The decline of the pub
Friday, April 11, 2008
A pub is an easygoing place; a microcosm of English society. Bores and eccentrics are (more or less) cheerfully tolerated. The cut and thrust of repartee results in an occasional failed witticism, but no consequence need be feared but derision. The combination of testosterone and alchohol might occasionally lead to fisticuffs outside, but even combatants are expected to hold no continuing grudge.
So why are pubs in decline? Perhaps because this all now seems a Tolkien-like vision of a lost past. Such are the consequences of political incorrectness (real or perceived) that it is a brave person who will attempt wit among strangers. In ethnically-mixed company, a word out of place (or perceived by the hearer as such) can lead to social death. A jocular remark of my own that heterosexuals felt rather left out of modern Britain led to uneasy silence and a whispered warning that the colleague next to me (as I knew perfectly well) was gay. Years later I have been "forgiven" but I confess to finding that forgiveness an insult. All I said (and with a smile at that) was that his sexuality was more fashionable than mine. Had I said as much about his suit, he would have thanked me.
Even before, preposterously, the health-fascists succeeded in making public smoking illegal, smokers (a far more substantial minority than that which voted for the present government) were likely to be harangued by intolerant busybodies. Now the law of unintended consequences (the one that kicks in whenever we tinker with the iron law of supply and demand) is exposing the delicate young lungs of infants at home to "secondary smoke" which would previously have been inhaled by consenting adults. O tempora, o mores.
Years ago, I discussed life under communism with my venerable Polish teacher. Her husband had been a prominent academic; invited to international conferences and therefore an object of suspicious surveillance. He was always accompanied on his trips by an informant who would try to get him drunk. At work in his own university, there were always such people about and they were always ready to buy drinks in the hope of indiscretions. In consequence, he never drank alcohol in public. He only partook within his own four walls in the company of his wife and blood relatives. Such an approach (combined with a dry, apolitical field of study) allowed him to live his life in peace - if not in freedom.
I fear that the decline of the British pub may have as much to do with political correctness (aka embryonic totalitarianism) as with the price of alcohol or the cigarette ban. A society which has spies monitoring smoking in bars and which uses anti-terrorist powers to spy on middle-class families suspected of lying to get their toddler into a better kindergarten is not one in which it is safe to lubricate the vocal chords in public.