Tuesday 23 August 2022

Cowering in the safe space

It has been widely observed that today’s young people are much less likely to engage in risky and rule-breaking behaviour than previous generations. There has been a marked decline in smoking, drinking, taking illicit drugs and underage sex and pregnancy. Of course this is nothing new and was exemplified by the character of Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous in the 1990s.

These trends have been widely welcomed as representing a shift to a more health-conscious and socially responsible attitude, although on the other hand some have expressed regret that we have been raising a generation of censorious wowsers.

However, new research reported in the Guardian shows that this aversion to risk and social engagement has its negative consequences:

Many young people increasingly choose to stay within a comfort zone of a small network of like-minded friends in which much of their social activity is virtual, according to mental health experts.

While this can give them more control over some aspects of their lives, it can also lead to social anxiety when they have to interact with people offline, the experts added.

Natalie Phillips, a psychotherapist who works with children and young people aged from 11 to 25, said: “I’m seeing a disproportionate increase in referrals for social anxiety, professional anxiety, general self-confidence and relationship issues for this generation when they are confronted with the reality of being in an office, being in a nightclub, being in a pub, or being on a date.”

Obviously the widespread school and university closures and encouragement of working from home during the Covid crisis have served to exacerbate this tendency. And it has been greatly encouraged by the rise of social media over the past fifteen years, which has enabled people to have a high degree of virtual social contact without ever meeting face to face.

However, a major factor behind this withdrawal from society that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves must be the sustained campaign to discourage young people from socialising in pubs. In the 1970s, we were able to drink in pubs from the age of 16, some even earlier. The licensees knew it was happening, and so did the police, but in general they were happy to turn a blind eye unless there was any trouble. There were no mobile phones and no internet, so arranging meets in the pub was an obvious and straightforward way to socialise.

At this time, there were no fun pubs or circuit bars, so you had to mix in with other customers with a variety of different ages. Indeed it was often the smaller and less improved pubs that were the most welcoming to under-18s. Knowing that you would be out on your ear, no questions asked, if you stepped out of line helped encourage responsible behaviour. While there is a lot of pious guff talked about pubs being a controlled drinking environment, in this situation the argument did apply. Young people were learning how to drink in a social setting and keep their consumption and behaviour in check.

The same continued at university, although now with the cloud of possible underage drinking having been lifted. The pub was the natural place for students to socialise. Some may suggest I am looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles, and certainly there were examples of trouble, refusal of service and drinking far too much (although most of my bad experiences of alcohol in my teens occurred in private houses). But overall I would say this tolerated rite of passage into adulthood did far more good than harm.

However, from the 1990s onwards, things started to change as there was a growing moral panic in society about the evils of underage drinking, and so ever-increasing pressure was put on pubs to strictly enforce the law. Asking your age turned to ID cards, and Challenge 21 became Challenge 25. Not only were you unable to get a drink if you were under 18, but even if you were well over you would be treated with great suspicion. No longer were pubs available as a social venue for young people that was open to all comers and did not judge you. It should be stressed that the finger of blame should not be pointed at the pubs themselves – it is simply no longer worth them taking the risk.

Of course young people can still consume soft drinks, but licensees are understandably wary of mixed groups where it’s impossible to control who is drinking what, and many venues where under-25s gather are now strictly over-18 only. And under-18s can’t drink alcohol-free beers, as they are age-restricted products due to carrying alcohol branding.

Much socialising now takes place in parental homes, where there is likely to be a more tolerant attitude than fifty years ago, or in private flats and houses. In both of these settings, who is allowed in is controlled, so you can’t just casually walk in. It may move to the street or park benches, where adult supervision is non-existent and the alcohol may well have been bought on the black market.

Or, as the study has shown, informal, unstructured socialising between young people has just ceased to exist as they retreat into a virtual world, which carries its own dangers of people not being who they seem. This policy had undoubtedly resulted in a great reduction in underage drinking in licensed venues, but it’s very questionable whether it has brought about an overall benefit to young people’s social development. And it has damaged pubs, as if people don’t get into the habit of visiting them when young they probably never will.

In contrast, it’s interesting that Japan – which of course is a very different society – is now urging young people to drink more to boost the economy.

Sunday 7 August 2022


The Armoury is a Robinson’s pub in Stockport, prominently situated on the roundabout at the junction of Greek Street and King Street West, which stands above the southern end of Stockport station. It was rebuilt in the 1920s by Bell’s Brewery and received a multi-roomed interior characteristic of its time. It also had a distinctive facade of pale blue tiling which unfortunately had to be replaced by render in the 1990s as water had got in behind the tiles.

Apart from this, its interior remained pretty much unchanged. In the early 2000s, it saw minor alterations that removed a former off-sales counter and incorporated a lobby area for a disused side entrance into the main vault room, but otherwise left the layout and fittings unchanged. It was an excellent example of a modest traditional pub interior and qualified as a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory.

While mainly a regulars’ pub, it also served visitors to the Castle Street shopping centre and, being located on the main pedestrian route between the station and Stockport County’s Edgeley Park ground, was always busy on match days. It was a classic street-corner local that also welcomed casual trade, and I would always name it as one of my favourite pubs in Stockport. For many years the planning meetings for the Stockport Beer Festival were held in the upstairs room. I wrote about it on my Campaign for Real Pubs blog.

However, over the past couple of months it has been subjected to a thoroughgoing refurbishment by Robinson’s that has pretty much erased its previous character. It has been knocked through into one room, the original bar counters have gone, warm wood tones have been replaced by pastel grey, and the carpet, frosted glass windows and cosy alcoves of bench seating have disappeared. I took a couple of photos of the interior in 2016 which provide a good comparison with how it is now.

How it was:

How it is now:

What we are left with now isn’t a bad pub as such, and it’s undoubtedly more congenial than any of the other five along Castle Street recently visited by Cooking Lager. There’s still some bench seating in what used to be the vault side, although the former lounge side features high stools and bizarre barrel-shaped fixtures that you can’t even get your legs under. There’s also a cosy snug-type room right at the back on the left with more bench seating. But it’s much the same as hundreds of other pubs, and it has lost what previously made it distinctive. Perhaps the only redeeming feature is that the previous unwelcoming grey colour wash on the exterior walls has been replaced with two shades of beige.

Some, such as the Twitter correspondent below, will argue that we need to accept change and move with the times, and that the past cannot be preserved in aspic.

Clearly it isn’t possible or desirable to preserve everything from the past as a museum piece. But, as a prosperous, civilised society, we understand the value of keeping the best buildings from previous eras, hence the existence of the listed buildings register and conservation areas. This provides a link to earlier generations and enhances the present-day environment. Stockport would certainly be the poorer without, say, Underbank Hall and the market hall.

We preserve and celebrate many stately homes that were built and furnished by the rich and powerful and were completely divorced from the lives of ordinary people. On a more modest scale, original pub interiors can be regarded as “the people’s stately homes” and undoubtedly have much more resonance for the general population. There are now well under a thousand pubs remaining in the UK with anything resembling their original layout and fittings, and surely they, where possible, deserve to be cherished in just the same way as Bramall Hall and Lyme Park.

Was there any evidence that the previous layout of the Armoury imposed significant extra costs or held back its trading performance? Very often, pub refurbishments seem to be embarked on simply out of a sense of wishing to smarten things up and move with the times rather than any kind of rational cost-benefit analysis. And, as I have remarked before, once the initial surge of interest has subsided, refurbishment often becomes like a drug where you have to keep increasing the dose to get the same effect. The current zeitgeist is very much against the old, quirky and well-worn, but hopefully one day we will return to a time where these qualities are once again seen as desirable in pubs.

Although they still own a number of unspoilt historic pubs, over the years Robinson’s track record on pub alterations has not been a good one. Fifty years ago, they were noted for their unsympathetic “Robinsonisations” including bottle-glass window panes, full-length small-paned glass doors, “Spanish arches” and white Artexed walls. They were responsible for removing high-quality original interiors at the Royal Oak in Stockport town centre and the Woodman in Hazel Grove, both of which have now closed entirely as pubs.

More recently, they severely compromised the interior of the Holly Bush in Bollington, which previously was ranked as being of national importance on the National Inventory. They have also spoilt traditional interiors of lesser rank at the Church House in Congleton and the Grapes in Hazel Grove.

In contrast to this, Robinson’s have recently received a CAMRA award for their conservation work at the Bleeding Wolf at Scholar Green in South Cheshire, which I have yet to visit in its new form. But that seems to be an isolated example. In general, they really cannot be regarded as respectful custodians of their pub estate. And how long will it be before they decide that a pastel-shaded knock-through might help revive the trade of the Blossoms or the Alexandra?