Are you a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person? Would you describe yet more news of mass closures of pubs here in the UK as a bad break for the boozer or a long-overdue wake-up call for an industry that – still – badly needs one?
It’s a question for which the best answer probably lies, like so many others, at the bottom of a glass.
To misquote Mark Twain, in the style of a pub drunk: for decades the death of the British pub has been greatly exaggerated. Most often blamed for the demise are the out-of-town shops that pile lager and ale high and sell it cheap, driving village locals and city corner pubs out of business. More recently the advent of the gastropub, that most divisive and often misunderstood of hybrids, supposedly sounded the death knell.
But few reports of the plight of pubs have prompted as much sound and fury as the latest Good Pub Guide – the editors of which have apparently scoffed at the likely loss of 4,000 hostelries in the next year. They brand those fallers at the wayside “bad pubs at the bottom of the pecking order” and suggest it is only right that such outlets pay the price for their “indifference” – indifference to both the quality of the beer and to the standard of service.
Quickly stepping up to pick a fight in the time-honoured fashion of a saloon-bar altercation was the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and its own similarly named publication, the Good Beer Guide. For them, any news of handpumps dripping dry for the last time is bad news. They were quick to point out the not unreasonable point that lost pubs mean lost jobs. It also means lost homes, too, for landlords for whom the bricks and mortar of the inn is also the place they live.
Plenty of locals have run dry in recent years. They’ve either closed down altogether and turned into flats or have been remodelled into swanky eateries with unconvincing faux fine-dining finishes designed to keep the tills ringing in a way that some uncomplicated pub grub and a range of good quality beers for a few happy locals maybe couldn’t.
Don’t get me wrong; the case to punish the lazy landlord and the complacent pub chain is compelling. Most British citizens will know a pub not too far from home with exactly the kind of uncompromising “stuck in the 1980s” ethos that the Good Pub Guide has railed against in their latest edition.
But the loss of more village pubs and crusty old city favourites to gastronomy or to property developers is potentially far worse than a bit of flock wallpaper, some lurid carpeting and the occasional foray into beer as ripe as sulphur or dull as dishwater. It’s time to back initiatives such as the Localism Act that allows plucky citizens to defend their pubs and it will pay to suffer a bit of 1980s indifference if it means that somewhere else even one great boozer gets the chance of a new lease of life.
Time at the bar? Not just yet.
Tom Edwards is news editor for Monocle.