Imagine life without the pub. Where would we go to meet friends, flirt with prospective lovers, escape to, commemorate special occasions, put the world to rights, unite to watch our footy team be victorious, and find refuge when we are alone and need to be with other people?
There is a reason why every soap opera has a pub. They are places for communal activity where storylines develop and cast members have valid reasons to interact. I have Coronation Street and the Rovers Return to thank for showing to me as a 7-year old how marvellous the pub is. Watching the characters gossiping and being convivial had a deep impact. I am fortunate to come from a family that also reveres pubs and as a child my extended clan would regularly gather in the pub for what we called ‘a jollification’.
Humans have a fundamental need to flock together and most societies where alcohol is legal have licensed venues for people to drink and socialise. Overseas those places are called cafés, brasseries, lodges, bodegas, saloons, taverns, and shebeens. In Britain they are known as pubs. Pubs perform a role that is more than just a spot to have a drink. Take away a pub, particularly in a village and the heart of that community is irrevocably damaged. It has no focal point. French writer and Anglophile Hilaire Belloc (1870 to 1953) knew the value of pubs in Britain when he warned us to:
‘Change your hearts or you will lose your inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.’
He could have written that quotation today because several pubs close in Britain each week and each closure means death by a thousand cuts to the social health of the nation.
A boarded up or derelict pub is a gloomy sight. I shudder when I walk past a dead pub. It feels as though the empty building is sucking life from its neighbours in misery at its fate. There are several reasons why so many pubs are closing. These include demographic changes to the population when people who do not have a culture of going to pubs move to an area; the decline in heavy industry where previously men would slake their thirst at the boozer with gallons of beer; men choosing to go home after work and read the children a bedtime story; high taxes that make alcohol in pubs expensive; crippling rents and business rates that prevent publicans from making a living; a change in social habits where people cook dinner at home for friends; a decrease in consumption of alcohol especially amongst millennials; pub owners selling out to property developers and convenience store chains.
Britons increasingly live in echo chambers but the pub is the antithesis of that. They are places where people of different generations, backgrounds, political beliefs, income, ethnic origins and beliefs can come together. There are few other places where such a diverse mix of people can socially interact.
What can we do to halt the decline in pubs? The easiest action is to visit them more often. Arrange your business meetings there. Most pubs serve tea and coffee if you don’t fancy alcohol. Have lunch. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh do. Meet your book-club in the local. Gather together a pub-quiz team. Book the private room for your birthday party. It is not just we the people though, the Government needs to acknowledge the crucial role that pubs play in the fabric of the nation and the billions of pounds they contribute to Britain Plc. According to Visit Britain, a trip to a pub is in the top 3 activities that visitors to the UK want to do during their stay. Our friends from overseas see the value of the pub and we need to be reminded of it too.
If ever the phrase ‘use it or lose it’ was timely, it is now. Our pubs are irreplaceable national treasures. They are strands of the DNA that makes Britain what it is.