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
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
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: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links