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Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Death of the Pub, Part 1

My village ‘local’ has closed. I know this isn’t unique – the frightening extent of pub closures in recent years has been well publicised – but it’s still quite a shock when it’s suddenly ‘your’ pub that’s gone, perhaps for good. There are apparently quite good prospects for it to re-open eventually, but similar reassurances have been given in many other cases where the pubs in question have ultimately remained ‘dark’. It’s also remarkable how many people emerge from the woodwork to bemoan the passing of ‘the heart of the community’ when they were hardly ever seen at the bar... 

Now, the causes of pub closures have been well documented – the smoking ban*, the impact of drink-driving laws and over-regulation on country pubs, the cost of drinking out as opposed to imbibing ludicrously cheap supermarket fare in one’s own home, incompetent landlords, the obsession with creating bland and transitory ‘gastropubs’ rather than trying to retain and develop the loyalty of one’s local catchment, avaricious breweries intent on getting a quick profit from selling off pubs for private housing; and so on ad infinitum.

Let’s be honest, though - many pubs were foul, and their passing is simply good riddance. Few can mourn the long-gone Walton Ale Stores in Oxford, where the furniture consisted solely of a few rickety kitchen stools strewn around a tacky floor, or the more recently departed Bricklayers Arms in Fenlake, Bedford, the only pub I’ve ever approached to be confronted by the classic Wild West scenario of a punched body flying out of the door. But for every irredeemably dreadful drinking den, we’ve lost half-a-dozen or more much-loved local boozers, and now my local might be joining them. It’s hardly reassuring in such circumstances to take the long view, and to realise that pubs have always closed down – many of London’s most historic inns were pulled down as the city was redeveloped in the 19th century; many coaching inns closed when coaches gave way to the railways in the 1840s and 1850s (to be replaced in many instances, of course, by pubs adjacent to stations, which then often closed in their turn in the 1960s after Dr Beeching wielded his axe); and pubs in industrial towns closed in their thousands between the 1920s and 1980s as wave after wave of recession and contraction drove away or impoverished their former customer base.   

Arguably, though, there’s another and perhaps more important reason for the current malaise in the British pub, and for the undoubted problem of excessive drinking among the young in particular; and I’ll return to that in a few days’ time.     

(*  I must be one of the few people in Britain who was in pubs in Scotland, Wales and England on the first day of the smoking ban in each of those countries – and maybe the only person to achieve that unlikely ‘Triple Crown’ entirely by accident, not by design.)

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