British pubs are closing at the speed of a slow-moving cultural apocalypse.
If you’re rereading that sentence and looking for actual information, stop now. There’s less in it than meets the eye. We’ll get to actual information in a couple of paragraphs, but we’re still at the part of the post where I’m splattering verbiage in the hope that you’ll read on. In other words, it’s all fireworks, fancy footing, and mixed metaphors.
Not necessarily a great strategy, but a common one. Now for the information:
Since 2001, more than one in four British pubs has closed. According to the Office of National Statistics (yes, the number of pubs in the country is worthy of official notice), there were 52,500 in 2001 and 38,815 at some unspecified point in 2018.
I’m taking it on faith that that really is more than one in four.
But that 2001 high point isn’t particularly high. In 1577, there was roughly one pub (or more accurately, one boozer) for every 200 people in England and Wales. That includes alehouses, inns, and taverns. Ah, now that was the golden age of getting shit-faced. It helped that sipping water was worse for your health than getting plastered all day every day, although a lot of what people drank would have been small beer–beer with a (relatively) low alcohol content.
Which you can still get drunk on, or mildly pie-eyed. You just have to work harder.
Today there are–well, I can’t find the number of pubs per person for the country as a whole, but Edinburgh has 274.7 per 100,000 residents. London has 40. The difference between the two numbers is enough to make me think they set up their studies differently –that maybe one city’s skewed the figures by counting shrubs as part of the population or the other got mixed up and counted bottled instead of bars.
Let’s just agree that Britain today has fewer bars per person than it did in the golden age. Fair enough?
Small, independent pubs are the most likely to close. Chains are still opening new, identikit branches.
Why does anyone care? In the U.S., if someone told you the bar on the corner was closing, you’d be likely to say, “Great. No more drunks revving their cars at 1 a.m.” But unlike American bars, British pubs are social centers–a kind of public living room. They’re places a soap opera will latch onto as a way for all its characters to stumble over each other and create mayhem in each other’s lives.
Not that people don’t roll out bellowing at 1 a.m. Or singing. They do. And it annoys the neighbors. But pubs have enough of a role that it balances out the annoyance, at least somewhat.
The blame for pub closures gets thrown in all direction–high taxes, high prices, changing drinking habits, higher wages. Who knew that people working in pubs are so selfish that they think getting paid enough to live on is a good idea? Don’t they know an entire culture rests on them living on the pay they’re offered?
Oddly enough, it was a pub owners association that mentioned higher wages as part of the problem.
The pubs available to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords aren’t under threat. Unless being noticed by the public threatens them, which it may eventually. Professor David Nutt, a former government advisor on drug policy, has suggested breathalyzing MPs before they vote.
Why? Well, Parliament has thirty bars on site. Or more. Or possibly not that many. The journalist whose work I’m quoting couldn’t be sure and fell back on saying he’d been told there are nearly thirty.
A different article estimates about a dozen bars. That’s a noticeable difference. Maybe the second article only counted bars, not places that served both food and alcohol. Maybe no one’s ever stayed sober long enough to do an accurate count. The first article listed a lot more than a dozen by name, so I’m going with the higher estimate.
Parliament’s drinks are cheap because they’re subsidized, and that costs the country £8 million a year. Or more, since that number comes from 2016.
The result is a lot of drinking, and stories of drunken MPs are easy–not to mention fun–to find. In 1783, William Pitt the Younger (not to be confused with William Pitt the Elder) was drunk enough to vomit behind the Speaker’s chair during a debate. Herbert Asquith (prime minister from 1908 to 1916) drank enough that he was known as Squiffy.
What’s squiffy? Slightly drunk.
According to tradition, the chancellor of the exchequer–that translates to the finance minister–is allowed to drink inside the chamber when he, she, or it delivers the budget. Probably because everyone figured they needed a stiff drink, but maybe the numbers make more sense that way. Parliamentary traditions are very strange and they’re treated as if they made absolute sense.
The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, “was said to have gotten so drunk before a budget debate that he had an embarrassing accident in his trousers and had to be locked in his office to prevent him from going to the chamber anyway. He drank himself to death shortly after losing his seat in 2015 general election.”
MP Eric Joyce was convicted of headbutting another MP in one of the bars and banned from drinking in parliament. (I have no idea how well that worked. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it being effective.) MP Mark Reckless missed an important vote because he was too drunk. As part of his apology (either that time or a different one–I haven’t been able to sort it out) he said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember falling over.”
If that doesn’t excuse him, I don’t know what will.
All the major political parties are represented here, and some of the small ones.
All that drinking may contribute to the multiple incidents of sexual abuse that have been surfacing lately. Or may not. Close all the bars and we’ll find out.
So was Professor Nutt serious when he suggested breathalyzing MPs? Absolutely. As a culture, we don’t allow people to drive a car when they’re the worse for wear. Why should they be allowed to drive a country?
The reason Professor Nutt is no longer an advisor on drug policy is that he said publicly that illegal drugs cause less damage than alcohol. I’m beginning to understand why nobody wanted to hear that.
But let’s not limit ourselves to politicians. Who are the country’s heavy drinkers? Well-to-do professionals, it turns out. People who earn more than £40,000 a year. The lower your income, the less you’re likely to drink much.
That sound you hear? That’s the sound of a stereotype smashing itself to bits on the floor of Parliament.
But why should we limit the discussion when the world offers us so many ways of getting shitfaced? The good folks who make Marlboro cigarettes are in negotiations to take over a Canadian company that produces marijuana. Shares in both companies soared when the news got out. Another tobacco company and the Coca Cola company are making similar moves.
Maybe you had to be around in the sixties to find that funny.
A conference on the role of alcohol in human society was, as far as I can figure out, dedicated to the proposition that social drinking helped humans create social cohesion. The earliest humans got together for feasts. Then they found fermented fruit. Then they learned to help the fermentation process along.
A recent excavation in Turkey found 10,000-year-old stone troughs that had been used to brew booze. In A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth argues that the earliest cultivated wheat, einkorn, may have been grown not to make bread but beer. Researchers say it makes lousy bread but very good beer, although if humans had never tasted bread before, I’m not convinced they’d have thought it was bad. And they could easily have eaten the grain boiled. Boiled wheat is not only edible but good.
Which isn’t to say that they didn’t brew it. But let’s give the last word on this to an expert:
“We didn’t start farming because we wanted food–there was loads of food around,” Forsyth says.
Eco-minded brewers in Britain have started making beer from sandwich bread that would otherwise get thrown away. Some 24 million slices are thrown away every day.
The link above is to an article from Good Housekeeping. Do not for a minute kid yourself that I read Good Housekeeping or that I’m good at housekeeping. It was the unlikeliest of the available links, so of course I chose it.
How does anyone know how many slices get thrown away? Is there a wasted bread agency somewhere? Has the government outsourced the work or is it still being done by civil servants? Your guess is as good as mine and possibly better.
I imagine every cafe, restaurant, and cafeteria in the country having to make a note when a slice of bread’s thrown away. And every home kitchen. I once had a job where someone decided to find out what we were actually doing when we were out of their sight and asked us to fill in a form every fifteen minutes, noting down what we were doing at that exact moment.
Filling out your damn form, that’s what I’m doing. I wouldn’t want to base any serious research on the answers we gave, but it was for their own good. If they’d known, it wouldn’t have made them happy.
But back to bread and beer: Maybe their survey’s more accurate than the one I helped sabotage. Maybe smart refrigerators watch what we do outside their perfecdtly chilled interiors and send the Wasted Bread Commissin a message each time we set aside the ends of the loaf and wait till they go moldy so we can toss it away without feeling guilty.
For the record, my refrigerator is not smart. Neither is my phone. Neither are my dogs. The cat’s a fuckin’ genius but can’t be bothered to report on us. Cats are good about things like that.
I bake most of our bread and we eat it from one end of the loaf to the other. If you want to make beer, use your own bread.