Thursday, 16 May 2013

Not Going Out - Part Two

In my previous post I argued that many professional people had been priced out of pubs by the high cost of beer, (and other drinks). An unfortunate side effect of this is that licensees have tried to make up the shortfall by appealing to those who can still afford several nights a week in their local boozer. Two or three decades ago this group would have comprised well-paid industrial workers, coal miners and people involved in activities such as steel making or heavy engineering. However, with the decline in these industries,  pubs had to look elsewhere for the bulk of their trade. For a while, during the construction boom at the end of the last century and beginning of this one, there were large numbers of skilled tradesmen, bricklayers, plumbers and electricians, all with plenty of spare cash in their pockets and looking for somewhere to unwind after a hard day’s graft. The pub provided the opportunity for them to relax and enjoy a few drinks with their mates, or fellow tradesmen.

All this changed, of course, with the financial crisis of 2008, followed by the loss of confidence, and collapse in demand for new housing and other property developments. The effect on the construction industry was devastating, and many skilled tradesmen found themselves out of work. Once again, a lot of pubs ended up bereft of a large proportion of their regular trade, but this time there was no obvious group to replace them. In desperation, many landlords decided that what their customers wanted was a regular diet of Sky Sports, so they subsequently invested heavily in this area, in the hope it would pull in the punters.

In a way it did, but lager-swilling louts wearing football shirts aren’t really the sort of customers conducive to a friendly relaxed atmosphere, and the end result has been that a large number of pubs now resemble American bars. Step inside and there is no escape from the all pervasive TV screens, or the foul language of some of these so-called football supporters.

The fact that so many formerly unspoilt locals have ended up like this is sufficient to deter people like me from ever setting foot in them again, but this situation would not have arisen if back in the 1970’s the brewers, who were the main pub owners at the time, hadn’t embarked on a program of knocking down internal walls and removing the age old distinctions between public and saloon bars. At least in those days if one didn’t like the crowd in the public bar, one could escape to the saloon and vice versa. Now, with so many pubs resembling nothing more than soulless, single room "drinking barns", there is no escape. On top of this comes the more or less universal assault on ones ear-drums from juke boxes, piped muzak or the all pervasive television. Why do landlords and bar staff think that everyone shares their dubious taste in music?  Why do they think we want to watch horse racing, golf, snooker or any number of other sporting pursuits?

Some licensees have tried, with some degree of success, activities such as quiz nights, to help to bring the punters in, but things such as karaoke nights or poker evenings are nothing but a major turn off so far as I am concerned, and smack of desperation. As for the effect of the smoking ban, well pubs were in decline for a long time prior to the introduction of that ill thought out piece of legislation.

Some pubs have moved in the opposite direction and now function as little more than high class restaurants. On the whole, food is a development that ought to be welcomed in pubs, so long as they continue to provider a reasonable amount of space for people who just want to drink. 

So what’s to be done to encourage people like me, and others, to return to the pub? Well, although it would be nice, it would be naive in the extreme to expect a return to two, or even multi-bar pubs, but I can’t help thinking that the rush to do away with what were considered as “outdated symbols of class division” was the start of the slippery slope in the pub’s long decline.

What I do see though from my admittedly infrequent forays into pub land, is that pubs which offer a good range of well-kept cask beers, together with decent continental lagers, and possibly the odd craft beer as well thrown into the mix, are thriving. So are those pubs where convivial conversation and friendly pub banter still rule the roost. There are several pubs in both Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks that fall into these categories, but I can’t really think of any that fit the bill in my home town of Tonbridge, although one or two perhaps come close.

If I was to win the lottery I would be tempted to buy a pub and put some of my ideas into practice, but until that unlikely day happens I’ll continue to do most of my drinking at home, whilst making the occasional foray into pub land.

I don't want to come across as a snob here. Back in my youth I was equally at home in both public and saloon bars; my choice being dictated by the situation and the company I was with. For example, a night out with my mates would normally be spent in the public bar,  enjoying a game of darts or cribbage. Music would be provided by the juke box, where we, the punters, chose what was played rather than the bar staff. If one was entertaining a member of the opposite sex, then the saloon was the bar of choice. More refined, quieter (the music from the juke box in the adjoining bar, didn't normally carry through), and  more comfortable surroundings. Things were much more civilised back then.


Curmudgeon said...

Completely agreed that televised football often puts off more customers than it attracts. See here (second article down).

Tandleman said...

The old public bar/tap room/ vault or whatever, versus the saloon bar/lounge/best room. Those were the days.

Those that haven't lived through those times know nothing about what pubs could aspire to be frankly. They were truly great days, but onwards and upwards. There are still great pubs, but maybe not as great as they once were. Everything has its golden era and maybe the zenith was reached all these years ago?

Like you Paul, if I won the lottery, I'd love to restore a pub to include these features.

Mind you, I'd need to start doing the lottery.

py0 said...

Sky sports in pubs has been around long before 2008. When I was a student, probably 80% of the pubs we went in would have Sky Sports on permanently.

And its worth noting Mudgie, that even if Sky Sports puts off twice as many people as it attracts, which it may well do, that still offers a USP to a third of the market.

Curmudgeon said...

@Tandleman - I've had exactly the same dream. However, what I would fear is that you'd do all these worthy things, and no bugger would come.

It's certainly true that the multi-compartment, multi-activity aspect of pubs has been largely lost now.

@py0: As the article says, there's certainly a market for televised football, but it shouldn't be allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all else. And, very often, those punters who turn up for big matches are never seen at other times.

py0 said...

Ironically Cambridge has the opposite problem, there are hundreds of pubs all shouting about how they're a "sport free zone", and there's virtually nowhere within the entire city to have a quiet pint and watch the Test Match.

One time our cricket match was called off and we decided to go to the pub and watch the cricket instead; well, we must have been in ten different pubs with Sky Sports signs outside and they all had the same bloody story "no sorry we don't have Sky Sports anymore". Thats a lot of business some pub lost that day.

A place that does show sport and gets a reputation for always having what you want on makes a killing. There's not just football that people want to watch, there's cricket, rugby, darts, snooker, golf, tennis, baseball, american football, ice hockey, basketball, etc etc etc.

The problem is that a lot of pubs do half a job, they show the occasional match but also sometimes don't bother to turn it on either. They might as well not bother.

Cooking Lager said...

Society changes, as it became less class conscious divisions were anachronistic. Now those divisions are reemerging. I doubt there is room for all under one roof in different rooms. Different boozers for different folk appears the way of it.

The truly enlightened man can fall down any chimney pot in the world, be at home and make friends.

Paul Bailey said...

I think Cookie is right; much as some of us might wish it otherwise, multi-bar pubs are not going to make a miraculous comeback, and different types of pubs for different groups of people is the way things are panning out.

py0 also has a point about pubs showing other sports apart from football. I wouldn't mind the Test Match on quietly in the background and have even been known to watch the odd rugby international. What I do object to is when virtually every pub within 10 minutes walk of my house has signed up to Sky Sports or is running regular disco/karaoke evenings. I know I'm getting old and crotchety, but I remember these pubs when they were pleasant places I could walk into and enjoy a chat with the locals, or find somewhere quiet to sit and enjoy my pint.

Curmudgeon, I think if one were to do "all these worthy things" then people WOULD come. I can think of plenty of examples where, even with a partial reversion to a traditional style pub, footfall has increased dramatically.

Best quote/proverb I've read in a long time, "The truly enlightened man can fall down any chimney pot in the world, be at home and make friends." - thanks, Cookie.

RedNev said...

PYO: why do some pubs not have Sky Sports any more? I have asked this question and I am usually told that the cost of Sky Sports is considerably more than the revenue it brings in - it's often not cost effective. The lost trade from you and your cricketing friends will have been a tiny fraction of the money the licensees have saved by getting rid of Sky Sports.

Licensees also tell me that a lot of football fans come only for the match and don't enter the pub at other times, and some of them don't even buy a drink, or they make one glass of lager last for two hours.

wee beefy said...

I heard similar stories to RedNev - people visit a pub on match days/nights only, and whilst on the face of it their swelling the ranks could be a good boost to trade, licencees in fact end up seeing folk sit down with one half and inhale washback throughout.

The answer, or at least the likely prospects for the future, lies in different pubs for different folk as Cookie mentioned.

Which, ironically, existed to some extent before the smoking ban - in that people would know about smoke free pubs or ones with smoke free rooms and head for them for that reason, just like I head for telly free pubs today.