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Monday, 30 January 2017

The Lakeside Inn - the smallest pub

The Lakeside Inn on Southport Promenade
A five minute walk from Lord Street, Southport, will bring you to the Lakeside Inn on the Promenade. This former boathouse right on the Marine Lake held the record for being Britain's smallest pub, and has a certificate from the Guinness Book of Records to prove it. It is a single-roomed bar with windows overlooking the Marine Lake, comfortable seating around the walls, a brass-fronted bar, and mirrors on two of the walls that give a more spacious impression. There are outside drinking areas to the front and the side of the pub, and a balcony to the rear giving good views across the lake. In summer, they have an attractive floral display in hanging baskets.

The real ales: Wainwright is usually on, with changing guest beers, which when I called in was Jennings Cumberland; on a previous visit, there were two beers from Wigan's Wily Fox brewery. In the summer months, they may go up to three or four real ales. A real cider, Weston's Old Rosie, is always available on handpump. They have a wine list, and tea and coffee are available. Hand raised pork pies and bar snacks constitute the food offering. There is a Happy Hour with reductions on certain drinks from Mondays to Thursdays from 5.00 to 8.00 pm.

The pub is a few minutes' walk from the Southport Theatre and Convention Centre, and artists performing there have been known to drop in for a drink. There is a TV for sport and sometimes music from a radio. They have held beer festivals in the autumn, with the real ales served on the rear balcony.

Parking near the pub is restricted, although if you scout around you can find free street parking a fairly short walk away. It is about half a mile to the railway station. Opening hours are 12.00 to 11.00 pm, except Sunday 12.00 to 10.30 pm. Children are permitted only in the front and side outdoor areas. The Lakeside Inn has its own Facebook page. Phone: 01704 544121.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Real pub - real music

The plaque that is now displayed
over the Dublin Castle door.
I've just read on the PRS for Music website that the ska band Madness have presented the organisation's Heritage Award to the Dublin Castle, a Camden pub where they played their first gig in 1979. Not long afterwards, they released their first LP, One Step Beyond, and the rest [insert cliché here].

PRS for Music is the body that collects royalties on behalf of songwriters and artists. They have been giving out these awards since 2009 to independent venues that are associated with a famous bands in their early days. Previous recipients of this award have helped the likes of Dire Straits, Queen, Spandau Ballet, Squeeze, Status Quo, Snow Patrol, Elton John, Pulp, Blur and many others as they started out.

The place of pubs in the musical life of towns and cities cannot be underestimated, and for every pub that receives such an award, there are hundreds of others that also regularly present live music. In pubs and clubs I have seen many kinds of music, including rock, rock & roll, country, folk, jazz, singer-songwriters, funk and so on. The standards obviously vary but if you do go to watch local performers, you know they are not miming - sorry, lip syncing - and they will not be using a computer program to stay in tune, as many big names do (I wrote about these frauds a year ago here).

I have seen many big names over the years, on occasion travelling to the other end of the country for single gigs, but I can also say that I've also seen many excellent local bands and performers. In contrast, I have known people who like music but who rarely experience it live: for many, music comes prerecorded via radio, television, CDs or downloads. I particularly feel sorry for people whose only experience of music is through earphones as they walk for the bus.

On the beer front: I've checked the Dublin Castle on CAMRA's What Pub website, and it serves real ale. Pity it's so far away.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Freshfield Winter Ales Expo

The Freshfield
I recently received this e-mail from Southport & West Lancs CAMRA:

"Paddy and the staff at the Freshfield on Massams Lane Formby are holding a Winter Ales Expo over this coming weekend running 27th to 29th January. These additional beers will be available to sample while stocks last for this weekend only."

I don't understand why some licensees seem to inform CAMRA about beer-related events that they are arranging only at the last minute. I've sometimes heard about pub beer festivals only days before they're due to begin, even though they must take months to organise. In this case, I now have other plans; in addition, if I'd known about this event only a week ago, I could have mentioned it, not only here, but in the CAMRA column in our local newspaper.

I know publicity isn't always easy, but it doesn't help if you don't take advantage of those opportunities that do exist.

Anyway, enough of that: it begins tomorrow, if you fancy giving it a go. The Freshfield is well-known for always having a good range of beers on, despite being a Greene King house.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

EU-nough to make you weep into your beer

The Guardian reports that "Heineken and Carlsberg follow makers of Carling and Budweiser in hiking cost of their beers in face of weak pound". Apparently our tumbling pound is putting pressure on prices on items as disparate as food, toys, and beer.

The British Beer and Pubs Association (BBPA) has said that the depreciation of sterling will lead to inflation, pointing out that "higher inflation will also lead to higher levels of indexation for taxes like beer duty, creating a vicious circle when it comes to cost pressures, which is why we are urging the chancellor to cut beer duty on a pint by one penny in the budget." Well, no harm in asking.

As drivers will already know to their cost, the price of fuel has noticeably increased recently. This is mainly because it is priced in dollars, against which the pound has fallen 18% since the EU vote. Smaller brewers tend to move beer in much smaller quantities than the mass brewers, so rising fuel prices will have a disproportionate effect upon their transport costs. Either the prices of their products will have to increase, or they'll go under. In reality, I think we can expect more small brewery closures.

Oh well: at least it's a relief to have taken back control, isn't it?

Monday, 23 January 2017

A star is imported

I see that Kingfisher Beer Europe intends to import Bintang into the UK. Bintang is an Indonesian beer, a Pilsner with a strength of 4.7%. Normally I'd say: "So what?"

My father was an expatriate worker in the cigarette industry, and his work took him to many countries, a few of which I visited when I was a child and a student. One of these countries was Indonesia. We lived in a provincial city called Semarang in central Java. The most popular beer available everywhere was Bintang, brewed by a local subsidiary of the Heineken group, and the bottles prominently feature the Heineken star, after which the beer is named: bintang is the Indonesian word for star.

I'm thinking back to the mid-1970s now, but as I recall it was quite a reasonable bottled beer which, ice cold straight out of the fridge, was just right to slake your thirst in the hot tropics (Java is just below the equator).

I shall keep an eye out for it. According to the report I read, it will be imported. If so, I'll give a try, if only for old times' sake. If, on the other hand, it is brewed somewhere under licence, I'm not sure that I'd bother.

This is my 1,382nd post. It is the only one written solely about lager.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Go on: I dare you!

A 66-year old man died after he was dared for £5 to try eating four pickled eggs in a minute in a pub in Devon. According to an article in the Exeter Express & Echo, the licensee and pub regulars desperately tried to clear his airways but he suffocated and died after the egg became "like cement". There is apparently a pickled egg challenge on Facebook, and at least two other people have died doing it.

I have never liked dares, and have usually refused to do them. This has included drinking races, even though I can probably get a pint down more quickly than most people I know (which has occasionally been useful at chucking out time). Unfortunately, it seems that alcohol does lead some people to accept dares to do silly things, or be called 'chicken', or whatever the current terms is.

I have heard of dares to neck bottles of spirits. While the quantity - around a pint and a third - is manageable, the consumption of so much alcohol in a short time can lead to alcohol poisoning and even death - the human body is simply not equipped to deal with a chemical that in such concentrations becomes toxic. The fact that we can drink that amount, or even more, over several hours doesn't mean we can drink it in five minutes. Just type 'died during drinking competition' into a search engine to find some examples.

Though not necessarily alcohol-related, I have also read of people plunging to their deaths trying to take selfies in extreme places.

Perhaps some of us see ourselves as indestructible. It's not as though these activities are enjoyable in themselves: eating four eggs at once must be revolting (and I like eggs); gulping down a bottle of spirits rapidly cannot be pleasurable either. The question remains: why accept such utterly pointless and potentially harmful challenges? Call me chicken if you like but I'd rather lose face.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Opinion becomes propaganda

I was quite surprised to see in the pub trade magazine, the Morning Advertiser, two articles about the statement by Pete Brown that he has mostly stopped drinking cask ale. One article was by Brown himself, and the other referred to the response by CAMRA national chair, Colin Valentine. Why the big fuss? Partly because Pete Brown is a regular beer columnist in the Advertiser, and partly because he has won awards from the beer writers' club, the British Guild of Beer Writers, including in 2016 Beer Writer of the Year for the third time.

Apparently Brown is fed up of getting poor real ale, which according to his article happens all the time. My thought is quite simple: he must be choosing the wrong pubs because what he's written doesn't reflect my own experience. Real ale is the one expanding part of the beer market; if he were right about the state of the product, I'd expect sales to be contracting.

I'm wondering whether this is another sideswipe at CAMRA, an organisation that Brown has consistently criticised, along with its members, even though he did actually join in 2012, as he wrote in this mea culpa piece at the time. Even as he signed up, he wrote about the "social [CAMRA] stereotype of the socially inadequate, visibly outlandish beer nerd, with his big belly, beard, opaque glasses, black socks and sandals, and leather tankard on his belt." That's a bit rich coming from someone with uncombed hair, a scrappy beard and untidy clothes. Whatever your views on Roger Protz, another prominent beer writer, you certainly can't describe his appearance in such terms.

I once took a beer blogger to task because I felt a description he gave of an unreasonable pub customer was implausible; I explained why I thought the described behaviour could not have occurred. He admitted the incident described had not actually happened, but was an amalgam of two or three separate incidents. So, in other words, it was made up, including the quoted dialogue. I think this matters. If he'd said that it was a hypothetical example of the kind of behaviour he'd come across, then there could have been no complaint - although in that particular case it would still have seemed improbable to me. Even hypothetical examples should seem credible.

I wonder whether Brown has done something similar. In my view, his antipathy to CAMRA has spilled over into his articles. In one, he described how he was drinking in a pub when a customer went to the bar, said he was a CAMRA member and suggested that he should get free beer because without CAMRA, the pub wouldn't be serving real ale. Even worse, he went and joined a friend and they began swapping videos about trains. Two stereotypes in one anecdote: a boorish real ale drinker with a sense of entitlement - and a train spotter to boot!

Another alleged incident was at a dinner put on by, I think, a brewery where the beer on the table Brown was sitting at ran out, causing a CAMRA member to complain loudly. The host went and brought some bottles from his own supply and placed them on the table, for which the CAMRA member gave no thanks, proceeding to claim them all for himself and not letting anyone else near them. Loud-mouthed, rude and greedy all in one!

I have no way of disproving such stories, but I find it difficult to understand why I, as someone who joined CAMRA when Brown was doing his 'O' levels, have never come across such bad behaviour by CAMRA members. In my experience, they tend to be just as well- or, if you prefer, just as bad-mannered as the general public. The difference is that I don't have a well-documented antipathy to CAMRA, which I'd be the first to agree isn't a perfect organisation, but then neither is any other on the planet.

In his Morning Advertiser article, Brown refers to "campaigners who insist cask ale is the highest quality beer available, while simultaneously demanding that it is cheaper than any other beer on the bar". Which particular campaigners might these be? Certainly CAMRA has campaigned for cuts in beer duty, but I can't recall any campaigns demanding that licensees cut their prices. Most CAMRA members would understand that pub profit margins on real ale are very slim. If price were their only consideration, then surely they'd all be drinking only in Wetherpoons and similar lower price establishments; this is quite clearly not the case, Wetherspoons vouchers notwithstanding.

Writing about beer - as in writing about music, come to think of it - should be a combination of facts and opinions. While accepting that genuine errors can occur, what you understand to be factual can shape your opinions, but opinions - or prejudices - shouldn't modify your perception of the facts, or else you'll be producing propaganda, not information.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Needing some space

The Heatons Bridge, a popular community pub in West Lancs
I see the the Morning Advertiser has an article suggesting how pubs can make greater use of their space, particularly areas that are unused for much of the time. It all makes sense, as long as it doesn't impinge upon the main functions of a pub. How far a pub can follow the Advertiser's suggestions obviously depends very much on the amount and the nature of spare space available; the tendency in the 60s and 70s to knock pubs through massively reduced the numbers of function rooms that are available.

I have long been involved in groups that make use of pubs for specific purposes, such as folk clubs, union meetings, CAMRA meetings, political party meetings, as well as the more usual birthday parties, wedding celebrations and wakes. In work, management would book hotels for meetings and conferences or, when I worked in Norris Green in Liverpool, the hospitality suite at Everton FC, much to the chagrin of Liverpool fans. The union, not being so flush, would choose pub function rooms, which were usually free. Occasionally someone would raise the objection that some of our members might not wish to go into pubs because they weren't drinkers, but I'd argue that no one was obliged to drink alcohol, and that we'd be in a room without an open bar. If that wasn't sufficiently persuasive, I'd simply invite the person concerned to find another suitable free, or at least cheap, venue, and we'd go there. It's not as easy as people assume.

Recently, when the Lion pub was closed as I have mentioned recently, I did consider moving my song session to another pub, but the only one I approached wasn't interested; surprisingly, I couldn't think of another suitable venue that was suitable for us and also convenient for public transport.

A few years ago, a Wetherspoons pub agreed to reserve space a couple of mornings a week for a mother and toddler group. Predictably, there were horrified reactions from the usual suspects, so extreme you'd think they were suggesting sacrificing the first-born. I wasn't impressed with the objections: Spoons is a lot cheaper than expensive branded coffee houses, and if a young woman decided to have a glass of wine, so what?

The critics claimed to be concerned for the welfare of the mothers and children, but I thought them quite heartless. For many years, I was a home visiting officer for the DSS in Liverpool, and single parents made up quite a few of the clients I called upon. Some were fine, coping with support from friends and family nearby, but others were clearly isolated and lonely, having been housed in an area where they knew no one. I feel certain that something like the Wetherspoons group once or twice a week would have made a big difference, getting them away from the four walls, meeting others in similar circumstances and perhaps making new friends.

But such concerns wouldn't cross the minds of our self-righteous, self-appointed moral guardians, who failed to see that the proposed mother and toddler group was intended to reduce loneliness and isolation, a subject that I wrote about on 1 January.

It seems obvious to me that opening a pub to other uses when practical will justify its place as a valued part of the community. It will also help ensure it stays open for us drinkers.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Stamping a place on the gravy train

The mark of Satan?
It's nice when politicians have their finger on the pulse of the burning issues of the day. Bill Etheridge, an MEP for UKIP, a single issue party that has achieved its sole objective, is now looking around for something to justify continuing to receive his Euro-salary (three times the UK national average wage) from an institution he claims to hate. He's come up with a demand that the UK should reintroduce the old crown stamp on our pint glasses instead of the EU-wide CE mark.

He asserts that, "All drinkers remember the crown mark, knowing that it guaranteed them a full pint, indeed there are still some around." All drinkers? Perhaps it's true of some more mature drinkers, but
not of those who came of drinking age after the introduction of the CE mark. Regardless of the hyperbole, the real point is: do British drinkers - whatever their age and whether or not they remember the crown stamp - worry about this? I haven't done a survey, but I seriously doubt that anyone could care less.

Bill Etheridge: worth every penny!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Monday, 9 January 2017

Scotch Piper to return

On 6 December I wrote about the fire at the Scotch Piper in Lydiate, the oldest pub in the area. The early indications were that, although the blaze was furious and took four hours to bring under control, the damage was mostly to the thatched roof. This has proved to be the case, and the roof structure and the building were saved.

A fire brigade spokesperson said: "The thatched roof is 100 per cent damaged by fire. The property is severely damaged by water from fire fighting." The police have ruled out foul play.

Scaffolding has been set up, and piles of new thatch have appeared, although it will be some time before the pub can reopen.

To find out more about this classic pub, please have a look at the post that I wrote in April 2016; this also appeared in the CAMRA column of our local paper, the Southport Visiter.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

'Prehistoric' - but he has a point

The Seekers, featuring Judith Durham - not a basque in sight
There is a lot of publicised anger, not least in The Mirror, aimed at Tom Jones for his comment that Leanne Mitchell, winner of The Voice, failed to become a star because of her weight. He has suggested that she ought to have lost weight and seized her chance.

Jane Kenyon, of support group Girls Out Loud, said: "We need zero tolerance on these kind of comments. He should know better and if it's his view, it is time to put him out to pasture." Natalie Harvey of charity Combat Bullying, said: "These comments are prehistoric and dangerous. I find these comments really scary. If you can sing you can sing."

They're not wrong, of course, but there's a wider picture here. I sometimes watch the old music programmes on BBC 4 - Sounds of the Sixties, Dusty at the BBC, and so on. The 60s are infamous for sexism, with phrases such as 'dollybirds' to describe fashionably dressed young women, and I do recall the shocked newspaper articles about miniskirts, and how young women would be storing up health problems for the future. However, the way women in the public eye dressed then was not as overtly sexual as now: in shows I've watched recently, Dusty Springfield and Judith Durham wore long gowns, and while Sandie Shaw sported a miniskirt, it was tame by modern standards and would probably now be acceptable in most offices. The Supremes, one of the most successful female groups of the era, were always dressed in a sophisticated manner.

In contrast, many modern female performers feel in necessary to do so in their underwear: highly revealing basques and other outfits that leave little to the imagination. Even older singers such as Jennifer Lopez, 47, Kylie, 48, and Madonna, 58, feel obliged to conform to the sex kitten image. There are many female singers who don't follow this path, but they are less likely to get exposure on TV. The videos of those who do will get millions of hits that probably are not primarily prompted by their music. Would Cheryl Cole have been as commercially successful if she had been overweight and not considered attractive? I think not.

The singing credibility of many such performers is often bolstered by autotune, which can put right any singer, no matter how tuneless; I wrote about it here a year ago. Perhaps we should create a new term for performers who can't sing without electronic help and rely on selling their bodies to become rich and famous.

It is perhaps an indication of the power of massive entertainment corporations that decades of feminism have not hindered the growth of such visual exploitation of young women. A counter argument that I have read is that such women are empowered, proven by their commercial success, but you could make the same point about successful female escorts, as they are sometimes coyly called. Over the years, there have been, quite rightly in my opinion, campaigns to end Page 3 girls in The S*n, but I'd argue that a static photo of a topless young woman in a newspaper is tame compared to some of the highly sexualised dancing we can see on TV, and which is readily available on the internet, thus hugely more accessible than in in pre-internet days.

Tom Jones's comments were certainly ill-advised, but he has a point that appearance is more important for commercial pop success than ever before. I can only speculate how singers such as Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass Elliott and, more recently, Alison Moyet would fare if they were starting today. I'm not making adverse comments about these women's looks; I'm merely stating that they wouldn't have conformed to the very narrow, very prescriptive definition of desirability expected by some audiences - and required by record companies.

Perhaps Tom Jones's critics should cast their disapproval wider to include those who have created and who perpetuate a definition of female pop singer that requires hopeful young women to sell themselves primarily as sexually alluring - by their appearance rather than by their talent. I consequently find it encouraging that Leanne Mitchell has said that she is quite happy the way she is and has no intention of slimming down.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Lion singaround returns

A detail in one of the Lion's windows
In June, I wrote that the classic Liverpool pub, the Lion Tavern, had closed, and in November that it had reopened; some of us had been worried that it might never open again. I'm pleased to report that the song session that I have run in the pub from July 2010 will begin again next week; the last one was in June, just before the pub stopped trading.

It is the same night as before, the second Thursday of each month, and it is completely acoustic - no amplification at all. The session is open to both singers and non-singers; anyone who just wants to come and listen is very welcome.

If you're free on Thursday 12 January, it's at the Lion Tavern, Moorfields, Liverpool, just across the road from Moorfields Station on the Northern Line, and starts at around 8.15 pm. The last train to Southport leaves at 11.40 pm. The Lion has a good selection of up to 8 real ales.

Hope to see you there.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

A small brewery far away ...

A choice of good real ales
in the Guest House, Southport
The decision of the Cloudwater Brewery of Manchester to cease brewing real ale seems to have evoked a variety of reactions from "Is this the beginning of the end of cask beer?" to "It's no big deal - move on." In the latter category you'll find Tandleman and the Pub Curmudgeon.

The doom mongers will always be among us, of course, often comprised of people who favour craft keg over real ale, sometimes despising CAMRA into the bargain: while they are fully entitled to their own preferences, their views should be taken with a large pinch of salt as they've an axe to grind.

I'm not the only person to have suggested that at some point the contradictory phenomena of ever more breweries and fewer pubs will collide - see my post from June 2016. One licensee I put this point to last year told me he thought that process had already begun, and pointed out that hobby brewers add to the problem by their ability to undercut those who need to make a living out of their breweries. 

So: apocalypse? Or damp squib?

Some breweries can cut production in the face of fierce competition, but not all. Brewers who either go to the wall or abandon real ale production will not necessarily be those who brew the least interesting cask beer. It is logical to assume that we will lose some good real ales in a process of consolidation that seems almost inevitable. Quite a few of us have been predicting this for a while, so I don't quite understand the apparent shock the Cloudwater decision has made in some quarters. They're a business, not a charity, and therefore have to make a profit - although even charities need to balance the books - and if their current business structure does not enable a profit to be made, then it is not surprising if they discontinue the product with the slimmest profit margin.

This will probably happen again elsewhere, but it would be incorrect to assume this means the beginning of the end for real ale. If the number of breweries producing real ale does decline, it will reach a new, lower point of equilibrium, a position that should be more sustainable in the longer term. The unfortunate consequence is that in the process we may lose some of our favourite beers.

While there is an overlap in the markets for real ale and craft keg, there is also quite a level of separation. Because of its longer shelf life, keg can be transported further and can supply small volume venues better than cask beer with its need for quick turnover. On the other hand, small real ale brewers tend to supply within their local areas. I doubt the two products will ever be wholly separate, but there can be circumstances when they'll meet different requirements.

Not an apocalypse, but not a damp squib either. Long term predictions about the beer market by people more knowledgeable than I am frequently prove wide of the mark. While pubs are still closing, micropubs, café bars and other small venues are opening in large numbers, and many do stock real ales; they may not be able to compensate for all the pub closures, but they should mitigate the situation, especially as they often go for locally-brewed real ales. Furthermore, many of the pubs that are closing were not real ale venues anyway; that's not to say such closures don't matter, but they won't affect real ale sales.

This decision by Cloudwater is part of the evolution of the beer market, and where we will end up in the long term is anyone's guess - and I use the word 'guess' intentionally.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Pub adjudicator reveals commercial interests

I've written on 10 June 2016 and 30 November 2016 before about how the pub code adjudicator (PCA), Paul Newby, has financial interests that could compromise his independence; my post in June goes into detail about his investments. Mr Newby has decided to publish full details of his financial involvement in Fleurets in order to answer charges of a conflict of interest: the details are in the Morning Advertiser.

A spokesperson for the PCA has said: "These pre-existing interests do not call into question his ability to carry out his responsibilities. This is a view that has been upheld by the commissioner for public appointments. There is no direct link between the ownership of shares and loans and the decisions Mr Newby is required to make as the adjudicator. He gains no direct benefit from future instructions to Fleurets or the outcome of any particular case involving the company and there is no incentive for him to act in any particular manner."

Does that answer all the criticisms? In my opinion, the use of the word 'direct' twice in this statement leaves questions unanswered. It could be argued that a decision he may make in a pubco's favour could benefit him indirectly. After all, he doesn't want a company in which he has a sizeable stake to lose value, thus jeopardising repayments to him. If I had money invested in a company, I'd want it to do well. Greg Mulholland MP has asked why someone with a legal background wasn't appointed, a suggestion I made in a comment to my post in June; such an appointment would not have been touched by this kind of controversy.

For all I know, Mr Newby may well be a man of integrity who is committed to doing his job fairly; I certainly hope so, and the increased openness is to be welcomed. However, the question of how he is perceived remains unanswered, so I'm inclined to doubt that all the critics will be satisfied.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Pubs v. Facebook

Acoustic songs in the Mason's, Southport
I see that CAMRA has reacted positively to a survey by the Campaign To End Loneliness which revealed that older people experiencing loneliness miss simple things in life, such as a drink in the pub, a walk in the country or a shared meal. CAMRA itself commissioned a study by Oxford University called Friends On Tap which showed how community locals can help fill gaps left by loneliness.

In 2014, the Office for National Statistics found Britain to be the most lonely country in the EU. We're less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours, and many us have no one to rely on in a crisis. While isolation is most commonly associated with older people, the study found that younger people in the 18-34 age band can often feel alone too, despite smartphones, Facebook and other social media, or - in my view - partly because of them. Reading 'LOL' on your phone is not the same as laughing out loud with your mates around a pub table.

This time of the year, Christmas and New Year, can actually deepen feelings of isolation because, if you're alone, it can look as though the whole world is having a party to which you're not invited. To be fair, there are occasional messages reminding us not to forget people who are lonely at this time, but the problem is not seasonal phenomenon: for many, this is a year-long struggle.

Pubs are one obvious answer, as you can enter and buy a drink without having to pay for admission, join or sign in, and it is acceptable to speak to strangers, but it's not necessarily as straightforward as CAMRA seems to suggest. First you have to find a suitable pub: not every pub is a community local, and some may cater more for specific age groups so that even a regular pub goer of the 'wrong' age might feel out of place. An older woman may not find it easy to go into a pub on her own, especially as she may be of a generation that did not readily accept women doing so.

When you are a regular pub goer, as CAMRA members are almost by definition, walking into a pub is simple, so it's easy for us to forget that some may find the prospect daunting, partly because of the fear that you may end up sitting sadly on your own, perhaps compounded by simple unfamiliarity with pubgoing in general. 

I'd suggest that people try to find out about suitable pubs before venturing out: for example, from other people, from the local papers and on-line. It may be an idea to go when there is entertainment on, because that can be the ostensible reason for being there, and it doesn't matter if you're watching, say, music alone as people will assume that's why you're there. Music and quiz nights are probably the most common forms of entertainment, although some pubs put on comedy acts. If music is your thing, a loud rock band doesn't help if you're hoping to speak to people, although not all amplified music precludes speech. Increasingly there are unamplified acoustic music sessions, some held during the day and therefore clearly suitable for retired people. Pub games, such as darts or pool where you can challenge whoever's playing to a game, may be another way of breaking the ice. It is not even necessary to drink alcohol: in my local, one of my friends whom I've known for decades drinks only diet Coke. If, like me, you are not drawn to soft drinks, tea and coffee are often available nowadays.

Pubs aren't a silver bullet that can solve all the problems of loneliness, and some people may genuinely not like them anyway. The propaganda of the anti-alcohol brigade has had a corrosive effect on the perception of pubs, as have media stories suggesting our town centres are like the Wild West at weekends: I go out every weekend, and they're not. Having said that, CAMRA is basically correct in suggesting that pubs can help reduce isolation for many people.