Monday, 10 May 2010

The Pub - Evolving and Relevant

Dredgie in his inimitable way has a speculative and thought provoking article here, in which he postulates that the pub is doomed in its present form and that if it survives at all it will be as a specialist outlet for Fancy Dan beers, sold at premium prices to the cognoscenti or curious, who will visit once a week to eat as well as drink. These people according to young Mark - who as far as I can see has little by way of pub going pedigree and I don't mean that as a criticism, but as a point of observation - will be generationally ill disposed to pub drinking and that pub going will die or radically change when all us pub going old fossils have shuffled off our mortal coil. Well maybe, but I reckon not.

Now there is no doubt these days that there is a lot of pressure on people to behave more responsibly, eat healthily, take exercise etc. (we used to be brought up to do most of that by the way) and the rise of alternative entertainment and cheap supermarket beer has had an effect on pub going too, but there are one or two factors that Mark doesn't take into account. His assumption that the current habits of younger people will continue in exactly the same way into later life, is unlikely in the long term to be true. If it was, the older generation would be hobbling around in winkle picker shoes, loon pants, heavy metal T shirts and all the dodgy paraphernalia of their youth. But they don't. They change. As people get older, more comfortably off and want to see the world from a vantage point other than their sofa and see their friends in person, rather than through text and tweet and need a break from family, they will, at least sometimes, seek the pub as a place to meet. Their aim will not always be to eat, but to socialise. It won't be to seek out strange new beers, but to drink something they are comfortable with in the company of people they like. Much as it always has, the pub is constantly changing due to social evolution. It has always survived by adapting to meet new challenges and changing social habits and it always will.

A lot has been said about the smoking ban and pub closures, but one thing is true, like it or not. It is the bottom end of the pub market that has failed, but that was always going to happen sooner or later, in the face of a widening gap between supermarket and pub prices, especially as these pubs had no USP (to use Mark's phrase) and were effectively selling expensively in grotty surroundings, to relatively poor people, the same cheap beer that can be bought from the supermarket and drunk at home for a quarter of the price. Why drink Carling or Fosters in the pub when you can get the same product and drink (and smoke) at home much cheaper? For some, that question is a no brainer. Given the expectation of higher standards on top of this, a weeding out of the weakest was always going to happen. This is an evolutionary change just as much as food led pubs are and should be recognised as such. Shake outs of pubs are nothing new and it is usually the bottom end that is shaken out.

Yes, the pub is changing and yes there will be more specialism and yes it will be the more affluent that will frequent them, but it was always thus to some extent and became more so as the gap between on and off trade prices widened. It is also a bit of a myth that people of my generation spent all our time in pubs as young people. While we may not have had the dubious pleasure of Sky's 500 channels, or Nintendo Wii, we had the same problem that everyone starting out in life has; that is, coppering up to find enough money for the cinema, or a night down the pub (and the bus fare home) and concentrating as much then, as now, on horizontal activities with the opposite gender. (Trust me, the pub always came second to that.) The pressures on modern youth are no more difficult than they were for me and my generation, though they may differ in some aspects of course. Money, jobs, sex and a finding a way to relax with friends will always be a basic human requirement and will, in my forecast, in the UK at least, always include a drink or two at the pub from time to time. (It is also my belief that even though we are bombarded by Nanny State nonsense about health, that there will always be sufficient numbers of sceptics that will take it all with a pinch of (forbidden) salt.)

Maybe if Mark had a local where he met his friends, where he knew everyone and where the pub is the centre of village or neighbourhood life and gossip, he'd see things more optimistically. I'd also speculate that in time he probably will. In many thousands of pubs up and down the country, people still go for that feeling of community, where the bar staff know you and your family, call you by your name and where you know most people and the sense of belonging and being part of things is palpable. It happens everywhere. You just have to visit Stonch's pub, with its loyal set of characterful customers to see that it can be done, even in the heart of a big soulless city. I would guess that the same feelings of belonging are engendered there as in my local. And yes, in most community pubs, in towns, villages and neighbourhoods, young people are there and gaining the same sense of the pub that I have. But here I need to scotch a myth once more. Pubs were always dominated by the older generations. How younger people see pubs today will likely change as they get older and evolve. It was always thus. I think we have to remember that what we do when young and what we do when older, are vastly different things. Life changes us all.

So will the pub change? Yes it will. Will the way we use it change? Yes it will. Will the numbers of pubs continue to diminish? Probably. Will how we perceive pubs change? Yes it will. Will pubs evolve and change to meet the new demands of their customers? Of course they will or they will close.

Above all, will we adapt to the new situation and want to go to the pub however it evolves? Yes we will, as long as we have the need to mix and socialise over a drink and I forecast that won't die out any time soon.

Thanks to Mark for a really interesting post. I would have replied there, but hey - I have also have a blog to write. I reckon too that we aren't far from (mostly) agreeing.


Curmudgeon said...

As you say, I don't think the two of you are that much in disagreement. But it can't be denied that the number of pubs where there is that sense of community, and the number of customers who experience it and value it, is much less than it once was, and continues to steadily diminish.

Tandleman said...

I suppose that is so and in some ways to be regretted, but as I said, things evolve. When our Sunday table thought our pub might close, we were actively discussing where we'd go instead. It can be done.

Unknown said...

Horizontal activities? You are such a bore, what about a good old knee trembler round the back?

Anyway, I agree with both you and Mark, so you can't be far away from agreeing.

The pub industry has always changed and will continue to change. There is more blurring between the boundaries between pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars and I welcome that.

A key point you make is that people do grow up. When I was Marks age, all those years ago, it was the circuit pubs and then on to the night club, the pub was just on the way.

Still, I think Mark has loads of good points to make, which are all valid.

Tandleman said...

"Horizontal activities? You are such a bore, what about a good old knee trembler round the back?"

That's fine too!

Neville Grundy said...

"... the older generation would be hobbling around in winkle picker shoes, loon pants, heavy metal T shirts and all the dodgy paraphernalia of their youth".

Oh dear! I still wear jeans, T-shirts with slogans, and a denim jacket with badges on. I don't have long hair any more, though, so perhaps I have grown up a bit.

Mark Dredge said...

Really interesting reply and I'm glad you posted it (I hoped you/someone would). I do agree that we are actually rather close and there's probably a very interesting middle point.

Your point that people grow up is very valid, but if the pub is rarely seen in our 20s, what role can/will it play in our 40s? When does the change come when I/we/they will find a 'local' and will go to it regularly? Will that time ever come. I can see that the pub is the place to meet. For me, it's where I meet my mates already, but it's weekly or monthly and we go to special places where they sell special beer.

My pub-going-pedigree is similar, I would say, to many people of my age. It's not simply just me. That's a part of the generational change. My friends have similar habits to me. Some might go more often - after work with colleagues (for the London folk), to watch football if they can't afford Sky, or just to drink good beer if they know it's on (another USP thing). Your pub-going pedigree is very different, for whatever reason.

I also think the concept of the local is different now. There are places which I can treat as my local, but they are each at least a 30-minute journey away. They are places I can go where I know people, where the staff greet me by name and where I would happily go alone for a few hours. It's just not very local. And I go to them specifically because they serve great beer...

Really interesting discussion.

Tandleman said...

"Your point that people grow up is very valid, but if the pub is rarely seen in our 20s, what role can/will it play in our 40s?"

I guess you'll have to wait and see. Different pubs and ways of using them suit different people. As I say, it is evolving, but I think it will still be there for you to use in 20 years time. If you want to that is.

And while you may not believe it now, you won't always be seeking out special beer because it won't seem so special in 20 years. But hopefully you will still be seeking out good beer and beer you are happy just to drink socially.

My more general point is that there are still plenty of pubs that provide a social escape from normal existence and which give good cheer and comfort to many. You may come to appreciate that more as life wears you down. (-;

Mark Dredge said...

Special beer is just a by-product of liking good beer. To be honest, I could happily go a very long time without drinking anything over 7% or anything that's got limited release on it. I drink them because I can, but I don't really drink them that often. A bad pint with friends is still better than a great bottle alone so the social side of things is very important - it always has and always will be.

There are still plenty of pubs, I agree, it's just they are becoming places we visit monthly rather than daily. Maybe that will change, but maybe the pub will change before we get there.

I think we could continue circling each other for quite a long time on this one!

John West said...

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:

Tandleman said...

I wouldn't worry about the getting fat bit - that's a red herring. When I was your age I used to run 5 miles five times a week. Now? Fuck that for a caper. Life's too short.

Your other points are fair enough and though I don't have a crystal ball I re-iterate my point is more general and it is that for some at least, the pub will still be relevant and that there will be pubs to go to on 10, 20 and 30 years time.

As an aside, sitting at home getting mildly buzzed on a couple of half pints of bottled beer might be fine for some (though somewhat misanthropic perhaps) and good luck to them, but your vision of a future where you only ever interact with like minded people is a repellent one - and I know you were observing it rather than supporting it (I think).

To me that smacks more of fascism and if that's the future, then where's the nearest offie?

Going back to my lack of crystal ball though, I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Or at least you will. I'll be pushing up daisies.

John West said...

'observing it rather than supporting it' - indeed, I'm not a fan of this at all. Not least if we are moving to a more proportional voting system that will require voters to understand politicans represent alternative views and will need to make compromise.

In life, too, I prefer the rich tapestry, even if my own friends tend - quite normally - to share my broad view of the world.

SkyBlueSkull said...

Sweet Jesus, jesusjohn, not to put too fine a point on it. You are so far up yourself, you could probably perform a tonsillectomy on yourself using your incisors. Let the rest of the world know which pub you and your 'own friends' inhabit, so we are all warned and can give it a wide berth.