Friday 26 February 2021

A slow crawl to freedom

The contents of the Prime Minister’s announcement last Monday of the roadmap to unlocking were widely leaked in advance, so none of the contents came as a great surprise. Sometimes, these pronouncements contain some aspect that was rather better than had been trailed, but this was not to be this time, and so the hospitality trade is faced with a painful and glacially slow crawl back to full reopening in four months’ time. Not surprisingly, my Twitter followers weren’t at all impressed. Lord knows who the 8.7% were who responded “too fast”. However, we are where we are, and the pub trade have to make the best of a bad job rather than crying into their beer. The first milestone is on 12 April, no less than seven weeks away from the announcement, when outdoor opening, including off-sales, will be permitted. It is hard to understand why off-sales weren’t allowed earlier, as they continued during the two previous lockdowns. That is still a long wait, and unless significantly more support is forthcoming in next week’s Budget no doubt many more pub operators will give up the ghost. Speaking personally, the thing I’m most looking forward to is a haircut, as I’m increasingly resembling a member of an early 70s prog-rock band!

Towards the end of Lockdown #1, the possibility of outdoor-only opening was mooted, and I wrote here about the issues it raised, an obvious one being the notorious fickleness of the British weather. The Morning Advertiser reports than only 40% of pubs will be able to take advantage, and Sacha Lord, the Greater Manchester night-time economy adviser, makes the point that it represents a kind of class distinction, as urban boozers are much less likely to have extensive beer gardens than dining pubs in leafy suburbs and villages.

This stage will require pubs to operate table service – it certainly won’t just be a case of serving people pints for perpendicular drinking in the street. This makes swift, responsive service a challenge even indoors, and if you’re in the far reaches of an extensive beer garden you may have a long wait for a refill. And customers will still need to go inside to use the toilets, unless pubs install a battery of portaloos in the garden.

The government have indicated that “outdoors” will be defined in the same way as under the smoking regulations, so a covered area with two out of four sides open will be judged acceptable. So we can expect a rush on suppliers of marquees, umbrellas and temporary shelters. Inevitably this will lead to demands for even further restrictions on smokers, ignoring the fact that for thirteen years they were forced to drink outside at times when nobody else wanted to.

The fickleness of the weather will also pose a challenge for selling cask beer, as it will make the level of trade far more variable than normal. A few days of cold, wet weather may leave you with several largely unsold casks, while a heatwave could clear you out. Having said this, if pubs are in a position to make good use of outdoor facilities, as many are, it does present them with an opportunity that they should make the best use of. And a sunny weekend could prove a goldmine.

Then, on 17 May, pubs will allowed to open indoors, but it is important to remember that this will effectively be under last year’s Tier 1 restrictions, with social distancing, table service and mandatory masks. As I wrote at the time, this results in a regimented, cheerless experience that largely destroys the pleasure of the swift, casual pint. A dining pub can cope without too much problem, but many smaller wet-led pubs reported that the atmosphere was totally gone, as was their profitability. When this came in last year, I largely stopped going to pubs, certainly not to make speculative visits, and I doubt I’ll be particularly keen to rush back in May.

We are told that all restrictions will be removed on 21 June, which fortunately is three days before my birthday. But, unless the requirement for masks on public transport is dropped at the same time, my celebratory pub crawl will definitely be confined to Stockport! This will mean that the pub trade has either been shut entirely, or operating under severe limitations, for a full fifteen months. However, this has been portrayed in some quarters as giving the green light to a kind of bacchanalia, so it’s not difficult to imagine the desiccated sociopaths of SAGE having kittens and decreeing that the Tier 1 restrictions need to continue throughout the summer. I’m not making a prediction, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t happen, but don’t say you haven’t been warned!

I have seen talk of this causing a “summer wave”, but surely, given that respiratory viruses always lose their effectiveness in warmer weather, and that by then a large majority of the adult population will have been vaccinated, this is very unlikely. If it does turn out that the impact of the virus has by then become trivial, and we are able to enjoy the second half of the year to the full, then we may look back on the preceding fifteen months as just a bad dream. A successful and prosperous reopening of the economy will erase a lot of bad memories. But only time will tell.

Tuesday 23 February 2021

The Eternal Whipping Boy

I didn’t really see much point in blogging about yesterday’s announcement about the snail-like pace of reopening the country. It has all been said before. But I thought it would be worth drawing your attention to this brilliant blogpost by Scott Graham aka The Bar Biographer. Scott doesn’t blog often, but when he does he invariably hits the nail firmly on the head.

Amidst the mountains of speculation, one thing is pretty much agreed upon by all observers, pubs will be at the back of the queue for reopening. What is also widely acknowledged is that such a decision has no scientific basis. But that doesn’t matter to politicians, academics, journalists, social media commentators and all the other influencers, large and small. That the licensed trade and night-time economy occupy the lowest rung is more about worthiness than rates of transmission.
He also skewers the narrow-minded, Puritanical attitude of the Scottish government:
Pubs in Scotland will face an even less palatable menu, with Nicola Sturgeon set to look at the schedule set out by Boris Johnson and mirror most of it, particularly its sequencing, but add on five or six weeks for Scotland. That’s because the SNP has an unwritten motto, as do a chunk of the population, “never knowingly less righteous (i.e. authoritarian) than the next country”.
And his conclusion is spot –on. Yes, one day, we will get our pubs back in some form. But they will be hugely diminished from what they were before lockdowns.
Yes, eventually the pubs and social clubs will re-emerge in the UK, maybe even nightclubs and casinos. But the landscape will have changed dramatically, independent operators even more an endangered species, chains such as Wetherspoons ever more dominant. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is the inevitable outcome of the UK establishment once again casting the licensed trade as the whipping boy.

Saturday 20 February 2021

A swift half century

Next month will see the 50th anniversary of the Campaign for Real Ale, which was started by four young English journalists in Kruger’s Bar in Dunquin in County Kerry, Ireland. Drinks writer Laura Hadland, who tweets as @Morrighani, has been commissioned to write an anniversary history, which is to be released to coincide with the actual date. It is promised to be “warts and all” but it remains to be seen whether that extends beyond a few mildly embarrassing anecdotes to a deeper examination of its objectives and achievements. I’ve pre-ordered a copy, but obviously it hasn’t arrived yet.

Since then, it has enjoyed great success as an organisation, reaching a record membership figure of over 190,000 before the Covid crisis deprived it of the opportunity of recruiting at beer festivals. It was described in the late 1970s as “the most successful consumer organisation in Europe”. However, if you look at the wider picture, during CAMRA’s lifetime both the share of real ale in the overall British beer market, and its absolute sales, have shown a dramatic decline, as has the number of pubs in the country. Obviously those trends are due to wider factors largely outside its control or influence, but at least on those terms its record cannot be judged as a successful one.

At the outset, CAMRA’s mission was very clear, and could be expressed as “to encourage pubs to sell beers in established British styles (overwhelmingly Mild and Bitter) in cask-conditioned rather than pressurised (keg, tank or top-pressure) form.” Yes, it was accompanied by assorted baggage in people’s minds about defending tradition and standing up to corporate power, which gave it an appeal across the political spectrum, but it was pretty unequivocal.

However, over the ensuring fifty years there has been a steady accretion of other objectives which have served to blur the organisations’s original single-minded purpose.

These include, amongst others:

  • Encourage pubs and bars to stock real ale

  • Promote traditional British beer styles

  • Encourage new breweries and innovative beer styles

  • Support the appreciation and preservation of traditional pubs

  • Lobby for the pub trade in general

  • Stand up for the wider interests of drinkers

  • Challenge the corporate power of breweries, pubcos and supermarkets

  • Organise beer festivals and social events

  • Offer a discount scheme for pubs and beer festivals

  • Doing all the above for cider and perry as well as beer
All of these are entirely legitimate areas of interest, even if they don’t necessarily float everyone’s boat, and it has often been said that CAMRA is a broad church from which people can pick and choose the aspects that interest them. However, it leaves its objectives as a campaigning organisation distinctly blurred. Who can say, beyond a vague “supporting pubs and beer”, what CAMRA actually stands for now? Some of them even have the potential to work against each other. I have come across some people within its ranks with whom I struggle to identify any areas of common interest at all.

A few years ago, CAMRA underwent a “Revitalisation” process which was supposed to make it more fit for the 21st century and free it from the narrow-minded dogmatism that had often characterised it in the past. However, it’s hard to see what difference it has actually made, and in some ways it seems to have only served to extend that dogmatism into new areas. Does anyone outside CAMRA actually care less whether keykeg beers are “keg-conditioned” or not? And CAMRA’s stance as a generalised campaigning organisation representing all beer drinkers, pubs and brewers is undermined if it refuses to give house room to the beers that most people drink.

Many members still remain blind to the existential threat to all that they hold dear posed by the public health lobby, and much prefer to direct their ire at evil pubcos and supermarkets. It is a massive pivot from assuming your main enemy is business to realising it is government, and one many have no intention of making. Indeed, while it may claim to be promoting something that is “fun”, CAMRA members often taken a very puritanical view towards anything outside their narrow definition. They are often very much anti-smoking, anti-“junk food”, anti-popular culture and anti-gambling, and signally fail to join up the dots. As I quoted in this blogpost,

... if you do a sociological analysis on the IanB Scale, a scale of Puritanism which I invented several seconds ago, CAMRA are a heavily puritan social formation. Puritans come in a number of guises, and can, on the surface seem to be promoting something notionally libertine, such as imbibing an intoxicant. Nudists are another example of a puritan formation that you have to look more closely at to see it. Try bumming a fag in a nudist camp and see the reaction you get.
Back in 2005, before the days of blogs, I wrote an assessment of CAMRA’s achievements to date.
In conclusion, if we take the view that CAMRA has not managed to curb the power of the major breweries, increase the amount of real ale sold in Britain, or stem the tide of pub closures, then it must be judged a failure. Many of the campaigns it has mounted on wider issues have been damp squibs, or have spectacularly backfired. But, to my mind, its lasting achievement has been to greatly raise the profile of beer in the UK, and to encourage the creation a network of producers, outlets and consumers where beer is appreciated in a way that was scarcely imaginable in 1971. Real ale undeniably has to an extent become a niche product, but it occupies a large and thriving niche. And it is the positive promotion of real ale – in all its forms – and the establishments that sell it, that should form the core of its activities in the future. If that means CAMRA drawing in its horns a little, then that would be no bad thing.
And perhaps that message of sticking to the knitting is one it would do well to heed today.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Going viral

Very little in our daily lives has escaped the reach of Covid over the past year, not least in the sphere of beer and pubs. What follows is a collection of miscellaneous musings on the topic that extend beyond the usual subject matter of this blog.

  • The pandemic, or rather the government response to it, has divided families and sundered friendships in a way reminiscent of Leave vs Remain, although perhaps even more bitterly as it is something that is closer to home. There’s a certain amount of overlap, although far from an exact match.

  • It has provided a golden opportunity for authoritarians and puritans of all stripes to advance their hobby-horses knowing that they will receive little kickback. The Burden of Proof fallacy has been working overtime.

    A: We're going to impose Measure X to reduce the spread of Covid.
    B: I'm not sure Measure X is very effective.
    A: So you want to KILL PEOPLE, you monster!

  • There has been a disturbing amount of suppression of views that dissent from the official narrative, with people losing newspaper columns and TV slots and having their social media accounts suspended or deleted.

  • Some people in public life have executed a screeching U-turn and recanted from their previous scepticism. One of the worst examples has been Christopher Snowdon, previously the scourge of the public health establishment on alcohol, tobacco and food policy. In the middle of last year, he was staunchly defending the Swedish approach, but abruptly came round to full-blooded support of the current lockdown. He has compounded this by engaging in mockery of those who disagree with him, completely failing to appreciate the inherent irony.

  • People across all manner of sectors have displayed an unedifying dog-in-the-manger attitude, demanding to know why Business X is allowed to open when they’re not. Sadly, the pub trade and those claiming to support them have been particularly guilty of this.

  • To assert that there is a choice between protecting the economy and protecting lives is to draw a false dichotomy. A healthy economy is an essential foundation for a healthy society.

  • Business failures, economic destruction and a mental health crisis are not caused by Covid, they are caused by lockdowns. Covid is a fact of life, lockdowns are a policy choice. One does not inevitably stem from the other.

  • The police really haven’t covered themselves in glory - arresting people for singing and throwing snowballs, making up the law as they went along on mask exemptions, travel to exercise and what shops were allowed to sell, carrying out heavy-handed and unwarranted raids on pubs on the say-so of one malicious curtain-twitcher, and applying blatant double standards to public protests depending on the cause being promoted.

  • The mask law has encouraged self-righteous, judgmental individuals to feel that they have a right to bully and harass disabled and vulnerable people in public places. It’s all too easy to say “he doesn’t look very disabled”, but of course many of the conditions that entitle people to an exemption aren’t immediately obvious. Anyone tempted to have a go should heed the words of the DHSC:

    And hopefully any person who took it upon themselves to challenge this lady would feel rightly proud of themselves.

  • I don’t doubt that Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Jonathan Van-Tam are able and eminent scientists who are genuinely motivated to do good, but they are only experts in their particular field and seem blinkered to any wider considerations.

    I am reminded of the quotations by C.S. Lewis that “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”, and of F.A. Hayek that "There could hardly be a more unbearable - and more irrational - world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realisation of their ideals."

    It would be a hollow victory to succeed in eliminating Covid while being surrounded by the smoking ruins of a destroyed economy. And, frankly, the policies enacted over the past year seem to have done a much better job of achieving economic destruction. Maybe an economist should be included on SAGE to provide a wider perspective.

    Neil Ferguson, on the other hand, is a contemptible hypocrite with a long track record of failure in forecasting who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near influencing government policy.

  • Some people, with the benefit of hindsight, have argued that things would have been better if we had locked down earlier and harder. However, looking at the situation across the world, there is no correlation between the severity of lockdowns and the success in tackling Covid. Some of the countries with the strictest lockdowns, such as Peru, Argentina and Spain, have had some of the highest death rates. It seems that, in some people’s minds, lockdowns are rather like socialism, that they would work this time if only they were done properly.

  • Lockdowns have been described as middle class people staying at home on full pay making Zoom calls while working-class people bring them stuff – or lose their jobs. There is a clear correlation between the level of social deprivation in an area and the proportion of inhabitants unable to do their jobs from home.

    Media discussions on lockdown seem to be monopolised by people who have suffered no financial penalty. Maybe every panel should have to include at least one person who has been furloughed or lost their job.

  • The past few days have seen a sharp decline in daily case figures and some more positive mood music about the lifting of restrictions. However, there is unlikely to any more clarity about the road forward until the Prime Minister makes an announcement a week on Monday. In the meantime there is a welter of speculation in the media, most of which presumably originates from anonymous government sources, but only serves to spread anger and alarm amongst the population.

  • And I continue to believe that those claiming that most restrictions will be gone by the middle of the year are being hopelessly optimistic. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not making plans for any holidays further away than Argate.

Saturday 6 February 2021

Through the looking glass

Many people have been complaining about the unreasonableness of the rule that, before the lockdown, only allowed pubs and restaurants to serve alcohol if it was accompanied by a “substantial meal”. It’s reported today that the government have recognised the unfairness of this and are now proposing to create a level playing field by allowing them to reopen, but to ban them from selling alcohol at all.

Presumably at the same time they will also allow hairdressers to reopen without being able to cut hair, and gyms without anybody being allowed to exercise. We truly are plumbing the depths of insanity.

Anyway, this seems to be a suitable theme tune for today.

Friday 5 February 2021

Fancy a pint?

This Spring will mark forty-five years since I first bought myself a pint in a pub at the age of sixteen. Since then, obviously many things have changed in pubs, not least that that simple act, once commonplace, would now be impossible. And one thing that strikes me is that people are far less likely just to “go out for a drink”.

Back then, pubs were more numerous, they were much busier, and were busier throughout a much higher proportion of their opening hours. And a mainstay of their trade was what I described – people, either singly, or in groups, whether of friends, family or work colleagues, meeting up not to watch sport or to eat a meal, but just to enjoy a drink and a chat. It was a valued third space that was neither home nor work, where you could let your hair down, lose your inhibitions a little, and speak more freely and openly. It was also noticeable how groups would talk between each other, not just amongst themselves. Diners don’t tend to do that. They would often be of mixed ages and, while men tended to outnumber women, would also often include both sexes.

Go to those pubs, now, and the scene will be very different. Many will have closed their doors forever, while others will now be closed at times when once they were busy. It’s easy to say that there’s no point in opening if there’s no trade on offer, but that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I’ve argued before that limited and erratic opening hours are a major deterrent to people visiting pubs in general. In 1976 you knew when the pubs would be open.

Where the pubs are still open, sometimes they will be so deserted as to make casual customers feel uncomfortable. There’s a big difference between a quiet pub and an empty one. Or such a high proportion of customers will be dining that anyone just wishing to have a drink will feel like the proverbial Piffy on a rock bun, and will also have no other drinkers to chat with. Or everyone will be watching the big match, thus stymieing conversation and turning the pub into a monoculture.

This trend is encapsulated by my description of how Sunday lunchtimes in my local pub changed over the years. In the mid-1980s, with only two hours’ drinking, no food, no children, no football and no piped music, it was busy verging on packed. Now, open all day, and with all of those things, it’s virtually empty. “The heaving, wet-only, smoky Sunday lunchtime session of the mid-80s has now given way to a sanitised, smoke-free environment virtually devoid of drinking customers thirty years later.”

Of course this pattern of drinking hasn’t vanished entirely, but it’s much diminished, and pubs are the less for it. Surely conversation lubricated by a drink or two is what pubs, at root, are all about. You often hear sentimental gush about pubs being cosy, convivial places at the heart of their communities, but the reality on the ground frequently bears little resemblance to this rose-tinted vision. The sight of a couple or group coming into a pub, getting drinks and just sitting down to talk can be so rare that it is worthy of note.

One of the places where this mode of pubgoing is still in evidence is in the much-maligned Sam Smith’s pubs where, of course, many contemporary distractions are absent.

Note that I talking here about suburban, small town and village pubs that people are likely to visit directly from their own homes. The customer dynamic in the centres of large towns and cities has always been different.