Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Local Distinctiveness

“A pint of Sparta and a bag of Scampi Fries please.”

The last word is still thrumming on my tongue when I realize something monumental, something that stops me in my tracks. I’ve become a regular in my local. I’ve now got a specific round I order whenever I go in there for a quiet pint on my own (real ale and the kind of guilty pleasure snacks I’d never dare ask for if I was in polite company). These days it’s as if the barman possesses precognitive powers - he’s got his hand on the pump before I complete the sentence. With January looming into view like an unlicensed mini cab driver (ugly, unwelcome but somehow sadly inevitable), I'm having are confusing thoughts about this fact. What happens next? On one hand, it could be a lifetime of chronic alcoholism and ranting about the state of world from the bottom of a pint glass. On the other, it's the warming feeling that you get when you realize you belong to something. My very own Cheers bar, right here in the heart of sunny Hackney.

The idea of the local boozer and its loyal crowd of regulars seems almost ridiculously antiquated nowadays – quaint even. Every day the newspapers are fit to bursting with stories about how the recession will bring about the death of the public house as we know it. Supermarket booze; duty increases down the pub; the smoking ban; bad weather; good weather; Celeb Big Brother starting on the telly that night... the finger of blame can be pointed in any number of different directions, few of which any of us as individuals can really affect. Whichever way you look at it, the pub as centre of the community is under serious fire. The same could be said of post offices, of corner shops… heck, in a time when the high street is being radically rearranged from one news broadcast to the next, what hope is there for the humble boozer? This sad state of affairs has made me think back to Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as society” statement of 1987. Here now in 2009, by some gruesome twist of fate and time, it almost seems like the old sow might have some kind of prophetic point. Society, community - whatever you want to call it – maybe is disappearing in front our eyes. Pubs and all these other places where people congregate and socialize are being smoked out and boarded up. What’s going to be left? Huge, county spanning megalithic Tesco Extras’, Vue cineplexes and the occasional footie game to keep the 'lads' in check. All the best rock'n'roll bands formed in pubs - what hope have we got when the best thing on offer is the local Wetherspoons and a branch of Starbucks that's open til 10pm?

With all this in mind, I started a seasonal re-watch of Craig Cash’s magical telly show Early Doors. The story of a small Manchester local, The Grapes, and its patrons, it ran over two series between 2003/04 on the heels of Cash’s hugely successful stint as co-writer on The Royle Family. Maybe it works so well because of the blissed out, Mogadon-like pacing; maybe it’s down to the characters, painted in such intricate and loving detail they could only have been dreamt up by a daytime drinker; maybe it’s the music on the jukebox or the improtu sing-alongs; maybe it’s the smoky, dust flecked ambiance captured so brilliantly on film – whatever it is, the show manages to portray the pub like a club house, somewhere were all walks of life converge, where sage advice is proffered by barroom philosophers whether invited or not, where silence is something to relish like that second swig of sweet, sweet beer. Here is where society is shown itself in the reflection of a dusty, nicotine stained mirror – warts, bald spots, bad breath an’ all.

Sadly, it's these pubs that are shutting down all across the country – the village pubs, the locals on the corners - the community boozer that supplies not only good cheer but also a localized networking system, i.e. a bunch of mates to talk to, all with one thing in common - they're in the pub. The pubs that will survive, like cockroaches in a nuclear winter, will be the unbreakable chains - stacking bottles of WKD high, selling punters short.

Your local is in danger. We need to save our pubs. Have a think about what you can do with the space on offer – start a darts team, a chess club, book bands to play… anything to bring back that warming sense of community to your local boozer.

Me, I’m off for another bag of those stinking crisps. (RT)

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