Economic Woes

Time Gentlemen Please

English Pub

Doomed to Extinction?

Twelve years abroad is a long time without ever coming back for a visit, so it was hard to know what to expect when we finally returned. Doom-laden emails from friends and family didn’t lend an air of optimism to the process. Comments ranged from the “…you won’t recognise the place,” to the “ won’t like it here.” It was hard to really interpret that latter comment in any other way than to conclude the sender probably wouldn’t be heading up the welcoming committee. Undaunted, we consigned it to the basket of relativity, and putting our trepidation aside, carried on with our home-coming plans.

Although much has changed here, (we missed the Blair years but unfortunately not the aftermath), there’s also a great deal that has remained the same. Sometimes this lack of change catches me unawares and it becomes easy to forget the length of our sojourn on foreign shores. This forgetfulness manifests itself most often when bumping into old acquaintances unexpectedly. My immediate thoughts something along the lines of “…wow —you got old”, only to subsequently catch sight myself in a store window and realise that the ravages of time didn’t exactly pass me by either.

Around the time we left the UK our towns and villages were awash with pubs—the industry appeared to be riding high on a tidal wave of alco-pop and real ale festivals, not to mention the side effects of rampant alcohol abuse particularly in younger drinkers. On our return then, it was a little surprising to see political parties weighing in on campaigns to save the Great British Pub, after all, didn’t we have bigger issues to deal with like a recession and a war? UKIP (The UK Independence Party) has is own campaign, the Conservative Party another but it soon clear that one would not have to try very hard to find evidence in support of The British Beer and Pub Association’s (BBPA) statement that a record 52 pubs a week are now closing in Britain, according to BBPA the last 12 months has seen the closure of 2377 pubs in the UK with the loss of 24000 jobs.

We have travelled around England a lot in the last couple of months and have seen hundreds of boarded-up pubs, some that we can recall as being formerly vibrant social hubs. Others have already been converted into housing and yet more stand forlornly waiting for new tenants, to let signs pasted over their windows.

Standing room only.

Standing room only.

Though I could never claim to have greatly enriched the coffers of the local British victualer with my drinking habits, early in my working life the pub was the place where, in those pre-cellphone days, between the hours of 11:00am and 3:00pm I could guarantee to find my boss, thankfully within running distance from our Telex (remember them?) machine. Later, it would become for me too, an extension of my office where business was done, contacts made and entertained, contracts (hopefully) signed and local news & scuttlebutt exchanged. Way back before longer opening hours, every Wednesday the pub would be open all day for livestock market, crammed full with farmers discussing the price of grain or bemoaning the weather and the price of beef. Landlord and bar staff really knew their customers and actually cared. This was a time when the word gastro was associated mainly with digestive conditions and nobody had ever heard of a latte or panini.

Time, taxes and legislation have, it seems taken their toll. Anyone who has ever visited the UK knows we are up to our armpits in taxes in this country, alcohol being a much favoured target. In 2008 alone the Government made a high teens, double-digit increase in beer taxes. At a time when this £28 billion industry was grappling with new legislation and drowning with metres of red tape, beer sales slumped to their lowest level since the Great depression. Some say it is the recession and/or the taxes that have killed the pub, others the smoking ban, still others that it is the availability of cheap wines from the supermarket chains. Undoubtedly all this has had an impact although I am struggling to see conversion of the true real ale aficionado to cheap supermarket plonk.

Living in a small rural hamlet, we have two amenities, well three if you count the local historic house — a pub and a church. So in the interests of non-scientific research but mainly because life just worked out that way, this week offered the opportunity to experience the Great British Pub 12 years on. Now this a pub with history, bearing the name and coat of arms of local landed gentry, its walls covered with pictures of hunting, shooting & fishing and copies of the entry for our village in the Domesday Book. It is just about everything you might imagine a quintessential English pub should be: white-washed walls, low ceilings, dark aged woodwork, horse-brasses (real-ones), uneven stone floors, complete rag-tag assortment of true characters—the only thing missing is the thatched roof, but we don’t have many of those round here now, too much of a fire hazard.

This had been our “local” so we were eager to see what, if anything, had changed. We remembered it as a standing-room only kind of place, where you could be 5 or 6 deep at the bar on busy nights so you had to shout and gesticulate your order to the bar staff, who mostly knew what you were going to have without the need for a prompt, and those closest to the bar would just patiently pass it back to you without complaint. Births were celebrated here, wakes held, the prayer group from the church had their coffee mornings here and we even toasted our own marriage in the back bar.

In those twelve years tenant-landlords had come and gone, bar staff too but beyond that everything seemed pretty much the same. It didn’t take long to notice though, that the place was overstaffed for the volume of business. Most staff were under 20, clustered tightly around a copy of Hello magazine confirming to me that the cult of celebrity worship thrives equally in rural England as it does in New York City & LA. “Britney’s looking good, ” said one. Feeling something of an intruder into their discussion group, my request for half a pint of cider without ice was met by a vague, watery smile roughly in my direction, and a pint delivered up some moments later complete with ice.

Shortly after our arrival the kitchen fired up with the first orders for food, and whilst, for an alarming few moments it appeared that the kitchen had indeed caught fire, the knot of heads around the magazine didn’t miss a beat “Yes, but look at Kim“, said another, pointing to the recently re-coloured Ms Kardashian. Thankfully (I think), the somewhat acrid smog pouring into the bar was just the back-wash of the deep fat fryer. Yuk!

Time Gentlemen Please

Time Gentlemen Please!

When our meal emerged it was surprisingly normal, not a trace of a singed lettuce leaf, reasonably good, and very well priced — no complaints on that front. My later request for coffee however, caused a certain amount of consternation as apparently, the workings the coffee maker were something of a mystery to our young server. Help was eventually summoned and some while later a cup of freshly brewed tar coffee arrived, confirming the rectitude in my decision some months ago to import a not insubstantial quantity of Dunkin Donuts breakfast roast. We choked it down, knowing we would be bouncing off the walls with insomnia some hours later and in what I assumed passed for customer service, we were asked about six or seven times if “s’oright?”by one of the heads, now unknotted —afterwards I wondered if this was actually question or an affirmation. What was most evident was the lack of connection between staff and patrons, everybody was perfectly pleasant but there was no spontaneity, no true reciprocation, just forced and hollow dialogue.

A strong case can be made for economic woes, taxes et al but the truth of it is, even though this little pub still survives despite the ravages of 2009 economics, the heart has gone out of it. Gone were the characters, the eccentrics and the total sense of community which gave it life.

By closing time that evening, the place was deserted, no loud ringing of the last-orders bell necessary, just a polite and somewhat anacronistic “time gentlemen please”. We wandered slowly home and agreed that sometimes, just as the saying goes, you never can truly go back.