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.


  1. Not much chance of reversing the decline of the Tavern and Pub as long as we have the current crop of Cap Doffing Landlords and their Mutant Clientele. A motley band of denialists,apologists and
    ivory tower dwellers everything so
    lovely as long as their shed is still standing amongst the wreckage of others nearby.

    Noah's Inn

  2. While there's other effects, like how people live, drink/driving laws which we may call natural effects on pubs, nothing has done damage like the smoking ban.

    And it's not just had an effect on smokers. The reduction in custom and the focus on food that followed has changed the atmosphere in pubs. It used to feel like fun. Maybe you'd bump into someone you knew, but you were also just part of some noise.

    The only fun place I know now is a cellar bar and I'm convinced the reason is that the bar is as close to the front door as you can reasonably get, which means smokers can actually talk to their mates.

  3. Agreed, the idea of the pub as a social meeting-place where you'd encounter a wide cross-section of people seems to have gone out of the window now.

    Indeed I'd say many media commentators have a kind of idealised view of pubs that hasn't really corresponded with reality for at least fifteen years.

  4. Not all pubs close down do to the lack of custom.

    I know of three recent pub closures,they were all quite busy smart pubs but one closed because a frozen food outlet wanted the site,so Marstons sold it off,the other pub was on a retail outlet and quite busy on my fairly recent visit,but Ketucky Fried Chicken wanted to build a drive throgh takeaway,the other pub closed because the company that ran it did'nt know what they were doing.

    So that is two pubs gone forever through no fault of mismanagment or lack of custom,plus one pub with an uncertain future.

    Master Locksmith metior centre Derby gone for good

    Pavilion Stapleford Gone for good

    The Perigrine Derby uncertain future

  5. I'm off down the pub in a minute. In there I expect to meet and chat to a window cleaner, a painter & decorator, an antiquarian bookseller, a security guard and a chartered accountant. We'll probably talk about the Grand national, today's football and any other topic which raises its head. There are still pubs which attract all sorts and conditions although I grant you this may be rarer these days.

  6. the idea of the pub as a social meeting-place where you'd encounter a wide cross-section of people seems to have gone out of the window now.

    Due in no small part to breweries and pub operators targeting pubs at specific market demographics.

  7. Stanley Blenkinsop6 April 2014 at 09:21

    May I use this post to urge readers to vote UKIP at the next General Election.
    Nigel Farage is the only party leader to publicly state he wishes a partial reversal of the smoking ban to allow landlords the right to have at least one room in their pubs designated for smokers.
    And he clearly likes a pint or three.

  8. Point taken, Curmudgeon, but I find it hard to accept responsibility for 'letting the pubs die'. I used to use pubs all the time, in spite of begrudging service, high prices, bad loud music or TV being forced on me, being chucked out at 11 pm, etc. Since the smoking ban, I don't go to them at all. I'm not the only one saying this; and I've said it before; but I will keep saying it over and over again. I NO LONGER GO TO THE PUB BECAUSE OF THE SMOKING BAN! Yes, I know there are other factors, but the Ban was the last straw, it alienated a lot of the pub's best customers, it drove a wedge between people, and generally just messed everything up. I don't care how many people say they like it, or rant about filthy stinking smokers etc. They can have some nonsmoking places if they want, but give us a choice!

  9. I used to go to the pub a lot more frequently. What gets in the way? Work, life relationships, breaking bad box sets. Pubs are nice but once a week or fortnight is enough really. If it was acceptable to work & go for a lunchtime pint I guess I'd go more but I'd rather be a good boy and take the quid that be a bad boy and stagnate.

  10. I go to the pub 4 nights a week on average, for a long time it was 6 nights a week but I've become busier, I have to drive as there are no buses anymore, and sometimes the missus would rather stay in in front of the log burner.

    Its the old institution/business dichotomy again. Pubs used to be an institution, they existed as a means for people to get together and socialise, the selling of beer was a secondary consideration. In many places, this is still true.

    However the majority of pubs are now in the business of selling beer and food. The socialising is now a secondary consideration.

    It may not seem like a big deal, but the switch in focus has caused the public to view pubs in a different light. They forget what their true purpose is. When people complain about the increasing isolation and anonymity of life in the UK, pubs should be the obvious answer, but no-one thinks pubs = socialising anymore, they think pubs = booze.

    This may not be the cause of the decline of the industry, but its certainly the main reason that there isn't more of a public outcry about it.

  11. Bloody Hell. I agree with py. Well from para 2 onwards.


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