Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Tippler's Tales

For those of us versed in Orwell, his idealisation of the English pub remains a classic of its kind.  Unfortunately, the Euro-phobic, mullet-sporting Tim Martin has appropriated the name as a default for his Wetherspoon chain, which does not do the late Eric Blair any favours, nor does the atmosphere of Wetherspoon pubs even aspire to the mediocre in most cases.  My local Wetherspoon has been reviewed as resembling the DSS waiting room, which is entirely reasonable given that the clientele overlap strongly.

Meanwhile, the decent pub becomes a harder-to-find phenomenon under a dead weight of the companies who own them, always squeezing margins and always latching onto concepts that will enable them to increase their turnover per customer.  Since Thatcher's botched intervention in the licensed trade, which purportedly increased choice for the customer by restricting the vertically-integrated structure whereby brewers owned pubs and therefore controlled what they sold, the emergence of the ghastly "pubco" has continued and magnified the trend to reduce the pub into a machine where character has been eroded in favour of margins.

There is probably a direct link between this and the extent to which the small, individual local pub has been eroded - many closing on a weekly basis.  At the same time, vast drinking barns, targeted at maximum throughput and minimum social responsibility, have been responsible for making many town centres and suburban high streets virtual war-zones after dark, egged on by Master Tony's amazingly depressing Licensing Act 2003 that transferred real decision-making away from local communities into the hands of the pubcos, whose lawyers and PR people could usually browbeat local authorities into nodding through egregiously asocial establishments blasting out music and promoting drinking well beyond either reasonable or legal limits.

Yet there is still some cause for hope.  Many of the better-run small pubs have discovered that there is a niche for the kind of communal experience that the chains deny.  They have also tapped into localism, through sourcing food and drink from local, smaller producers - and worked out that in many parts of the country people are prepared to pay a modest premium for something slightly better than the standard re-hash of tired menus and indifferent drinks.  These are not necessarily the idyllic country pubs that one finds in the "Good Pub Guide", indeed that publication's skew towards olde worlde charm (probably with morris dancers and legionella in the water) is sufficient to ensure that it never darkens my door.

It is a sobering thought (literally) that CAMRA now has more individual members (around 120,000) than any of the major political parties - it has been a successful consumer lobby group on a scale that must still dumbfound people who founded it 40 years ago.  British ale brewing should be a matter of pride, as the variety and quality continues to increase now that the multi-national brewers have lost interest.  Only last week, at the Great British Beer Festival, I enjoyed drinking Fullers Brewer's Reserve No 3, which was as good if not better than the more celebrated Trappist beers from Belgium.  This is a cause for celebration - but there are still too many pubs closing, too many botched renovations that destroy the built environment and undermine the function of a space where drinking is incidental to the potential active or passive socialisation.

Orwell probably wouldn't recognise most contemporary pubs, and his shade should steer clear of Wetherspoons, but for once there are still green shoots of quality, as well as established excellence.  After a few days of really deep cynicism and depression about the wider world, sometimes remembering small mercies is a salutory activity.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with the sentiments. Olde Worlde Charm aside, we are losing something valuable. There is still hope.


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