It’s been an interesting few days for those of us who pontificate about pubs rather than run them.
I’m writing this the day after talking on a couple of radio shows about the new edition of the Good Pub Guide. The editors, Alisdair Aird and Fiona Stapley, launched the new edition of their guide by claiming that 4,000 pubs are going to close over the next 12 months.
Astonishingly, they went on to say that this is a good thing, that these 4,000 small businesses all deserve to die because they are “stuck in the ’80s” and offer poor food, poor drink and poor service.
This was an extraordinary thing to say. Firstly, the guide is predicting that the current rate of net pub closures will double if not treble over the next 12 months, which seems unlikely given the budding economic recovery.
Secondly, to suggest that the only reason pubs are closing is that publicans are too inept to run them is wilfully simplistic, not to mention hugely offensive.
If the guide’s editors seriously believe what they say, it betrays a complete lack of understanding of the industry they purport to be experts in.
Which is why I don’t think they really believe it.
As anyone who has the misfortune of waking up to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme knows, talk radio has become an adversarial medium. If you want to get airtime, you have to be prepared to take part in a verbal punch-up. These outrageous claims guaranteed the Good Pub Guide a hefty chunk of news coverage, with the hope of big sales to follow.
The Good Pub Guide is, of course, the great rival to the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide, edited by my colleague Roger Protz. In Amazon’s beer book charts, the two guides usually occupy the top two spots, while I gaze up enviously, stuck somewhere around number seven with the home-brew guides and beer tickers’ manuals.
I was on one radio show recently where I was played a recording of an earlier interview with Roger. He has a reputation for being a bit of a thunderer. The consensus is that he’s mellowed in recent years, but I’ve rarely heard him sound so genuinely angry.
As someone who has campaigned to save beer and pubs since I was in nursery, I suspect the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ argument would find little sympathy from him, given his point that this comes at the cost of wishing 4,000 businesses to fail, 4,000 publicans (and their staff) to lose their jobs, and in many cases, their homes.
My own position was slightly more to the middle of the argument, but not by much. We’ve all been in pubs that are tired and have the smell of death hanging over them — pubs where licensees have simply become worn out by the long hours, hassle and scant rewards.
Running a good pub of any description requires huge amounts of energy and a good dose of entrepreneurial flair. Not everyone who takes on a pub is cut out for the job.
But these form a tiny minority of the nation’s pubs. Yes, they are among the closures, but as any reader of this magazine knows, good pubs close too, for a whole variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the ability of the licensee.
This is why things backfired for the Good Pub Guide. People like Roger and me, and Dawn Hopkins, a Norwich licensee who was invited on to the Today programme, were given an easy target to demolish. We were helped by the hundreds of people who took to Facebook and Twitter to call out the guide on the fact that pubs have to pay to be featured in it.
As I write this article, the new edition of the Good Pub Guide has three reviews on Amazon — all of them damning.
So was it a good idea to make absurd claims as a way of grabbing airtime and getting the debate on pubs out into the open? Well, it doesn’t seem to have done any harm to sales of the Good Pub Guide, the Good Beer Guide, or even my own books.
But there is something more important at stake. For a publication called the GOOD Pub Guide to use its day in the spotlight to tell the nation that pubs are, generally, crap (apart from those that pay to be in the guide, of course) does the pub industry as a whole no favours at all.
Remember Gerald Ratner?