Is it time to adopt a pub?
March 18, 2009

Would you adopt this Dolphin?

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 to 2182.

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 Rankins novels as the Flying Swan.

The Magpie and Crown features in Rankin's novels as the Flying Swan.

Three Nights of Beering
August 9, 2008

GBBF-- a grim venue in which to get your buzz on.

GBBF-- a grim venue in which to get your buzz on.

“Why would you need to go to a festival to get beer?” The guy from the mail room, who’d stopped by the new high security den in which I work, asked. My co-worker had just informed him that I was going to the GBBF again, after having gone almost every day this week. They found this hilarious.

I told him there were hundreds of beers by small breweries, beers you could never get at your local pub or off license.

“Stick with the big names, that’s what I say. You know how they’ll taste. You know what they’ll do to you.”

I have to admit that after three days of drinking countless and varied thirds, I see a sliver of wisdom in this man’s words. You see, I don’t feel so great. Friday night my feet were covered from blisters– after working 8 hours in heels and corporate costume, I now stood for another five drinking. And then I spilled mild all over my only good work skirt, and I wasn’t even drunk. I was in serious beer overload.

It’s hard to get drunk happily at the GBBF. There’s a lot of trekking around, looking for the beer you want, and then queuing, and then more walking around looking for a small, calm corner in which to enjoy it. You realize there is really no such thing, so you drink it while being jostled by unfriendly crowds. And then with the next 1/3 of a pint it starts all over again.

If Tuesday belongs to the professionals, Wednesday belongs to the obsessives, the tickers. Thursday belongs to the suited hedonists: City workers drinking as fast as they can before their 9 o’clock train. And Friday belongs to all the people you’d rather not drink with. Friday is one giant stag night. Groups of men roam, roaring in unison every time a glass breaks or they win at something or just because they think they need to jump-start the craic. They’re wearing purple western hats usually reserved for desperate fun of the hen night, or tams with “ginger” hair attached, or jester hats. And it’s not even hat night. That was Thursday. And there are more women on Friday, but they are tarted up in the tiniest skirts and stilettos.

After wringing a half pint of mild from my career-wear separates, I’m really no better. I just wish I was drunk like them and maybe none of it would matter.

But the thing I realized as I watched a saintly CAMRA volunteer set up the “roll the barrel” game for the stream of drunk asshats (in America the equivalent would be frat guys, but in the UK I’m not sure) I realized why I came every night wasn’t just for the beer, or the spectacle of machismo, but the sheer wonder of this volunteer-run event. To work unpaid in the dismal Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre with drunks and beer obsessives sounds like its own kind of hell. You’d have to really love beer to do this. I hope they all got lots of it.

A lovely CAMRA volunteer encouraged me to try my luck at the tombola– only a pound to play, and you are guaranteed to win! When I won a little stuffed ram toy she whispered, “If you don’t like it you can pick another.” But how could I? I’d already won.

My tombola win and a half of Chocolate Cherry Mild

My tombola win and a half of Chocolate Cherry Mild

Here are my tasting notes:

Abbeydale Black Mass: a thinner stout, quite hoppy– almost soapy.

Anglo-Dutch Brewery, Tabitha the Knackered: a favourite of mine from the festival. Golden amber with an orangeflower water nose. Slyly warming at 6%. Refreshing but complex.

Bushy’s Oyster Stout: Another favourite. I would like a glass of this right now please. Very close to Porterhouse’s version, minus the salinity and with more chocolate happening.

Dunham Massey, Chocolate Cherry Mild: An amazing beer, exactly like its name except that it’s not too sweet at all, balanced by a gently hoppy finish. I drank a lot of this.

Mighty Oak, Oscar Wilde Mild: It was tasty but through a major party foul I ended up wearing most of this.

Valhalla, Old Scatness: Named after the Iron Age village in Shetland and brewed from the ancient grain bere, this was really a light but satisfying beer– one which I went back to again and again. While in the Okneys we lived on the local flat bere loaves and the fresh white cheese made at a farm near our cottage. I thought this beer would have gone perfectly with these lunches. It made me long to go back to the Outer Hebrides.

Thursday was a blur of ciders– the most memorable was Rathay’s Old Goat with its mossy, forest creature nose and very dry finish.

I had several other milds and a few other stouts but I neglected to make note of them.