Fluid London: The postmodern public house vs. the private home23 minute read

The term ‘public house’ entered general use in the late seventeenth century, encapsulating the three main types of establishment which sold alcoholic drink: the inn, tavern and alehouse (Jennings, 2007: 19). The embryonic tavern or ‘tabernae’, was created when the Romans colonised Britain in AD 43 and focused on the sale of wine (Haydon, 2001: 2). The term alehouse, which also included tippling houses, were premises that brewed and sold their own ale, although a third of these only sold ale (Jennings, 2007: 22-23). The inn could be defined by its primary purpose: the service of travellers, yet the term public house extends to include inns as they too also sold ale. Paul Jennings presents the differentiations between these distinct types of public houses but also the strong overlap amongst them. He additionally emphasises the constant flux within and between these groupings through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries (ibid., 2007). It is this fluidity in the definition of the public house, or pub, that has continued into the modern day that has inspired this research.

A survey by William Maitland in the 1730s reported that London contained 207 inns, 447 taverns, and 5,975 alehouses (ibid., 1739: 19-21). From then the number of pubs in the capital continued to grow until the turn of the twentieth century. The headline figure in 2009, however, reported that 52 pubs were closing per week in Britain (Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), 2014). Focusing on this current trend of significant pub closures, this paper will discover whether it presents a damaging perforation in the cultural fabric of London or if the new drinking establishments, said to be replacing the pub, are actually expanding and re-writing the definition of the public house. This investigation opens a discourse into whether the reinvention of the contemporary London pub is a new economic phenomenon or a cultural process that has comparisons throughout its history. Before this discussion opens, it is useful to present the cultural importance of the pub not only to London, but also Britain and provide some explanation for its significance using the theories of home and belonging.

To write of the English inn is almost to write of England itself
…as familiar in the national consciousness as the oak
and the ash and the village green and the church spire

Thomas Burke, 1930: 3

It is almost impossible to document modern British culture without the pub playing a central role (Mount and Cabras, 2015; Hickman, 2008). Lamont (2015) questions whether one is even able to describe a pub without resorting to cultural shortcuts. For example, in Britain’s most watched television soap operas, such as EastEnders, the pub is seen as the hub of the community with social interactions revolving around The Queen Vic’ or in films such as Shaun of the Dead, The Winchester is portrayed as the safe haven (Parker Bowles, 2013; Muir, 2012). This is not a modern phenomenon, throughout history the pub has been romanticised and intrinsically linked to a sense of Englishness and patriotism (Jennings, 2007: 14). “The pub is an institution unique to England, and there is nothing more English” (Jackson, 1976: 5). George Orwell, heralded as the greatest chronicler of English culture by The Economist (2008), described the perfect London pub: The Moon Under Water, in an essay for the Evening Standard (Hopkinson, 2013; Orwell, 1946). Orwell describes how it would seem natural to put the beer first when asked why he favours a particular public house, yet what most appeals to him about the The Moon Under Water is the ‘atmosphere’; an unexplained feeling where his surroundings are comfortable and he feels welcomed by the barmaids (ibid., 1946b). Orwell is not alone in this feeling. In a report on community pubs, Muir shows the pub is the most popular place for British people to go outside of the home. It provides an atmosphere in which people of all ages and classes can relax and socialise because “it is a part of a person’s home that is open to anyone” (ibid., 2012; Economist, 2008). It is this extension of ‘home’ that this paper will now address to explain why the pub is central to British culture.

Alison Blunt describes the home as a material and affective space, “it is shaped by everyday practices, lived experiences, social relations, memories and emotions” which together create a meaningful place with a sense of belonging (ibid., 2005). These, passive, lived experiences are diverse and mean that the home is invested with meanings, emotions and relationships that lie at the heart of human life (Tuan, 1977; Blunt and Varley, 2004: 3). Ahmet (2013) creates an expansion in the geographies of home, suggesting that the ‘home’ is a space which occupies multiple sites. The extension beyond the fixed notion of home as a dwelling is what Ahmet calls ‘stretched’ (ibid., 2013). This stretching allows more public spaces, such as the pub, to be considered as a site of home and belonging. Consider the “uncompromisingly Victorian” architecture and fittings in Orwell’s Moon Under Water, with its “grained woodwork, ornamental mirrors behind the bar and the cast-iron fireplaces”. Applying Yi-Fu Tuan’s intimate experiences of place uncovers the enchanted images of the past that are enveloped in the materiality of Orwell’s pub, which can be seen, smelt and felt in its components and furnishings (ibid, 1977: 144; Blunt, 2005). The familiarity Orwell feels from the “‘regulars’ who occupy the same chair every evening” and the “barmaids [that] know most of their customers by name” generate the memories that Tuan insists are the creation of home – “a place where every day is multiplied by all the days before it” (ibid., 1977: 144). The stories and memories that the pub conjures binds localities into a deep sense of community and patriotism (Orwell, 1945). This has enabled literary figures such as Samuel Pepys the ability to assert that the pub is also “the heart of England”. Tuan (1977: 149) describes this further by explaining that place exists at different scales; extending the theory of home up to the homeland or the nation. Blunt and Varley (2004) agree with the perspective, stating that “household geographies are intimately bound up with national geographies”. The attachment that George Orwell finds in a comfortable armchair in the pub with his fellow pub goers, allows him to build a collective identity from the intense belonging in the pub, to London and Britain. This presents how the homely pub is intrinsically linked to British culture, as affective memories and anecdotes are reproduced through history tying pub-goers to their locality and eventually their homeland (Oborne and Williams, 2015). Despite its national importance, the home-like pub is becoming highly endangered and under threat of extinction; ironically, many of them are closing and being converted into actual homes (Mount and Cabras, 2015).

When you have lost your inns
then drown your sorry selves,
For you will have lost the last of England.

Hilaire Belloc

Figure 1
Figure 1: Variation in the number of pubs, size of the population and the ration of inhabitants per pub (Mass Observation, 1943: 75)

Mass Observation’s (1943) study of The Pub and the People in the 1930s shows that the pub has been in decline since the turn of the twentieth century, presented in figure 1. However, this rate of closure has increased dramatically. The UK has lost 21,000 pubs since 1980, and figure 2 displays that half of these closures have been post 2006 (Snowdon, 2014). It is these contemporary closures that this paper will now investigate.

figure 2
Figure 2: Number of pubs in the UK between 1980-2013 (Snowdon, 2014: 13)

The 2008 recession had a significant impact on the financial position of households. Growth in real households’ disposable income was subdued due to high inflation which had eroded the real spending power of people’s incomes (ONS, 2011: 1; Snowdon, 2014). Figure 3, presents that this stagnating income coincides with a rise in the number of pub closures. As disposable incomes shrink, people spend less in pubs and landlord’s profits fall. Landlords in the contemporary pub market are not the Peggy Mitchell types, seen in EastEnders, but are instead dominated by faceless ‘pubcos’, such as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns who own 19,000 of the remaining 48,000 pubs in Britain. The combination of falling profits coupled with the property market crash caused creditors to urge these ‘pubcos’ to offload assets, which translated into the sale of pubs, usually, to property developers (Lamont, 2015; Snowdon, 2014). In The Death of the English Pub, Christopher Hutt’s (1973: 58) statement about breweries is almost identical to the behaviour of the pubcos who replaced them: “You are not dealing with brewers today. They look on your houses as profitable buildings…They are property tycoons. That is the way they look at your pubs as property investments.” Pubs throughout London are being shuttered and accumulated by developers for profit, benefitting from the inflated house prices that the capital is currently experiencing (ONS 2015, Hilber, 2015).

Figure 3: Mean disposable incomes (line) and annual pub closures (bar) (Snowdon, 2014: 24)

Writing in The Guardian, Tom Lamont presents a process of redevelopment using the example of the Parr’s Head pub in Camden. Once acquired by property developers, they seek planning permission allowing its land- use to be changed. This action immediately increases the value of the pub even before any redevelopment is completed. The value of the Parr’s Head, ‘de-pubbed’, rose from its initial valuation of £500,000 to £1.3million. However, after the conversion into six separate flats, the Parr’s Head sold for a total just shy of £3million (ibid., 2015). Oborne and Williams (2015) present in another example that “the fight to save the Gladstone Arms is a small part of a much bigger fight: to save the life and soul of London, and to uphold values greater and more enduring than money”. Despite this economic analysis, figure 3 shows that the sharp decline in pubs began in 2007; when both the economy and disposable incomes were still growing (Snowdon, 2014; 24). This suggests that economic influences alone are not leading to the closure of the pub; cultural factors are changing too.

Pub Redevelopment Photos
Top row: The Packenham Arms pub, Clerkenwell, redeveloped into flats.
Bottom row: The Parr’s Head pub redeveloped into flats.

“Back in the day, you had to go to the pub on a cold night. It was warmer and cheaper than heating your home. Beer alone isn’t enough to pull in customers. You’ve got to offer something else.”

50-60-year-old male, landlord of Islington Pub.

Pubs are not only competing with the creation of new houses, but also with the changing cultural elements of the home itself. Mass Observation’s survey highlighted that “the pub [in the 1930s] plays a smaller part in the life of the town than it ever did” and that “the pub as a cultural institution is at present declining” (ibid., 1943: 74; Orwell, 1943). The research found the main cause of this to be alternative forms of leisure competing with the pub such as gambling, cinema and radio (Pratten, 2003; Chatterton and Holland, 2002). This trend has been a long and gradual one, but one that has also continued more rapidly into the modern day (Muir, 2012: 12). The exacerbation is associated to the dramatic increase in the number of technological alternatives available within one’s own home. Gaming consoles, plasma TVs and video streaming services, such as Netflix, have increased the convenience of entertainment available within the household (Brown, 2013; Lamont, 2015). The invention of the internet has also allowed greater and more distant social connections on networking sites like Facebook; reducing the need to meet for face-to-face interactions and to congregate in a locality. Pubs that once transcended the sale of drink and were also considered as the “heart of the community” are now under pressure by a shift in cultural desires. People are preferring to return to their private homes rather than the pub which offered conversation and debate with neighbours and strangers (Economist, 2010; Muir, 2012; Minogue, 2002).

The true picture is more complex than whether cultural or economic factors have dominated this decline in the number of public houses. Blunt (2005) describes that many of these cultural geographies of home are shaped by political and economic processes too, emphasised further by Snowdon (2014) quoting that “culture does not exist in a vacuum”. This story of decline is instead explained by a myriad of economic and cultural factors that are entwined. On further analysis, the cultural movement back to the household is also explained by the difference in the price of beer in pubs and the growth in off-licence trade, particularly in the sales of alcohol by supermarkets (Helsey and Seely, 2015; Economist, 2010). Between 1979 and 1989 the price of a pint in the pub increased by 15% above the rate of inflation and has continued to rise in real terms since then (Haydon, 2001: 327; Snowdon, 2014). Whereas, the price of beer in supermarkets has risen by less than the rate of inflation since the late 1990s and even fell in nominal terms in the early 2000s (Snowdon, 2014). This price difference coupled with the popularity in home leisure options has instigated an increase in the number of people who drink at home rather than at the pub (Holloway et al., 2008). The combination of cultural-economic factors has reduced the pull of traditional local pubs forcing the pub industry to change.

The narrative is now “re-invent or die” (Economist, 2010). Hence, the style of the London pub is adapting to survive in a new business environment, now tailoring its service to an emerging target market (Measham and Brain, 2005; Pratten, 2003). Thus far this paper has homogenised the pub consumer. Uncovering the differences in demographics, particularly age groups, will help to explain this cultural-economic shift. For the modern brewers and pubcos, the “old lag nursing his pint” all night is a disaster economically. Pubcos prefer “high-volume vertical drinking”, where the young stand around high tables, quickly “down” their alcohol and move on. (Economist, 2010). Young professionals, graduates and students have therefore become increasingly targeted by corporate nightlife operators, drawn into well-recognised commercial bars, pubs and nightclubs such as ‘All Bar One’ or ‘Walkabout’. These establishments use strategies such as branding and theming to target this cash-rich group and have transformed drinking spaces into open-plan “chrome and cocktails” bars, restaurants and clubs with a greater use of glass and lighting (Chatterton and Hollands, 2002; Measham and Brain, 2005). The previous focus on beer has also shifted, as these spaces now offer a selection of aspirational branded, wines, spirits and to a lesser extent, alcopops, appealing to the younger audience (ibid., 2005; Difford, 2000).

The city’s youth has been central to the social and economic reinvigoration of pubs and has also had a profound effect on their distribution, overwhelmingly in the city centre (Chatterton and Hollands, 2002). This is explained spatially by Marion Roberts’ (2013) and Hubbard’s (2005) theories of the ‘big-night-out’. They discuss that London’s youth view the city centre as a destination or an event, seeking out a central ‘cluster’ of bars rather than a nearby ‘local’, which competes with the private home for leisure. Chatterton and Hollands (2002) describe that this process has registered traditional pubs and market taverns as ‘residual spaces’; a decaying relic of the night-time leisure and cultural economies of the 1970s. CAMRA’s Pub Watch survey also presents that “[pub] losses have been heaviest in urban areas”, many of which are “traditional, drinks-led community locals” (Muir, 2012; Hickman, 2008). Despite this, CAMRA’s results also show that the same number of pubs are springing up around city high streets. But that “many of [their] members would not regard them as pubs; they are just very noisy drinking establishments for young people with loud music” (Easton, 2009; Economist, 2004). Hutt’s polemic about ‘the death of the English pub’, was not so much about pubs dying, but rather them being “tarted up” (Hutt, 1973, Snowdon, 2014).

“The English public-house…because that which is named after the general public seems as if it ought to and must exist for their benefit.”

Macnaghten (1890: 788-789)

However, the ‘public’-house is ultimately a private institution. The pub may often be described as the heart of the community, but has always been governed by the demand for its products with the fundamental aim of generating profit for its owners (Pratten, 2007). A more thorough assessment of pub reinvention suggests that the branded and stylised environments, associated with postmodernity, represent attempts by corporate capital interests to maximise profits for global shareholders. By targeting the most lucrative groups of young consumers it subverts the needs of others (Jayne et al., 2008). In this process, the nuances of local or the ‘locals’ consumption practices are side-lined, older and less well-off customers are driven away from city centres and into their homes with cheap alcohol causing the ‘traditional’ spaces, which cater for less profitable alternatives, to be closed down (Harvey, 1989; Chatterton and Hollands, 2002).

Despite the backlash from ‘traditional’, older, pub-goers, the authentic, traditional pub image is not a static one, but rather one that has always been ‘sold’ to them (Muir, 2012). William Hogarth is remembered mostly for his depiction of “Gin Lane”, a vision of alcoholic hell, but few people remember that this image is coupled with the alternative “Beer Street”. This counterpart depicts prosperous Londoners enjoying a “well-earned pint of beer at the end of a hard day’s work”, and thus also promoting the public house over gin palaces (Economist, 2010; Haydon, 2001). Fisher (2012) also presents that London’s public house interiors developed from functional environments in the 1890s. Spaces that once served the needs of primarily working-class trade were converted into modernist spaces of individual design, advertised to different classes and category of consumer which “alienated an older generation of working class drinkers” (ibid., 2012; Gutzke, 2005: 228; Criblez, 2006). She expounds that pub modernisation focused on the creation of ‘tradition’ by taking furniture produced for the home and assimilating them for public houses (Fisher, 2012). The traditional pub can therefore be seen as a palimpsest: a trope for memory and absolute origins that cannot remember its own origins (de Groote, 2014: 110). This is because the traditional pub is itself a modernist development. It has marketed itself as an extension of the home, manufacturing an environment for pub-goers to form identities and attach an aura of ‘authenticity’ through repeated memories (Tuan, 1977). This allows a greater understanding of the loss that the older demographic experience via the closure of traditional pubs. Revisiting the geographies of home shows that both material and symbolic feelings are attached to the traditional pub. Locating it on thresholds between memory and nostalgia for the past; everyday life in the present; and future dreams and fears (Blunt and Varley, 2004). The notion of the palimpsest can therefore also extend to the contemporary clientele of the traditional pub as they idealise the past set against a pessimistic reading of the future. The nostalgia felt by these traditional pub-goers hides their short-sightedness, unable to see that their tradition is a static subsection of the fluid concept of the pub and its previous forms.

Beer vs Gin

These narratives of nostalgia and the concept of ‘home’ are constructed and understood through identity, they incorporate social relations, and thus the ability to which particular identities can be marginalised and centralised (Ahmet, 2013). Many sources presented in this paper express that the typical client of the traditional pub is overwhelmingly middle- aged working-class males (Muir, 2012; authors own interviews, 2016; Helsey and Seely, 2015). Vocal commentators describe that the restructuring of London’s pub industry, with its increased focus on the young, needs to be wary that this demographic is not ‘othered’ (Parker-Bowles, 2013). However, Campbell’s (2000) study of working men’s drinking in rural New Zealand unpicks the competitive sociability of the pub: identifying it as a key site for the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity, silencing and excluding marginalised genders and sexualities (Holloway et al., 2008). The more open characteristics of the ‘new’ drinking places are said to form a significant component of production and experience; allowing the production of a new gender-mixed youth identity, leisure, and popular culture. This new identity can be understood as part of the youth’s wider rejection of an old Fordist model of night-time entertainment production associated with a mass consumption experience in the largely ‘male- and ale-dominated’ pub (Chatterton and Hollands, 2002). Traditional pubs are now described as “the remnants of a bygone industrial and manufacturing age” and have little role to play in the entrepreneurial, postmodern city (Taylor et al., 1996). Rather than die, the pub industry now offers a diversity of hospitality establishments attempting to respond to more specialist cultural demands in a number of smaller and niche markets (Chatterton and Hollands, 2002). These changes have been self-consciously styled by their owners to challenge existing social norms, such as being more open to women, as well as a wider diversity of men. What has emerged is a “polymorphous” public culture, which accommodates a remarkable degree of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and class (Latham, 2003; Bell and Binnie, 2005; Holloway et al., 2008; Chatterton and Hollands, 2002).

“The way people use pubs has changed. Before when women would be at home, blokes would be at the pub. Now that they [women] work more, they’re out and about, but they don’t drink as much. So wine and food is offered, I guess it makes it more inclusive, much nicer, where everyone is a bit more welcome. It’s changed for the better.”

30-year-old pub manager of Clerkenwell gastro-pub.

This paper has shown that the theory of home allows an explanation of an older demographics’ resistance to change, through the use of nostalgia and the associated loss of identity. However, what has also been presented is that these cultural identities were also created by the economic shift to modernity. These traditional identities are static and formed by generations in particular epochs, whereas the definition of the pub, and its role, is fluid; constantly changing as external pressure is exerted. Thus, rather than presenting a damaging perforation in London’s culture, the new drinking places of the postmodern city centre are creating a new gender-mixed youth identity. Through their consumption of social space this group is building their own sense of belonging to pubs, London and Britain and in the process also developing a new urban image with different uses for its pubs (Harvey, 1989; Tuan, 1977). This paper argues that the reported decline in the number of pubs fails to address this fluidity in the pub’s definition, and thus omits postmodern drinking places from the term. Mass Observation described in 1943 that there was no one definition of the pub. That is because the term continues to be re-written, adopting different spaces of consumption and producing new identities – each attaching personal symbolic meanings to the public house.


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