WIKIPEDIA ENTRY, SOMETIME IN THE NEAR FUTURE. A pub /pʌb/, formally public house (a house “open to the public”, as opposed to a private house), was a drinking establishment, principally in the culture of Britain and Ireland. In many places, especially in villages, a pub used to be the focal point of the community. The history of pubs can be traced back to Roman taverns, through the Anglo-Saxon alehouse to the development of the tied house system in the 19th century. The last pub closed its doors this year.
I was brought up in South West London, in Sheen and Mortlake. The following pubs, that I knew as a teenager, no longer exist: The Queens Arms, The Derby Arms, The Bull, The Railway Tavern, The Jolly Milkman, The Charlie Butler, The Lord Napier, The Spur, The Market Gardener. They have not been replaced. I remember with particular affection The Queens Arms, a real street pub with a unique local atmosphere, The Bull, a big, spacious pub where great music could be heard in the 1970s, and The Railway Tavern (see photo above, as it is today, now a private residence), a pleasant local beside Mortlake Green.
Of the remaining pubs, the legendary Hare and Hounds – haunted by the spectres of yesteryear – is now scarred by the curse of poncey interior decor and gentrified and gastro-pubbed beyond recognition, its wonderful billiard room a thing of the past. I recently dropped into the Jolly Gardeners near the Thames, the last pub in Mortlake to have retained its fogeyish and unashamedly lugubrious character over the decades – in my family, we call it The Jolly Funeral Directors. I reminisced with the landlady about the old days when fishmongers would swing by with wicker baskets round their necks selling cockles, mussels, shrimp and jellied eels to eat with your beer. Most of the clientele are now in their 80s and 90s and the place is comparable to nothing so much as the Tardis. It also has the particularity of being a Youngs tied house (which possibly accounts for the longevity of its customers, Youngs beer being the closest London gets to an elixir of eternal youth) with the former Watneys brewery literally built around it but failing to convert it – a brewery that now seems to be devoted entirely to producing Budweiser, that lacklustre American pastiche of Budvar, the great Czech beer.
It’s not just the pubs. For anyone returning to England after a period of expatriate absence, it simply doesn’t feel – well, English… Samuel Pepys described the pub as the heart of England, and this is dying fast – with 31 pubs closing every week nationwide. But other vital organs are expiring too. Even the charity shops, one of the last bastions of English dottiness – though flourishing in number – are now manned by Poles, Russians and Latvians. And the bar staff in the pubs are French, Portuguese, or one of a dozen other nationalities. “English Broken Here….”
London has famously been described as France’s sixth city, with over a quarter of a million French people living in the capital – a total reversal of the flow of immigration not so long ago. Whatever you think of that, the English face in the English crowd is now a rarity, and the Google Maps app a boon, since asking directions in the street is almost invariably a total waste of time. There was once a Private Eye cartoon of two rats lost in a laboratory maze. One says to the other, “Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself.”
But back to pubs…
What explains this situation? The Tory Peer Lord Hodgson says that it is because traditional working class areas have become homes to Muslim immigrants – true enough in many urban areas, but this is not the whole story. Pubs are victims of taxation, over-regulation, the decline in beer consumption, the availability of low-cost alcohol in supermarkets, large pub conglomerates selling off unprofitable venues, rising rent and falling trade. These days, a couple of pints will set you back in the region of £10, for which price you can buy 8 large cans of beer to drink at home. In short, they are pricing themselves out of existence.
CAMRA has launched a campaign to safeguard hundreds of pubs listed as community assets, Tory Baroness Cumberledge has pleaded for pubs to be kept open because “Single men who are lonely and depressed are very often welcomed into pubs.” And The Lost Pubs Projects on the Internet is the online pub cemetery, archiving the decline of the English pub.
When I look at the situation in rural France where I live most of the time, it is not very different. Virtually every village has a defunct little bar with its fading sign – Le Cheval Blanc in my village – the expired heart of the spirit of community. National identity and a sense of belonging are fragile things, and those iconic hubs on which they once depended are being extinguished before our eyes.
Only occasionally, a positive item makes the news, like the Maida Vale Carlton Tavern – a 1920s building, replacing a far more ancient hostelry, that was the only edifice standing in its street after Nazi bombing. It was recently demolished by developers without planning permission and to the dismay of its customers. For once, the culprits got their comeuppance: they were ordered to rebuild the pub brick by brick…
But far too often the knell is heard. In the words of T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land”: