Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Getting out of the house

Go into any town-centre Wetherspoons in the late morning or at lunchtime, and you’ll see a number of tables occupied by middle-aged or elderly men, sitting on their own, typically drinking a pint of John Smith’s, reading the Daily Mirror or the Sun, with a bit of shopping in a plastic carrier bag. This may seem like a sad indictment of loneliness and isolation in our society but, looking at it the other way, what would they be doing if they weren’t there? Probably sitting at home alone with a can watching daytime TV.

This illustrates how, even at a very low level, pubs can contribute to providing a social outlet and alleviating loneliness. Last Monday was World Mental Health Day. I’m not sure whether the two were connected, but Matthew Lawrenson wrote very perceptively about how his trips to the pub help him cope with life:

By this point, I'm sure you're wondering "Then why does he go out at all?" Fairly easy to answer. If you have recurrent mental health problems, being stuck in the middle of the same walls, seeing the same things and listening to the same sounds over and over and over again, well, it does your head in, basically. If you stay in your house too long, it's well documented that mood gradually lowers and you become isolated and less able to function in the world when it confronts you.
And RedNev added:
I live alone and if I don't leave the house for two consecutive days, I feel hemmed in. I was declared surplus from my last job and was retired early, so I don't even have the social interaction of the workplace during weekdays. Isolation isn't good for anyone.

Pubs are the only institutions that I can think of where you can walk in off the street, buy a drink and be entitled to sit there as long as you like, with the option of talking to strangers or not, as you prefer. Try talking to strangers in a café or restaurant and see what reaction you get. Actually, just try lingering too long in a café over one coffee without speaking to anyone and you may get suspicious looks, perhaps even be told to move on. This doesn't usually happen in a pub.

Until various illnesses put it beyond him, my late dad used to go out for a pint or two at lunchtime a couple of days a week. My mum would ask “what’s the point of that if you never talk to anyone?” but that is missing the point. If nothing more, it provides a change of scenery, a bit of mental stimulation and something to look forward to. Sometimes you exchange a bit of conversation, other times all you do its talk to the bar staff, but anything’s better than nothing.

Things could be improved if Tim Martin changed the design of his pubs somewhat so that they were more compartmentalised, and the chairs faced into the centre of each area, providing more of an opportunity for customers to interact with each other. And you can see this in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head in Stockport, where from opening time each lunchtime there will be a fair number of customers, mostly older men who are retired or on disability, who clearly see it as a kind of social club and engage in various kinds of inconsequential banter. On weekday lunchtimes, the two Sam Smith’s pubs and the Wetherspoons will probably contain far more customers than all the rest of the pubs in the town centre combined.

The smoking ban dealt this kind of trade a substantial blow, as the bloke who saw enjoying a smoke as an essential part of relaxing in the pub may have stopped going, and his non-smoking friend who enjoyed his company may then have been deterred too. And it’s not something that pub-owners really want to encourage, hence the trend for wall-to-wall dining or replacing benches with posing tables that are a challenge for creaky joints.

But the importance of pubs in giving people some kind of social outlet, however limited, cannot be underestimated. Yes, old blokes sitting on their own in the pub may seem sad. But it’s helping to alleviate a greater sadness.

45 comments:

  1. Excellent points, as indeed were those from Matthew and Nev. I can't argue with you about Spoons seating, though it was noticeable in Grantham Spoons the other week how the old fellas just moved around and chatted to who were clearly just folk they saw every day in the pub. There's probably more male conversation in Spoons than all the day care facilities in tow put together.

    ReplyDelete
  2. When I was home in the summer, I went to the Spoon's in Inverness a couple of times, once with my wife and the second time alone. The time I wandered in alone must have pension day as the place was positively heaving in older folks having a pint, and they seemed to be having a grand old time of it. I dread the day when pubs only cater to the whims of the young, the trendy, and the extroverted.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "The smoking ban dealt this kind of trade a substantial blow, as the bloke who saw enjoying a smoke as an essential part of relaxing in the pub may have stopped going, and his non-smoking friend who enjoyed his company may then have been deterred too"

    This always seems to me to be a bizarre argument, as surely its obvious to anyone that if this is a valid line of reasoning, then the direct opposite line of reasoning is equally valid, in that the removal of cigarette smoke from pubs made them a viable entertainment option for the enormous number of non-smokers (who make up 80% of the country) who were previously put off by the smokey atmosphere, and their smoking friends were now able to join them.

    I know plenty of people who didn't used to go to the pub because it was too smokey, who now do so.


    The fact that the smoking ban happened to coincide with the great financial crisis of 2007 which caused the entire economy to slide doesn't prove anything at all, unless you are claiming the smoking ban caused the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market. Correlation is not Causation. We've looked at the graphs before, and once you factor the financial crisis out, there was no noticeable empirical effect of the smoking ban at all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Have you got documentary evidence that an enormous number of non-smokers were put off going to the pub because it was smoky? I and most of my friends are non smokers and we never denied ourselves a pint or several because smoking was allowed in pubs.

      Delete
    2. Same here David. Perhaps Good Beer Guide pubs are different, but I can only think of a handful of pubs out of 5,000 odd up to 2007 that had off-putting levels of smoke. A unsurprisingly now closed Hydes pub north of Bolton will never be forgotten though, just a fug of smoke.

      Delete
    3. I used to work with some people who wouldn't come to the pub on birthdays, Christmas, leaving dos etc because "pubs were too smoky". When the ban came in, they found another excuse. Basically they didn't like pubs.

      Delete
    4. Pubs have been in decline for a century, at various rates. According to Martyn Cornell, in 1908 Herbert Asquith thought that there were, “Too many pubs”. Basically, this is true: if demand declines then supply must also. I can’t find the article for decline by decade but I bet it was high in the years that people found staying at home to watch TV became attractive. Now young people have become more attracted to health issues but they also have less discretionary income and they can interact online.
      Now to PY’s arguments:
      The 80% of people who didn’t smoke didn’t go to pubs because of the smoke but because they did not like pubs; therefore when the smoking ban was introduced they still did not go to the pub.
      CAMRA said that a much greater percentage of lager drinkers smoked compared to real ale drinkers. That is probably true but it was the lager drinkers that kept most pubs viable; maybe 70% of their custom. It’s easier for a lager drinker than a real ale drinker to replace his draught brew with a can. Say half the lager drinkers left, 35 out of 100 customers: that means that the real ale drinkers had to increase their presence from 10 to 45: unlikely.
      “I know plenty of people who didn't used to go to the pub because it was too smokey, who now do so.” Totally anecdotal - Bert and Fred who now always pop in for a half at Christmas. The reality is that people like me, who smoke and want to so with their drink rather than going outside, do not visit pubs in the winter much only in the summer and only when the weather is good. Then everyone wants to sit outside.
      Pubs have declined at various rates in previous decades for various reasons. They have not declined in line with economic prosperity but have stood up well. It’s not all down to the smoking ban but it has had a significant effect.

      Delete
    5. As usual, py conflates "non-smokers" and "antismokers". Before the ban, most non-smokers had no problem with visiting pubs where smoking was allowed although, as stymaster says below, they might avoid one or two particularly smoky pubs. Antismokers, on the other hand, tend to be the kind of joyless, prissy people who don't much like pubs anyway. If an antismoker who previously visited the pub once a year now goes twice a year, it can easily be spun into a press headline of "Pub visits by non-smokers double after ban".

      And the fact that there has been no resurgence in the pub trade following the ban (indeed, the exact opposite) gives the lie to the view that there was a huge reserve army of non-smokers eager to visit once smoking in pubs had been outlawed.

      Delete
    6. No-one here is talking about joyless anti-smokers, don't resort to knocking down strawmen. We're talking about normal non-smokers, the vast majority of whom hate breathing in cigarette smoke and actively avoid it. Google surveys of non-smokers if you don't believe me.


      "And the fact that there has been no resurgence in the pub trade following the ban (indeed, the exact opposite) gives the lie to the view that there was a huge reserve army of non-smokers eager to visit once smoking in pubs had been outlawed."

      Except of course, no it doesn't, because correlation doesn't equal causation. The pub trade was failing fast anyway, and there is no evidence to suggest that it wouldn't have failed even faster without the smoking ban.


      "The 80% of people who didn’t smoke didn’t go to pubs because of the smoke but because they did not like pubs" is a bizarre, spurious assertion with zero empirical evidence or basis in reality. You accuse me of anecdotal evidence, but this kind of bald, unfounded, evidence-free assertion is far worse.

      Delete
    7. But normal non-smokers (like me) did go to pubs in large numbers before the ban, and didn't start going in any greater numbers after the ban.

      Delete
    8. Well some did, although often under protest, and some didn't. You can't extrapolate from yourself to every non-smoker.

      Delete
    9. Well of course some non-smokers didn’t go to pubs because they were smoky and may well do so now but you said that the 80% of the population who did not smoke “were previously put off by the smokey (sic) atmosphere”. As it is no longer smoky, why are they not all in the pub if that was the only reason stopping them? If 80% of the population were kept out of pubs by the smoke alone there would have a resurgence in pubs following the ban despite any recession.

      Delete
    10. Who here said it was the ONLY reason stopping them? I certainly didn't. I just identified it as one factor amongst many. Resist the temptation to knock down strawmen.


      Delete
    11. So he answer to my question seems to be: no there is no real evidence that non smokers were put of going to the pub because of the smokee. Nor is there evidence to the contrary.

      Delete
  4. Good post, making some good points. The pub is a social space, even on your own; I will pop out for a pint or two on my own if my other half is watching something on TV I cannot bear- and I'll sit with a book or my phone, maybe a few words to staff or locals I know, but only a few words. I could sit in another room at home, but it is different in a pub, even if not talking. Hard to put your finger on it.

    As to the smoking ban, I can think of a couple of local pubs that were very poorly ventilated and so certainly put me off (as a non-smoker), and I frequent them much more since 2007, but that's just me and a few of my friends. The point about people just not liking pubs is very true though. I've said it before that old, traditional pubs with a smoke room seem like the best solution to me.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Couple of comments on this thread immediately spring to mind.
    On the typical Wetherspoon design and layout. Can't see TM changing that much, as the pubs are bidding for three entirely different groups of customers: the old(er) boys and girls; the cheap eat families (mostly weekends and school holidays); and financially challenged yoof. Anyone who has been into their pubs knows there is a complete and total change over of clientele between 5 and 7 o'clock every day. Therefore Wetherspoon has gone for a compromise design, that is probably not the ideal for anyone, but one all those markets can tolerate.
    On smoking: am very much in the minority in my circle as a smoker, but with a few exceptions (which remember because they were such exceptions) very rarely did any of the non-smokers have any worries or objections about pubs because they were "too smoky". Is there any actual evidence that masses of previous non pub goers suddenly began flocking to pubs because smoking was excluded? Given the closure rate, it would seem hard to argue they have been significant. Certainly not significant enough.
    One shouldn't argue from singular anecdotal evidence... which is an obvious prelude to an example of exactly that ;-). Was spending a weekend in Shrewsbury in 2004, three years before the ban came in. A pub, right in the centre of town, had decided to institute its own complete ban, which had by then been running for around six months. Surely it would be packed with all those folks only deterred from their love of the institution by horrible smoke - especially as it was the only one. It did what appeared to be (we didn't eat there) decent food options, and the beer options were a good standard. We did half a dozen pubs around the centre over the weekend. All were pretty busy, a couple packed, except that one, which had 3 (THREE) customers when we called in (had one drink, and left). A few months later picked up a piece on the Net about how the landlord had reversed the decision. He wasn't very gracious about it, I recall, saying how he'd created this great smoke free atmosphere... and nobody came. A few years later, when the smoking ban in pubs advocates were peddling the 'millions of new customers will the thronging to pubs' line as part of their argument, I did remember that pub.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've heard the view that one objective of Wetherspoon's layouts is to minimise dwell time. Tim doesn't want his customers getting *too* comfortable.

      Delete
    2. Yes, I've been told that by a senior Spoons manager. The design is to encourage throughput and thereby turnover rather than encouraging longer stays.

      Delete
    3. Wetherspoons tried a smoking ban in some of their pubs prior to the national ban and intended to roll it out across the chain: they didn’t because sales in those pubs dropped.

      Delete
    4. Was the Shrewsbury pub the Three Fishes in (I think) Fish Lane? Pre-ban, I went there once and it was dead. Post-ban, I've been there a few times and it's a pretty decent pub.

      Delete
    5. I always found the landlord rather unfriendly back in the early 2000s. The place was like a mausoleum. No pool table, no juke box, the only good thing about it was the lack of smoke. No wonder no-one went in there.

      Delete
    6. Pool table? Juke box? Just what I wouldn't want to see in a pub.

      Delete
    7. Why, don't you like pool or music?

      Delete
  6. I would love to have a local pub where I could just sit and relax like this. Unfortunately, they all have big screen football and loud music - not conducive to quiet relaxation.
    Re smoking: I recently saw an interesting, if predictable graph, in which the reduction in smoking in the UK population is mirrored by a corresponding increase in obesity.

    ReplyDelete
  7. You make a convincing point as to how pubs may alleviate certain mental health conditions and provide a vital social role.

    Not sure we need this many pubs though. Every town could get by with one pub?

    And we could medically supervise them to ensure pub going was therapeutic and alleviating rather than exacerbating conditions.

    You could get a pub pass off your doctor. Go to the Doc, tell him you’re a bit left field, and get a pass which allows you into pubs. “Doc, I’m thinking I’m going crazy. I want to vote Farage”, “Oh dear god man, take Sam Smith Old Brewery 3 times a day for the next month”

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wouldn't that be *more* likely to make me vote Farage?

      Delete
  8. There's a well known older gentleman in Bury who comes into Spoons and then listens to audio books with a set of large headphones. Obviously he could do that at home but at some level he must want company and a break from his own four walls.

    ReplyDelete
  9. A point worth adding is that free pensioner bus passes must have a role to play in making this happen. Without that, the bus fares would probably be more than the cost of two pints of John's.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. That's a point I make vociferously each time stopping pensioners' bus passes is broached.

      Delete
  10. I've never been inside a Wetherspoons. What am I missing?

    ReplyDelete
  11. This one hits the point with me. I'm old and now alone, but not lonely, my wife passed away 4 years ago. I use the pubs several times a week just to sit quietly chat, read a book and a change of scenery. Without the pubs I would be lonely but I find I get the necessary interaction with just a brief visit to charge my batteries up for another day or two. Probably seems sad to most people but we all have our own ways of coping with different and difficult situations.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Having accepted that pubs serve a great social function for people with mental health issues.

    What's the point of them for people without mental health issues?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Because its weird and uncomfortable to invite acquaintances to your house. Where else can you go if you just want to sit and chat - to friends, workmates, club mates, or even complete strangers?

      Delete
    2. No it's not. You would be welcome to come to my house. There is enough dinner for another plate, might even open a bottle of wine if we have a guest. You would need to be house trained enough to be polite and respect another's home, though, Py.

      Delete
  13. Indeed Sir, from my perspective as an Englishman in exile in the Antipodes, I do declare that my lack/alas of frequenting pubs is due to pricing, sadly. If a pint of ale costs 11 dollars (about 5.5 quid)then my visits to the pub are infrequent. To be honest buying bottled beer at the 'offy' is cheap. No wonder there is no 'pub culture'in Kiwi Land. The lack of decent affordable ale is enough to make an Englishman cry. So I do, what I can....Tis enough to break a man's heart.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I must confess to being one of the people possibly being referred to in this article. I'm 28 and have autism, as well as a visual impairment and I carry a white stick, so I'm unable to drive. I go to pubs mainly for the social side of it. Actually, I hadn't been to pubs regularly for a couple of years (nearly all the pubs and micropubs I have been to have been disappointing) but I live close to Matthew Lawrenson - in a town called Longridge - and there are two brand new micropubs here, both serving good beer. One of them, Tap and Vent, is located on the main street in Longridge, Berry Lane, and opened on the 6th October. They have five real ales (including a fantastic pint of Rudgate's Ruby Mild) for under £3 a pint no matter what the strength. T&V is run by friends of my father's. I've started going in there when it's quiet - having autism, I really can't handle busy, noisy pubs (busy ones at night could be a bit dicey for me due to all the people (my low vision and dyspraxia really do not help matters) but I go in and have a couple of pints and maybe talk to whoever's on the bar. I find that, I really can't make conversation easily - if I don't know you, I'm lost and I feel overloaded and a bit scared. So I'll talk shop, basically, about the beer they have on and what's being going on in the news. It gets me out of the house and away from those that I see every day for a little while.

    I do go to beer festivals but never alone. It's too busy and dangerous for me, that and obviously not able to drive.

    But as you were saying, pubs act as a much-needed place for the elderly, lonely, mentally ill and disabled people to go to. They're a bit like a political party in some ways. I like to think that pubs cater to a broad section of society. It would be sad if this were lost.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for that comment Paul. It underlines how pubs can give a very wide spectrum of people the opportunity to put a toe in the water of social life.

      Delete
    2. What a great insight into the importance of these pubs for all sorts of members of society. It really gives a different focus to the campaigns to keep friendly community pubs open.
      When I was unemployed in Canada for a few months, despite living in a fantastically welcoming and friendly country (puts much of Britain to shame!) It really is a car culture and I was not within walking distance from a pub. How I wished I could have sipped a pint, sat up at the bar and had a little chat just to help me out of the encroaching depression within strolling distance.

      Delete
    3. No problem, Mudgie. Any time. Must get over to Stockport sometime and try some of the beer houses over that way.

      Delete
    4. @Beer Wrangler - a point that may be overlooked is that many of the people for whom the pub does provide a modicum of social contact will be travelling there by car and keeping below the legal limit. If the limit we cut, a further bond of sociability would be snapped.

      Delete
  15. Stanley Blenkinsop18 October 2016 at 16:43

    What a fabulous response from a huge range of people who I normally never see in the comments section of beer blogs such as this.
    It must be a delight for you Mudgie that so many people from different walks of life enjoying your musings.
    Fortunately I've never used a pub for company but come the day when I might I'd have no worries about it.
    Even if no-one spoke to me I'd love the people watching.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hey, py, you've made it to the big time now. Seeingthelizards has taken the piss out of you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's nice, although as far as caricatures go, its not particularly accurate. Mainly I just repeat beer bloggers arguments back to them when they are inconsistent, for example the time John Clarke called me "a moron" for claiming that the majority of supposed real ale was actually brewery conditioned, and yet he's just said exactly the same thing on this blog. A short memory? Or simply an inability to admit when you're being inconsistent.

      Delete
    2. Actually I've not called anyone a moron - I think I said you were talking drivel (plus ca change) but perhaps I should have said it was "py in the sky".

      Delete

Comments, especially on older posts, may be subject to prior approval. Bear with me – I may be in the pub.

Please be polite and remember to play the ball, not the man.

Any obvious trolling, offensive or blatantly off-topic comments will be deleted.

See this post for some thoughts on my approach to blog comments.