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.


  1. Professor Pie-Tin5 February 2021 at 18:53

    Televised Premier League football changed Sunday drinking forever in Ireland.
    Before then all the fellers were out at 12 straight after Mass having a good swallow then home for the roast dinner and a kip on the settee.
    Now everthing is geared around the 4pm main match kick-off and the missus having a few glasses of wine at home with whoever at lunchtime then lashing on some vittels for when the old man staggers home around 6.30pm.
    I knew change was a'coming years ago one Sunday lunchtime.The smoke hung heavy at about head height and an old boy in the corner attempted to start up a sing-song with a phlegmy verse of the Fields of Athenry.
    One young buck in a Manyoo jersey told him to be quiet as the match was coming on. There was war and it all kicked off but it was a seminal moment. I remember it as if it was yesterday.

  2. A great read.

    "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." is spot on.

    I'm expecting casual pub-going will be more prevalent in Sheffield than in Cambridge, where it was inevitably for pizza-eating, TV watching or pub quizzing. Nothing wrong with those, but it's the buzz of conversation I miss most at the moment.

    Our pubby local in Waterbeach had probably half a dozen regulars nightly in the Public bar, supplemented by a cohort of older folk who'd come in Friday night to share a bottle of wine in the lounge. And us.

  3. The whole pub culture has changed - has been changed - is changing. with general attitudes to alcohol. It was once commonplace,almost expected for workers to go down the pub lunchtime for a couple of pints, if not outlawed by employers now the practice would certainly be frowned upon. This country has long been multicultural but the expansion of this as time goes by certainly waters down the pub culture, to devastating effect in some towns and cities. In the countryside obviously drink driving laws have done for many outlying rural pubs. A combination of all this has changed the psyche of younger generations and the pub culture they never new, simply doesn't matter to them.

  4. Really annoyed I can't edit and change new to knew. ��

  5. Our governmental masters have for decades now sniffed at the above described patronage of pubs. Firstly because they perceived it as jolly working class and they secretly longed for and used here a continental cafe culture. Hang onto that with fears of over burdened hospitals, an NHS crushed with alcoholic problems and then drink fuelled domestic violence and you can see how, over years, moves have been welcomed to end the convivial pub drinking culture which they conveniently sought to blame for all the described woes. Of course all the problems cased by excessive drinking are very complex in nature and cannot be laid at any particular door! For example alcoholics are very often solitary drinkers and pub gatherers very often happy families, only social drinkers. Politicians often talk a good pub loving line but usually only at election time.

  6. I find on my travels that there are still plenty of the conversational type pubs still about,but increasingly I am having to actively search for them and spot them on my travels,and they aren't two a penny like they once were. My impression might be skewed because they are my preferred type of pub and I will abandon plans to stop at one on sighting. I do find though that in some regions they are plentiful,but in other regions they are almost completely devoid them. I suspect from my observations that they are very thin on the ground in more affluent areas,though sometimes part replaced by the micropub in those cases,but it's not a direct fit and a different genre. I've even resorted to trawling through whatpub locations and photos searching for likely candidates- which is probably an indicator in itself that the article is spot on and they are now not common!

    1. It varies between different parts of the country, and pubs of this kind can be rare in areas on the fringes of conurbations.

      I've sometimes used WhatPub to seek out pubs worth visiting that aren't amongst the usual CAMRA suspects. However, the descriptions can be somewhat bland and uninformative, partly because understandably they don't want to antagonise licensees. I can think of two in particular where the description, while not untrue as such, gave a completely wrong impression of what the pub was actually like.

  7. I wonder if my view is skewed too: I go to the pub for conversation with friends or my better half, or I go on my own for a wind-down with a book. Either way, the traditional type of pub experience suits, and, provided you select your times (not Friday/Sat evenings after 8pm) I don't have trouble finding that in the suburbs of a reasonably large midlands town. The type of pub that doesn't welcome drinkers as well as diners simply doesn't get my custom.

    1. Can't you converse with your better half at home? And why do you have to go to a boozer to read a book?

    2. Some people don't have a better half,Some don't get on with their other half,some better halfs may need a break, what's wrong with taking with other people, whats wrong with enjoying yourself? Maybe you should try it.

    3. I think Anon totally fails to understand why people actually go to pubs :-)

    4. Surely its not to read a book

  8. Professor Pie-Tin7 February 2021 at 14:16

    I'm lucky.
    Being of sound Irish stock Mrs Professor Pie-Tin gets actively concerned and thinks there's something wrong with me if I don't go to the pub every day.
    Never in our 30 years of living together in matrimonial harmony has she ever told me off for either going to the pub or the state I've arrived back home in.Not once.And I go every day.
    She's old school.
    A diamond too for putting up with me all those years.

    1. You are indeed a very lucky man :-)

      That reminds me of how the wife of the late, legendary Alan Winfield worried that there was something wrong with him if he didn't achieve the target 24 halves in 24 different pubs on a day out.

      Has the trend of small wet-only bars closing at lunchtimes during the week spread to the Republic, btw?

    2. Professor Pie-Tin10 February 2021 at 14:57

      Mudgie - I did post on this but it doesn't appear to have got through.
      First up there is no great tradition for pub gub in Ireland, particularly out of the main cities.There are more places coming on stream but in my experience they don't seem to understand the actual concept of pub grub i.e. food that doens't break the bank.Eating out in any form is not cheap in Ireland.Try finding many places that do a steak for under €22 and you'll have to look hard.
      Consequently it is not uncommon for wet-led pubs not to open until 5pm.
      Those that do are really frequented by pensioners and the long-term unemployed.
      In my town they're all close to a bookies with the Racing Channel on all day.
      Wet-led pubs have now been shuttered for nearly a year - they were allowed to open for less than a month in the summer - and I'm not sure how many of them will re-open, particularly as even summer opening this year is looking doubtful.


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