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The blanding of Britain: The murder of the English pub

Black Rose

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The blanding of Britain: The murder of the English pub



Dr Johnson, the 18th-century English writer, was right when he said that "nothing has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn". Which is why I'm thinking I might pack up and leave soon.


A good friend and I went to a pub on the banks of the Thames not long ago - one we've visited a lot over the years to drink, talk and play bar billiards.


The landlord has two enormous old English bulldogs that look like they want to eat you but actually want to be scratched under the chin.



Mulling things over: Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis enjoy a drink in their local - but the sort of pub they enjoyed is becoming almost as much a piece of fiction as the series they appeared in


The same gang of old boys gathers for darts tournaments every week, to throw some "arrows", smoke too much and cackle at private jokes. The walls are hung with badly stuffed fish. There are armchairs and an open fire.


But not any more. This time we got there to find all that gone, stuffed fish, open fire, regulars as well. New tenants had come in and chucked out everything, including the darts board and the bar billiards table.


Now, bar billiards is a weird and wonderful old pub game that's found in a few southern English counties. It's the essence of local distinctiveness.


They've replaced it with a pool table, the kind you'd see in a roadhouse in America or a bar in Bangkok.


And I am suddenly weary. Before my eyes, another tiny bit of the real England I love has been killed off.


But at least the pub is still there, which is more than can be said about far too many of them.


A stunning 56 close every month - usually demolished or converted into housing.


Country pubs are disappearing the fastest. More than half the villages of England are now "dry" for the first time since the Norman Conquest.


Pubs like the Luppitt Inn were once the core of life in our country. In the Blackdown Hills in Devon, 85-year-old Mary Wright still presides over the tiny ale house run by her late husband and his father before him.


It is little more than the front room of her farmhouse, opens only in the evenings and sells no food apart from the odd packet of peanuts.


There is no till, no price list, no slot machines, no music, no telephone, no bar staff, no spirits. Only one type of beer is on offer, from a small brewery at the top of the valley.


She charges locals £1.70 a pint but outsiders like me pay more. She's probably responsible for a long list of health and safety breaches.


But the regulars don't mind. A dozen of them are crammed into the taproom, mainly farmers.


One of them leans across the bar and tells me: "We're a little bit of forgotten England."


I am acutely aware that I am witnessing a way of life that was once common but is now finished. With Mary's death, the inn will close and another tradition will pass away, too.


I sometimes wonder why this matters so much to me. Am I just being sentimental? Things change, all the time. People move on, tastes alter. Pubs open, pubs close. Big deal.


But pubs like the Luppitt Inn are part of our history - and every time one goes, another connection with our past is lost.


Communities are lost, too. A village without a focal point becomes a collection of dwellings - a location, but no longer a place.




Bygone era: The White Horse in Parson's Green, London - aka The Sloaney Pony - is trendy but it still has a number of guest beers, good food and is an integral part of the community. However, pubs are rapidly changing from this....

drinking in pub



To this... an atmosphere-free, modern boozer, or 'high volume vertical drinking establishment' where clients can neck down as much as possible in the shortest possible time and then make way for the next influx


Just as big a threat hangs over the traditional pubs in our towns and cities.


Six urban locals close every week, and those that remain are largely in the hands of rapidly expanding pub corporations, which have set about remaking them with loans from Japanese banks and marketing techniques developed in pizza and sandwich chains.


In city centres, what were once quiet local boozers are turned into giant binge-drinking sheds, known in the trade as "high volume vertical drinking establishments" - "vertical" because they like you to drink standing up.


They have no chairs (the more you sit, the slower you drink), few tables or flat surfaces (if you can't put your glass down, you're likely to drink faster), and music so loud you can't hear yourself speak (so you drink instead).


The past decade has witnessed an explosion of these establishments, accompanied by a rise of identical chains - O'Neill's, All Bar One, the Slug and Lettuce, Wetherspoons - in a whirlwind "McDonaldisation" of pubs.


As for the traditional ales whose care was once the pride and joy of every good landlord, forget them.


Today's multinational brewers and stock-market-floated pub companies find a handful of brands of lager, alcopops, wine and slickly marketed bottled beers, ciders and mixers easier and more profitable.


They are much less trouble to handle than cellars of dangerously awkward - and definably local - cask ale.


What is galling is that we've got to this position, where big businesses rule the drinks trade, despite most people thinking they had been seen off 20 years ago.


Back in the Seventies, most pubs were tied to a brewery, and the brewers called the shots.


Turning their backs on cask ale, they promoted newly developed "nitro-keg" beers, which were cheaper to brew, travelled better and lasted longer. Watney's Red Barrel was king.


Then Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale, was founded to fight for traditional beer and pubs.


It found a surprising ally. Margaret Thatcher, who hated monopolies and brewers (despite the fact that they were significant donors to the Tory Party), rallied to the cause.


Laws were passed that no brewer could own more than 2,000 pubs. Furthermore, they would have to give their landlords the option of selling at least one "guest beer" produced by a rival.


The idea could not have been simpler: by smashing the big brewers' monopoly, there would be a flowering of smaller brewers, varied pubs and more choice for drinkers. But it didn't work out like that.


Roger Protz of Camra looks slightly uncomfortable when I ask him what went wrong. "Basically, I think we were tremendously naive," he says.


What happened was that the brewers created stand-alone pub companies - known as PubCos - to which they sold all their pubs.


Because they didn't brew beer themselves, these new companies were exempt from the legislation.


"There were a lot of sweetheart deals," explains Protz. "The brewers would say to some of their management team, 'Here's a golden handshake, go off, buy a tranche of pubs and in return only take our beers.' That was what happened.


"We were offered this great shangri-la of choice but now choice is just as restricted under the pub companies as it was under the brewers."


The statistics bear him out. In 1989, the three biggest brewers owned around 20,000 pubs, about a third of the UK's total. Today, the three biggest PubCos own - wait for it - around 20,000 pubs.


In 1989, the six biggest brewers produced 75 per cent of all the beer drunk in Britain's pubs. Today, they produce 84per cent.


What have changed are the pubs themselves.


"The place that was once my local," says Protz, "is now owned by the third biggest PubCo in the country. It's perfectly pleasant but it's identical to a pub on the other side of town."


Attitudes to customers have changed, too. "They don't want old Charlie sitting all night over a pint of mild. Their customers are traffic. They want people coming in, having a few drinks, shoving off and a new lot coming in."


Everything is about profit now, says Protz. "The old brewers were there to make money, too. But they understood that pubs had a community role. The modern pub companies just couldn't give a stuff about that."


Take what's happened in Leeds. I'm standing in an alley in the city centre outside a branch of Mook, a national chain of bars aimed at hip young dudes.


Beside me, wearing a fleece with the words "Tetley Bittermen" on it, is Tony Jenkins, chairman of the local branch of Camra. He is not a hip young dude.


"I'm not going in there," he says. "It's a matter of principle."


Mook, until recently, was a backstreet local called The Whip with customers who had been there for 50 years. It was bought by the Spirit Group, one of the country's most ambitious PubCos, and transformed - or "trashed", as Tony puts it.


"It's not that I necessarily object to bars like the one they created out of The Whip," he says, "but Leeds is full of them. We didn't need another."


A few hundred yards away lies Whitelock's, a 300-year-old tavern of carved wood, low beams and decorated mirrors.


John Betjeman, Peter O'Toole and Keith Waterhouse have hymned it for its atmosphere, its beer and its food - Yorkshire puddings and jam roly-polys.


The Spirit Group got hold of Whitelock's too. The mirrors and beams are still there, but instead of Yorkshire pudding on its menu, you'll find nachos, penne pasta and Kashmiri chicken.


It is the same sort of food sold in Spirit Group pubs up and down the country.


Spirit Group - part of Punch Taverns, the country's biggest PubCo - manages 2,400 pubs, each of them centrally controlled. It is very big on demographics, or "market-leading concepts" as it calls them.


The chain splits its pubs into groups targeted at different markets - sports fans, youngsters on the town, families out for a meal. It is head office that decides which customers an outlet will go for, not the landlord or the pub.


And that is the problem. A PubCo means managers, hierarchies, media teams, emails from head office and distance from the customers. It is the opposite of what a pub should be.


The pub, the tavern, the inn, the alehouse - whatever you call it - has been with us for two millennia. It has survived the Romans, the Normans, Oliver Cromwell, the Victorian abstinence movement and, so far, the 21st-century health hysteria.


Whether it can withstand "market-leading concepts" and "high volume vertical drinking" is another matter.


I have nothing against change as such. The problem comes when change is initiated by distant, over-powerful forces in the interests of their profit margins rather than of the people that change will affect.


And I don't want to live in a country where every pub is part of a branded chain. Nor do I expect to live in a country where every pub is the sort of place I like to drink in.


What I'm after is diversity and character, without interference from desk-bound, rule-bound profit-watchers in some distant business park.


This is the great irony. "Choice" is the Holy Grail of the global consumer economy. It is the justification used for much of the ongoing destruction of the English pub by corporate power. But it is a myth.


Just as the "choice" provided by the supermarket giants is actually limiting because they destroy the local economy, so the "choice" offered to drinkers by PubCos is a bad joke.


To me, a good local pub, serving good local beer, is the perfect representation of a rooted, human-scale institution. It is the ultimate antidote to placeless globalisation.


But a combination of corporate power, soaring property prices and often absurd over-regulation is hoovering up colour and character and spitting out conglomeration and control.


Talk to pub landlords and one of the most insistent complaints is something called the "beer tie". It means that not only must they pay rent to the PubCo that owns their premises - they must buy all their beer from them, too.


Some claim they could save up to £20,000 a year if they were free to buy their beer elsewhere - a margin that could make the difference between closure and survival.


Andrew Hall has run the Rose and Crown pub in Oxford for 22 years. Since Punch took over the freehold of his pub, he says, he's been in financial trouble.


"I'm not singling out Punch," he adds, quickly. "My criticism is of PubCos in general. When pubs were run by brewers they charged us very low rents and we had to buy all our beer from them.


"Now they're run by PubCos who charge high rents, and we still have to buy all our beer from them.


"This is now a business where you can't make money."


Well, it appears some can. From a folder, he pulls out a newspaper clipping detailing how Punch's chief executive pocketed £3.6 million from selling some of his shares.


"The man's a great entrepreneur," Hall says, "and I don't want to discourage great entrepreneurs in our society. But he's made his money by taking my living away from me. And that I find hard."


But the PubCos aren't trampling over everyone.


Hesket Newmarket is a pretty little village in the Lake District with a pleasant little pub. The Old Crown has a log-fire burning; lines of silver tankards hang from the roof beams. Ten beers are advertised on a chalkboard behind the bar.


It is owned not by a PubCo, not by a brewery, not even by the landlord but by the community. The Old Crown is Britain's first co-operatively owned inn. The village bought it after the previous landlord's wife died and he couldn't face running it alone.


"Our worry," Julian Ross, a local resident, tells me, "was that it would be bought by a PubCo, or that it would go for housing."


He and others came up with a business plan that would give control of the pub to the community, and safeguard its future.


They set up a co-operative, and 125 people bought shares - people from as far away as Australia and America who had visited it on holiday and wanted to help save it.


The pub is thriving. A bright, new dining-room extension has been built, and in an old barn behind they have started their own microbrewery. I breathe in that old-fashioned aroma of malt and steam.


"So many things are now cloned, McDonaldised," Julian says, "that we felt it was time to say: 'Thus far but no further.' Whatever else you've got, you're not having our pub.


"It's easy to look at the advance of homogenisation and corporate control and think there's nothing we can do about it.


"But you can. There is a saying that if you want to eat an elephant, you don't try to do it all at once. You do it bite by bite.


"That's what we're doing at the Old Crown - biting the elephant. And if enough of us do it, bite by bite, we can all get back the pubs that we love."




It's a sad matter, so many of the small villages around here have lost their local pub to housing or the pub is still open but it changes hands every few months.

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