Monday, 10 May 2010

RIP: The Pub

Pubs are closing at a supposedly alarming rate, beer is getting more expensive, life is getting more expensive, people socialise differently, community has a new definition and Guinness is no longer good for you; I think the pub just entered the early throes of death.

Something has happened in the last 20-odd years to make a seismic change for the pub; a generational change. For the generation who have just reached the legal drinking age, going to the pub is something to do once or twice a week on a Friday or Saturday, tarted up and looking for action - a weekend fuel stop on a journey to Fuckedupsville. It’s not important what the place is like so long as they serve booze and it isn’t too expensive - what DJ is playing is more frequently asked than what guest ales do you have. A couple of years on, in the early- to mid-twenties, away from the bingeing, the pub is something different. We leave work (if we have a job) and go to the gym or there’s a long commute or we go home and cook and relax in front of an enormous TV with hundreds of stations zapped straight into our living rooms. Be healthy, we’re always told, eat your five a day, more than one pint or a glass of wine a day and you’re overdoing it, take at least 30 minutes exercise, don’t smoke, relax, drink two litres of water, have less salt, avoid caffeine, get eight hours sleep a night. And if you don’t do all of these then you’ll die from cancer.

Going into a local after work - at least where I am, away from a big city and in a small town - feels more wrong than right, more anti-social than social. The chaps at the bar have been there too long, it’s almost empty, it’s a realm of misbehaviour - drinking is bad for you, didn’t you know? And walk into a local pub and take a look around – there won’t be many people in their early 20s just sitting there and enjoying a beer. Call me bigoted, but if there are some then they aren’t likely to be the sort of guys who you’d feel comfortable socialising with, are they?

After we’ve decide that we don’t want to be a binge drinking statistic and stop doing the pints-and-shots of our late teens, the pub is where we go if we want dinner out, of if we are meeting friends once every few weeks, or there’s a game of football on, but it’s not a daily thing. If we want to drink daily then the supermarkets do some great deals on multi-packs, saving lots of money. Have you seen how cheap beer is in the supermarket? Why bother going to the pub? Life is pretty expensive – we need to save up for the uncertain future. Restaurants face a similar problem. It’s expensive to eat out and it becomes a luxury. Plus we can buy all the ingredients in the supermarket and cook it ourselves - everyone cooks now, don’t you watch Jamie Oliver? And haven’t you been warned about the ill-effects of bad diet and heavy drinking on society and the individual? Drinking is bad for you; stay at home with a glass of water.

This is also the generation of social and mobile media. We don’t have to go to the pub daily to meet our mates to see how they are doing, we can email them, we can text, we can call them anytime and anywhere, we can see their latest facebook status updates or tweets. We can follow what they do and others can follow us. A lot talk to more people regularly online than in real life – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different to how things used to be. We can’t compare today with 30-years ago. Plus the definition of community is now so much broader than it used to be, in fact, try and define community for me... The generation of social media is changing what it means to be social.  

But the pub is important. It’s where we grow up and learn to act like an adult, it’s where we become who we are going to be, it’s where we socialise and meet people - it’s the starting line of our adult life. But that’s a short burst of freedom, breaking the shackles with that legal ID, learning about life before actually living it and ordering a pint because we can. After that it changes. We aren’t brought up with the pub as part of a daily routine, instead we’re brought up with the daily routine of being told that it’s a bad thing – it’s unhealthy, you need to save money, don’t binge drink - and that is the change which has affected everything.

Soon pubs and bars will need to be specialist to really succeed. They will need to attract people in from miles around with something unique. Maybe it’s the food, the location or maybe it’s what’s on the bar. Beer bars might become more popular and a pub known for stocking great beers will get more customers, but they will probably be the type of customer who only drinks once a week. The specialist market - appealing to the connoisseur, wannabe expert or curious newcomer – might be the only place which can grow; either that or all pubs will become gastro. Can the local survive without a USP? Will the ‘local’ be one of those terms which slowly drops into antiquity.

It’s been a gradual generational shift, not an overnight thing. Fast-forward two more generations and what will the pub be? When the existing pub goers become extinct, how will the pub survive? Will it evolve? Survival of the fittest kicks in, whether we like it or not. It’s no surprise that we don’t drink out like we did two, three, four or five generations ago and it’s no surprise that this community spirit is dying (communities of people we don't know, chain pubs, corporate chain managers not doting landlords). But it’s a shame. The government battering ram of warnings and fear-mongering wins the battle of attrition; the world is dangerous so stay inside, eating healthily, not drinking and saving money – things aren’t going to get easier.

What is the real future of the pub? Can, and will, it survive as we know it, or has it already started to change?

UPDATE: Tandleman has written a reply to this post. In truth, I hoped that somebody would pick up on it and show a different side - that's what makes blogging fun. His is almost the opposite of what I say but that's understandable as he's coming at it from an entirely different viewpoint. Interestingly, if we met right in the middle we'd probably be fairly balanced and close to the real situation. What do you think about the opposing views? 


  1. Very good post, Mark, well said. I love that phrase "a realm of misbehaviour" – it is certainly true that going to the pub just for a drink, especially away from Friday and Saturday nights, has become much less a part of the normal routine of "respectable" people than it was a generation ago. Things are changing before our eyes, and you are right that pubs will have to develop more of a specialist appeal to survive. The days of the all-purpose "local" are surely numbered.

  2. Pubs have always been changing, and will continue to do so. There will be less of them around though.

  3. As Ed says, pubs have always evolved to reflect social change. Their numbers have also been in steady decline for over 100 years. Of course the overall number of licensed premises has scarcely dropped as "pubs" are replaced by "bars". Personally I don't have a problem with that (the newly opened 57 Thomas St in manchester is already becoming one of my locals) but I do know that it causes a certain amount of hand-wringing elsewhere in the blogosphere.

  4. Good post Mark, I like it when the concept of the pub is challenged. I agree with all the comments here too - pubs are always changing and will probably continue to decline in numbers, but as Tandleman says in response on his own blog I think pubs will still survive.

    As John says pubs are being replaced with other licensed outlets that we probably don't want to call a pub, but after all, when is a bar not a pub and when is a gastropub a restaurant? I like them all and providing you can get good beer, it's fine.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I really like Tandleman's reply. It seems that no one really knows where we are or what is next, just that we are changing and evolving.

    Curmudgeon: "The days of the all-purpose "local" are surely numbered." This puts my post eloquently in one line.

    JC, interesting thought, one that could easily be looked at much further. Are pubs dying but bars opening? Yes, I think so. Bars are a very different thing to a pub and where something like Wetherspoons is closer aligned to a bar than a pub (corporate chain rather than independent landlord).

  6. The "bar" phenomenon is, I think, very much confined to urban areas with what might be described as a yuppieish clientele. There are plenty of areas where numerous pubs have closed, but no new bars have opened.

    Thinking about it, many of the themes of this post are reflected in this piece I wrote seven years ago: The Death of the English Pub, which says:

    "Establishments that are recognisable as pubs will undoubtedly continue to survive in significant numbers. But the pub, as a ubiquitous institution that provides a constant thread through society across ages and classes, is doomed. In many areas it has already largely disappeared.

    "Even today, the broad appeal of pubs, as exemplified in soap operas by the Rover's Return and the Queen Vic, is a thing of the past, and kind of "let's go dahn the pub" bonhomie often suggested by TV programmes does not reflect real life. London indeed is one of the worst areas in the country for the loss of traditional pubs to residential and retail development, and non-pub formats.

    "The future of the pub will be to have a more limited, specialist appeal which is perhaps typified by the "Northern Quarter" of Manchester."

  7. Curmudgeon, there is a distinct similarity between the two posts. It's a great read. The allusion to the Queen Vic is important - it's almost a 'this is what all pubs should be like' kind of thing, which is quite different to the reality (maybe this rubs salt in the wounds of the dying pub?).

    The town centre circuit is an important idea. These places are often managed rather than owned by a landlord and that's the big difference. A 'proper pub' is not likely to be a stop on this journey unless they specifically appeal to that crowd (loud music, DJs, karaoke, cheap deals, etc - a USP).

  8. You know, what surprises me Mark is that our very interesting posts can attract only 7 comments each. Perhaps nobody cares and Pete Brown is right. It's just a few of us bullshitting each other.

  9. I think HK Dave calls this one right - as long as the atmosphere is congenial and the beer is good (along with the food, where sold) I don't really care whether I'm drinking in a "pub" or a "bar" - and I have to say the boundaries between the two are becoming increasingly blurred.

    Bars are just the latest phase in the evolution of the pub and should I think be celebrated as an example of how the general concept of the pub, in the sense of somewhere for people to meet, relax, socialise and enjoy good beer, is robustly adapting to changing social conditions.

  10. (I posted this at Tandie's - thought you might like to see it too).

    Sorry to be dull here - I think part of it is not wanting to get fat.

    I have a desk job. If I had a couple of pints after work, I'd be consuming c.2,500 calories in beer alone over my working week. That's a whole day's extra calories. I'd need to go to the gym a helluva lot to work that off - and that would be time not spent in the pub, so the equation collapses - best just not to bother in the first place.

    Consideration of my liver/govt health warnings doesn't come into it.

    This is also, I'd conjecture, part of the reason for higher-strength craft beer succeeding. Rather than having a calorie-bomb of five pints, just two bottles of 7% beer can deliver a nice fuzzy feeling and you don't feel you've ruined all the work on the treadmill.

    In addition, I *do* have a local, but it's a pub the other side of Cambridge from where I live. Like most people these days, I don't work round the corner and my pub is not 'on the way home'.

    When you see people nipping into a pub after work they are, as Mark says, usually managed places where the staff turnover and customer indifference are such as to neutralise any hope of a 'community' feel, regardless of how well the beer is kept and the place maintained.

    Where I feel Mark may have a point going forward is that people socialise differently thanks to social networking. Whereas in the past you'd go to the pub for a drink on the offchance of bumping into local characters, there is no need for such serendipitous socialising these days.

    It is notable in some very well-run pubs in Cambridge that, for all the excellent and friendly service of staff, there is no community feel because groups of pals have arranged to meet on facebook, or by calling a mate courtesy of the mobile, and are there to talk to those pals - not to the other groups of people around them.

    Will that change as these people hit their 30s and 40s? I doubt it. Quite a lot has been written about social segregation with regard to politics in the US - how radio talk shows, facebook and twitter and the like create bubbles into which the outside world cannot creep (i.e. I literally don't know *anyone* who voted for Boris Johnson to become mayor of London - yet more than a million people did!) Social interation suffers as the like-minded cling to the like-minded and this reinforces itself until people would take one look at the pub and ask 'why would I want to spend time with people I don't know whose values I may not share? I get enough of that at work!'

    Thanks for revisiting this. I covered some of this ground in a post yonks ago:

  11. very interesting articles
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