Wednesday 3 June 2020

Lockdown thoughts & pubs

One of the rooms in the Guest House (floor not shown)
The last time I went for such an extended time without going to the pub was forty years ago when I was on the dole. That spell of involuntary abstinence ended on 7th July 1980 when I began working for the DHSS in Liverpool which, as I used to say at the time, involved me jumping from one side of the counter to the other.

Back then I'd sometimes walk past busy pubs in which it seemed everyone was having a really great time. They probably weren't especially - it would have been just another day to them - but forbidden fruit does have a special allure, particularly when you can observe others enjoying it seemingly without a second thought.

The big difference is that today, while everyone is currently excluded from pubs, abstinence has not ensued: off sales have gone through the roof as people resort to drinking at home. This includes me, even though previously I rarely did so as I view having a pint as a social activity. Home drinking is easier today than it would have been had this pandemic occurred 40 years ago. In 1980, only heavily-regulated off licences were allowed sell alcohol for consumption off the premises. The current situation whereby supermarkets, corner shops, petrol stations and other retail outlets can sell alcohol in the same way as any other goods was still years away.

I remember in the 1980s when a supermarket in Southport applied for a licence to sell alcohol, rigid restrictions were imposed: the alcohol had to be confined to a separate room with its own till, and you couldn't wander into the main shop with a bottle and pay for it at one of the normal tills. This controlling, paternalistic approach to the sale of alcohol was based on a mistrust of ordinary people who, it was thought, would go on wild booze-filled orgies of destruction if restrictions on selling alcohol were eased. I recall worried letters in the local press about the dire consequences of allowing that particular supermarket the licence it wanted. Images were dreamt up of of drunken crowds in the streets and tipsy housewives neglecting child care and household duties - the ultimate horror of paternalists everywhere: no dinner on the table!

Curiously, the world didn't end, and I'd expect that younger drinkers today would regard the restrictions on alcohol sales that I grew up with as a quaint, ancient curiosity as remote from their own lives as rationing or the BBC Home Service.

A demo to save the Roscoe Head in September 2015.
Licensee Carol Ross is centre front.
I've had quite a few chats with friends who, like me, are looking forward to when we can go to the pub again, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that we won't be returning to the way things were. Most of us realise that some pubs will be unable survive a loss of trade for so long and will never reopen, but there will be two other causes of permanent closures. After restrictions are lifted, I anticipate that home drinking will remain significantly higher than it was pre-CV19, and I've little doubt pub-owning companies will use the prolonged closure to argue that reopening some pubs is not viable, allowing them to implement lucrative redevelopment schemes that have previously been successfully opposed. For example, Liverpool's Roscoe Head, which has been run by the same family for 35 years and is the only pub in the North to be in every edition of the Good Beer Guide, was under renewed threat even before we'd heard of lockdown. For this pub, the timing of the pandemic couldn't be worse.

I have read in the CAMRA newspaper that it is possible that we may lose as many as 40,000 pubs. I sincerely hope this is wrong, but am not much reassured by the fact that such worst case scenarios rarely come to pass.

► I was pleased to see on the Facebook page of my local, the Guest House in Southport, a photo of the newly-varnished floor. It had been looking rather tired, and the fact they have used the closure to improve the pub is encouraging news, suggesting it is not in line for redevelopment or conversion to another use. I hope so anyway.


  1. I too swapped signing on the dole for the other side of the counter when I started work as a weekly-paid casual AA on Contributions at Apsley House/Stockport North DSS in 1997, a humble start to an ultimately memorable eleven year civil service career.

    1. I left in 2008 after 28 years, so it looks as though we both left the department at around the same time.

  2. Sorry to hear about the Roscoe Head,its closure will be a great loss to Liverpool

    1. I've been reliably told that the licensee Carol Ross doesn't intend to give up without a fight, so it's not definitely a lost cause yet.


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