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.