Thursday 30 December 2021

A taste of freedom – Part 3

This year, I have made 80 posts on my Closed Pubs blog, the highest figure since the early days of “shooting fish in a barrel” and in fact more than I did on my main blog. I have been helped by prolific suggestions from Kyle Reed in West and South Yorkshire, and Dan Bishop in and around Burton-on-Trent. I have never met either of these gentleman, but a pint will certainly be theirs if I ever get the chance. Some of the images extracted from StreetView are surprisingly picturesque, such as the one above of the Bridge Tavern in Southampton which really conjures up the feeling of a bright Spring day.

My total of Twitter followers has gone up during the year from 5,600 to just over 5,900, so obviously plenty of people find my mixture of serious and more lighthearted stuff interesting. Meanwhile, Toady, who says the things about lockdowns and Covid totalitarianism that Mudgie doesn’t, has passed the 4,000 mark. A recurring problem with Twitter is that, no sooner do you add new followers than they purge another bunch for overstepping the mark in some way. After a change in control, they even suspended their own founder Jack Dorsey, although his account seems to have been reinstated now.

The march of the dreaded posing tables in pubs seems to continue unabated. This year, the handsome Cat & Lion at Stretton, just south of Warrington reopened following a takeover and refurbishment by Holt’s. Much of it is given over to dining, but the main bar area is pretty much full of the things, as shown above. And when you walk into Joule’s impressive new Crown Wharf in Stone, Staffordshire, you are immediately confronted with a forest of them, although there are some more comfortable seats elsewhere. If pubs didn’t have any posing tables, would anyone really bemoan their absence?

In his October Budget, Rishi Sunak announced a thoroughgoing reform of the alcohol duty system. Although the absolute level of duty remains much higher than most comparable European countries, this was a sensible move that recast the system on a much more rational basis and eliminated the many inconsistencies and anomalies of the old structure. Inevitably there were complaints from some special interest groups, as there will always be losers as well as winners, and it remains to be seen to what extent these will be heeded. One aspect that hopefully will be changed is setting the minimum container size for the lower duty rate for draught beer at 40 litres, which excluded both the 4½-gallon pins that are increasingly used for cask ale, and the 30-litre kegs that are popular for craft beers.

There was sad news in August with the death just before his 65th birthday of longstanding local CAMRA member Stuart Ballantyne. Stuart was always good company, but unfortunately had to contend throughout much of his life with a couple of serious non-alcohol-related health issues. In the early 2000s he was instrumental in leading a campaign to stop Marston’s replacing their own bitter with Banks’s in their pubs in South Manchester. In 2001 I spent several weeks in hospital with a badly broken ankle and will always remember that Stuart made the effort to come and visit me.

Conscious that I had gone through the whole of 2020 without setting eyes on the sea, I made a point of visiting the nearest expanse, at New Brighton, once I was able. It was a bright sunny day and I had a walk along the promenade, but it still wasn’t possible to go in any of the pubs. I managed to have the holiday in Norfolk that I had cancelled last year, although I wasn’t able to take maximum advantage due to suffering from the dreaded post-Covid cold. You don’t actually see much sea along the North Norfolk Coast, as it tends to be a mile away across salt marshes, so the only actual sight I got was looking west over the Wash at Hunstanton. I took the striking image shown above of the King’s Lynn Conservancy Board building illuminated by the setting sun, with a couple of windows of the Crown & Mitre pub included on the right.

Once everything had opened up again, I was able to get out and visit a number of the historic tourist attractions, although nowhere significant I hadn’t visited before, albeit in some cases over forty years earlier. Probably the most noteworthy was Boscobel House in Shropshire, where Charles II hid in the Royal Oak following his defeat by the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. It’s not particularly distinguished architecturally, but it was one place where staff dressed in costume and explaining the story really managed to bring the history to life.

As last year, it’s easy to say that lockdown gives plenty of opportunity to catch up on reading, but it never quite works out like that. But one book I did enjoy was Lessons from History by Alex Deane. This is basically a compendium of short historical anecdotes which are variously inspiring, amusing, poignant, heartwarming or simply jawdropping. It’s presented in easily digestible chunks and so would be ideal for keeping at your bedside and reading two or three chapters before dropping off. It’s a bit late now, but it would make a good stocking-filler for someone with an interest in history.

The episode that made most impression on me, maybe because I had never heard about it before, was Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair’s cricketing heroics for New Zealand against South Africa in 1953. Sutcliffe had been hospitalised after being injured by ferocious fast bowling, and Blair’s fiancée had been killed mid-match in the worst train crash in New Zealand history. The rules certainly wouldn’t allow that now!

So we are currently in a situation where pubs in England have been allowed to remain open at least until New Year’s Eve, although there is no guarantee that further restrictions will not be imposed in the New Year, and the general loss of confidence continues to severely depress trade. However, there are plenty of signs that the Omicron variant is nowhere near as severe as many predictions, and more and more politicians and commentators are waking up to the reality of lockdown harms and calling for a more balanced view. So it’s hard to tell which way things will go, but I just hope I’m not here in a year’s time still talking about lockdowns and restrictions on what remains of the hospitality industry.

Follow these links for Part 1 and Part 2 of this review.

Wednesday 29 December 2021

A taste of freedom - Part 2

At the end of last year, I wrote “Despite the optimism surrounding the roll-out of vaccines, I expect I will still have a long wait before I am once again able to enter a pub unchallenged, walk up to the bar to order a drink, and choose to sit wherever, and with whom, I want.” So it proved, and in fact it turned out to be not until the second half of the year, on Monday 19 July.

In February, the Prime Minister announced a roadmap to reopening the country, which many felt at the time was pretty glacial in pace. However, as I said at the time, if it all went to plan, we might eventually find ourselves looking back on it all as a bad dream. Well, that worked out well, didn’t it?

The first key milestone was allowing pubs to open outdoors only from 12 April, but unfortunately that presaged a spell of wet and windy weather that prevented them taking maximum advantage. I’m never a great fan of outdoor drinking at the best of times, and in fact the sole occasion on which I took advantage of this was a trip to Stonehouse Brewery in Shropshire on a cool but dry day, where I was made very welcome by proprietor Shane Parr.

The next milestone on the roadmap came on 17 May, when pubs were finally allowed to open indoors, albeit under such severe restrictions that, as I wrote, “created a regimented, cheerless experience that largely destroys the pleasure of the swift, casual pint.” A further problem was that it seems that many licensees missed a vocation as a prison warder, and chose to gold-plate these rules and add some extra of their own. Yes, rules are rules, but it is a choice whether to apply them with a light touch or a heavy hand. This attitude seemed to be more common in independent venues than corporate ones.

As I wrote at the time, I don’t go to pubs to be told off, and when every visit involves a potential confrontation I’m really not inclined to bother. One exception was Wetherspoon’s, who don’t have the staff to micromanage the behaviour of their customers, but the amount of atmosphere in a Spoons operating table service only is on a par with that of the celestial body that gives its name to many of their pubs. I did find one local pub that wasn’t laying it on with a trowel, but in general speculative pub visits were off the agenda.

The end of the tunnel was supposed to come on 21 June, and I was looking forward to a birthday pub crawl of Stockport three days later. However, following doom-mongering predictions from SAGE – which unsurprisingly turned out to be wildly pessimistic – it ended up being postponed by another four weeks. But it did happen at last on Monday 19 July, despite warnings from all the usual suspects that opening up would be a recipe for disaster.

So I was in the Boar’s Head in Stockport before noon on that day, and was pleased to see that the normal habits of pub life had resumed. In the following weeks I was able to resume my usual pattern of pubgoing. While a handful of pubs still adhered to the “old religion”, resulting in giving them a swerve, in general pubs seemed to be the area of society where Covid paranoia had most receded.

I was able to have a holiday and go on a number of pub trips, the best of which was a day out in Stockport which involved people travelling from as far away as Kent. While I wouldn’t say that levels of trade reached pre-Covid levels, there seemed to be a steady build-up of customer confidence, which was most marked in the Castle in Macclesfield on 5 November, which was standing room only and absolutely rammed.

However, this was put into sharp reverse at the end of November when concerns about the Omicron variant led to some restrictions being reimposed. While they didn’t directly affect pubs, there was a clear impact on people’s enthusiasm for going out, combined with the reintroduction of the working from home guidance which severely hit pubs in major urban centres. This led to a collapse in business, particularly in organised party bookings, although it seems that trade in community locals has held up better. There is now plenty of evidence that the worst fears about the effect of Omicron were exaggerated, but pubs in England have been left in a kind of limbo wondering whether they are going to be imminently shackled or closed down again.

During the year, I visited 79 different pubs, of which 18 were new to me, almost half of which were on one holiday in Norfolk. While I did have a number of pub days out, they were all to places I had been to before. This compares with 60 and 17 in 2020, when the pubs were open without significant restrictions for perhaps a couple of weeks less. In contrast, in 2019 I visited no less than 111 new pubs, buoyed by four days out in towns where collectively I had only previously visited one pub, and four holidays in places where there was still plenty to explore.

Of the new pubs visited, nothing really stood out as an absolute must-visit. People had spoken highly of the Crown & Mitre in King’s Lynn, but I don’t think I caught it at the best time, and I was feeling a bit out of sorts as well. Probably those that stick most in the mind are a couple of unassuming locals – the Cart & Horses in Astley in South Lancashire, where retired miner Gordon Williams had been visiting four times a week for 75 years, and the Plough in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, a cosy little Bass pub just off the town centre.

The best revisit of the year was undoubtedly the Anchor at High Offley in Staffordshire. There had been fears that this unique, unspoilt canalside pub might close permanently after the death of long-serving licensee Olive Cliff, but fortunately it has been taken over and reopened by her daughter Elaine. On a sunny Sunday lunchtime in August all the tables in the extensive beer garden were occupied. I ran into members of the Stafford & Stone Branch of CAMRA who were presenting the pub with an award recognising Olive’s long service, including Paul Mudge, who I had not met since our trip to Burton in March 2020.

On a trip to Chester, I called in at the Olde Cottage and had a chat with licensee Trevor, who has chronicled on Twitter the financial and emotional pain so many pubs have experienced during nearly two years of on/off lockdowns. Not a classic heritage pub, but a buzzing local on the edge of the city centre with a loyal band of regulars. I was unfortunate, though, to miss making the acquaintance of their pub cat Arty, who was upstairs enjoying his beauty sleep.

In contrast, I was disappointed by the Great Western in Wolverhampton, a pub that I would have classed as one of my absolute favourites, but which seemed to have been oddly sanitised by a recent refurbishment. Perhaps it would grow on me as it wears in.

I missed Arty in the Olde Cottage, and sadly Felix, the large black-and-white cat at the Boar’s Head in Stockport, had died earlier this year at the age of 16, so I didn’t encounter a single pub cat during the year. However, here’s a delightful picture of Malt and Hops in the Wellington in Birmingham city centre which was posted on Twitter by Jules Saunders.

Follow these links for Part 1 and Part 3 of this review. .

Tuesday 28 December 2021

A taste of freedom – Part 1

I was originally going to call this review of the past year “A Year of Two Halves”, reflecting the decisive transformation in the prospects of the licensed trade and environment for drinkers that occurred on 19 July. At the time, Boris Johnson stated that these changes were “irreversible”, but sadly this has not proved to be the case, with some restrictions returning from the beginning of December. Although these have not, at least in England, directly affected pubs, they led to a collapse in public confidence with an inevitably disastrous effect on the trade.

During the past year I have only made – including this one – 55 posts on this blog, which is the lowest figure ever with the exception of 2007, which only covered half a year. This wasn’t through lack of interest, but a combination of the lack of source material due to the prolonged closure or restriction of the pub trade, and a wish to avoid turning it into a general blog about Covid-related issues. I have commented on subjects directly relevant to hospitality, such as masks and vaccine passports, but tried (generally successfully) to steer clear of the wider politics, and indeed on occasions have consciously bitten my lip.

I have discussed more general topics including asking Why does nobody just go for a drink any more? and how over the past couple of decades the business of pubs has noticeably moved outdoors. Some posts have received over 2,000 page views, with the highest figure being recorded by this post about craft beer hypocrisy. There continues to be a healthy level of comments, more than on some supposedly more prestigious blogs, with a number of regular contributors, although unfortunately there remains an undercurrent of trolling and personal abuse.

As last year, I will salute the work Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UK Hospitality, who has been a strong and outspoken voice for the industry, and even gained the honour of a profile in the Guardian. I will also praise the efforts of Essex licensee Adam Brooks who has consistently been prepared to question the rationale and essential unfairness of the lockdown policies.

I don’t intend to go on about Covid beyond saying that it has seen around the world a disturbing slide into totalitarian policies. While there has been much to criticise in England, up to now we have not gone as far as many other countries. One of the most relevant comments about the whole business is Oscar Wilde’s saying that “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”

I probably never thought I would be praising the work of someone responsible for a film entitled “100 Vaginas”, but strange times make strange bedfellows. So I would strongly recommend A State of Fear by Laura Dodsworth, which looks at how behavioural psychology has been used to create a state of fear and control people’s behaviour during the Covid crisis. And, of course, having created that fear, it is very difficult to unwind it.

She makes the point that the evidence that masks make any significant difference to transmission of the virus is extremely weak, and that they were basically introduced to create and maintain a feeling of crisis. Which of course is why they were brought back in shops and on public transport at the beginning of December this year. Laura is also an insightful commentator on Twitter on issues relating to Covid and lockdowns.

I have split this review into three parts to avoid it becoming too cumbersome, so please follow these links for Part 2 and Part 3.

Thursday 23 December 2021

A spike of hysteria?

Back in the Autumn, there was a wave of hysteria in the media about people supposedly being injected with “date-rape” drugs in bars and nightclubs. However, as this article argues, it is difficult to see the mechanism by which this could actually be happening.

Is it even possible to inject people with date-rape drugs? Syringes are certainly easy to obtain in this country. They can be bought in pharmacies or online. And, yes, GHB, the drug most usually associated with drink spiking, can in theory be injected.

But as a medical friend explained when I began to investigate, to drug someone effectively in this way would require a relatively high volume of the substance concerned. This would require a large syringe with a large needle, which would then need to be under someone’s skin for long enough – at least 15 seconds – to dispense enough of the drug to make a difference. It would be important to conduct this tricky process undetected, even though, as the medic explained, it would be almost impossible for the victim not to feel it. Alcohol could dampen pain, but not eliminate it.

It could be that the whole thing turns out to be something of an urban myth, with little or no foundation in reality.

It is certainly true that the spiking of people’s drinks with these drugs does happen and is a significant problem. But, even here, the scale of the problem might be exaggerated.

A 2012 study by doctors at Wrexham Maelor Hospital found something intriguing when they examined women who believed they had been drugged. Most of them, they established, had been rendered helpless not by ‘date-rape’ substances, but by binge drinking. The medics found no evidence that any of the women seeking help from emergency doctors had been spiked, although one in five instead tested positive for recreational drugs.

This was only one hospital and no such research has been conducted countrywide. Yet if it’s representative, we have to ask how we reached this state of terror.

While it may be hard to prove, the author also points out the lack of successful prosecutions for drink-spiking.

People may feel that their drinks have been spiked, but in fact excessive consumption of alcohol in a short time may have much the same effect. Spirits can creep up on you unawares, especially if the flavour is concealed in cocktails, and suddenly push you over a cliff. Of course it’s entirely possible that some ill-intentioned person has surreptitiously tipped a double vodka into your drink, but in many cases this will have been brought on by people’s own exuberant over-indulgence. I’m sure many of us will have similar memories from our youth.

The article points out that there is always an increase in reports of drink-tampering in the early weeks of the Autumn term at universities, where many young people will be exposed to a social environment and social pressures that they haven’t experienced before.

So, if you’re on a night out, it makes a lot of sense to choose what you drink carefully, and not to allow yourself to get into a condition where you’re no longer aware of what’s going on around you.

Monday 20 December 2021

Baby steps to prohibition

New Zealand used to have a reputation as a relaxed, free-and-easy kind of place, but more recently it seems to have succumbed to a growing authoritarian trend. This was exemplified during the Covid crisis when it tried to turn itself into a hermit kingdom in a largely vain attempt to keep itself free of the disease. They have now doubled down on this tendency by announcing the implementation of a kind of creeping prohibition of tobacco. This is something that has often been proposed around the world, but never so far put into effect in any developed country.

How it will work is that anyone born in 2008 or later will never be allowed to buy tobacco products, so in effect the legal purchase age will increase by one year every year. However, as I understand it there is no intention to criminalise possession and use, which in any case would be extremely difficult to enforce, so young people will simply obtain tobacco from older people who buy it on their behalf. As smoking in indoor public places has already been outlawed, the range of situations in which young smokers will stand out and be stigmatised has already greatly reduced.

The obvious result of this policy will be to greatly expand the size of the black market. In the article, one man says “Because right now there's a lot of young kids walking around with smokes in their mouth. Public are asking how they're getting these smokes.” But those kids are already below the legal purchase age, so raising it will only serve to intensify the problem. At the same time it is planned to reduce the number of outlets able to sell tobacco products from 8,000 to 500, which will damage the trade of many local community shops and give further encouragement to the black market.

"This is all 100% theory and 0% substance," Sunny Kaushal, chairman of the Dairy and Business Owners Group, a lobby group for local convenience stores, told New Zealand's Stuff news site. "There's going to be a crime wave. Gangs and criminals will fill the gap".
The use of many drugs that are illegal to purchase at any age is already widespread, so any hopes that this will stamp out tobacco use are likely to be dashed. It may be denormalised, but it certainly won’t be eradicated, and young people might reach the conclusion that if they can’t buy tobacco legally they might as well go for something stronger. At the same time, in New Zealand and many other countries there are moves towards a more relaxed enforcement regime for illegal drugs, and it is not hard to see the two policies meeting in the middle. Indeed, I have been told (although I don’t have a source for this) that in the US state of Colorado it is now illegal for employers to discriminate against cannabis users, but not tobacco users.

But of course such measures will never be extended to alcohol. The idea is completely unthinkable. Or is it?

Friday 10 December 2021

Breadth vs depth

Most of the single bottles and cans of beer and cider in the off-trade in this country are sold in multibuy offers, 4 for £6, 3 for £5, 2 for £4 or whatever. Unless your product is already priced below the level of the multibuy, if it’s not included your volumes are going to be dramatically reduced. From the retailer’s point of view, it increases sales throughput and presents the customer with a more attractive-looking offer, while the customer is likely to feel that they are getting a good deal.

However, it has obvious downsides. It prevents the establishment of proper price stratification, discriminating against weaker beers and making it impossible for brewers to establish a price premium. Plus it puts pressure on suppliers to come up with products that can be sold within that price framework. As Ed Wray writes here, the 4 for £6 level has been fixed for a number of years and, with rising inflation, must now be approaching breaking point.

But it is a fact of life that currently dominates the marketplace for premium beers and ciders in the off-trade. I thought it would be interesting to run a Twitter poll to see how people approached it. As you can see, the results were fairly evenly spread across the board, with all options getting strong support, although always buying different ones came out on top.

The first option is obviously the one that would appeal to the beer enthusiast, who wants to maximise the number of different ones tried. But even the more mainstream buyer may well want to try something new, or to mix and match different styles and strengths depending on the occasion.

Then there are various levels of people sometimes, or often, wanting to double up on particular favourites, until we reach the stage where buying three or four the same becomes the norm. In fact, one person replied “I always buy the same, it didn't really occur to me to mix and match in fact!” The seeker after endless variety may find this hard to understand, but it has to be remembered that most off-trade beer in the UK, in volume terms, is sold in cans in multipacks of 4 or 6, or slabs of various sizes. Most buyers are perfectly happy to have a lot that are all the same. I suspect this is also more common amongst the 3 for £5 “international lagers” than the premium bottled ales.

Personally, I fall into the second category. There are some beers that are regular favourites, and others I’ll never touch, but I do like to ring the changes, and in any case I’m generally only drinking one on each occasion rather than having a session. There are occasional beers that I may buy two of, one example being Weetwood Eastgate Ale, an excellent example of a BBB that particularly appeals to my tastebuds, and which is only available locally in Morrisons.

As an aside, I don’t believe multibuys increase the overall level of beer purchased – that is driven by the price. If all the premium bottled ales were priced at £1.50, the supermarkets would sell just as much. They are a tactic of competition between retailers to have an offer that attracts consumers. And they are banned in Scotland anyway!

Friday 3 December 2021

Collateral damage

It was dismaying, although perhaps hardly surprising, when Boris Johnson announced last Saturday teatime that some Covid restrictions would be reimposed to deal with the supposed threat from the Omicron variant. Chief amongst these were the tightening of self-isolation rules and the return of mandatory mask wearing in shops and on public transport.

While hospitality was not directly affected (for now) there was a pretty immediate impact in terms of cancelled bookings. It must be remembered that organised parties over the Festive season represent a major part of the annual revenue for many pubs and restaurants. The BBC reports here one restaurant owner saying:

We had 20 cancellations over the weekend, mostly for Christmas parties. Customers were phoning to tell us they weren't sure what was going to happen in a few weeks so they'd rather cancel now.
And Greater Manchester’s night-time economy adviser Sacha Lord reports on a “catastrophic” wave of cancellations: Here’s one very specific example: While people may grudgingly put up with wearing masks when going to the supermarket, for many they are a major deterrent to discretionary leisure activities such as shopping and travel. A fall in retail footfall in town and city centres in the run-up to Christmas will affect the pubs and restaurants located there. Amazon will once more be laughing all the way to the bank. As stated in this article on the general economic impact of the curbs:
We can also expect railway leisure travel, the only part of rail travel that’s nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, to suffer. Who wants to take a day trip to York or the seaside if it involves wearing a mask for hours on end? And the knock-on effects could be significant: train passengers spend an average of £95 per trip on things like shops, restaurants, hotels and galleries, totalling £133 billion a year.
I’ve made a number of leisure trips by train since the restrictions were lifted in July, but I certainly won’t be making any more until they are removed again. And I’m still some way of recouping the cost of my three-year Senior Railcard.

There is also a wider effect on general confidence. Since the middle of July, there had been a slow and patchy, but noticeable growth of confidence and return to normality in pubs. This has put all that into reverse, and returned us to a state of fear and trepidation about what is going to come next. This was not helped by statements from several official figures that people needed to be very cautious about socialising. This sounded disturbingly close to the messages that were coming out in the week in March last year before the pubs were closed entirely for three and a half months.

A particular example was when government medical adviser Dr Jenny Harries told people that they should only socialise where necessary, however that might be defined. This was quickly contradicted by the Prime Minister, who urged people to continue socialising as normal, but the damage had already been done.

In the succeeding week, there has been plenty of evidence that the Omicron variant is relatively mild, and the return of restrictions might have been an over-reaction. It seems to conform to the general evolutionary path of viruses that they become more transmissible but less severe. Many media commentators going well beyond the usual lockdown sceptics have suggested that it was a step too far, and that we couldn’t live in a permanent state of fear.

The government have stated they will review the restrictions in three weeks’ time, and we can hope that they will rescind them, although such back-tracking would lead to a lot of egg on face. But, even then, it would be just a week before Christmas, and too late to rescue much of the holiday season.

On the other hand, there have been reports that they will continue until March. If this proves to be true , it will mean a very long and hard winter for the pub trade.