I picked up a copy of Tales from the Country Pub by Brian P. Martin a few weeks ago. First published 1998, and out of print now, but you can still get it on Amazon, to whom I am grateful for the image. I got mine from a book seller at an antique fair, £4.50 if you’re interested, original price £18.99.
Mr Martin isn’t a beer writer, more a chronicler of days gone past. He’s written twenty six books about the countryside and natural history, a bit of a modern day Richard Jeffries, in some ways. Apparently he has a book shop now in Dorking (Where do you live mate? Dorking! You can see whats coming next?) called Brian P Martin Antiquarian Books, fair play to him.
I really enjoyed the book, mainly anecdotes from interviews with customers and Landlords and Landladies from quaint and curious pubs all over the UK. If you like pubs I would recommend it to you. Like me you’ll probably find that you’ve been in some of them.
It got me thinking though. Things like, what have all these pubs in the book got in common? Why have a lot of pubs like these disappeared? Now that’s a huge question, that would warrant a very lengthy answer. Things like beer duty, supermarkets, pubcos, consumer choices come into it, as well as macroeconomic factors beyond the scope of this humble essay.
I looked again at the book and one thing struck me, in every case what stood out was a PROPER LANDLORD or LANDLADY. Apart from the chapter The Loony Landlord, that is (even he sounds like he was a decent bloke). For me it’s whoever is in charge that sets a good pub apart from a mediocre one. I’m not particularly bothered about the publicans views and ideas, so long as they have standards that accord with acceptable norms and they maintain them.
It really annoys me when some insipid sap takes on a pub, usually on an exorbitant, soon to start spiralling, pubco lease, without any idea of what a business plan is. They get all their mates round for a few weeks, then they get too friendly with the wrong locals, only gracing the bar with their presence when they fancy a few bevvies and disappearing altogether after twelve months. It also annoys me when decent had working people take on a pub lease, work hard at it doing all the right things and then get squeezed out through intentionally imposed rising overheads.
So what is the right thing? I remember when any Landlord worth his salt would only stand behind the bar in a shirt and tie, the Landlady having made a similar effort. Just watch some of the early Coronation Street clips and see what they wore. The Rovers return was intended to portray a working class boozer in an industrial area and did it pretty accurately. Okay, I’m not going to advocate wearing of a tie now, smart will do, but have you been anywhere reasonably classy recently and looked at how all the staff are dressed.
‘None of that in here, please,’ is another important thing. I’m not a big fan of ‘You’re barred!’ especially not in public. Power does go to some peoples heads. A quiet word is much better, ‘Look I’ll have to ask you to finish off and leave lads’, is a good approach, followed by, ‘Maybe come in next week when you’ve not had a few and you’re not swearing, eh.’ That’s another one swearing. I’ll stick my hands up and go guilty on this one, but there’s far too much swearing these days in all arenas. I do think that the numbers of older and mixed drinkers in a pub is directly proportionate to the amount of swearing in a pub. By pub, I mean a proper boozer where you would expect a proper cross section of the community, not a city centre VDE or a factory gate pub (not many of either of the latter these days!). The point is, the licensee has to intervene, be appropriately confrontational and make sure that proper standards are adhered to by everyone on the premises because there really is no one else to do this.
‘Tap room please. Your not drinking in here with them boots on!’ Some people may argue against discrimination but the rigid old tap room/public bar and lounge/snug distinction really did work. You had a choice to go in either, it just meant you had to go home after work and get washed and changed if you wanted to go in the lounge. What it meant was that people who didn’t want to hear industrial language or get their nice clothes dirty didn’t have to. A lot of pubs you go into these days seem to be one big tap room, and we wonder why pubs aren’t packed out. Again, it’s the Landlords fault.
I could go on. There’s loads of other things that are the landlords duty; cleanliness, toilets, beer quality, product choice, just physically being present in the public areas and many others. The point I’m trying to get to is the fact that a good pub needs a good person in charge. The person in charge sets and maintains the ethos of an establishment. There’s no point in trying to save a pub with an ACV and then six months later putting a crap landlord in. I don’t see much evidence of robust vetting, nor sustained and solid training for new publicans on the moral and ethical sides of running a pub. Indeed most of the training seems to be process and sales related. I don’t see many decent folk going for a pub that’s obviously failing neither. There are exceptions, and I raise my hat to these folk, but it’s a bit of a negative cycle generally.
I don’t know if CAMRA have ever considered it, but I think what we need is a ‘bring back the proper Landlord/Lady’ campaign. One that could be adopted by the industry and which would improve standards across the board and get ordinary decent folk back into the pub. I think this would have a much better chance of saving pubs than anything else we can do. Or, is it last orders and we’re all too late now?