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Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Death of the Pub, Part 2

Apartheid is alive and well, and can be witnessed on the main street of any town in Britain on a Friday and Saturday night. It is not an apartheid founded on race; it is not even founded on gender. It is the insidious apartheid of age. Walk into any pub in those town centres and count the number of people over forty. Yes, there’ll be some – the ageing macho men trying desperately to relive their youth, hopefully pulling a giggling, paralytic young bimbo in the process, or the mutton-dressed-as-bedroom-fodder in unfeasibly short skirts. But relative to the proportions of the age groups in the population at large, this is Logan’s Run for licensed premises, with a comprehensive cull of those too old to fit in with the herds of inebriated yoof. So forget all the angst about happy hours, aggressive advertising and the other alleged causes of Britain’s binge drinking ‘problem’: the real root cause of dysfunctional drinking among the young is that they no longer drink with the old. Consider what used to happen in industrial towns throughout the country. In the evening, or after the completion of a shift, workers of all ages would spill out into the pubs together. The young learned the mores of drinking, subliminally or more overtly, from an older generation; not temperance by any means (the older men could invariably drink the young under the table), but rather the lost art of how to hold one’s drink. And if one of the younger men overdid it and misbehaved, an informal police force of workmates and/or relatives (often one and the same) was at hand to instil discipline or to get the miscreant home as quietly as possible. Pubs catered for all ages, and even if they were smoky, stinking bastions of misogynism, they also often had a ‘snug’ where older ladies could feel comfortable. Contrast that with the barn-like urban monstrosities favoured by the avaricious corporate pub chains, which usually have no quiet corners and are geared exclusively at herding as many young people as possible through the doors and ‘persuading’ them to consume far more cheap booze than is good for them. (Is anything this side of Parliament more hypocritical than the alcohol industry's 'Drinkaware' website, and their injunctions to 'enjoy Extra Strength Cirrhosis Juice responsibly'? I doubt it.) Conversely, of course, rural or more traditional pubs are often shunned by many young people simply on the grounds that older people go there, so they’re perceived as ‘uncool’, and/or they don’t have vast plasma screens pumping out endless MTV or Sky Sports.

My father used to tell a story of how he and his father would often go out for a drink together; this must have been in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when my dad was in his early twenties. My father would buy the first round- a pint for himself, a pint for his father. Then my grandfather would go up to buy the second round, and would return with a pint for himself, a half for my father. Nothing was ever said; it did not need to be. It was the unspoken understanding of the generations. But the wholesale destruction of British manufacturing industry in the 1980s broke that understanding, thus exacerbating the steadily increasing attitudinal divisions between generations that had been taking place from at least the 1950s onwards. The brewers finished the job by sweeping away the traditional concept of the pub, increasing the strength of alcohol and, in town and city centres at least, focusing almost exclusively on youth (with breathtaking shortsightedness, of course, for they did so at exactly the time that the number of young people relative to the population as a whole was in sharp decline, and the disposable income of the older sections of society was increasing). All of this, I suggest, long preceded the smoking ban and its undoubtedly detrimental effect on the survival prospects for many British pubs, albeit not for the actual customer experience within those that do survive.

Well, I think I've vented my spleen sufficiently on the decline of the pub (pro tem, at any rate!) so in the next post I'll return to more literary matters.

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