Thursday 31 July 2014

Trust me, I’m a doctor

A proposal that has been made in various quarters to address growing public disengagement from politics is the introduction of “open primaries” whereby all electors in a constituency, of whatever allegiance, are given a say in the selection of a party’s candidate. This idea always seems very questionable to me, as surely it will encourage a bland, anodyne centrism and also tend to institutionalise the role of the existing political parties. Would the Monster Raving Loony Party be expected to hold open primaries? The maverick, individualist MPs who enliven the political landscape would be squeezed out. And, given that modern Britain seems to treat the NHS as a kind of secular religion, any candidate with a medical background would get an immediate head start.

A prime example of this was the selection of Dr Sarah Wollaston as Conservative candidate for Totnes in Devon at the 2010 General Election. Although the majorities have sometimes been slender, this seat has been won by the Conservatives at every election since 1923, so must be regarded as pretty safe. Since her election, she has been one of the most outspoken champions in the House of Commons of measures to restrict people’s lifestyle choices, being a strong advocate of minimum alcohol pricing and plain tobacco packaging, and most recently demanding government-dictated standard portion sizes for food as a means of combating obesity.

Many have even questioned what she is doing in the Conservative Party at all, as surely two of the key principles of modern-day conservatism must be encouraging individual responsibility and a scepticism about top-down State solutions to improve the human condition.

As Brendan O’Neill said in a recent speech to the annual dinner of the Free Society, this tendency isn’t just about imposing a few extra restrictions, it is challenging the entire foundation of the Enlightenment which has been the foundation of much Western political thought for over three hundred years.

What we’re really witnessing is the unravelling of the Enlightenment itself. The Enlightenment was based on the idea that individuals should be free to carve out their own moral and spiritual path in life without being hectored, harried or “corrected” by their rulers.

As John Locke said in his letter on toleration, one of the earliest documents of the Enlightenment, “The care of souls does not belong to the [state]… every man’s soul belongs unto himself and is to be left unto himself.

This is the real fight we have on our hands today – not a fight against a bunch of annoying nannies, but a fight against the attempted colonisation of our souls by a state which thinks, wrongly, that it knows better than we do ourselves how our lives should be run.

The term is often too freely bandied about, but, as Simon Cooke explains, this genuinely is Health Fascism – the belief that individuals are not qualified to make sensible decisions for themselves and need to subordinate free choice to the higher purpose of the State.
Which is why the term 'health fascist' is entirely appropriate to describe Dr Wollaston's position. The central tenet of fascism is that the state has a duty to change men so they serve the wider purpose of the nation - we are subservient to the needs of that state because it understands what is necessary to build the right kind of society. So it is with the 'duty to intervene' - people ordering 'supersized' boxes of popcorn are not merely damaging themselves, they also damage society by placing a 'cost' on us all. Such practices are decadent with the sin compounded by the suggestion that someone profits from making people eat larger portions.

So to put this right government has that 'duty to intervene'. The wider interests of society - defined with the term 'obesity epidemic' - are served by banning a person from entering freely into a contract with another person because the state has decided that large servings of fizzy-pop and popcorn are unhealthy.

This rejection of choice in a free society because of associated 'health risks' or the 'normalisation' of some proscribed behaviour represents a degree of control and a justification on the basis of wider society's 'interests' that can only be described as fascist. Yet this health fascism - the view that bans and controls are needed because of the 'cost to society' - has become ever more common. That we are weak and make poor choices is undeniable and society should help us to deal with these problems but this does not justify saying that I cannot be allowed the option of a 'poor' choice. The former is good government, that latter health fascism.

Let us hope at next year’s General Election someone (probably UKIP) puts up a candidate against this dreadful woman who is prepared to place a lot of emphasis on lifestyle issues.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Vested interest

The hot weather inevitably leads to parts of the human body being revealed that really should be kept under wraps. One common manifestation of this is men wearing vests. Now, I’m sure the men so attired feel it’s comfortably cooling and informal, but it can’t be said to convey a high-class image.

So I thought I would ask blog readers what they thought of this tendency, at least as it applies to pub customers. A significant majority – 64% - didn’t really approve, but only 21% actively wanted licensees to ban the practice. I’m sure the old–school landlords would never have tolerated it, or at least confined it to the public bar. What happened to all those pubs that pub guides of the past used to say insisted on “smart casual dress”?

I had in mind fat, sweaty blokes with hairy shoulders, so the visions of Greek gods conjured up by those who said they “liked a bit of eye candy” were rather wide of the mark.

And rest assured Mudgie will never appear in public wearing a vest – or shorts, for that matter. If he did, people would probably run screaming. Although yesterday I did see a man considerably older than myself wearing one in the pub. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

You may remember this poll I did a couple of years ago about what people thought were acceptable reasons for pub licensees to refuse customers access – although it didn’t include vests.

Saturday 26 July 2014

Green shoots of recovery

In his mammoth history of the Second World War, Antony Beevor writes of how the mood of the Wehrmacht lifted in the Spring of 1942 following the struggles of the previous winter:
Yet once the birch trees came into leaf and the sun began to dry out the waterlogged land, the morale of German officers experienced an extraordinary revival. It was as if the terrible winter had been little more than a bad dream, and now their run of victories would recommence.
After six years of virtually unrelieved hard pounding following the smoking ban and the recession, the economic recovery now seems to be persuading some pub operators that the broad sunlit uplands may once again be attainable. The most recent beer sales figures were the most positive this century, even for the on-trade.

I can remember when Stockport Market Place was home to six pubs and bars – including two new conversions – and was the centre of a vibrant live music scene. Slowly, they fell by the wayside, and by the end of last year, after the closure of the Baker’s Vaults, the number was down to two, although, to be fair, the recently-refurbished and renamed Cocked Hat was a great improvement on the old Pack Horse. The centre of gravity of the town-centre pub trade had very much shifted to the “Stockport Slope” half a mile further west on and around the A6 between the Crown and the Hope.

But the money is now starting to flow, with Robinson’s having reopened the Baker’s Vaults following an expensive trendy makeover, and plans being well advanced to bring the long-dormant premises of Bambooza (previously Yates’ Wine Lodge) back into use as “Live Bar”. Apparently this – in a high-ceilinged former bank – is to be a “sports and music focused bar”, albeit with six real ales available. People clearly see an opportunity and are prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

I get the feeling, though, that many independent pub operators just seem to take an attitude of “if you build it, they will come” rather than carrying out any detailed market research. Stockport town centre does suffer from a serious lack of footfall in the evenings and, if these new ventures are to succeed, they will need to draw fresh customers in from outside.

Economic revival can cut both ways, though. Five years ago, I wrote about how the Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme had been given a stay of execution, because the recession had caused plans to redevelop the site for sheltered housing had fallen through. It continued to struggle on, but Hydes never really seem to have made a go of it, and it now looks as though it is finally going to close. There must be many other pubs around where improving property prices now make them more attractive for conversion to alternative use.

It does seem to be a perennial problem that, despite all the nearby houses, modern estate-type pubs just seem doomed to failure unless they can be turned into destination dining venues as has happened with the Pointing Dog (ex-Smithy). If there was a magic formula, surely someone would have happened on it by now.

And – no doubt you will think “you would say that, you miserable doom-mongering git” – but in my view the long-term secular trend for the pub trade remains resolutely downwards. One swallow does not make a summer.

Incidentally, I wonder when they’re going to get round to putting the final coat of paint on the Baker’s on top of the grey primer.

Friday 25 July 2014

Well matured

Earlier this week, I reported that, on a CAMRA pub crawl of Didsbury, at the age of 55 I was the youngest of a party of nine. One commenter expressed concern that his branch of CAMRA was struggling to organise social events that had a wide appeal across age groups.

In a sense, this isn’t really my problem anyway, but, in terms of a single event, I’d say it isn’t much to worry about, as the local branch organises a variety of different types of meetings and socials, and not all will appeal to everyone. And the last thing it should be doing is deliberately organising supposedly youth-oriented activities in an attempt to “get down with the kids”.

However, the experience of many membership organisations has been that young people, although often expressing serious interest in the issues of the day, seem reluctant to actually get involved. It is very noticeable that many of the members of the local beer festival organising committee are the same people who were doing it twenty years ago. When they disappear off the scene, who will be there to take their place?

Might the whole business of attracting young people be accorded too much importance, though? After all, we are an ageing society and people in their 20s and 30s are often far too busy developing their careers, buying houses and raising families to get involved in social and campaigning organisations.

And, as I said eighteen years ago, it’s often the case that the appreciation of the finer things in life is something that only comes with age, and if CAMRA wants to recruit members who are going to take an active part in the organisation it might do better to concentrate on the recently retired.

Possibly another issue is that, now there’s little difficulty in finding a wide range of interesting beer in most major urban areas, it’s far from clear what CAMRA is actually campaigning about, and if it is to become just a drinking club then the tastes of over-50s and under-30s are likely to be widely divergent.

Drink to success

Well, a combination of economic recovery, good weather and two years of duty cuts has delivered unprecedentedly positive figures for beer sales, as reported in the BBPA’s Quarterly Beer Barometer. On an annualised basis, total beer sales have grown by 3.8% - the highest figure since the statistics began in 1997 – split between a rise in the off-trade of 8.6% and a fall in the on-trade of 0.6%, which in fact is the smallest annual drop during the entire period.

On the other hand, the tipping point when the off-trade decisively overtakes the on-trade seems to have arrived at last, with off-trade sales accounting for 50.15% of the total in the year to June 2014.

I await the predictable chorus of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the anti-drink lobby, who will no doubt be shrilly demanding a restoration of the duty escalator, minimum pricing and tougher licensing restrictions.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Quid pro quo

A couple of months ago, I reported on plans by the Portman Group to introduce portion control for strong beers and ciders. But it seems as though the producers of these drinks are understandably reluctant to give ground if they get nothing in return, especially asking the government to accept that, if the smaller sizes are brought in, that these drinks should be recognised as legitimate products and not subject to arbitrary local bans of dubious legality.

It’s impossible to say that one particular drink is intrinsically bad and another good, and there are plenty of supposedly respectable craft beers and ciders sold at a similar strength level. Problem drinkers will simply drink whatever comes to hand at a reasonable price to give them the effect they seek.

While I doubt whether many drinkers of Special Brew make any attempt to adhere to the government’s alcohol guidelines, I’m sure there are plenty of people for whom drinking three cans in an evening suits them better than six cans of Carlsberg Export. They may be heavy drinkers, but they’re not causing anyone any problem and that’s no more than many pub drinkers (including members of CAMRA) routinely put away on Friday and Saturday nights.

And if one of the brewers was to launch their super lager in 33 cl cans – with a proportionate reduction in price – no doubt the anti-drink lobby would then start moaning about making it more accessible and selling it at pocket-money prices.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a beer drinkers’ consumer organisation that was prepared to make a robust stand against nonsense such as this?

Monday 21 July 2014

A dawdle round Didsbury

Last Friday, the local branch of CAMRA took its monthly “Stagger” around the prosperous urban village of Didsbury. This will be written up (not by me) in due course for the local magazine Opening Times, but there were a number of points of interest that I thought were worth mentioning.
  • While I have recently celebrated my 55th birthday, I was the youngest person amongst a party of nine.

  • We were allowed to have a drink in the private St Catherine’s Social Club, where Samuel Smith’s OBB was only £2 a pint. The club also had a couple of guest ales.

  • The Wetherspoon’s – the Milson Rhodes – was probably the busiest pub of the night. The cask beer range was dominated by Peerless following a “Meet the Brewer” night. The Crisp and Sweet Action Sixpoint cans (although not the stronger Bengali Tiger) had been reduced to £1.49 each.

  • The Stoker’s Arms is a new pub in the former premises of O’Neill’s. One of the party was refused admission by the door staff as contravening the dress code, although someone less likely to start a fight is hard to imagine. This underlines the point that door control is more about social selection than avoiding trouble. It’s a large, airy, open-plan place that would not be out of place in London. It had two cask beers – Doom Bar at £3.45 a pint and Pendle Witches’ Brew at an eye-watering £3.80. Also had a few “craft kegs” including Korev Lager and Brooklyn Summer Ale at £2.30 a half (which one of us tried). The music was so loud it was hard to sustain a conversation.

  • In the nearby Slug & Lettuce, the music was even more deafeningly banging – and it was one of the less busy pubs. We were served half-pints in unlined, fluted 14oz glasses, which is technically illegal. And a generous overmeasure of indifferent Greene King IPA might not be so much of a good thing!

  • In the back room of the Station, I opened a window to provide a little ventilation, but was told by the licensee to close it again as it contravened the licence conditions.

  • There was some excellent beer, including Adnams Southwold Bitter and Thornbridge Kipling, in the Dog & Partridge, the final pub.

Although these events don’t appeal to everyone – presumably on the grounds that you might have to venture into the odd indifferent pub – I always enjoy them as they enable you to “see life” in a cross-section of pubs rather than just drinking your way along the bar in your favourite free house. And yuppie Didsbury takes me out of my comfort zone amongst the seedy grotholes of Stockport. The Didsbury pubs on average were also probably much busier than those in central Stockport would have been.

Edit: it’s worth pointing out that this “Stagger” only includes half the pubs in Didsbury, so some well-known favourites such as the Royal Oak and Fletcher Moss were not visited.

Address the cause, not the symptoms

Wetherspoon’s have often been discussed on here, and my view is that while I respect their business success and sometimes find them useful, especially for food, they’re not really my kind of pubs.

Once or twice a month I venture into one of my local Spoons to take advantage of their “meal deal” offer. Sadly, I’d say that on about one out of three occasions, I’m served with a pint that has to be returned because of cloudiness, or more rarely sourness.

Every time, the duff pint has been changed without demur. The fact I’ve usually bought it with a beard club voucher may help with that. But it does raise the question of why so many duff pints are being served up. It’s one thing to deal with customer complaints effectively and politely, but something else to make sure that customers aren’t given any reason to complain in the first place. And might customers who are less inclined to speak out end up struggling through a poor pint but then grumble to others about it afterwards?

Sunday 20 July 2014

You can’t buck the trend

Go back ten years, and ask an anti-drink campaigner what he’d like to see in the coming decade. A 20% fall in average alcohol consumption would probably seem a desirable objective, and no doubt he’d outline all kinds of restrictive measures he’d like to introduce to bring that about.

However, that’s in fact what has happened, and without any of the targeted measures favoured by the neo-Prohibitionists. The only exception was the duty escalator, which applied for five years from 2008 to 2012 and ended up increasing the level of duty by about 10% more than inflation. But that didn’t dramatically transform the affordability of alcohol, and indeed the wowsers continued to whine about drink being available at “pocket-money prices” and clamoured for minimum pricing.

On the other hand, licensing hours were further relaxed to allow more pubs and bars than ever before to open into the small hours, while there has been a proliferation of off-licences at corner shops and petrol stations that they would describe as “increasing availability”. There have been no significant curbs on alcohol advertising or promotion.

Ironically, probably the most effective anti-drink measure has been something not directly aimed at alcohol at all, namely the smoking ban. Much of the trade lost to pubs has gone entirely rather than shifting to the off-trade. Over that ten-year period, total beer consumption has fallen by 25%, with the on-trade losing 37% and the off-trade 5%. It could be argued it has done more to cut drinking than smoking.

This underlines the point that trends of this kind reflect wider changes in society and the ability of governments to influence them is limited. There was no deliberate anti-drink policy in the immediate post-war years, yet between 1945 and 1950, British beer consumption fell by 17% as people found other things to spend their money on.

Throughout the 1950s, it largely flatlined, but between 1960 and 1970, it rose by 26%, and the following ten years saw a further 24% rise. Possibly the one-off cut in beer duty in the 1959 Budget was a turning point, but surely a major reason was the entrance of the “baby boom” generation into the drinking population, who were more numerous and had more money to spend than their counterparts ever had before. The 1960s may be portrayed as the era of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but for many young people they were a time of spending more time and more money in the pub.

A major reason for social changes of this kind is not the existing population changing their behaviour, but new entrants acting in a different way. It has been widely reported that the recent decline in alcohol consumption has been most marked amongst the under-30s and, despite all the talk of hipsters, craft beer and trendy bars, they don’t seem to be getting into the habit of regular drinking, whether in pubs and bars or at home, that their parents did.

One reason often given for this is the rise of mobile phones and social media, which mean you don’t have to physically meet up in the pub to keep in touch with people. However, it may well be the case that it’s also an unintended consequence of another government policy that wasn’t specifically intended to reduce drinking as such, namely making it much more difficult for under-18s to buy alcohol, and at the same time making it much more of a ballache for anyone under 25. The attitudes and behaviours you learn in early adulthood will stay with you for the rest of your life.

But the lesson to governments is that, while it is possible to spot social trends and slightly help them along, if you try to stand in their way you are likely to end up suffering the fate of King Canute unless you are prepared to wield a very big stick.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Tins canned

Well, not exactly surprising, but 90% of poll respondents reckoned they would normally call then cans, not tins. I stand by my initial view that, for anyone under retirement age, to call beer cans “tins” is a deliberate, pejorative affectation. Tins are for shoe polish.

I wonder what the one person who voted “Something Else” calls them...

Friday 18 July 2014

The red and the grey

Many years ago, I attended a work-related course in Cambridge. One night, we attendees went out to see a film and afterwards adjourned to a nearby pub for a swift pint. I distinctly recall one of the company walking in and saying “this is one of those red pubs, isn’t it?” At the time, this was a very recognisable theme of pub interior design, with red dralon benches, thick carpet and subdued lighting. If the pubs of old had been “wooden wombs” this, if anything, was even more womb-like.

It wasn’t too long before it fell out of fashion and the bare-boards alehouse style became popular again. The more recent trend, though, is to ditch the unadorned wood colour scheme in favour of painting exposed surfaces in white and pale greys, blues and greens. Originally a feature of self-consciously trendy bars, this has now spread to what you would regard as ordinary mainstream pubs. Only recently I was in a nice little village pub where the front of the bar, instead of being polished wood, had been painted a matt pale grey. It was offputting and just didn’t seem to suit the place.

I can’t help thinking that this kind of colour scheme comes across as cold and harsh and a long way from the feeling of being “at home” that you hope to find in a pub. For whatever reason, there seems to be a marked aversion nowadays to making pubs feel warm, cosy, comfortable and welcoming.

Friday 11 July 2014

Can this be the future?

There’s nothing that the old-school CAMRA true believer despises more than canned beer. It is the spawn of the devil, it never has any redeeming features. He will probably call it “tinned beer” as a way of further belittling it. As it says in the editorial intro to the Out Inn Cheshire magazine, “anything in tins is always, very, very bad”.

However, in recent years canning has been enthusiastically taken up by the US craft beer movement, as described here. The off-trade is relatively more important in the US than in the UK and so that is a market they cannot afford to ignore. Cans offer significant advantages over bottles – they are lighter, and thus cheaper and more environmentally friendly to transport, they are more easily recycled, they prevent the contents being lightstruck, and they offer a much bigger canvas for the brewer to make a statement. The bold can designs favoured by many US craft brewers are very different from their usually much more restrained British equivalents.

So far this trend doesn’t seem to have made much impact on this side of the pond. Yes, BrewDog have produced Punk IPA in cans, and I believe it was even spotted in Sainsbury’s a few years back, although never by me. And some of the more “new wave” mainstream beers such as Old Golden Hen and Ghost Ship have appeared in cans too.

But things appear to be moving, with a growing number of British craft beers, such as Camden Hells, being made available in cans. And a line was crossed earlier this year when Wetherspoons introduced three canned US craft beers from the Sixpoint Brewery. Initially, many, including me, were sceptical about this, but their popularity seems to have steadily grown, with several beer bloggers even saying that they were the best thing to drink in Spoons.

I’ve reviewed them myself here. Not a huge fan, but it’s an interesting innovation. And, slowly but steadily, the dam seems to be breaking, and the acceptance of “quality” beer in cans is growing. Only the other day, I spotted Pistonhead Lager in one of my local pubs. OK, this may be “faux craft”, but it’s certainly aimed at the craft market.

There’s a growing population of younger drinkers who don’t recognise the old-fashioned negative connotations of cans and who are eager to embrace something that seems contemporary, funky and eco-friendly. There’s even a Twitter hashtag going #Summerofcans.

Could it turn out that it is the acceptance of cans, rather than craft keg, that turns out to be the ultimate factor leading to the sundering of the new-wave beer enthusiasts from the real ale diehards? Drinking beer from a can is a pretty decisive statement of rejection of the old certainties.

I wonder how long it will be before the first craft can turns up in my local Tesco. But I do wish they’d sell it (at least at lower strengths) in the proper 500ml cans rather than those kiddypops 330ml or 355ml sizes. Also, if craft cans are to take off, it may require the abandonment of the prejudice against selling single cans on the grounds that it makes them more accessible to problem drinkers. You’re much more likely to experiment with one can than a multipack, which is one of the reasons behind the success of bottled premium ales and world beers in the off-trade.

Edit: no sooner had I put this post up than this appeared on Twitter - surely Beavertown are the crafterati’s craft brewery...

Thursday 10 July 2014

Putting your money where your mouth is

Twenty-five years ago, the CAMRA Members’ Investment Club was created, with the declared objective of investing in companies producing and selling real ale. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength, with the value of its holdings now adding up to an impressive £17.2 million. One of the benefits of investing in traditional integrated brewing companies is that their property portfolios provide a cushion against losses. If the company is successful, then its share price will rise, but if it isn’t, it won’t go bankrupt, it will be taken over by someone else with an eye on the value of the tied estate.

While obviously the genteel poverty of Curmudgeon Towers precludes any large-scale stock market speculation, I have to say I have squirrelled a few mites away in this over the years and it hasn’t done too badly. One of its fundamental principles is that, unlike a conventional unit trust, it doesn’t actively trade its holdings – they are allowed to progressively accumulate and only sold if the company concerned is taken over or ceases to be involved in the pub and brewing industry. The CMIC holding also provides a buffer against hostile bids.

However, it has now been attacked for having holdings in the pub companies that have been so heavily criticised by CAMRA. However, this rather misses the point. Owning shares in a company does not imply that you support the policies of that company, and indeed allows you to attend the Annual General Meeting and may enable you to exercise some leverage over it. In fact, the holdings in Punch and Enterprise are now of pretty trivial value, which reflects the collapse of those companies’ share prices in recent years.

Currently the club has holdings worth over £1 million in Fuller’s, Greene King, Marston’s, Shepherd Neame, Wetherspoon’s and Young’s, none of which have been entirely immune from CAMRA criticism over the years. It needs to be pointed out that the shares of some substantial brewers such as Charles Wells, Robinson’s and Samuel Smith’s are entirely privately held and so not available to outside investors.

Another criticism that in the past has appeared in the comments on this blog is that the club has been unwilling to “put its money where its mouth is” and make speculative investments in brewery and pub company start-ups. However, a key principle is that it is meant to be a serious investment, not a gamble, and only to buy shares in established companies with a sound track record. Quite a number of people (not me) have amassed individual holdings worth over £50,000, which must form a large chunk of their overall savings. If it started acting as a venture capital operation, then I’m sure a lot of people would not hesitate to whip their money out.

Having said that, it has recently made investments in a couple of micro-breweries – Black Eagle and West Berkshire – that seem to have good prospects. It has also amassed holdings of 9.6% in Hop Back and 8.7% in Black Sheep which to my mind run the risk of compromising its independence. If it was up to me I’d probably limit it to 5% of any one company.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head

G. K. Chesterton’s poem The Rolling English Road is not as well known today as it used to be, possibly because its sentiment is now considered politically incorrect:
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
However, in past decades it was much anthologised and was almost part of the furniture for people of my parents’ generation. My late father would often remark, if we were out in the car and encountered a particularly twisty section of road, that it must have been made by the rolling English drunkard.

It isn’t widely realised, though, that the poem actually comes from a strange novel by Chesterton entitled The Flying Inn which was published in 1914 and is described by Charles Moore in the linked article, which oddly fails to name it in its title. As he says, “The novel is mostly quite silly, and occasionally objectionable.”

The theme of the book, which in a way is prophetic but at the same time very wide of the mark, is a takeover of England by Islam, albeit one that is sponsored by members of the ruling class in the name of order and progress. Obviously this involves a clampdown on beer and pubs, and the book chronicles a campaign of disruption and civil disobedience to undermine it. From this, though, Chesterton draws a moral:

Its patriotic and – being Chesterton – paradoxical argument is that the straightness of the English character is expressed in his rambling, drunken road. It gets you to the right place by the wrong way: “a merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread/ The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head”.

Drink, pubs, and the companionship of the meandering road express the liberty of England and imply a Christian journey: “For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen/ Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green”.

And there is a point there – that indirect, boozy muddling through is often preferable to ruler-straight, sober, logical order.

Chesterton often ends up being confused with his contemporary Hilaire Belloc, who held similar views and whose work often covered similar themes – at the time the two were sometimes lumped together as “Chesterbelloc”. I had sort of got it into my head that the famous quotation "When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, For you will have lost the last of England" in fact came from The Flying Inn (where it would not be out of place), but that is Belloc, not Chesterton.

Incidentally, a pint in a Stockport pub of your choice goes to the first person to identify the location of the particular stretch of “rolling English road” shown in the map excerpt above.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Let’s be clear about cask

Ironically, it’s Pete Brown again, but this anecdote from the Morning Advertiser about the aftermath of the Cask Marque AGM just demands a mention:

In fact, I suspect this particular situation would have been better ten years ago. Fortunately the misguided idea that murk adds character to cask beer doesn’t seem to have spread much beyond London so far. Maybe Pete should mention in his next Cask Report the risk of poor presentation putting the casual punter off the category entirely.

An offer you can’t refuse

Pete Brown writes here about how the Black Lion on Bayswater Road in central London has been sold for an astonishing £27 million. He uses this story as a peg on which to hang an argument about how things other than simply return on investment need to be taken into account when considering the future of pubs, and points out that the pub was turning an annual gross profit of £700,000. But, however much profit you’re making, there will come a point when an offer is just so tempting that you can’t turn it down. Every business owner ultimately has his price.

It is a fundamental principle of economics that overall utility is maximised if all the factors of production – capital, land, buildings, equipment and people – are used in the most effective manner. It doesn’t matter if something is already profitable – if it can be used to generate a greater profit by being used for something else, then it should be.

Obviously we realise as a society that there are some things that you can’t really put a price on, which is why we have planning restrictions, listed buildings and green belts. But in a sense these can be regarded as luxuries that prosperity enables us to afford. Stray too far from the principle of maximising returns and you end up with economic sclerosis and businesses struggling along on life support when their sites and their employees could clearly be more profitably employed doing something else.

Look at any shopping street from fifty years ago and the mix of businesses will have pretty much entirely changed. It may be a matter of regret that all those little family butchers and wool shops have been replaced by takeaways and nail parlours, but the usage of the buildings simply follows demand, and exactly the same is true of pubs. If the building would be more profitable as something else, then, subject to planning considerations, that’s what it should become. You can’t preserve businesses in aspic because people feel sentimental about them.

It also is not the case that such conversions leave whole areas denuded of pubs. It may not make economic sense to maintain a large, free-standing building as a pub in a city centre with sky-high property prices, but such areas by definition will have large numbers of residents, workers and visitors and are likely to be able to support plenty of shops, bars and caf├ęs to meet their needs, albeit generally in units as part of a larger building. And, if a large and underused estate pub has been converted to a Tesco Express, there’s nothing to stop entrepreneurial locals turning a vacant unit in a nearby shopping parade into a box bar or micropub if they think there’s the demand, as many have already done. A small pub may succeed where a big one has failed.

Pete also comes up with the familiar canard that the Black Lion could surely have been more profitable if run in a more enterprising manner. For each individual pub taken in isolation, this may be true, but in general it would only have succeeded by taking trade from others. As I argued here, it isn’t credible to suggest that the marked long-term secular decline of demand for pubs could have been prevented or even significantly curbed by pubs as a whole being better managed. To do that would involve rewinding thirty years of social and legislative change.

It also seems to me that this is overwhelmingly a London problem, and indeed a problem of London inside the North and South Circular Roads. It’s very hard to think of any example of a pub local to me that has been sold for alternative use despite having been doing healthy business. In fact, the opposite is generally true – there are plenty of pubs that have been standing closed and boarded for years without being either brought back to life as pubs or converted to something else. £27 million could easily buy you a whole estate of pubs in the North-West!

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Here we go again round the mulberry bush

I recently spotted this blogpost on the perennial issue of children in pubs. It’s basically a parents’ user-guide for how to go about introducing children into the world of pubs and, as I said in the comments, if every parent was as thoughtful and responsible as the author, there really wouldn’t be much of a problem.

However, unfortunately all too often that is not the case. Irresponsible parents allow their children to cause a nuisance and licensees are extremely reluctant to confront bad behaviour by children for fear of coming across as, well, curmudgeonly. It needs to be stressed that the problem is not children themselves, but irresponsible and thoughtless parents who take them to inappropriate places and fail to control them.

Plus, some parents take affront at the idea of their little darlings being barred from any part of any pub at any time, and refuse to accept that it is a legitimate desire for adults to want to enjoy a quiet drink in the company of other adults.

As I’ve said before, the pub trade is best served by having a variety of offers so people can make a choice – some serve food, some don’t, some have Sky Sports, some don’t, some admit children, some don’t, some allow dogs, some don’t, some allow smoking, some don’t. Oops, did I cross a line there? But too many people seem to think that their own preferred model should be imposed everywhere.

It brings to mind this blogpost and the subsequent lively comment thread from last year.

Actually, I get the impression that, as just going to the pub for a drink during the day and early evening becomes less and less popular, it is starting to become less likely to encounter young children outside the obvious dining pubs.

And it always baffles me why those who are so keen to encourage children in pubs are strangely reluctant to campaign to allow them into betting shops. After all, far from there being nothing for them there, surely it would be an excellent way to habituate them into the adult world of drinking gambling.

Crafty tinkers

Next Tuesday, Wetherspoon’s will be opening their first pub in the Republic of Ireland, the Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock, County Dublin. They have now released the initial food and drink menus, including prices. Bear in mind that everything is priced in Euros, but even making allowance for that the prices are considerably higher than those charged on this side of the border. The current £-€ exchange rate is about 1.25, which makes the €10.95 gourmet burger equate to £8.76 – but in my local Spoons it’s only £6.99.

Apart from declaring the use of Irish ingredients (although not Irish chicken), the food menu is fairly similar to what you would see over here. On the drinks side, much of the media attention has been devoted to the fact that Spoons are not offering Guinness as they have been unable to agree an acceptable price point with Diageo.

However, a striking aspect is the strong presence of “craft keg” beers, including Dogfish Head DNA, Franciscan Well Rebel Red, Shipyard American Pale Ale and Tom Crean’s Irish Lager. It has been pointed out to me that these are all from offshoots of major breweries rather than small independents, but they are definitely craft-themed rather than mainstream in the sense of John Smith’s Extra Smooth. In the UK, the equivalent products would be on cask.

This is understandable, given the lack of a recent cask-drinking tradition in Ireland, but it is a definite shift in the balance of the beer range from what we see here. Will these beers become the preferred choice of the more adventurous Irish beer drinker?

There are also three cask beers, at the cheapest pint prices on the list (€3.75=£3.00), plus the promise of further varying guest ales from Irish brewers. If Wetherspoon’s are to make a success of cask in Ireland, maintaining quality will be absolutely crucial – something where they often fall down on this side of the Irish Sea.

It will be interesting to see how the Spoons experiment in Ireland goes. It certainly has great potential to shake up that country’s often complacent and unenterprising pub trade. My understanding is that it’s common to be expected to pay €6 for a pint, so they will be offering some stiff price competition.