Last orders… what have they done to my local?

Interior pub scene, people at tables, overlooked by large TV screen
Giant TV screens and loud pop music. Are they destroying the traditional local pub? Photo credit: dreamstime.com

Centuries ago, pure drinking water was a scarce resource, and sadly it still is in some parts of the world. This could be solved by boiling water, and hence in Asia we had tea. But at around the same time in the Middle East someone left a jug of grape juice out for a month – and so we had wine, a miracle! Wine added to water made water safer to drink.

In Britain, from the 1700s onwards the water was so polluted in towns and cities that beer became the main drink of the entire population, including children. Gin making, often unlicensed, led to dissolute scenes immortalised in Gin Lane by the artist William Hogarth.

There was a huge explosion of pubs in the industrial cities and towns in the late Victorian Age. The novels of Dickens are liberally peppered with inns (offering overnight accommodation) and taverns (boozers).

Famous 18th century drawing by Hogarth, Gin Alley, featuring people in various states of drunken abandon, including a mother whose baby has slipped from her arms
Detail from Gin Lane, 1751, by William Hogarth, at the Tate Museum

Gin died out (until today) but beer continued in popularity. The oldest pub in Britain is Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, established in 793 AD in St. Albans. A relative youngster is the Royal Oak in Winchester 1003 AD where the original pub is now below street level. In my mis-spent youth I would arrive there after work on Friday and leave there for work on Monday morning in the same clothes, never having set foot outside the building.

In 1914, to keep the population sober at a time of war, the Defence of the Realm Act brought in restricted licensing hours. These remained in force after both world wars. Pubs were still packed to capacity, but drinkers spilling out onto the streets when ‘last orders’ were called, often as early as 10.30pm, was seen to be a problem. 

The solution, in 2005, was a liberalising of the licensing laws. The aim was to create a more continental drinking culture and it did have a civilising influence. Surprisingly, it was the smoking ban of 2007 that brought about the biggest change. Without the cloak of nicotine you could not only breathe more easily but also smell your fellow drinkers. That’s why pubs light candles at dusk. 

In the 1960s the ‘Red Revolution’ – a marketing ploy by Watney’s – had tried to persuade us that its Red Barrel was a desirable drink, rather than sweet flaccid liquid pumped up by Co2. Fortunately, it provoked a counter-revolution; the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) not only reversed this trend, but also led to a boom in ‘real’ cask-conditioned ales.

Despite this, and efforts to attract more female customers and families, other factors were undermining ‘the local’. The minimum wage, business rates, rising property prices and higher customer expectations forced many pubs to sell up at the rate of one a week. Some breweries, like Youngs, have not only sold off their smaller houses, but also no longer brew beer.

What about my immediate local scene north of the Brighton Marina? In the last few years four pubs have closed (two for violent behavior). Only a pub converted to a bar and a Wetherspoons remains.

If I dare venture west towards Brighton, the outlets can sometimes be pretty grim – bare floorboards, Christmas lights that have never been taken down, a basic menu, or no menu at all. Noise blasts from giant TV screens, the pop music competing with ‘sport’ (football). It’s ‘service with a snarl’. 

This is not the whole picture of course. Some of the more civilised pubs have become what are known as gastro-pubs, focusing mainly on food, with drink on the side. Not quite ‘the local’ though.

Scotch eggs anyone?

But now there’s a new gangster on the block. He’s young, only 19 – Master Covid. So, if you fancy a pint, you may have to book a table. Then you have to check in and be seated. Next, you have to order a ‘substantial meal’, Scotch eggs do not qualify. 

A friend of mine goes for the children’s menu, telling the staff he has “a spastic colon”. The rules do not state that you have to eat the food, but if you do, is it necessary to order another substantial meal for the next round of drinks? Well if it can help to gun down young Covid, then it is in a good cause.

Sadly, I think that the lovely family-run pub – decent ale, good grub, inglenook fireplaces and friendly staff – will soon be as redundant as Rupert Bear’s cottage in Nutwood.

Me? Once Master Covid has been exterminated I am considering Cambodia with its 200-odd microbreweries. At least it’s warm there.

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