On holiday a couple of years ago I picked up a book called All Passion Spent in a charity shop. It could be considered a bit of a miserable book really, about a rich widow who decides to leave her big house for somewhere much smaller where she can live out the rest of her life in genuine peace. The bit I most liked though was when she asked her grown-up kids not to bring the grandchildren round because she’d had enough of people who are closer to birth than death (I told you it was miserable).
Morbid though that is, it struck something of a chord with me in terms of my preferred company down the pub. Not that I think of myself or my drinking pals as having one foot in the grave, but because I find maturity often makes a person more interesting. It means they have more life experiences to speak of and we usually talk about things we’ve actually done, as opposed to mere vicarious experience received through a smartphone screen.
I’m mulling all this over in terms of the survival of pubs and the wider beer industry. Although beer is something of a hobby, it would be nothing without the social aspect that comes with it. A case in point was the lovely Friday afternoon I recently spent at the West Kent CAMRA and Spa Valley Railway beer festival in Tunbridge Wells. I ran into a chap I’d met at other beer festivals, who invited me to sit with him and his friends. We all ended up chatting away for hours over a few beers and I almost missed my train home.
Pub-going habits of the youth
This is in stark comparison to some of the time I spend with teenagers. I grant you that it might be skewed by the fact they are mostly my stepchildren. I realise that kids probably behave differently when we aren’t there to observe, but most of the time all they seem to do is look at their smartphones and recount to each other what they are looking at.
I wondered if they do that down the pub. Then it hit me they might not even go to the pub. They seem to believe that a smartphone means they have the whole world in their hands, which I find an extremely depressing idea.
Being a nosey journalist, of course, I asked them about their pub-going habits.
It turns out they do like going to the pub, but for them that mostly means going to a Wetherspoon pub. I’d go so far as to say that to them ‘the pub’ simply means JD Wetherspoon, or Spoons as they like to call it (yes I know it’s a widely used nickname!). Even my youngest stepdaughter (who recently turned 16) goes there with her friends – although they genuinely seem to have little interest in drinking alcohol.
They go because it’s a relaxed place to hang out, you can get affordable food and they don’t feel intimidated by the ordering process – as they apparently do in the somewhat more
formal setting of a restaurant.
None of these things are exclusive to JDW, of course, but teenagers seem to have bought into the brand to the point where it is synonymous with ‘the pub’.
It’s another instance of how one size doesn’t fit all, but also an example of how a brand goes way beyond a logo. Putting aside Tim Martin’s stance on Brexit, as I know plenty of his customers who simply overlook it, the brand is evident in all the pubs. Low prices, traditional pub decor, local identity, respect for historic buildings, getting people through the door for the purpose of eating and drinking rather than merely being able to eat and drink while you do something else.
I’m not saying every pub should be like Wetherspoon, but every pub can learn something from how successful the chain is. It seems to have become part of the national consciousness, in the way that ‘the pub’ used to be.
The challenge for pubs now is not just to compete with the chain, but to recapture the relevance they once had.
When those who still see pubs and beer as 100% relevant are closer to death than birth, and those closer to birth than death are mostly obsessed only with what they can see on their smartphones, I fear it’s going to be a long, hard battle – but it’s definitely worth fighting for.