Thursday, 7 February 2008

CAMRA Community Pubs Week

Saturday 16th to Saturday 23rd February 2008

“It's a frightening reality that at least 56 pubs are closing in Britain each month and early indications of new research being carried out by CAMRA suggest that this figure could actually be significantly higher. Worse still, the majority of these pubs are not high street chain bars or theme pubs, but community pubs, recognised by most people these days, as important community amenities. The local pub, after all, is often the heart of the community.” CAMRA, Feb 2008

When I was growing up, I was always a little in awe of the pub. It was somewhere that my dad went to spend quality time with his friends, like some kind of adults only clubhouse. It was also somewhere that my grandmother demonized. One Sunday, when my dad didn’t bother showing up for lunch (again), she marched up the road and rapped on the window of the boozer screaming for him to get his arse out and back home. He was back up there as soon as it was acceptable to be excused from the table. From that early age, I was intrigued – obsessed even – with what went on behind closed doors. Even as a pre-teen, I felt a kind of magnetic draw to that darkened smoky room, I wanted to know what I was missing out on. Some people I knew at school wanted to be doctors, but I’ve got to say there was nothing in the waiting room or operating theatre that got me that excited about ever going back there – quite the opposite really. I think I just wanted to be a full time dreamer by any means necessary. The pub, to me, seemed like the kind of place that people could go to and daydream.

As an adult, I’ve been pretty lucky - my job has always meant that I could use the pub as somewhere to scheme. For every meeting in a boardroom or someone’s flat-pack office, to this day I still find that so much more ends up getting done in the hour or two you spend in the pub afterwards. More often than not, you’re sat in an atmosphere that’s convivial to plotting, to conspiring. To dreaming up ideas of how to make things work. At Heavenly where I work, back in the mid ‘90s, The Ship on Wardour Street was our surrogate office. Back then, in the days before mobile phones, you could confidently ring the pub and know you’d find half the office in there, getting things sorted. As much as it must have seemed like a bunch of people getting pissed all day (and there was enough of that going on), stuff just got done. Bands were formed, bands were signed, clubs were dreamt up, magazines were born. New lives and past lives were toasted. The pub was like another office, like our second home and our community centre rolled into one. Nothing less really.

Things have changed radically in the last ten years. As mobile culture has grown, oddly it’s made the office invade every space we use. The pub is now less the place for meetings as everyone always has to move on, to get things done, to achieve. As we’re baring witness to unpredictable changes in the music industry, we’re also witnessing a distressing turn of events in pub world. Now no longer acting as community centres for anyone in particular, we end up with the depressing statistic of nearly 700 pubs closing in the UK every year. These don’t tend to be the high street super-pubs, the Wetherspoons and the Yates, they’re usually the local boozer, forced out by competition or rising rents. For every village pub that shuts down, there’s a pub like The Intrepid Fox that gets squeezed out by landlords – 20 years of packed houses in the centre of Soho then the live-in manager gets told to sling his hook with just one months notice. A unique boozer that was obviously seen as part of an undesirable sub culture, it was forced out of the West End as part of some kind of demented clean up plan (happily, the Fox found themselves a thriving new site underneath Centrepoint). It’ll come as no surprise to anyone to say that the original site is still boarded up, lying empty 2 years after its sudden takeover by property developers. The proposed flats have yet to emerge and the building, which has been used a pub on that site since 1784, just sits there empty and rotting.

As a pub going nation, we’re in danger of losing a vital part of our culture. People talk about the creeping homogenization of the high street, of Starbucks and McDonalds taking over, but no one really talks about the slow, silent death of the local pub. You can rattle off reasons why (the smoking ban, more people are drinking cheaper booze at home, the threat of an on-coming recession) but they don’t really help the fact that a vital part of what makes Britain unique is being allowed to die out.

Thankfully, while all this has been going on, the good people at the Campaign For Real Ale haven’t just been badgering bar staff to fill their pint glass to the rim (though that is a pretty damn good point to be pressuring for). Over the last few years, they have been trying to raise awareness about the huge amount of pub closures taking place all across the country. Their Community Pub Week this month aims to help endangered boozers by helping to raise their profile, helping make people aware of the fact that their local might be struggling to survive. Their aim is to promote “all community pubs – not just village locals, but urban gems too.” In an age where everyone is becoming more and more aware of the dangers of globalization, it’s heartening to think there is a pressure group concerned only with the extremely worthy heritage that the UK has in its brewing and its public houses. Because God knows, I seriously doubt the government are going to lend a hand anytime soon.

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  • Robin Turner