A key finding was men's reasons for going to the pub were much broader than just drinking alcohol.The changing nature of pubs is an important factor that erodes the way they can fulfil this function. To the aspects listed I would add the smoking ban, uncomfortable seating, dim lighting, abandonment of lunchtime opening and the feeling in many food-oriented pubs that customers who just want a drink and a chat aren’t really welcome.
It found they wanted to interact with other people, get out of the house and break their daily routine (for those living on their own), to enjoy live music with others, and as a reward in the working week.
The changing nature of pubs was also outlined, with higher prices, fewer social activities and louder music making it harder for older men to access pubs. Men felt it was no longer acceptable to 'nurse a pint' if you were unable to afford multiple drinks.
Landlords and pub owners were identified as having an important role to play in creating a social space where people felt welcome. The men's group felt that it was the role of the landlord to get to know their frequent customers and provide a point of regular social interaction, particularly for pub-goers who may be experiencing loneliness.
It also highlighted how large pubcos can be damaging, as they can result in "frequent changes of staff who do not know their clientele on first name basis".
As the report recognises, very often social interaction takes a very inconsequential form. For many people, it is the simple act of getting out of the house, going into a different environment and saying hello to another human being that makes all the difference. It certainly doesn’t require any kind of organised activities, which indeed in themselves can be offputting to many people. This kind of thing is brilliantly summed up in this vignette from “Stanley Blenkinsop” in the comments on my blog:
My moments of peak frisson usually occur when I walk into rather plain pubs, often in market towns that are a little rough at the edges and find myself in a proper no-nonsense boozer. Just after midday is a favourite time. If Radio 2 is on the wireless I know I've hit the motherlode. The landlord is often overweight and a bit pasty, wheezing from the half packet of John Player Blue that has got him through a late breakfast after last night's heavy session, shifting some barrels in the cellar and sending the missus off to the cash and carry for the nuts and crisps.
His hand is a little unsteady holding the glass underneath the local best bitter tap as my pint goes in but I cut him some slack as I reach for the unread newspaper on the bar. It's always the Daily Mail. He and I care little for conversation but that's fine by me. If I want a chat about inconsequential bollocks I'll start on the second person coming into the bar. He's always an old feller with a scraggy dog. He always smokes roll-ups.
I can while away a couple of hours watching this theatre of mediocre normality. The players arrive at their usual times and go through their usual performance - joshing the landlord, complaining of their aches and pains or some slight from a neighbour. Anything that justifies them getting out of the house and socialising with fellow humans. I know the same thing is happening in pubs up and down the land at that time. It makes me feel comfortable. And I really don't want much more than that at my stage of life.
The photo above shows a group of codgers enjoying a pint in the Old Blue Bell in Hull. I’d bet most of them probably don’t have any contact with each other beyond their regular meet-ups in the pub to share a bit of banter. One of them cheerfully said to his companions “If it wasn’t for all these medical treatments they have today, we’d all be dead!”
Some people have responded to this by saying “Well, it’s not just older men, is it? Loneliness can affect everyone. What about women? What about younger folks?” And that’s certainly true. But it doesn’t affect every category of society in the same way, and it’s important to recognise that different groups have varying experiences. Pubs have a particular relevance for older men as they are often the first place they look to for companionship.
People often speak of pubs in misty-eyed terms as hubs of the community and centres of warmth and sociability. At their best, this is still true. But there are fewer and fewer of them around where you can just walk in, order a pint, sit yourself down on a bench or a bar stool, and exchange a few words about the weather with a total stranger. The reality is often very different from the rose-tinted idyll.