Would you adopt this Dolphin?
According to CAMRA 39 pubs are closing every week. The Times online projects apocalyptically that “last orders in Britain’s last pub would be called for the final time one evening in June 2037.” There have been excellent discussions on Boak and Baily’s blog about why pubs are closing and what class might have to do with it. The conclusion, it seems, is people just stopped going to them.
Some pub owners like to blame the smoking ban, but I can’t be the only person who spends more time in pubs now that I can breathe in them. In the long run this will be one of the wisest adaptations of pub life. Maybe some publicans just can’t see it yet.
But must we save pubs from extinction? Pubs aren’t pandas, are they? Sure, one could argue the pubs’ once-thriving habitat has come under threat from pubcos, cheap supermarket booze and home entertainment, but should they be seen as victims in need of charitable donations of time and money? As Pete Brown has pointed out, they are businesses, after all. Businesses must evolve and adapt to survive. (Unless of course you are an investment bank, but I digress.)
Unlike endanegered species, pubs don’t have to wait for generational mutations to adapt. They can do it now. The CAMRA leaflet encourages intensive community involvement and has creative suggestions about combining services in a pub–a hairdressers, a takeaway or a post office, but clearly these are aimed at village pubs.
To fully grok CAMRA’s argument, one must do a fair bit of reading of pdfs– probably more than the average drinker is willing to do. The point is that development has been so aggressive that many pubs face becoming something else altogether–luxury flats for example. The CAMRA literature does not address mismanagement, which might be a key reason why so many pubs are becoming unviable.
As I consider CAMRA’s statistics and the sheer number of dead pubs, it is a bit overwhelming. But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want to see the pubs in my immediate vicinity– The Fox and The Dolphin– evolve or just die off. I don’t go to my locals. Why should I “donate” my money to pubs that don’t provide what I want, or are unpleasant?
The Fox is nice enough inside. But I have often had a pint of ale that’s gone off, and the staff sometimes have warned me off the ale, “Because there have been complaints today.” The food, usually mediocre, has taken a turn. It will be placed in front of you, shamelessly, without a word, sometimes almost inedible. (How is it possible to burn a whole plate of chips?) The small mercy is that the portions are always quite mean. The servers are young and ever-changing. Once, I brought a friend there and he found a hair in the head of his pint. When he brought it back to the bar the server said, “that’s not my hair,” shrugged, fished it out and gave the pint back to him.
I have a local even closer to my flat called The Dolphin. I have watched crews film commercials and an episode of Peep Show there. From the outside it looks lovely, but I have never been inside. This pub, when it’s not full of extras and movie crews, is scary. Last night at 2 am, I lay awake listening to punters toss the picnic tables at each other while hurling invectives. And this went on for an hour while the pub was seemingly still open. It was Saint Patricks Day but this happens even on non-drinking related holidays. I’m dreading summer. Since they’ve made an outside smoking area, messy brawls and middle-of-the-night shouting matches are routine and will only get worse as the weather improves. At least they’ve stopped the amplified, al fresco karaoke. The landlord of this pub as taken on an evil cast in my imagination. What kind of person is so hostile to his customers and community that he would let this happen on a regular basis? And why, exactly should I save him from anything?
This is an extreme example, but if CAMRA really does support consumer choice, consumers will chose some pubs over others. The reality is some pubs will close if they can’t compete. There are some pubs–like the Intrepid Fox in Soho–that were beloved of many and well-used but gentrification has killed them off, the blow dealt so rapidly no one had time to organize against it. Though CAMRA presents a detailed guide for rallying community involvement and even ownership of an endangered pub, that might well be impossible in a place like London. The guide seems geared to more rural areas, places with a “village pub”, and this is acknowledged in their Public House Viability guide.
On a recent visit the barkeep changed the number of real ales to 2182.
My local is not the closest pub to me, but it is where I spend the most money. It’s the Magpie and Crown in Brentford. The staff are always friendly and on top of things, and I’ve never had a bad pint there. Last night I had the light, hoppy Twickenham Grandstand with some of the best Thai food in London from Magpie’s kitchen. While sipping my cracking pint of Acorn Old Moor Porter (some serious coffee bitterness and a very dry finish) I wondered why I was a CAMRA member at all, since their campaigns didn’t seem to address my concerns as a young, female London drinker. (Take it to the top? Not really a problem.) I have only recieved one copy of What’s Brewing since I joined a year ago, so I may be out of the loop, and I have never felt compelled to go to a meeting as I’m sure I would be completely out of place amongst the older fraternity there. But while Joy Division and The Jesus and Mary Chain were on the pub sound system, I considered my good luck at having adopted a magpie, and congratulated myself for doing my part in the campaign.
The Magpie and Crown features in Rankin's novels as the Flying Swan.