The Public House

Three newspaper articles published recently raise the spectre of the demise of pub culture in this country. The first was this by Tony Naylor writing in The Guardian, lamenting the end of the “quick pint”, prompted by a statistic claiming 90% of visits to the pub now involve having a meal. The statistic doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and Naylor cites “beer destinations” and micropubs as counters to the rise of the gastropub. In London the likes of Mother Kelly’s comes to mind, where although you may opt for a cheese or charcuterie board, beer is definitely king. My work local, The Old Fountain, also serves food, but it’s definitely a boozer. I often stop off for a beer on the way home and somehow manage to do so without eating a three course meal.

A variation on the theme came in this article in the Telegraph, highlighting a study (by Mondelez, a fucking American multinational confectionery, food and beverage conglomerate if you don’t mind) purporting to show that under 35s have fallen out of love with the pub. I give little credence to studies commissioned by corporations, but with a recession and government policies that have disproportionately affected the young, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them were choosing to socialise at home. And all the better for Mondelez if they soak up their beer with packets of Ritz Crisp and Thin.

Then came this great piece by Deborah Orr celebrating lunchtime drinking. This is a practice I’ve rarely been able to indulge in as, working in social care, you can’t very well go and get hammered then visit a client who may have an alcohol problem, nor can you just disappear for half the day. While the quietus of midday drinking may not signal the death of pub culture, it does, along with the other articles, suggest that it’s changing. Anecdotally for example, many of the pubs I like to drink in don’t open till 4pm, a lamentable situation when at a loose end and craving a decent beer. There’s always Wetherspoons I suppose…

Despite this, as I survey the view from my hop-scented London craft beer bubble, I see a vibrant and dynamic beer scene that continues to grow and evolve. But I’m not myopic – London isn’t immune to this crisis. London pubs are closing too, just not the pubs that I drink in. Rather, the most vulnerable pubs are the ones I spent my formative years drinking in: working class boozers. There’s an irony (or hypocrisy) here – while I lament the demise of these victims of changing demographics and gentrification, I’ve also been known to drink in some of their genteel reincarnations. I used to be a regular in Father Ted’s, predecessor to The Jolly Butchers, a slightly shabby place that used to come alive at one in the morning. However as fun as it was, I much prefer being able to order a quality, regional cask ale, or a can or bottle of something from the US or Belgium, to swilling mediocre Guinness while mingling with sweaty coke heads. If that sounds pejorative, that was the the reality of Father Ted’s, which wasn’t and isn’t indicative of all regular boozers of course.

I don’t have a local as such, one reason being that since arriving in London as an economic migrant more than ten years ago, rising rents have meant that I’ve been frequently compelled to move house. Such transience makes it impossible to put down roots and establish yourself within a community. The closest I came to having a local was The Yucatan; another pub in Stoke Newington where I drank for three years, usually arriving at midday to watch the Celtic game, joining the regulars who had been propping up the bar from ten o’clock in the morning and who would stay till chucking out time (or lock-in time, more likely), with not a charcuterie board or pulled pork bap in sight. There are pubs that I go to regularly, that are relatively local, and which I go to on the strength of their tap list: the aforementioned Mother Kelly’s, The Old Fountain and The Duke’s Head in Highgate. All three serve food to a greater or lesser degree, but they are primarily for drinking in. I can’t comment on other towns or cities, or suburban or countryside areas, but while the writing’s on the wall for some pubs in London, pub culture isn’t dying, it’s evolving, and thriving.

Hopefully the Asset of Community Value (ACV) legislation continues to afford pubs some protection, and the example of the Elephant and Castle shows that people are willing to use direct action to save their local. But the easiest and most effective way for me to help is to drink in as wide a variety of pubs as possible, as often as possible.

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