Postcard from London: Where are all the pubs?
Moving house is thirsty work. Once I’d dropped both bags on the floor and decided in which corner to shove a severely neglected surfboard it was time to check out what my new south London neighbourhood had to offer.
Top of the list, naturally, was a good pub. Even though global warming is predicted to turn London into Cairns-by-the-Thames it’s still worth having a reliable boozer at hand for that odd changeable day.
To my alarm, when I walked into the nearest pub on the Old Kent Road the battleaxe of a barmaid was actually a battleaxe of a receptionist. The pub had been turned into a doctor’s surgery.
A private school for girls nearby my new home has taken over the pub next door and most of the convenience stores in the area once had taps and bar stools. One supermarket chain is reported to be in talks to buy 200 pubs in a single deal. There must be one hell of a growing pile of sticky carpets somewhere in London.
Unfortunately this is not a newsworthy one-off in a country where it was once the case that if you weren’t propping up the bar at your local it was because you were running one two doors down. In 19th Century Liverpool one in seven houses was a public house.
But the death of the once great British boozer is not confined to the capital. Across Britain 40 pubs a week are shutting their doors for the last time, many in villages where the only other amenity is a phone box. If the same change happened in Australia the watering holes would run dry within months, so it’s probably worth pointing out that there’s still somewhat of an abundance of pubs here.
In fact, if the worst case estimates are right and another 10,000 licensed houses shut by the end of the recession, that would still leave 47,000 serving. Nonetheless, the rate of closures is being seen here as another knife wound to the social fabric of “broken Britain”.
As de facto community centres in a country without an equivalent of the RSL (Royal British Legion clubs tend to be deader than the most lifeless local) they may have a point. And in a country where organised sport is still a niche pursuit you wonder what is going to bring people together in the future.
In my area, where immigrants from Africa and the Subcontinent have taken over the council blocks from the white working class, coffee shops and restaurants do a good trade but only reinforce segregation along lines of culture and taste. Fried chicken shops seem to be the only thing that everyone likes and they easily outnumber pubs by two to one, maybe more.
Another factor keeping people out of pubs is how cheaply British supermarkets can sell alcohol. Most of the big chains use severely-discounted booze as a way to get customers in the door.
Asda, one of the big four supermarkets, has kicked off a new price war by offering 15 cans of Carlsberg for £5 ($10) – the equivalent of 7pence a pint. A pint of Carlsberg in a pub costs about £3.
Even my local Pakistani-run corner store does a can of Guinness for £1.10 compared to £3.30. And, bless him, he does it 24 hours a day if you need it whereas virtually all pubs still shut at 11pm despite some moves to relax drinking hours laws.
In the midst of Britain’s worst recession you can’t really blame people for forgoing the comradeship of the local for a few quiet ones at home at those prices. And Gordon Brown’s decision to again increase beer duty that only supermarkets can afford to swallow will only serve to reinforce that trend.
But in true British “we drunk our way through the Blitz” mentality landlords have begun to fight back in both ridiculous and inspired ways. One excitable owner needed a big feed before he began his second hunger strike in protest of the tax rises, while other pubs have begun to attract families with improved food offers. Improved in some cases is having more on the menu than chips and a briny bottle of pickled onions on the bar, but it’s a start.
The upside to all this upheaval is that the Aussie-themed Walkabout pubs are also in danger of extinction. Regent Inns, which owns Walkabout, shut another venue in Durham in the north of England last month and is actively trying to get rid of many more. While the Australian Government pumps millions into promoting our best and finest for one week a year, these establishments have 51 more chances to showcase the opposite. I use the Russell Crowe excuse and blame it on the Kiwis.
Incidentally, I was in an Aussie-frequented pub in Fulham a few months back talking to a group of Brazilian girls who told me they were there to “hunt” Australian guys. Extraordinary to learn we were on top of one nation’s shopping list. And a good reason to get to a London pub while you still can.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
@mooks83 sophisticated response. Think the kids parents saw it differently
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…