Our culture, of course, is not merely about books, or music, or paintings, or films, or buildings, or the theatre: it is also about the way in which we live our everyday lives. Perhaps the greatest change in that way of life in the last 150 years or so has been secularisation. In the early 19th century everyone who wished to be thought of as respectable, and indeed many who did not, filled churches on Sundays, quite often two or three times. Now it is a minority sport. We have other things we do on Sundays: cricket or football, visiting friends, going for a drive or a walk, watching hours of usually mindless television. And many of us go to the pub, or at least we used to.
Our pubs are closing at the rate of 30 a week, a secular equivalent of what has happened to the Church of England. Around 20,000 have closed in the last 20 years. Some would say this is good. We do not want to be considered a nation of drinkers. Having more or less closed down the recreation of smoking, the self-appointed people who police our health are now trying to do the same with our drinking. Once that is done, they will make what I still think of as Kentucky Fried Chicken illegal: though it has always seemed to me that anyone who eats it is providing his own instant punishment.
But we have never really been a nation of drunks. The image of the working man staggering out of the boozer on a Friday night, his wage packet having just augmented the brewer’s profits, may have been true for a time after the last war, during that first age of general affluence, in some industrial towns and cities, but it was far from universal. The “lager louts” of the 1980s were also the unfortunate result of the income of many young professional men suddenly exceeding their capacity to hold the drink that they could buy with it.
The pictures that decorate our newspapers now of mainly young women in states of alarming undress lying in gutters are usually no fault of a public house. They have staggered out of one of the “clubs” that now proliferate in urban Britain, and whose function is far from that of the community-based, socialising atmosphere of the traditional pub. Worse still, they have drunk themselves to stupefaction before going out, on cheap drink from supermarkets that is far less expensive than that sold in the hideous bars they then head for.
The availability of cheap drink, bought and consumed in this way, is one of the many reasons why the traditional pub has declined. When they close in the country they are mostly turned into private houses; when they close in towns they often become rather gruesome clubs, where, ironically, the drink is far more expensive than any pub would charge. When they close in the country the heart, to use an already overworked cliché, can be torn out of the local community. When they close in a town they contribute to the worst sort of cultural change, which is to impede the basic function of human beings enjoying their recreation together. The steady destruction of this national institution may well be merely a function of the free market, and I would not for a moment suggest that any form of subsidy should keep them open. But I think the time has now arrived when we should stop being complacent about it.
For reasons I still struggle to understand, our Conservative-dominated government tried in November to preserve the “tie”, the system by which pubs owned by breweries were forced to buy their drinks from that brewery. This was, the brewers say, enabling them to make the sort of profits that keep pubs open. The evidence of the 30 closures a week suggests that was not the case, and that something radical had to be done in order to stop the British boozer going out of business altogether. A Commons rebellion defeated this vested interest, and now pub landlords can buy their drink from wherever they want. This should drive down the price and perhaps attract more people into pubs, rather than sit alone at home drinking supermarket beer, because the prices ought to go down. The brewers, starved of their unreasonable, restrictive-practice based profits, may well close some pubs. Equally, they may well find that the houses they own generate larger turnovers because of this deregulation. Or they can sell their pubs off to people who might, as the economy recovers, find themselves able to make a success of a business that, for centuries, was inevitably successful.
Pubs have gone out of their way to attract a wider range of customers. Most have parts where children can go with their parents; the best ones still have bars set aside where they can’t. Food is now the sine qua non of the thriving business, and much of it is rather good, even in those places not known by the pretentious and rather unpleasant phrase “gastro pub”. I know various unpretentious places that buy their meat from a proper butcher rather than a low-grade cash and carry, and have fish brought in from the coast, and who have local bakers provide them with high-quality bread. Local pubs become showcases for local produce. Freed of the control of big brewers who drove down quality while driving up the prices, they buy in their beer from local micro-breweries, and offer their customers victuals of a quality probably never seen before in such places. So it is ironic, at a time when some pubs are probably far better than they have ever been, that so many of them are closing down.
In the part of East Anglia where I have lived all my life I drive around and see pubs I stopped at 20 or 30 years ago now turned into houses, or, if the village is lucky, an Indian restaurant. Going to a restaurant is, though, an event. Going to a pub is an everyday part of life. It used to be a place where fathers took their sons to help civilise them and introduce them to adult society. I have spent some of the happiest hours of my life in such places. I only hope my children have the chance to do the same.