Thursday 27 August 2020

Every little helps

There’s now only one day left to take advantage of the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, which finishes next Bank Holiday Monday. This government-funded scheme, which has been running since the beginning of August, allows pubs, restaurants and cafés to offer a 50% discount on food and soft drinks (although not alcohol) on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, up to a maximum of £10 per transaction. So far it has proved extremely popular, with over 64 million meals being sold. Many venues have been fully booked and have had to turn customers away.

So I thought I would run a Twitter poll on how much use people had made of it. This was widely retweeted and attracted an impressive 786 votes.

As you can see, it shows a U-shaped distribution, with the largest group not having taken advantage at all, but almost as many having made good use of it on more than one occasion. Indeed, one person replied that he had so far used it no less than sixteen times. The reasons for not using it at all included simply being too busy, being someone who didn’t eat out at all, and not thinking it worth abandoning their usual routine. Nobody stated that they were still too frightened to visit hospitality venues.

Obviously if it involves doing something outside your usual routine, many might not find the saving worthwhile, although others will see it as too good to refuse. Amongst other things, I’ve used it to have a couple of Wetherspoon’s steaks, which I don’t normally bother with, but are hard to resist at less than a fiver. While obviously sourced at a price, they’re actually considerably better than you might expect. On one occasion I added a couple of slices of black pudding for half of £1.05, but the other time they had run out. The way the bills are presented makes it difficult to work out exactly how the discount has been calculated, as the menu prices include a drink, but the value attributed to the alcoholic drink is certainly well below the full list price.

The complaint has been made that the scheme does virtually nothing to help pubs that do not sell food. However, realistically, for the government to subsidise half-price alcoholic drinks would have been a political non-starter. I also suspect that it would have generated surprisingly little additional trade apart from that shifted from other days in the week – as I have argued in the past, people are much more deterred from drinking in pubs by lack of opportunity than high prices as such. There may well be a case for additional targeted support for wet-led pubs, but surely the key to reviving their fortunes must be the general restoration of economic confidence and ending the climate of fear. And any government initiative to help the hospitality industry should be welcomed.

Eat Out to Help Out is of course a broad-brush scheme, and will pay for many meals that people would have eaten anyway, or that have been shifted from other days in the week. But there is no doubt that it has generated a lot of additional business overall, and one of the keys to its success has been its simplicity and lack of small print. It is giving specific support to a sector of the economy that was one of the worst hit by the lockdown and provides a large amount of relatively low-paid employment. Plus, going forward, it should help to allay many people’s fears the risk involved in visiting hospitality outlets and make them feel more comfortable about returning in the coming months.

And, if you’ve missed out, or you just can’t get enough, some pub operators such as Ember Inns are continuing it into September at their own expense. Although not, I suspect, Wetherspoon’s.

Monday 24 August 2020

Tempting bait

Sad news that the well-known Jolly Angler pub just off Manchester city centre, having reopened after lockdown, has announced it is to close at the end of the year. It’s a Hydes tied house dating back to 1854, tucked away behind Piccadilly Station in a warehouse district that is increasingly being turned over to new flats. While it was knocked through into one room in the 1980s, it remains a traditional proper pub of considerable character and has become something of a Manchester institution.
Predictably, Hydes brewery have been accused of greed in selling out, but they are after all running a commercial business, not a preservation trust, and one assumes that they have received an offer they can’t refuse from a developer. It isn’t appropriate to draw a comparison with the noble railway arch craft brewers because they don’t have legacy estates of traditional urban pubs that they have to manage.

Over the years I’ve been very resistant to automatic knee-jerk opposition to pub closures. It has to be recognised that, for a variety of social and legislative reasons, the overall demand for pubs has greatly reduced in recent decades, and thus the total number that can trade profitably is much lower than it once was. In addition, many pubs have seen their trade dramatically decline due to changes in their local economy that have led to much lower footfall in the area. Many campaigns to save individual pubs are simply exercises in flogging a dead horse.

However, there are reasons beyond the sphere of economics why particular pubs may warrant preservation. One is that they are of such outstanding architectural merit, in terms of either exterior or interior, that they deserve to be kept. We don’t just allow the indiscriminate destruction of all the architectural jewels bequeathed to us by previous generations. This would cover pubs in Manchester such as the Peveril of Peak and the Wellington and Sinclair’s on Shambles Square.

And there are other pubs that, while they may not be so individually distinguished, contribute to the quality of the overall cityscape. Of course Manchester is not a historic showpiece such as York and Chester, but it would be greatly diminished if all its Victorian heritage was lost. There is no suggestion that the Jolly Angler is a failing business, merely that it does not fit into an overall development plan.

Yet it only occupies a small footprint, and surely it would be possible to create a new development around it, and indeed potentially become its centrepiece. Therefore the ball is firmly in the court of Manchester City Council in assessing the planning situation. The Central Manchester branch of CAMRA have started an online petition which is specifically addressed to Sir Richard Leese, the leader of the Council, and has already attracted over 1,000 signatures in just a couple of days. This states:

The Brewery say they have sold the building but we believe no planning application has been submitted to the City Council for demolition or change of use. If and when plans are submitted we believe it would be reasonably easy and the correct thing to do to accommodate the retention of this pub into any new development.
It should be remembered that a similar campaign a few years ago was successful in saving the Sir Ralph Abercromby pub near the Town Hall which was also threatened by the wrecking ball as part of a development scheme, so there is still all to play for.

However, it may well be that the Jolly Angler is saved by the bell. One of the most noticeable effects of the Covid crisis has been a severe reduction in economic activity in city centres caused by people working from home. There are many indication that this may prove, at least to some extent, to be a permanent shift in behaviour rather than a temporary adjustment. Therefore it could well turn out that the demand for city-centre office development, and for city-centre living, greatly reduces. After all, while obviously it had many unwelcome economic effects, many pubs were given a stay of execution by the 2008 financial crash.

Thursday 20 August 2020

Blame it on the boozer

Last week, it was announced that the British economy had contracted by no less than 20.4% between April and June this year, one of the worst figures of any major economy. That’s a fifth of the entire economy temporarily destroyed. However, much of the criticism of this performance was blunted by the fact that those making it had previously demanded an even stricter lockdown and a slower easing of restrictions, which comes across as an exercise in complete hypocrisy. As Kate Andrews says in this article:
...the decision to live in lockdown longer than other European countries, and with far tighter rules, has left us with our worst recession on record and the sharpest economic contraction since the Great Frost of 1709.
Given this, you might think that the media would be looking into ways of how to stimulate the economy and remove restrictions holding businesses back. But Sky News were having none of this, and decided to carry out an exposé on one sector that that only just been allowed to reopen and was still struggling to recover, namely pubs. They claim to have found that nine out of ten pubs were not asking for customer details, although it has to be said this completely contradicts my own experience, and in any case it is only a guideline, not a legal requirement. Several other bloggers have described finding very few pubs not taking the issue seriously on their own pub visits. And a survey by the Morning Advertiser found that 85% of respondents considered that pubs were meeting or exceeding the requirements.

It’s been widely observed that the Covid pandemic has encouraged every joyless Puritan and bansturbator to advance their own pet hobby-horses, and pubs are, not surprisingly, often in the firing line. Yet, while they’re often viewed as something that is frivolous and not really necessary, in reality they are only a part of the wider hospitality sector, which is the third largest segment of the economy and essential to our wider prosperity. Yes, it might be possible to distinguish drinking from other forms of eat-in catering, and in the Irish Republic you are still unable to just have a drink in a pub or bar although you have been able to eat a meal for nearly two months. But to do that would in practice be hard to define and would be a seriously retrograde step. Plus pubs sell more meals overall than either restaurants or cafés.

The government have given some demonstrable and welcome support for the hospitality sector with the Eat Out to Help Out scheme which is currently generating a fair amount of business that they wouldn’t otherwise get at all. But other parts of officialdom aren’t so sympathetic. There has been the long-running suggestion of shutting pubs to open schools, which are two things with only a tenuous connection. Council bosses have demanded more powers to shut non-compliant pubs. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? And the egregious, constantly whining mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has said that pubs may need to shut if contact tracing can’t be sorted out. So not exactly a great deal of love there. Pubs are always singled out as a scapegoat.

Several parts of England, including Greater Manchester, have implemented partial local lockdowns, although they haven’t included the general closure of pubs, much as some council leaders might want to have done that. The opening of pubs in Leicester was delayed due to a surge in infections which had been caused by inadequately regulated sweatshops and, by definition, as they hadn’t been open in the first place, was nothing to do with pubs. The basis for these lockdowns often appears very flimsy and seems to arise from nothing more than an increase in testing leading to an increase in the absolute number of cases.

In Scotland, in contrast, a local lockdown requiring the closure of all hospitality businesses was imposed in Aberdeen, and indeed remains in force today. This was then followed by turning the various guidelines on social distancing and contract tracing into legal requirements, and making pubs operate table service only, turn off all piped music, and mute any televisions, thus producing a pretty grim and joyless experience. No doubt the notorious Puritan John Knox would be pleased, although he might not be so happy that it had been imposed by a “monstrous regiment of women”.

As I’ve mentioned before, many people who claim to be beer and pub enthusiasts seem to have been distinctly lukewarm about the pubs actually reopening, as it means that they have to mingle with the dreaded hoi polloi again rather than sampling craft beers in the safety of their own homes. “After a couple of weeks we went into a beer garden, but we didn’t dare venture inside. And we thought some other customers were getting scarily close to each other and talking quite loudly.” Meanwhile, CAMRA has seemed keener on calling for financial support and staging cringey virtual events than actually kicking against the anti-pub climate and the possibility of further restrictions being imposed. But, as we know, they are always a complete paper tiger when it comes to confronting the public health lobby.

As Kate Andrews states in the article linked above, the government currently seems to be yo-yoing between wanting to stimulate the economy and being paralysed like a rabbit in the headlights by fear of a second wave. And worries about further lockdowns and travel restrictions is holding back people’s willingness to spend and make commitments.

As well as clarity, people also need confidence to start spending again: the reassurance both that they’re relatively safe from contracting the virus, and also that a sledgehammer won’t be taken to their lifestyle again.
The future of pubs is intimately tied up with that of the wider economy. Without a healthy economy, there won’t be a healthy hospitality trade. And indeed not only will it be a beneficiary of economic recovery, but one of the main drivers of it.

Friday 14 August 2020

Only here for the pub?

I was recently reading a blogpost by Martin Taylor about the Hyde Park in St Neot’s, Huntingdonshire, and saw this comment that very much struck a chord with me.
25 years of trendy beers in “CAMRA” pubs and I suddenly find I prefer slumming it in scruffy market town boozers selling Doom Bar after seeing the joy in LAF’s posts.
“LAF” is Life After Football, who tends to write about pubs used by ordinary people that are never going to trouble the scorers for the Good Beer Guide.

This mirrors what I wrote ten years ago:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
I first became interested in beer in the late 1970s, when the landscape was very different from today. There was effectively a finite number of draught beers available from a slowly diminishing number of long-established breweries. Although a few beers enjoyed wide distribution, in general to sample a variety of brews you would need to travel to different parts of the country and drink them in the tied houses of their own brewers, which of course added to the thrill of the chase. If you wanted to try Mitchells or Yates & Jackson, you would have to go to Lancaster or its environs.

Pubs as such were largely taken for granted, although it quickly became clear that they varied widely, with some being characterful and welcoming while others were blandly modern or offputtingly gimmicky. Sometimes you found yourself visiting a dreadful pub for that occasional rare beer, but in fact that was surprisingly rare. Some pubs were fascinatingly old and quaint, and some were wrecked by heavy-handed renovations, but nobody had yet seen the need for a National Inventory of historic interiors.

Before moving to the Stockport area in 1985, I never lived anywhere there was a wide choice of beers available on my doorstep. Therefore in each area, for your local pubgoing, you had to learn through trial and error (sometimes aided by the Good Beer Guide) to distinguish between the pubs available to you, both in terms of their atmosphere and the quality of their beer. It became evident that, broadly speaking, there was a correlation between the two, that better pubs kept their beer better.

However, slowly but surely, a fundamental change came about in the nature of beer enthusiasm, in that it became self-referential. Rather than taking an interest in something that existed anyway regardless of their presence, the market began to change to accommodate their desires, both in terms of the beers brewed and the venues in which they are sold. It is hard to think of any other field that attracts an enthusiast following where this has happened to anything like the same degree.

The first manifestation of this was the rise of the beer exhibition pub. Initially these were only showcasing beers not normally available in their local area, but they were specific venues targeted at beer enthusiasts, which took them out of the more mainstream pubs. This was followed by the steady rise of microbreweries, some of whom produced brilliant and eye-opening beer, but others came up with samey product that sometimes verged on dishwater. But it provided a lot more beers to sample, and gave rise to the phenomenon of the beer ticker. At the time they were derided by mainstream CAMRA members, but it seems that nowadays everyone has become a ticker.

Out of the microbrewery scene came the trend towards extremely pale and hoppy beers, and then in the current century the bewildering variety of flavours and styles, often at extreme strength, under the banner of craft beer. It all becomes impossible to keep up with and you find yourself wondering what is the point.

Some may respond by saying “life is very dull if you never try anything new”, but that is really a straw man. I’m certainly not resistant to trying new things, especially if they are new permanent beers from established brewers that I am likely to encounter on multiple occasions such as, a few years ago, Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring. But if it’s a case of something so odd or immensely strong that I’ll just say “Well, that as all very well, but I’m not going to make a habit of it”, then it seems a futile exercise, and to see the pursuit of novelty as the prime purpose of going to the pub is completely at odds with the reason the vast majority of people do it. The idea of spending a whole day in one town drinking Bass and Pedigree is anathema, let alone the prospect of an afternoon in an estate pub on Carling.

On the other hand, I’m certainly not averse to visiting unfamiliar pubs. During 2019, I went to 111 new pubs, which is good going considering that I’ve already had 40-odd years to work at it. Of course some are far better than others, but every pub visit has something of interest. It’s an endlessly rewarding quest. And even the familiar pubs that you have been to many times before have something different every time you go. So far this year, unfortunately, due to the fifteen-week closure, cancellation of holidays and continuing social distancing and travel restrictions, I’ve only managed ten, half of which were on one trip to Burton-on-Trent in March.

As I said in the post from 2010, locally I often choose to drink in Sam Smith’s pubs, not because I particularly value their beer above others available in the area, but because I appreciate what they offer in pub terms – comfortable seating, an absence of TV sport and piped music, a general lack of noisy children and, while some do sell food, never being put in a position of being the lone drinker in a wall-to-wall sea of diners. Plus all of the customers are there for what the pub has to offer rather than specifically being beer enthusiasts. While I prefer cask ale to keg, if these pubs dropped the cask I’d probably still go there for the same reasons, albeit perhaps a little less frequently. Fortunately, while they have converted a number of pubs to keg, that’s not a choice I’m forced to make in my local ones.

To many self-proclaimed beer enthusiasts nowadays, life is a constant quest for the new and unusual, and the greater the strength and the weirder the flavour the better. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, if that’s what takes your fancy, but it drives a wedge between them and the general population of pubgoers that certainly didn’t exist in the 1970s, and makes them ill-placed to represent the wider interests of pub operators and customers.

Friday 7 August 2020

If it ain’t broke...

In the 1970s, financial journalist Patrick Hutber came up with Hutber’s Law, which was “Improvement means deterioration”. At the time, it was all too common for companies to announce improvements to their products or services that actually in important respects made them worse.

And that seems to be a principle often followed nowadays by tech companies. Every so often, all the major services that you use announce a new improved version. Inevitably, it’s initially confusing and hard to get used to. Eventually you work out how to do most of the things you used to be able to do, but there’s always something they seem to have forgotten, and it’s hard to see anything that’s actually better. Facebook was the most recent example of this.

And now the same has happened to the Google-owned platform Blogger, which hosts this blog and several others that I run. I’d known it was coming, but earlier this week I was taken aback when I logged on to create a new post on Closed Pubs and suddenly found I couldn’t do many of the things I was used to. And they certainly have past form in this respect.

One obvious change is that many verbal links to actions have been replaced by icons, some of which are far from self-explanatory. It’s also no longer possible to select multiple comments for approval or deletion.

This blogger is certainly far from impressed, and neither is this Twitter user:

Everyone uses these platforms in their own way, so one person’s experience isn’t necessarily typical of the general picture, and I’m sure I only use a limited subset of the features that are available. I tend to create posts in Word and then copy them into the composing window to add the final formatting touches and import any pictures.

There are two options for this – the HTML view and the Compose view. The latter ostensibly offers a WYSYWIG interface, but it can be very fiddly to set up items as you want them, and the end result still doesn’t necessarily reflect what you see on the screen. So, for the limited amount of formatting I want to do, mainly inserting pictures and links, I tend to prefer the HTML view, where you are at least in full control of how the final version will actually appear. But they have now dispensed with the options to import pictures and add links, meaning that the former have to be done through the Compose view and the latter require manual input of the necessary code. It can still be done, but it’s more time-consuming if your blog is anything more than a slab of plain text.

It’s not so bad as to be completely unusable, but it will certainly make creating new blogs in future a more time-consuming, fiddly and laborious and process. And for anyone wanting to set up a new blog, I certainly wouldn’t recommend they used Blogger to host it.

Edit: Another issue is that, on the blogroll of blogs such as Tandleman's, no thumbnail is displayed against posts created with the new editor, even if they contain images.

Sunday 2 August 2020

Tit for tat

It’s reported that a senior scientist advising the government has said that pubs or “other activities” in England may need to close to allow schools to reopen next month. ‘Prof Graham Medley told the BBC there may need to be a "trade-off", with the re-opening of schools seen as a "priority" for children's wellbeing.’

However, it’s hard to see how such a trade-off works in practice. It’s not as though there’s a fixed amount of infection going round, and if you make it easier for it to spread in one environment you have to make it more difficult in another completely unrelated one. Indeed it just comes across as vindictive. If there really was a problem, then why not just ban children and teachers from going to pubs?

If this did happen, it would be a kick in the teeth for a sector that has had to endure nearly four months of closure and even now is struggling to get back on its feet again. It is likely that many operators would reach the conclusion that there was no point in trying to run pubs when they were subject to capricious closures, and simply give up the ghost. And where would the money come from to pay for the business support and furloughing staff? Or would they simply be thrown to the wolves? It also wouldn’t sit well with the attempt to get people back into pubs and restaurants through the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme during August.

Pubs are often singled out by the media as an example of a business sector that is essentially frivolous and that, if need be, we could easily manage without. However, they are just part of the wider hospitality industry that also includes cafés, restaurants, coffee shops and hotels, and it is impossible to decouple them. Indeed many pubs do far more business selling meals than drinks. If it again became impossible to sit down and eat a meal outside the house, or stay anywhere else overnight, the economy would be put back into the deep freeze of the darkest days of the lockdown.

The government has been widely accused of taking a “whack-a-mole” approach to Covid, pursuing various half-baked, headline-grabbing policies while lacking any clear overall strategy. And the official Opposition cannot hold them to account when all they seem to want is more of the same, both more restrictions and more spending.

So far, people have generally responded to the various restrictions placed on them with a kind of resigned acceptance. However, key to all this is a feeling of hope that eventually there is light at the end of the tunnel. Things have, albeit painfully slowly, been relaxed. But if that process is put into reverse, resignation can all too easily turn to despair and then to anger. There is only so much people will put up with.