Down at the new Bull and Bush

The big brewers have decided on the latest hot bar theme - the authentic fake English pub

What makes a good pub? Plenty of people think they know. Whitbread and Punch Taverns are both prepared to pay upwards of pounds 2.7bn for a bundle of 3,500 pubs that Allied Domecq, the leisure conglomerate, couldn't make work. But the pub business is anything but easy.

The Punch bid, backed by Bass, is largely financed by American investors. It is in places such as Seattle and San Diego, not to mention Stockholm and Seville, that the British pub retains its appeal: a pleasantly dingy, horse-brassed haunt where the beer and staff both have reassuring names.

For export, our pubs are still popular, albeit with a pseudo-Hibernian slant. Contract Furnishings of Weeley, Essex, will sell you a complete "Molly TM" Irish pub or a "Highlander TM" Scots pub, ready to slot into your Osaka shopping mall or redundant Reykjavik fish-gutting plant. Consult its comprehensive internet catalogue while listening to "In An English Country Garden" on synthesised harpsichord.

We British have a deep love for our heritage and our traditions. Or so we are always being told. So why did we barely murmur when pubs that had not changed in 150 years suddenly started to adopt new identities? In many cases, their personalities were destroyed. Some became branches of McDonald's.

The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) might have halted this, but somehow it was side-stepped as the Old Labour of the drinking world, jeering at "progress" from its place at the bar. But it carries on. Since 1992, Camra has surveyed Britain's 62,000 pubs to discover how many "traditional" examples remain. The pubs had to have approximately the same interiors as they had 50 years ago. How many have survived? Precisely 212.

Traditional tenants trade under the banner of the country's regional breweries. Every month the big brewers close another one. The Vaux Brewery in Sunderland, and its sister brewery Wards in Sheffield, closed on Friday with the loss of more than 700 jobs, after being axed by their parent company, the Swallow Group. Courage's ancient Bristol brewery is to go soon. But the brewers remain avid collectors of beer labels, using them according to the "style" of the bars. The latest theme, after years of trying the American bar, Australian bar, Irish pub and Scottish saloon is ... the English pub.

Allied Domecq makes its style choice - decor, beers, menus, ethnic allegiances and themes - by pumping statistical data into a computer. Ian Burt of Allied Domecq explained how it works. Allied is selling four chains of outlets: "Firkin"; "Mr Q's"; "Big Steak Pub with Wacky Warehouse"; and "Scruffy Murphy's". Oh, yes, and 1,400 brewery-tied "locals".

Firkin is for 18- to 25-year-old students. Mr Q's is for what Mr Burt defines as "the younger legal-age drinker", 18-25, but not students. It's a class thing. "We don't use that," says Mr Burt, who prefers "demographics".

All the conglomerates are crazy for "brands" as a way of automating the separation of drinker and money. But it gets harder. Beer sales are down from 43 million barrels in 1979 to 34 million last year, and falling.

The modern pub has to appeal to women as much as to men, to smokers and anti-smokers. It has to offer more than two types of crisp and the occasional guest appearance of paper in the loo. The "brands" promise identical quaffing and scoffing across the country, from plastic menus to spicy chicken wings.

Authenticity, though, is a better ploy. Once you can fake that you've got it made. The ideal of the pub has a stronger hold on us than the grubby reality. The hottest brands are the most "authentic". Irish pubs that exist nowhere on the Ould Sod itself. Stand-up English pubs modelled on the Chas 'n' Dave commercials for Courage Best rather than on anything that ever existed.

In 1873, King Street in Bristol had nine pubs. A hundred years later, four of the original pubs survived: the Llandogger Trow, the Naval Volunteer, the Old Duke and the Bunch of Grapes. Today, The Naval Volunteer is The Royal Navy Volunteer; the King William Ale House and something called The Steam Rock: Bristols [sic] Number One Fun Club, have appeared too.

The Bunch of Grapes, a pub since the mid-19th century, became Dr Thirsty's Surgery in the 1980s; three years ago it turned into Mulligan's. Dave Tobin, an authentic Cork man, is the licensee with the local Mulligans franchise. "They were all mad on the Irish theme for years," he says: "But it's dying out now. I thought Australian would be the next thing, but it didn't seem to take off."

In the mid-19th century, King Street was awash with thirsty sailors from early in the morning until early the next morning. That role has been adopted by local students. But they drink in Corn Street, where the former banking halls are now drinking halls. In St Nicholas' Market is the Freetrader & Firkin - formerly, for hundreds of years, The Crown. In looks and atmosphere it does at least resemble an English pub, rather than an exhibition of bar furniture.

The Firkin pubs were a Thatcherite business venture. Each had its own brewery, sawdust on the floor and a vein of rough-and-ready humour. But David Bruce, their creator, sold out to Ansells, who sold to Allied Domecq, who took his idiom, vulgarised it and made it compulsory. Each Firkin pub now has the same garish decor and the same leaden jokes.

Allied Domecq is dumping its pubs, and its licensed trade staff, because the division's profits slumped 13 per cent last year. Days before the sale it declared that the Firkin concept was over. "Some of the humour on the walls to do with the overt use of the Firkin name was too laddish," said chief executive Tony Hales.

Unlike some rivals, though, the Firkins don't shoo people away from the bar or stop staff from chatting to customers. Firkin landlord Tony Winters knows his regulars, who wants to talk and who wants to be left alone. You can talk to strangers: even someone outside your "demographic" niche.

"The whole thing about working for a multinational company is that they have marketing men who say: `This is how it should be'," says Mr Winters. "But we say, the bottom line is you employ us to manage your houses for you, to make your profits. Let us do our jobs."

Meanwhile, if your local Anchor or Ship is renamed "Frigging In The Rigging", give Camra a ring. Be warned, their brand of humour is dry, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. As one official put it: "This is a throwaway society. And those are throwaway pubs."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick