 6.5%, flavoured with coriander or as black as the Ace of Spades. It could also wean some of the regulars off John Smith’s Extra Smooth.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Chuck out your chintz

The latest bizarre interior design feature to appear in pubs is the proliferation of scatter cushions. They’ve appeared in a number of Robinson’s recent refurbishments, and they’ve even cropped up in Wetherspoon’s. And, not content with colonising the lounge side, they’ve even started spreading to the vault!

The idea, I suppose, is to make pub interiors seem more female-friendly by introducing a cosy, homely, design element. But in practice nobody ever derives any comfort from them, and they just end up being chucked on the floor to free up more seating space. Surely it is appropriate for the “public” side to have an understated, functional, even austere design ethos of a somewhat masculine character rather than being bedecked with fancy fripperies.

And isn’t it somewhat patronising to women to imagine that they will be tempted into pubs by the introduction of fussy, chintzy soft furnishings that serve no practical purpose?

Saturday 5 April 2014

Idea vs reality

In the 1960s, there was a wave of railway branch line closures stemming from the notorious “Beeching Axe”, which often came up against passionate opposition. But it was noticeable that the commemorative “last trains” often carried more passengers than the line had done in the whole of the previous month. Many people had a lingering fondness for the idea of rural branch line railways, but they had fallen out of love with the reality.

As Rowan Pelling argues in an article entitled We love pubs and churches, but don’t want to use them, the same is increasingly happening with pubs. There are endless campaigns to “save the Red Lion from evil property developers”, and dinner party guests discuss how sad it is that the old pubs are closing, but the harsh truth is that people in general are going to them less and less often. “We love to complain about the decline of our institutions, but want someone else to do our praying and drinking,” she says.

Exactly the same can be said of many other long-established categories of business – libraries, post offices, traditional butchers, local bank branches, independent corner shops, even High Streets in general. The chattering classes embrace them in theory, but shun them in practice. You get the impression that a lot of people want large swathes of the country to become some kind of Merrie England theme park populated by cheeky Cockneys and gurning yokels, while they sit at home waiting for the Ocado delivery which they will pay for by mobile phone banking.

“Use it or lose it” is a glib phrase that is too often casually used without considering the implications. In practice, few of us are likely to be able to make any difference to the success or failure of businesses through our own custom alone, and it’s not reasonable to expect people to inconvenience themselves out of a sense of principle. But, collectively, it has to be acknowledged that the sum total of our decisions as a society is what has driven so many cherished institutions to the wall. As far as businesses go, people vote with their feet, and they have increasingly voted against pubs.

Pubs used to thrive in large numbers because pubgoing was woven into the fabric of everyday life. For a variety of reasons, that link has increasingly become disentangled over the past few decades, and that’s why so many have closed. The people writing broadsheet newspaper pieces bewailing the death of the pub are likely to find compelling reasons why popping in for a quick one three or four times a week simply isn’t practical.

Incidentally, it’s not the first time that Rowan Pelling has written perceptively about the decline of pubs – I have previously linked to one of her pieces here. A far cry from her days as “Editrice” of the Erotic Review.