09 June 2009

The Decline and Fall of British Pubs--what, again?

A business associate and fine-beer-drinking friend of mine sent me the following story from the Los Angeles Times: English Villagers Try to Save Struggling Pubs :

Last summer, the tranquil English village of Kentisbeare woke up to find a dagger piercing its heart.

The man who ran the neighborhood pub, the Wyndham Arms, had decided to call it quits. Hit by hard times, he locked up one evening and never came back, leaving the village bereft of its "local," the watering hole down the road where, for more than 200 years, the good folk here could always drop in for a pint, a pie or a piece of gossip.

The tavern seemed destined to become yet another lost marker of traditional village life, bound for the same remorseless oblivion that had already swallowed the baker's, the butcher's and the petrol station in this lazy green countryside where bluebells nod in the breeze, medieval church towers loom like giant chess pieces and thatched roofs peek coyly through the leaves.

This time, though, residents drew a line. They retrieved the keys to the pub, renovated the whitewashed 16th century building themselves and reopened it less than two months later.

"People couldn't bear the thought of it being boarded up," said Mavis Durrant, 67, a lifelong resident of the village in southwestern England. "There's something very appealing about a country pub, isn't there?"

Indeed. For centuries, virtually nothing has been more central to the good cheer and cozy charm of English village life than the local pub, whose name alone -- the Bishop's Finger, the Drunken Duck, the Quiet Woman, the Moorend Spout -- could summon a smile.
Okay, fine and dandy. We all cheer when quaint English pubs are saved, right?

But just how long have we been reading this stuff?

Look, as long as I can remember, I've been reading stories about how "ye olde British pubs" are disappearing. The theme was even highlighted in the Andy Capp comic strip thirty and forty years ago. At what point is this just more and more hand-wringing about a somewhat inevitable process of transition and change? Britain's beer revival mimics ours closely: massive consolidation, mega-breweries, and a backlash of craft brewers.

I checked my back issues of The Good Beer Guides to Great Britain. Neither of the pubs in this article show up in the editions I have. In the photo above from the article, we see four Fuller's taps--and Fuller's is known to be one of the recent promoters of "fake" beer engines that mimic real ale pumping but use CO2 to force-feed. (Though, truth be told, we just had two decent Fuller's beers at Max's last week....) And for every really fine pub I visited/saw on my three weeks in Britain in 1991, I saw at least one other place that would characteristically be called a "dive" in the States--mass-market beers, Guinness, nitro'ed Boddington's (before it hit the States), and a generally tired place. Think Moe's Tavern in "The Simpsons," not "Cheers." And I was too busy riding trains to look too hard.

You know, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of "corner saloons" all over Baltimore that are either closed, dead, or at death's door. You don't see anyone holding candlelight vigils for them, now, do you?

1 comment:

Third Rail said...

Hey Sandy, Walter from NRHS here. You are right about the tired old story of the decline of the great British pub. As you know, I go to the UK at least annually, and there are plenty, I mean A LOT, of good pubs still around. And you don't have to look very hard, especially in the larger towns and cities. You are also correct in that it is the poorly managed pubs that most often go by the wayside. That said, there is a some truth to the allegations that the British government (all the way back to the Thatcher era), has had a "tin ear" to the problems of pubs in small towns, villages, and very rural areas. Same with fox hunting and shotguns, really.

Hey, it's been a long time since 1991, both for the beer and the trains. The good pubs are better than ever, the good beers are still good (or better, and the trains prove (sort of) that privatisation can work (sort of). It looks like this issue calls for your personal involvement; do I see an inspection tour on the horizon? Let me know if your going to go.

I really like your blog. Keep up the good work. See you at the BAR!