If the recent trend of pub closures, changes of use or simply the demise of a once thriving business through poor management or, sometimes, deliberate neglect by pubcos has taught us anything it’s how integral pubs are to a community. But it’s not just a facility we lose when the local becomes flats or a coffee bar; we also lose its history and legend.
The local is not only a forum for gossip it’s also both source and star of them. Extraordinary events become folklore; characters are embalmed beyond their existence in their own personalities, and former publicans become ghosts still remembered through slurred tales recounted over pint pots from the lips of the punters unable and unwilling to forget their yesterdays.
A pub I pop into occasionally has a photo of an ex landlord on the wall. I didn’t realise it was an ex landlord until, spurred by my curiosity of what this portrait – out of keeping with the rest of the decor and staring thoughtfully at me whilst I drank – was doing there, I asked the current landlady. She informed me that the locals had put it up following his death a couple of decades ago.
I may have imagined the tone of exasperation in her voice, but I wouldn’t have begrudged her it had I not. To take it down would undoubtedly cause a stir, but to keep it up must surely only act as a reminder to those who remembered better days and busier times conjouring selective, halcyon memories of when the pub was busy every night, drunken sing songs were the norm and everybody was best friends – a bit like remembering all your childhood summers being hotter and longer than they are now.
But here’s the thing: pubs are better now in so many ways. Yes, back in the eighties and nineties pubs were thriving, but they had little to compete with entertainment wise – four television channels and a Spectrum 48k were hardly the most seductive mediums to stop us from crossing the threshold and marching purposefully to the smoky local for a game of darts with whoever was in that evening – and it’s fair to say that complacency reigned. Many publicans sat on their barstools watching the staff take the money, barely attempting to amuse their regulars with paid entertainment or entice them with new products or promotions, and by the time many of us realised that customer numbers were dwindling it was too late.
No wonder then that some pubs fell by the wayside when punters – courted by an increasing number of suitors for their disposable income – started expecting more for their money. The pubs that survived were generally those that adapted, rolled with the punches and came out fighting as now it’s almost imperative for us to woo our footfall with offers, promotions, entertainment, quality and a much wider range of products – one real ale and a few keg products simply doesn’t cut it today. Fads and fashions come at us in waves: cloudy beer, ice in cider, Jagerbombs, prosecco, gin… bloody bollocking gin! Raspberry gin, Pink gin, strawberry gin, gin with cucumber, gin with mint, gin with a dash of reindeer saliva served with a princess’s fucking eyelash. Okay, but you get my drift; it’s not easy to keep up, but keep up we must as the pub up the road is on Facebook every two hours telling everyone how marvellous last night was for Mandy’s birthday; how marvellous today will be for their sponsored bar skittles tournament, and how fucking marvellous Saturday will be as that crooner who cleared your pub 5 years ago by killing Dean Martin all over again for an hour and a half is on from 9.
All of this adds to the anxiety of the publican who – driven by the genius ideas of young people in suits who say stuff like ‘touch base’, ‘blue-sky thinking’ and ‘low hanging fruit’ whilst sitting around a boardroom table attempting to out-tongue their colleagues in the Bosses Rectum Race, come up with ever increasingly ridiculous ideas to drive trade – is thinking about that landlord on the wall and envying him for how easy he had it, how much people loved him, and how dead he is.