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Pubs Are Important – And We Can’t Afford To Lose Them

The world around us is changing every week at the moment. There are many politically and emotionally charged stories unfolding constantly. I’ve never seen this website as a platform where they need to be discussed, even when they are closer to the drinks industry – such as this week’s ‘Murraygate‘ that has seen huge focus from the whisky industry in particular. While I could always have my opinion on that matter (which, incidentally, is that JM is an arse and deserves everything coming to him), within the TwatterSphere or whatever we’re calling it, there are literally thousands of people queuing up to express (sometimes exceptionally vile) points of view, and W&C has just never really felt like the staging post for the revolution. Having said all that, it has got to the point now where the pandemic’s effect on the industry I love deserves some space on the page.

As is perhaps evident from this website, I have worked in and around the hospitality industry for my entire adult life. Since I was 18 my wages have always been paid, ultimately, by the sale of food and/or drink. And though I may now work in sales, selling into the bars and restaurants I spent a decade working in, I still feel very much part of that community that is on the front line, and spends hours (sometimes many more hours than is healthy) serving people every week. I have been fortunate enough to be part of amazing experiences with them all over the world, and it is a community that has exceptional strength and depth, and too much intrinsic value to be broken up.

Inveraray, Scotland, 2015

Way back in March, when the prospect of this pandemic inflicting huge damage to the sector became increasingly real, I became almost overcome with a feeling of dread. Not, necessarily for myself -while I might have faced losing my job, and therefore my flat (neither of which happened thankfully) – I’m exceptionally fortunate that I knew, someway or somehow, I would always have a roof over my head. This anxiety was born of the idea that an entire industry could collapse, and take with it so many of the people and places that held such fond memories for me. This industry has made up a huge part of my life – it going down the swanny would be like losing a limb.

Pubs, bars, and restaurants are – for most of us – part of our lifestyle, our memories and our culture. Obviously, there are some that don’t frequent them much, or at all, and that’s fine. But for so many of us, we have a ‘local’ – somewhere we can walk into any time of day or night and be recognised, socialise, and leave feeling better (if slightly less steady) than we arrived. We have favourite restaurants, favourite bartenders, fond memories of swim up bars in exotic places, places where we had our first pint, our first drink with our Dad when we turned 18, a first furtive glance with someone who might now be a parent to our children. They make up part of the fabric of our timelines.

Tamborine Mountain, Queensland, 2008

When I was eighteen I worked in my local pub (pictured left), in a small town in Queensland, and it had a ‘five o’clock club’. Every local pub, everywhere, has one. Those that come in after a day’s work, often on their own, because they know the rest of the club will be there. Some of them might even be retired – but those couple of pints between the working day and dinner time are an exceptionally valuable social time for all concerned. I surreptitiously joined this five o’clock club on my days off (at times the youngest by 30 years), and to my surprise was welcomed in. This was not a club that cared who joined it – it was inclusive to all who wanted a blether at the end of the day. A lot of these folk came from far flung places – Holland, Ireland, Germany, Austria, The UK – and I lapped up their stories of travelling the world, and it inspired me to do the same. There was one story that seemed to be told over and over; ‘I was somewhere, Greece I think it was, and there was this bartender – can’t remember their name – but they were great, kept the place open late for us and it was the best night of the trip’. The names, places, and trips could all change, but I realised what an impact people in the service industry could have on those they looked after – and realised I wanted to do the same. I wanted to be the bartender whose name was maybe forgotten but who’s hospitality was remembered.

Cancun, Mexico, 2013.

And so I did. I left my home and moved around a bit, carrying plates, pouring pints, and eventually shaking drinks for however many people over a decade or so. I met my wife working in a pub – a pub that would become to feel as much a home to me as anywhere else in the world (pictured top). We got married there. The owner was my best man. People from all around the world joined us, a lot of whom had worked there previously. It was a reunion, and an amazing time for much bigger reasons than simply the union of two people – and all because it was in an amazing ‘pub’. When I looked around, everyone on ‘my side’ of the guests, apart from my family, I had met through the hospitality industry. You might think this strange, for a pub to be a focal point in a life – but home isn’t simply where your washing machine is.

I learnt over the years that hospitality workers are some of the most dedicated in the world. They work long, unsociable hours, for often minimum wage or less, through abuse from drunken idiots and physically punishing work. And why? Because they (we) fucking love it. You wouldn’t do it otherwise. You’re a professional with 20 years experience? We’ll start you on minimum wage. Finishing work at 3 am? You can open the place at 10 am the next day. And while some of these aspects need to be addressed within the industry, that’s not what I’m here to discuss. The point though is that we have an industry full of dedicated, skilled professionals who are devoted to it, and one that provides experiences, memories and a cultural and social hub to millions. So let’s stop vilifying it, stigmatising it and inappropriately regulating it – we can’t afford to lose it.

Barcelona, Spain 2011

So, to the current restrictions facing this industry. Firstly, in Scotland: no background music. I can see how, in a small crowded space with standing room only, very loud music could encourage mingling and shouting – which is what this rule is there to prevent. However, we don’t have small crowded spaces – social distancing prevents this. We don’t have clubs at all (they’re not even open!). What we have is socially distanced, exclusively seated areas. And in these circumstances 99% of people will keep their voices under the level of background music (it becomes a social measure as to where to keep the level of speech). A friend went for dinner the other day and when I caught her for a drink the next day she said ‘I’ve never had to shout to speak to someone at my table before’. Without background music people will just get louder and louder as they strive to talk to (and over) each other.

Now, to 10 pm closing (UK wide). This is designed to prevent people staying out later, getting more intoxicated and (presumably) being less likely to observe social distancing etc. However, when they’re in pubs, they’re being supervised by professionals dedicated to maintaining these regulations – and these professionals do not stop paying attention at the stroke of ten. What it does create is crowded streets, crowded taxi ranks, crowded tubes and crowded buses when everyone piles out at 10 pm. One of the basic tenets of intelligent licensing policy is to stop exactly this happening – too many people being pushed into the same space at the same time can contribute to antisocial behaviour. Put this in the context of a pandemic such as the one we’re facing and it feels completely nonsensical. And if you mean to tell me that these people in crowded places aren’t going to kick on to house party post 10 pm on a Saturday night – where no regulations are enforced – then you have taken complete leave of your senses. Even not allowing entry to venues after 10 pm (but allowing a staggered departure of those therein until the venues license finishes) I would understand – but closing every one of them completely and simultaneously?!

Normandy, France 2014

And that is the problem with these regulations – any hospitality professional when asked about them would instinctively respond with ‘well that’s not going to fucking work is it?’. Let me stress: I am not an anti-masker, I am in no doubt this pandemic is a real thing and very much aware that each measure and decision taken and made during it can be the difference between lives saved and lost. However, when it comes to those restrictions placed on the hospitality industry it is heartbreaking to see them be both ineffectual and counter intuitive – whilst also being hugely damaging to the businesses they effect. Ten o’clock closing can take up to 35 trading hours a week from some bars- some businesses only operate that much in a week! So please, I Implore those who make these decisions (and I’m staggeringly aware they are not going to read this, but it makes me feel better) to liaise with the industry. We want to help, we want to be seen as the good guys and not the villains – we can be trusted, and for those who can’t; who threaten the industry with selfish and unlawful actions – simply remove their licenses. Don’t punish the majority for the poor behaviour of the few. Let’s try and work towards decisions that can actually have a positive impact on public health whilst saving the industry, not the other way around – especially when it comes to the independent venues in this sector. One day I’ll hopefully have a daughter or son who I want to take for their first dram in a pub, and I fucking hope it doesn’t have to be in a Wetherspoon’s.

Pictures all pulled from my phone because, well, there didn’t seem to be much else to do but illustrate a life behind bars.


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