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.

Doing Two Things at Once
May 11, 2008

dove pub

Having lived in London for three years, it’s just long enough for me to understand I’ll never get to everying, and there are no more secrets to discover. Everything has been marked and claimed and remarked and I will present little new light. This is the case with the famous Dove pub in Hammersmith, the oldest riverside pub in London, where James Thomson composed Rule Britannia and William Morris got pissed.

It was purchased by Fuller, who still owns the pub, in 1796, but it existed as a pub for at least 100 years prior. I had walked past it many times while strolling by the Thames there, and it looked so cozy but I never went in until yesterday. One of my American brewer friends is attempting to replicate Michael Jackson’s favourite drink, Fuller’s Mild, and has been prompting me to do field research because I live close to the brewery. I thought it being the “Month of Mild” for real ale drinkers they were bound to have it on tap at this Fullers pub.

It was one of those hot days where Londoners are a bit miserable but won’t admit it, and everyone is forcing themselves to have fun, wearing things that don’t come naturally to the English, like plastic sandals and board shorts. The Dove was packed with people in this mode, all drinking Pimms and Lemonade or bottled cider. On ice. Why is it this is the only time you can find ice here, in this atrocious manifestation? Anyway, the promise A FRIENDLY WELCOME SERVED ALL DAY, outside on a chalk board, gave me a twinge of trepidation. In my experience any pub which claims this will offer you nothing less than tepid animosity inside. But one lives in hope.

Upon entering, another chalkboard sign offered a new way to drink Fuller’s honey beer– “TRY HONEYDEW ON ICE” I cringed. I cringed some more while scanning the taps: all bog-standard fair– Guinness, Carling, Fosters, save four Fullers taps– no mild. I went for my usual choice of Discovery, which is one of despair. I’m not that keen on Fullers ESB or Chiswick Bitter. I’ve had many a crap pint of Discovery, too. The only thing is, when I tried to order at the bar, the bartender took the order from Mr. Malting. He then asked if he wanted anything else and I piped in, “One pint of Discovery,” and the bartender mysteriously walked away to wait on some guy in affected apres-surf gear next to me. (This is a rather common occurrence in pubs– where I am passed over for a man next to me– but I digress). Plus, there was no loo roll in the ladies. Warm welcome, my ass.

So M and I split the pint, crowded into a corner. Of course it was beautiful inside with low ceilings and wooden rafters, and I imagine it would be cozy on a winter’s night but today I had to wonder, sweatily, why had all these people come here to drink the same thing they always do, with the same people? With the countless pubs in London, why suffer one that is coasting on its atmosphere and history? M and I used the time to plot our next move. Inspired by Knut Albert’s beer blog, we decided to check out the Magpie and Crown in Brentford, a steamy bus ride away.

Magpie and Crown Pub

Both of us had been by this pub many times and even asked friends about it who wrinkled their noses at the idea, no doubt put off by the fact that it is a local boozer and also caters to the “Beardy Weirdies”, or real ale lovers, as Stonch so affectionately puts it. I knew as soon as I walked in that this was the place. Despite the ugly, worn out carpet and footie blaring on the wall, I could see countless taps gleaming before me, all with beer I haven’t tried yet. I noticed they even had Fentimans, my favourite non-alcoholic drink.

I started with Crouch Vale Blackwater Mild, a total winner– it was, well, the blackest of blacks and beautifully balanced. Unable to resist an Essex beer named after a place in Texas, I tried Crouch Vale’s Amarillo next. Holy cow! This beer had an aggressively estery nose– yellow roses, you could say. And the hops seemed actually spicy, a bit like lemon pickle if you’ve ever had it. I shouldn’t have liked this beer. Maybe it was because I was sitting next to my own Texas sweetheart, but you know, I was so into it. I tasted a couple others but it was the Amarillo that merited a second pint.


As I sat sipping, the crowd of chunky men watching the footie started in on a rather ugly conversation about the government taxing white Englishmen while Muslims just get away tax-free. I thought, yeah, this is why beer culture is not considered cool in this country– there is all this racist nationalism tied up with “real ale”– a false sense of authenticity. But this is a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, as the men had at it, a tiny woman with a sensible bob and Liberty handbag came in and ordered a pint of mild, and sat across from us, drinking it quietly. I overheard one of the men yell, “I’M NOT A WOMAN, I CAN’T DO TWO THINGS AT ONCE.” The mild-drinker wrote something down and checked her makeup in a little brown compact. At the bar, the only other woman in the place sat hunched in her dirty winter coat, carefully raising her glass to her face with one violently trembling hand. I took notes and drank, noting the model ships, freshly dusted, on shelves all around. One was actually made of Shweppes cans. The governor (named Steve– thanks, interwebs) in a shirt that said THE LIVER IS EVIL AND MUST BE PUNISHED, was busy filling a stein with a German beer with a head as voluminous and dense as mousse. Try that next time, I promised myself. In fact he told us that if we came back in three days all guest taps would be changed again. I think I can wait that long.

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