Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Changing times; changing habits

I was prompted to write this piece after posting a lengthy comment on the Pub Curmudgeon’s site. Mudge, as he is often referred to, was lamenting the decline of the pub; that much-loved, and occasionally maligned gift from these islands to the rest of the world.

Despite having a bit of a pop at beer writers for subconsciously helping to demoralise pub-going, (you need to read Mudge’s post to see what I am getting at),  the common theme running through the article was people just don’t go the pub in either the ways or the numbers they once did.

Lunchtimes and early evenings are two periods which were once popular times for people to unwind with a few drinks, but with changing times, and changing habits, pubs are likely to be much quieter now during these particular sessions.

I never was a fan of having a few pints straight after work, on the way home; preferring instead to get indoors, change out my work-clothes and then get tucked into my dinner, before any thoughts of a drink enter my head. The other reason for not stopping for a “swift one” on the way home is, there is no such thing as “a quick pint”, as  a single pint often has the habit of turning into several, but the main reason is that I have only once had the luxury of working within walking distance of my home. All other jobs I have held, including my present position, have necessitated me driving there.

Man of Kent, Tonbridge - scene of many a lunchtime pint, back in the day
Lunchtime drinking though was an entirely different matter, or at least it was three and a half decades ago, when I was a happy-go-lucky young chap, fresh with the vigour of youth and ready to take on the world. Back then it was quite normal for me to enjoy a lunchtime pint, or two, and a drink on Friday lunchtime was a popular pastime at the company I worked for. As long as you returned, more or less on time and were still steady on your feet, no-one batted an eyelid, and after two pints I still felt perfectly capable of carrying out my duties.

Although I was married with a mortgage, my other commitments weren’t particularly onerous. My then wife earned twice what I did, and I wasn’t exactly underpaid either. We were both regular pub-goers, and most evenings we could be found out for a drink in one of several Maidstone pubs; the town we lived in at the time.

Harvey's Brewery Shop - Lewes
Changing circumstances, a change in partner and the arrival of a child all conspired to curtail my pub-going activities. Starting a family is a massive drain on most couple’s finances; especially when it entail the loss of an income, but to add to the strain, not long after our son was born, the company I worked for relocated to Lewes, in East Sussex. This meant a sixty mile round trip to work, and whilst the company paid my travelling expenses for the first six months, I was soon left with having to dip into my own pocket to cover this.

Working in Lewes did have a number of attractions, the not least of which was the Harvey’s Brewery Shop. Situated in Cliffe High Street, just in front of the brewery itself, the shop offered several draught beers for customers to take away in their own containers. I found a four pint container to be sufficient and, providing it was kept in a cool place, the contents lasted over a two day period.

I became a regular visitor to the Harvey’s Shop, where I was always addressed quite politely, and properly, as "Mr Bailey"! I even received preferential treatment. I was also treated to sneak previews and tastings of new brews, or special commemorative ales. In short I was treated with that "old-fashioned" politeness and civility which is so sadly missing from much of the retail trade today.

I digress, and there’s obviously been a lot of other changes both in my life and circumstances, as well as with society in general, since those days back in the early 1990’s. Fast forward to 2017 and state retirement age is now just four years away. With our son now in his mid-twenties, and just a couple of years left on the mortgage, my domestic responsibilities are certainly far less onerous, than they once were, but work-wise it’s a different matter.

At the start of my career I was a humble laboratory technician, with a hands-on approach, and apart from doing my job to the best of my ability, little else in way of responsibility or commitment to the company. Now I head up a busy department of four people, and am responsible for ensuring the quality of my company’s products throughout all stages of the supply and manufacturing chains, and then going forward into the marketplace.

I am fortunate in so far that my company does not operate a “no drinking” policy at lunchtimes but, as I’m sure I’ve referred to previously on this blog, anything more than a pint at lunchtime, definitely impacts on my work output in the afternoon. I feel sleepy, "post lunchtime walk", at the best of times, so a couple of pints of beer would, more than likely, see me slumped over my desk. This is obviously not the way companies would wish their employees to behave, and without sounding too sanctimonious over this, I certainly don’t want to carry on in this manner either.

The thing is that whilst my pub-going habits may have changed, and the amount I drink is quite a bit less than it was back in the early 1980’s, pubs too have changed and so has society and society’s attitudes. The “wet-led” pubs which were once so common, have now largely vanished. Pubs have had to up their game in order to survive, and offer more in the way of food, or an unusual selection of beers.

Attracting the food trade is of paramount importance, particularly for rural pubs, where the lack of viable public transport links often means people have to drive to these pubs. Whereas people may have once turned a blind eye to “drinking and driving”, today it is socially unacceptable. Country pubs therefore need to offer something more than the opportunity of downing a few pints, in order to stay in business. Some have faced criticism by placing too much emphasis on the food trade, and where a pub starts to resemble a restaurant, and casual drinkers are made to feel unwelcome, this criticism is justified. But there is a happy medium, as many successful country pubs are able to demonstrate.

Town pubs do have more of an opportunity to go after the beer lover, and here again there are many successful examples of pubs which specialise in offering a wide range of different varieties of beer. Unfortunately there are still far too many urban pubs content to blindly follow the PubCo model of Sky Sports, karaoke, quiz evenings and the occasional themed night.

I appreciate such places serve a purpose, but the preponderance of pubs locally, following this tired old formula is one of the main reasons I rarely go for a drink in Tonbridge these days; despite the improvement in my financial circumstances.

There are other reasons, of course, for the decline in pub-going and in the number of pubs. Curmudgeon and others, keep citing the smoking ban, which is now approaching its 10th anniversary. I have mixed views on the subject, as I feel that rather than an out and out ban, pubs which still had multiple rooms, should have been allowed to set one aside specifically for the use of smokers. This would have worked, especially with the modern and highly efficient smoke extractors which were available at the time.

Although the subject still provokes much debate, it is probably fair to say that with the numbers of smokers continuing to decline, this factor is not as relevant ten years on from the introduction of the ban on smoking indoors in public places. There has also been a general increase in health-related matters, and people are much more careful in taking care of themselves. Exercise, healthy eating and nutrition in general contribute to an increase in well-being, and providing they are driven by voluntary factors, rather than pushed down people’s throats by a “Nanny State”, then they have to be recognised as beneficial for the population at large.

This isn’t me getting all pious and sanctimonious; this is just common sense. I still enjoy a beer most nights and given the right pub, and the right company, can still put away a fair few pints over the course of an evening. I am also over-weight, despite taking regular exercise, so there is room for improvement.

But keeping things in moderation and trying to strike a balance between enjoyment and staying healthy, has to be the way forward; not just for me but for an increasing number of the population. If this approach has been responsible for the decline of the great British Pub, then I make no apologies for my part in it. Instead I see a healthy future for those pubs which have managed to adapt and which offer something a little different from bland international “brands”, produced on an industrial basis and pumped out by the gallon in characterless and soul-less bars but, as with everything, that’s just my opinion!


RedNev said...

It's true that drinking habits do change as we pass through life's stages, but probably less for me than for you because I have no children.

I was an active in my trade union for many years, and quite often reps went for a drink together after meetings. This is not bad, as you get to know your union colleagues very well and it's a lot more enjoyable - and successful - than attending a contrived team-building exercise.

Curmudgeon said...

It's not the first time than someone has interpreted nostalgia as anger on my blog. It's a fact of life that one of the causes of pub decline has been that the range of occasions when people will consider a visit to a pub has narrowed. It may be regrettable, but there's not really a lot you can do about it.

Yes, of course well-run pubs can still be successful within an overall declining market if they have the right offer and location. But it's still a declining market. My fear is that, within a generation, pubs as we currently understand them will become very much a niche interest. In many areas, perhaps they are already.

Even now, many people have a rose-tinted view of pubs that rarely corresponds with the reality.

Paul Bailey said...

Nev, I agree that here’s nothing worse than contrived “team-building” exercises. Fortunately my company doesn’t go in for this sort of thing; possibly because we are Japanese-owned.

Spending time away at an exhibition, with five of my colleagues, as I did a fortnight ago, was a much better way of getting know people outside of the immediate work environment. It was certainly far more productive than any idiotic “raft-building” game. We all got on extremely well, given our diverse backgrounds, and it was good fun and good company, socialising over a meal and a few beers in the evenings.

Mudge, as I said on your blog, I wasn’t misinterpreting your nostalgia for anger, but I think you are missing the point about the changes society has undergone in recent times. Pubs continue to evolve and mirror the changes which are taking place in the outside world.

I am sure that my long-dead grandfather, himself a dedicated pub-man, would be horrified at the changes which took place from the 1970’s onwards, when partitions between a pub’s various bars were torn down, keg beer and lager became more prevalent and unwanted distractions such as gaming machines and TV first put in an appearance. There are many other things he would not have approved of either.

Pub going habits had changed, even within his lifetime, as I remember my grandmother telling me how horrified she was during her courting days, when she discovered that my grandfather liked a drink. The first time she was persuaded to step inside a pub, was like entering a forbidden world for her, given her strict Welsh-Chapel upbringing.

She of course, became a dedicated pub-goer, but only in the company of her husband.

Curmudgeon said...

I'm not missing any point. The point is that changes in society have occurred and they have contributed to a massive decline in the demand for pubs. A lot fewer people now go to pubs, on a lot fewer occasions. To just say "pubs have continued to evolve" is hopelessly Pollyannaish.

Paul Bailey said...

Despite their falling numbers, and despite the large number which have closed due to changes in society, those pubs which remain, and which are trading successfully, are by and large those which have evolved to reflect the aforementioned changes.

What’s pollyannish about that?

Curmudgeon said...

Well, plenty of pubs have evolved into supermarkets or blocks of flats :P

It's rather like Spinal Tap - "our appeal is becoming more selective".