Give us pubs, not 'character': Drinkers want choice, not a company's cod notion of heritage

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The Independent Online
In the tourist brochures, the London pub is a Dickensian gin palace, hazy with pipe briar and chandelier light, where stirrup-cups are served by men in bowler hats and ironed aprons. For those of us, however, who have lived in the real world for the past 40 years, our pubs have been about nothing more than a lingering smell of urine (confined to the gents if you're lucky), uncomfortably small stools (confined to the bar if you're lucky) and fag burns on the carpet.

At last the breweries are making changes - but not necessarily for the better. The homogenisation of our pub interiors continues unchecked, and I'm getting nostalgic for the days when a bloke could go out, order beer without needing a degree in German, and buy a bag of nuts hanging down from an oily woman in a swimsuit.

When I was younger I worried about the internationalisation of monopoly capital. Now what keeps me up at night - apart from their wretched lager - is the brewers' current attempt to make every pub in my city look the same. Pubs should be about escapism. Sometimes that means living a little of Soho's low-life (the Coach and Horses), sometimes surrounding yourself with maple floors and glass-brick walls (the Truscott in Hackney). Maybe a juke box, maybe not. The choice should be mine. I don't want a cod notion of heritage, with every pub trying to be The Cockney Pride, horse brasses that melt if they get too near the log-effect fire and 'character' that comes in a box from company headquarters.

I blame demographics. A review of the brewing industry by analysts at NatWest Markets estimated that by 1995 there will be a 23 per cent decline in the number of 18 to 25 year-olds. Now, those are the Londoners who can put it away. They might only account for 14 per cent of the population, but they drink 35 per cent of the beer sold in pubs, even if it is only lager top. The percentage of 35 to 55 year-olds is still growing, but mortgaged up to the hilt they are more inclined to pop down to the off licence.

So London pubs are aiming at the growth area - nice young families. Fair enough. Don't make the kids drink squash in the pub car park, and let them get their round in like the rest of us, but why should they be forced to drink in something that looks like it was made by Walt Disney?

Simple fact is, if us boys can't manage to drink more beer, or convince the brewers that we need a conducive atmosphere in which to do it, then we'll just have to swallow the pubs they see fit to give us. So far, best efforts have come from those nice people, J D Wetherspoon, the independent chain which has attracted a new class of customer the way Harvester did with their restaurants. At the Fox On The Hill in Camberwell last week there were flowers on the bar, plants in a conservatory that dropped real leaves, free salad cream, jalapeno and fusilli on the menu, no smoking areas, and a choice of five white wines.

Take it as read that the beer was fine. But we're not all here for the beer. Drinking in a London pub has got nothing to do with thirst. It's about socialisation, atmosphere, conversation and bonhomie. And in The Fox On The Hill, I obviously wasn't the only one on the look out. 'I read in the papers, few weeks back, about men having babies under what's its name . . . hypnosis?' 'Under hypnosis, yeah.' Not D H Lawrence, but a conversation that managed verbs, and undoubtedly an improvement on 'You're my best mate' - 'No, you're my best mate' that fills the banquettes at my seedy Brixton local, the Elm Park Tavern. And not one person asked me for loose change.

But Wetherspoon's designers have been well paid to attract new drinkers. Not inspired by Islamic calligraphy, or a visit to the Louvre you understand, but Chas and Dave's Gertcha video I would guess.

So, like every other new pub in London, we get more brass, copperplate script straight out of a Victorian schoolroom, and sepia-tinted photographs.

The Fox On The Hill proudly displays hilarious stories of the Camberwell Fair in 1807, when an unlucky lad blew up a sausage in a pan and set fire to the stall of Mephisto the magician. To visit the place, it is easy to imagine it could be another 200 years before anything as exciting happens again.

It's a missed opportunity. Wetherspoons have taken over everything from vacant furniture stores and car showrooms, to Pizza Hut restaurants and branches of Lloyds Bank - and then turned them into pubs that look identical.

Why not make a virtue of the premises' individuality? Traditional pubs, such as The Spaniards Inn in Hampstead - should be treasured, not used as a blueprint for the future. The Atlantic in Glasshouse Street, W1, has been such a roaring success because it offers Londoners a modern, relaxed atmosphere with decent opening hours.

So present us drinkers with a decent choice and, before time gets called for the London pub, force the brewers to use their imagination.

(Photograph omitted)