Wednesday, 22 July 2009

A lament for the English pub

My youth revolved around Suffolk pubs. There was the local at which we would all meet - variously the Swan, the White Horse and Mannings, the centre of gravity shifting between them over the years, and there there were the pubs you travelled to. Just for the sake of it. Many were famed, their virtues spread by word of mouth rather than the interweb. The Grundisburgh Half Moon. The Kelsale Poacher's Pocket. The Kersey White Horse, the Martlesham Red Lion, the Trowel and Hammer at Cotton (with swimming pool in the pub field). The waterside pubs with quarry tiled floors that didn't mind wettish lads trailing in some river mud; the Butt and Oyster at Pin Mill, the Waldringfield Maybush and the Levington Ship, the Ramsholt Arms. And many, many more, small Tolly pubs for the most part in those days, with cream glossed walls and bare boards on the floor decades before this became a metropolitan fashion. Just beer, banter and laughter; as many of us that could fit in one or two cars, and a wary respect for the local lads. Thus did we seal our bond with our County.

Just as a church acquires religious gravitas after half a millennium of masses or so, and an odour of sanctity that seems steeped in the very stones, so the twisted smoke-blackened beams of a pub, after two or three hundred years, are steeped in human joy, but also in men's sadness; men have left for war, and many of them returned after war, but never the same men as those that left. Those portals have seen the return of veterans of Blenheim, Talavera, Waterloo, Inkerman, Spion Kop, Flanders, El Alamein, Normandy and Inchon. And in my day, the Falklands. Those who never returned were remembered, and this remembrance too is steeped into the very beams of the structure. Ale has flowed in boom and recession, in times of plenty and in times of famine. The Corn Laws, the Great Reform Act, votes for women, the nationalisation of the doctors and whether Mrs Thatcher is a good thing have stirred debate and heated the air.

A pub was never just a place for men to drink. It was a testing house, a proving ground where the character and probity of those we lived with in community were assessed. Ale loosens tongues and gives us insight into others, and so we learned who were the fools and who the wise, who the cowards and who the bold, who the thieves and who the virtuous, who the empty boasters and who the quiet doers. A clearing house for information, an arbiter of standards, a neutral ground where a few quiet words could defuse niggling neighbourly tensions.

News from the BBPA that 2,400 pubs have closed over the past year, and that they're now closing at the rate of 52 every week, causes me great sadness. We all know the reasons; not just the smoking ban, but the Licensing Act and the cheapness of supermarket lager. Our landscape is becoming desert, a desert of the soul, with few wadis and scant shelter. The loss of our pubs is the loss of part of our selves. And my fear is Robert Frost's;

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars - on stars where no human race is
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert spaces


Curmudgeon said...

Excellent posting – very well put. You are right to say that it isn't simply down to the smoking ban, but it does seem to me in many cases that has proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

I also feel the role of cheap off-trade prices is often exaggerated. Off-trade booze has been cheaper than that in the pub for decades, and a pub (as your piece shows) is far more than just an alcohol shop. Nobody complains that restaurants are being put out of business by cheap ready meals from Tesco.

Anonymous said...

A numinous and beautiful post, thank you R.

I went through a similar experience, one county to the South of you. Our homes-from-home were mostly Ridley's pubs, with a few Greene Kings further north (before they become an accountants' behemoth), and a scattering of the highly-sought-after Adnams. We overlapped with your range, too - one or two of your names are familiar to me.

Ou sont les neiges d'Antan? The Fountain, the Fox, the Star, the Cock and Bell, the Axe and Compasses, the Red Lion, the King William, the Victoria, the Lamb, the Peacock (Chelsworth), the Butt and Oyster (yes!), and so many others - so many gone now.

It's become a foreign country, which is why I don't go back there any more. Never go back.

Tandleman said...

Would you mind if I use a slightly adapted version - credited of course - in our CAMRA Branch magazine?

Raedwald said...

Tandleman - please do

banned said...

Nicely written R, my old pubs were every bit as 'local' as yours, even though they were in london.

I gather that oop North many of the closing pubs were bought by ex-miners with their redundancy money; shafted again while around here all those that have closed have been working class boozers with one other thing in common, no outside area in which to accomodate smoking.

Curmudgeon said...

This blog post is a kind of echo of yours.

Happy days, eh?