Do you Remember an Inn?

Essays Published November 7, 2005 in Published in the New Statesman, 7 November 2005

Farewell, then, to the smoky old pub.

As a ban on smoking in most pubs looks set to become law, it seems that the hazy, convivial, unpredictable atmosphere of the traditional local is on the way out. The edgy, boozy, glamorously grimy institutions that inspired Samuel Johnson, G K Chesterton, George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton are to be legislated into history, in the name of public health. In their place, we can no doubt look forward to an uninspiring, government-approved selection of depressingly hip wine bars, all steel and smokeless dining spaces, in which “consumers” (not “customers”, and certainly never “locals”) partake of their sensible daily allocation of alcohol units from glasses marked with health warnings, and none of the bar staff risks the certain death that would come about by straying within ten metres of a smoker.

This vision may not turn out to be too much of an exaggeration, for the traditional boozer is under attack from all directions. The rising tide of officially sanctioned puritanism currently sweeping the country is one problem: go out for a quiet pint and a fag on a Friday night and you stand a good chance of being accused of manslaughter, or at the very least alcoholism. A sensible extension of the licensing laws, bringing us into line with most other European countries, is vilified as “24-hour drinking” by hysterical journalists. Drinks companies, under pressure from an increasingly confident it’s-all-for-your-own-good public health lobby, talk of putting stickers on glasses to warn drinkers how many units they are consuming. Staying at home is starting to look like fun by comparison.

All of this, of course, is supposed to prevent drink-related violence, binge-drinking and illnesses caused by cigarettes. But, ironically, an authoritarian alliance of this official puritanism and corporate power is ensuring that the very places where responsible, regulated drinking is most likely to happen – traditional locals – are disappearing, to make way for vast town-centre drinking sheds run by corporations whose only real interest is shareholder value.

The decline of the traditional pub has been going on for a while, but it appears to be accelerating. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), a staggering 26 pubs close every month. In the countryside, the 7,000 rural pubs that remain are closing at a rate of six a week. More than half of the villages in England are now “dry” – publess – for the first time since the Norman conquest.

There are various reasons for this decline. Puritanism is one of them, health fads another. As society becomes more and more self-obsessed and image-conscious, growing numbers of us would apparently rather spend our spare time watching Gillian McKeith force-feeding seeds to fat people than pop out for a swift half. A smoking ban, say worried landlords, would nudge many small pubs over the edge.

But probably the biggest reason for the spiralling decline of the traditional pub is the increasing power of the corporations that now own more than half of them. Until fairly recently, most pubs were owned by brewers. In 1989, though, the Thatcher government introduced legislation to tackle the six biggest big brewers, whose dominance was approaching monopoly proportions. Brewers with more than 2,000 pubs were ordered to sell off their excess, and offer at least one “guest beer” brewed by a rival. This was supposed to lead to more choice for drinkers and more opportunity for smaller brewers. But the canniest brewers spotted a loophole: though they weren’t now permitted to own more than 2,000 pubs, there was nothing to stop any number being owned by a company that didn’t make beer. So instead of selling some of their pubs and keeping the rest, the big brewers simply set up new pub companies, or “PubCos”, to which they sold all their pubs on the understanding that those companies would buy only their beer. Result: monopoly rebranded.

Today it is the PubCos, not the brewers, who call the shots. The ten biggest PubCos own more than half of the UK’s pubs, and the two biggest own a quarter between them. And unlike the big brewers, which did at least exist to sell their product through pubs, PubCos are, in essence, property companies, whose properties just happen to sell drinks. If their shareholders can be kept happier by flogging off pubs for housing, or closing down locals with a small turnover and concentrating instead on high-street binge-drinking sheds (known in the trade as “high-volume vertical drinking establishments”), then this is exactly what the PubCos will do – and are doing.

But perhaps we shouldn’t drown our sorrows yet, for the pub has always been a robust institution, and there are signs of hope. In the past year, new alliances of landlords and drinkers have been set up to fight the corner of small and traditional pubs. Above all, though, there are heartening lessons to be drawn from history. The first government campaign against binge-drinking, for example, was in 975, when King Edgar issued a law limiting the number of pubs in each village to one. In a historical echo of those stickers we may soon see on our pint glasses, Edgar also decreed that all drinking vessels should be a standard size: four pints, divided into eight parts by pegs set inside the tankard. No one was allowed to drink down further than one peg at any one sitting.

It sounds like a system of which new Labour could be proud. Alas for Edgar, the result was not quite what he intended. Every self-respecting pub-goer regarded the new law as a challenge, and competed to drink as much as possible at every sitting – literally taking each other down a peg or two, sometimes five or six. Ten centuries later Edgar’s law is forgotten, and despite the continuing disapproval of those who know what’s good for us, plenty of us are still, unashamedly, in the pub. “When you have lost your inns,” wrote the poet Hilaire Belloc in the 1930s, “drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.” I’ll drink to that.

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