Chris Maclean: Pubs have had to move with the times

By Chris Maclean

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Related tags Public house Bar Vending machine Britain

In this instance I was visiting what is claimed to be Britain's oldest pub. An irritating beeping noise was coming from the kitchen and no one seemed...

In this instance I was visiting what is claimed to be Britain's oldest pub. An irritating beeping noise was coming from the kitchen and no one seemed in a hurry to respond to it. It could have been an egg timer. Or maybe a deep-fat fryer going critical. I didn't know or care but sought sanctuary at the furthest point in the bar.

My pint of bitter was delightful but, when I took stock of where I was, I had to chuckle. I was trapped beside the cigarette vending machine, opposite the fruit machine, under the reassuring gaze of the CCTV camera, the reassuring pulse on the burglar alarm monitor and bathed in the light of the low-energy lamps.

I realised that even this, Britain's oldest pub, this monument to all that is wonderful about British pubs, has been deeply compromised by modernity.

Pubs have had to move with the times.

But my concern is that there seems to be an unstoppable drive for compliance and uniformity that is destroying much of our heritage and we seem powerless to resist it. But worse is the creeping erosion. Things get worn away. Little things like the old statutory notice above the door identifying the licensee gradually disappear.

The nice thing about really old pubs who value their history and tradition is the incredible array of artifacts that form a solid basis for their history. Items that clearly identify historical periods during the pub's life. Dr Johnson's chair in the Old Cheshire Cheese, the war time memorabilia in Doris's in Snargate, the toilets in the Philharmonic and so on. Photographs, mementoes, those little bits that give a pub its provenance.

In my last pub there were two small flaws I loved; two scratches in the window when,during the war, the landlady proved her diamond was real. The other, a deep dent in the wall from the punt of a bottle thrown by the furious licensee's wife. Reassurance that I was part of a historical tradition going back decades.

I've noticed recently in films that many of the nick-nacks that abounded in pubs have mostly gone from modern pubs. Ceramic figures of horse, barrels, toucans and dogs all quietly advertising brands. Cigarette paraphernalia, ashtrays, match stands, tapers and spills. Breweries and brands often provided lamps, shelf lights and perspex signs for their wares. Some gets thrown away. Some languishes in cellars.

Occasionally I'll find bits on on-line auctions. They don't make things like that anymore. Now you're lucky to get bar mats. Or maybe MP3 players and memory sticks.

A pet hate of mine, the replacement of traditional etched pub windows with clear glass, seems to continue unabated. I walked past such a pub one evening last week ~ there were few customers and it looked full of despair and gloom. Everything about it looked lonely and unwelcoming.

It is difficult to convey but, perhaps for art lovers it would be worth having a look at Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper to understand what I mean.

Recently I visited another pub; a medieval hall converted to a pub about thirty years ago.

Although the architecture itself was nice there was a total absence of these details.

The designer appeared to have simply concluded that, to create an authentic medieval feel, it simply needed masses of tapestry fabric be draped about the place. It had no pedigree; no provenance. It simply felt shallow and superficial.

But rage, as I do, against the unstoppable tide of change in pubs I am also conscious that these pubs bring enormous pleasure to many people (witness the very positive comments on some of the social websites), are extremely popular and profitable and that, increasingly, my position becomes like that of the dinosaur.

Maybe my time has come. Maybe such values have lost their place.

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