Carola Long: Mine's a pint of Guy Ritchie

The pub needs reinventing, and Madonna's ex has shown the way
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The Independent Online

Do you hear that quiet, haunting whistling? It's the sound of tumbleweed blowing through the nation's pubs. When January descends the great British boozer empties faster than a darts player's pint glass, as many of us desperately try to give up drinking. However, while the plight of the pub is more visible at this time of year, it's an ongoing problem; in the first half of 2009 they were closing at a rate of 52 per week.

One solution comes from an unlikely source – diamond geezer Guy Ritchie. As if landlord, film director, flat cap wearer and ex-husband to Madonna weren't sufficiently full-time occupations, Ritchie has just launched a record label named Punchbowl Recordings, named after his London pub The Punchbowl and his first signing will be The Punchbowl Band, his in-house musicians. Talk about branding.

Of course your average landlord or landlady isn't a celebrity with chums in the music industry, and they are more likely to have a rusting jukebox with a few Madness songs on it than an in-house band. But many pub owners could benefit by following Ritchie's lead and diversifying – albeit on a less grand scale.

Although there are few things better than spending a lost afternoon in the pub sinking enough ale to think that the maverick business plans you wrote down on a beer-stained napkin are going to make you the next Richard Branson, it's only fun on occasion. With the demise of the boozy working lunch and in an age of iphone apps that record how many units you've drunk, regularly propping up the bar and drinking for its own sake just seems a bit empty.

There are other factors behind the pub's demise too, such as the recession and the smoking ban, but many punters want something more to lure them in; inventive entertainment that goes beyond the traditional quiz.

Fortunately, pubs are cottoning on. One of my locals has been offering haircutting sessions, film nights, games nights and reading groups while Wii gaming nights, book clubs and fashionable knitting clubs are also among the bids to attract customers without resorting to the controversial lure of cut-price alcohol. Pubs need to capitalise on their unique position as community hubs, but without being totally reliant on the social glue of alcohol.

The essential service they provide was highlighted in a recent TV documentary called The Red Lion after the most popular pub name in England. One forlorn scene showed an elderly couple lamenting that since their local Red Lion closed they no longer met up with their neighbours.

The last time the alehouse reinvented itself was with the advent of the gastropub. Suddenly people who preferred to stay at home quaffing Jacob's Creek to sipping sulphurous wine in a swirly carpeted room were lured back through the power of polenta. Now, many of the same customers have twigged that spending £9 on a plate of grains that someone from Defra would struggle to identify is a rip-off and the pub is ripe for a new revolution to ensure its survival.

In a culture where privacy and autonomy are valued so highly, the pub is a neutral social space, a sort of community centre on lager. The idea of a world without them is as appealing as a flat, warm pint.

c.long@independent.co.uk

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