In defence of ‘Spoons

4. March 2013 11:13

Will Self, the posh novelist and professionally bewildered Shooting Stars contestant, tackles the JD Wetherspoon pub chain in his latest Real Meals column for the New Statesman magazine*. A crunching, over-the-top, studs-showing, unfair tackle the article is; it’s worthy of a yellow card, if not a sending off.

My theory is that Self was late; late with his copy as he arrived at Victoria Station one day. Getting slightly desperate and happy to settle for an easy target (I know the feeling) he glanced around the concourse: Burger King, Upper Crust, Delice de France and then up at the Wetherspoon’s on the balcony. Perfect.

Victoria is never going to be the best example of a Wetherspoons pub. Self does not mention it, but he would have found it busy, as it invariably is, with people waiting for delayed trains, people meeting up, and people nipping in for a swift half of something interesting.

It is a business at continuous full-stretch with little time for hospitality and its frills, a purely functional pub that does the job. It’s not what you would call a ‘destination venue’. All Wetherspoons are a little like that, actually. It is their unfussy functionality, as well as their good value, that makes the pub chain so popular. Though not with Self who regards them as: “… shit, brown dollops of establishments smeared incontinently across our cities. Actually, ‘shit’ is a little strong for Wetherspoon – a bit too gamey; they’re more ‘shit-lite’.”

This is good writing. It’s funny, it’s clever, and I like it. But in delivering entertaining copy Self is not just laying into Wetherspoon, he is attacking the hundreds of thousands of people who use it, people who obviously haven’t got Self’s high standards.

One of them is me. True, if there is a nicer, cosier pub nearby that serves a decent pint I wouldn’t give the ‘Spoons a second glance. But quite often when I’m in an unfamiliar town I’m grateful to spot the ‘W’ sign that tells me there’s a place I can go that will give me cask beer in good condition, free Wi-Fi and something okay to eat if I’m hungry and can’t find a curry house.

Self should recognise this practical appeal that has made JD Wetherspoon and its creator, Tim Martin, so successful. He should also recognise that ‘Spoons is giving all those people he must have noticed at Victoria something they need; but the article is all about his personal distaste for a concept he blames on “a man named Tim”.

The problem with this review is that it’s written by a man named Self.

*Read it if you must, here: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/food-and-drink/2013/02/pub-chain-named-after-object-resentment-codtraditional-its-fish-and-c

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Croydon’s super-CIP: the latest threat to pubs?

25. February 2013 11:27

When I worked in Croydon around the turn of the century, it was reckoned to be a good idea not to hang around too long on a Friday evening as the town’s wild weekend got under way.
On the walk to the station police were already standing in pairs on street corners by 6pm, ready for it to kick off.

Those were the days of the scramble for the high street, when pub and bar operators were under commercial pressure to stake a claim on a share of the late-night market. You could stand on one corner and count eleven giant venues by only moving your head (we had to make our own amusements back then). This was before everyone realised things were getting out of hand and got together to better manage the thousands of young people flooding into the centre from the lacklustre suburbs to have some fun.

Now stronger partnerships between local authorities, police, door supervisors and the operators themselves, plus the fact that not all those pubs and bars could possibly survive, have reduced disorder on many notorious drinking circuits; Croydon included. Yet the council is planning the country’s largest Cumulative Impact Policy (CIP), reaching far beyond the town centre and covering three-quarters of the borough. If it goes through, it will make it much easier to turn down new licences and refuse licence variations for longer hours. Worryingly, Croydon says it is basing the need for the super-CIP not only on disorder but on public health.

This is in line with the Government Alcohol Strategy which includes the promotion of public health as a fifth licensing objective within CIPs – and is timed to coincide with local authorities taking responsibility for public health in April. The problem is that, unlike disorder, health cannot be easily attached to a local geography. Health is portable. If you are serious about licensing in the interests of public health there can be no boundaries.

Croydon is a straw in the wind, warning of a further tightening of a licensing regime that has already begun to roll back the liberalising gains of the 2003 Act by introducing Early Morning Restriction Orders and the Late Night Levy. Croydon shows this isn’t just a concern for town and city centre venues; it’s a threat to the whole pub trade.

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Pubs and the horsemeat scandal

18. February 2013 11:34

The horsemeat scandal has spread to pubs. At the end of last week Whitbread, which operates pub-restaurant brands like Brewers Fayre and Beefeater, declared that its lasagne contains traces of horse (and I don’t mean traces as in reins. They would be pure beef, ironically).

Most worrying for the pub trade, those lasagnes came from Brakes, one of the industry’s biggest suppliers. Brakes, in turn, passed the buck (the etymological origin lies in the horn of the male deer, in case you’re wondering) to one of its own suppliers, Pinnacle Foods.
I see that Pinnacle has a Red Tractor quality assurance mark on its UK website; so that’s a lot of use, then.

Some pubs, of course, are feeling quite chuffed at the scandal. Increasing numbers have been positioning their food offer at the quality end, providing assurances of provenance through the local butcher right through to the farm, all noted on the menu. We are not too far off that scene in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which diners are introduced in person to the beast they’ll be eating.

So pubs have led the way in local sourcing and could well benefit from a consumer anxiety about where the meat they are eating comes from.

But what about the wet-led community pubs with food offers at the value end of the market? Not having DNA testing equipment on the premises, they rely on suppliers like Brakes to assure quality. But, as we have seen, supply lines have become so stretched that such assurances are hard to guarantee, even for the most reputable of companies.

It seems strange that to drive down costs the food industry has moved further and further away from its food sources, each additional link in the supply chain taking a cut of the profits. The pressure on price is such that it’s not surprising that someone cheats. Some have argued that we’ve just got to get used to paying more for food - but for many that’s not an easy option. Those people eating at their local, for instance.

Food plays a complex role in community pubs. It is not simply there to provide an extra profit stream; it also gives customers a reason to use the pub a little more and to stay a little longer. It’s part of the service. Community pub licensees cannot ask the sort of prices that a food-led house in the wealthier rural areas can command for its locally-sourced menu.

I think the solution might lie in simpler dishes. Rather than buying in burgers, sites could do a deal with a trusted local butcher for a good sausage to go in a roll, or serve a hunk of bread and cheese with a home-made soup.

Whatever people decide to do, the horse meat scandal has supplied yet another pressure to the pub trade that it could have done without.

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Hacking up minimum pricing

11. February 2013 14:21

Travelling on the London Underground last Thursday, I picked up a copy of the free Metro newspaper. The front page headline had caught my eye: "30p on cost of pint 'can cut deaths by a third'”.

That's odd, I thought, and I steeled myself to read it. It was about the latest research from Canada that is being used to support the case for minimum unit alcohol pricing. Roughly, it appears that a 10% increase in the minimum price set for drinks in British Columbia has had a sharp impact on reducing alcohol-related deaths.

There is much to debate about the relevance of this to the UK plans for minimum pricing. A key point for me is that the liquor trade in British Columbia is state-controlled. In the private sector supermarkets will deploy a range of strategies to offset any lost sales, for example by promoting higher priced products.

However, what it will certainly not do is raise the price of a pint in the pub, as the Metro story suggests. Worse still, the reporter seems to have completely misunderstood what a minimum unit price is, applying the 10% increase to the final price of the drink rather than to the unit price. A 10% increase to the proposed minimum in England and Wales will, for example, lift it from 45p to 50p (curiously, that is exactly what the public health lobby is demanding…).

Beer drinkers in the pub might also be bemused by the story since they have probably already seen the price of their pint go up by 30p in the past year or so thanks to VAT, the duty escalator and the rising costs of production and running a pub.

In short, the Metro splash was an exceptionally dire piece of journalism. I hear the reporter talked to James Nicholls of Alcohol Research UK, who supplies a typically well-measured comment, for forty minutes and still got the article all ‘arse-over-face’.

It may not have been entirely her fault, though. Tabloid journalism is based on delivering the kind of simple shock headlines it believes its readers will grasp in an instant. The price of a pint is a staple fall-back on a slow news day and the reporter will have been under orders to get an angle that would make the front page. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as the old hacks' motto goes.

It’s a beast of a challenge for those trying to get across the more complex messages that an understanding of alcohol policy requires. It is dispiriting that even the relatively straightforward concept of minimum unit pricing can get mashed up like this.

Whichever side of the debate you're on, and especially if you're somewhere in-between, it's not doing anyone any good.

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Why good publicans fail…

4. February 2013 10:18

It was sad last week to discover that Mark Daniels is giving up his pub. Mark is the nephew of magician Paul Daniels, but it doesn’t sound like the magic rubbed off enough for Mark to be able to conjure a decent living from the business.

After eight years he’s handing in the keys on the Tharp Arms, a village pub in Cambridgeshire, partly because he thinks he needs a new challenge; however he makes it clear in his well-written blogs that growing financial pressures have made things increasingly difficult.

A lot of licensees leave because they just are not good enough. Mark Daniels did not have much time for them and he is certainly not among them. He’s always coming up with new ideas for the business, and he’s been happy to share them in the trade media.

So what went wrong? Mark is careful not to blame his landlord, Greene King, but his wet-led tied tenancy will inevitably have been operating on tighter profit margins than any comparable free house. Soaring utility prices have squeezed profits harder, and the weather has not helped. You cannot do much about the latter (apart from tackling climate change - not exactly a quick fix), but Daniels is right to call for regulation of profiteering utility companies.

That will do us all a favour.

Only the other day David Cameron promised specific measures to help pubs, but if it’s not going to be a halt to the duty escalator or reducing VAT for hospitality businesses to 5% you can’t really see how it’s going to make much difference.

There is the statutory code planned for tenants of larger pub operators, but Mark Daniels describes that as a ‘sop’. After all, it’s not going to mean much to licensees like him who have a good relationship with their landlord and still struggle. Mark is not the first and he certainly will not be the last talented licensee to chuck it in. While I do believe it’s possible for a good tenant to make some sort of a living, nobody’s going to make their fortune at it in the current conditions, and perhaps some are disappointed because they set their sights too high.

Or, like Daniels, they might have weighed the effort against the reward and found it is no longer balancing.

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Whine by the class

28. January 2013 12:50

Sometimes you have to do things you don’t really want to do. So, half-looking away, I’ve just clicked on the latest Mail Online booze scare story: “Soaring number of career women 'killed by alcohol'”.

It’s a bit like a 19th century cholera epidemic. When it is only killing poor people it does not matter too much, but now it’s ‘career women’! Where will it end?

Steeling myself to read further, it turns out that the number of women in ‘higher professional occupations’ dying an ‘alcohol related’ death rose from forty-two in a year to fifty-two. Not very nice for the ten people and their families, but I am not sure this is statistically significant.

There is actually a bigger increase among women lower down the social scale – 47% for those in ‘intermediate’ and ‘semi-routine’ occupations – and bigger numbers, into the low hundreds. That’s maybe still not as many as these scary headlines would lead you to think, but it’s worth pointing out that time after time NHS statistics have shown that people in the most deprived fifth of the UK population are six to seven times more likely to die an alcohol-related death than the better-off fifth; despite drinking slightly less as a group.

Serious research is underway into why this is so (watch this space), but you have to ask why this striking statistic doesn’t get more attention.

To prove my self-sacrifice knows no bounds, I’ve also been reading the Telegraph, and a story yesterday headed, “Ban on alcohol discounts will hit middle class”.

This time, you’ll notice, the worry is not that the better-off are drinking too much, but that they might not be able to drink enough. The Telegraph has been a major platform for the opposition to minimum unit pricing, but from an ideological free trade perspective. After all, you won’t find too many of its readers buying three-litre plastic bottles of cider in the local Tesco Express.

But now it has been discovered that another plank of government alcohol policy is hitting closer to home:  a ban on multi-buys will ruin wine clubs, it fears. Coming from Cameron’s Conservatives this is out-and-out class betrayal:

“Our typical customer is middle-aged and middle class, likes cricket and classical music and reads The Daily Telegraph,” says Glenn Caton, the boss of Direct Wines. “These are successful, responsible citizens who like to enjoy a glass of good wine… not the people who go out and get drunk and smash up town centres and cause trouble.”

He fails mention whether their typical customer is also immune to liver disease.

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E-cigarettes: harm reduction or just a cheat?

21. January 2013 10:01

When I was small I used to watch my grandparents smoking with some fascination. “I’m going to smoke when I grow up,” I assured them, somehow mistaking it for a career choice.

In fact I never started smoking. Not even a puff behind the bushes on Wanstead Flats. While waiting not to smoke, though, I had my sweet cigarettes which I used to hold between two fingers, affecting stylish poses, before eating. I graduated onto chocolate cigarettes, which came wrapped in edible paper, and chocolate cigars – but only at Christmas-time.

At some point sweet cigarettes were banned, for what now seem like obvious reasons. Although I believe you can get still them from retro shops with the red tips removed. So they’re just white sticks, really.

Anyway, I mention my nicotine nostalgia in relation to the recent threat from the European Union to ban electronic cigarettes; arguably the modern adult equivalent.

E-cigs are much healthier than tobacco cigarettes because ‘smokers’ do not inhale the same carcinogens – just the nicotine. They are also better for the surrounding environment, since the ‘smoke’ they emit is merely vapour. You can imagine that if they really catch on they will not only reduce the incidence of lung cancer but also bring smokers back into the pub, or at least enable them to stay in the indoor conversation without having to nip out for a fag.

Pubs, though, seem to be nervous about seizing this opportunity. Very few, that I can find, sell e-cigarettes. A friend of mine was once puffing on his e-cig in the pub and he was almost roughly bundled out the door before the staff established his actions were perfectly legal.

The EU’s objection, which is much the same as the objection to sweet cigarettes, is that they are a form of gateway drug. People might start on e-cigs and before you know it they’ll be on Capstan Full Strength. But surely this, to me, small possibility is vastly outweighed by the benefits. E-cigs could be a very effective method of what those in the drugs and alcohol field call harm reduction.

What lies behind the EU’s stance is, I suspect, a feeling that e-cigarettes are cheating by making possible a relatively healthy nicotine hit. And it doesn’t really like the idea of people taking drugs without any bad consequences.

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Statutory pub code targets a New Big Six

14. January 2013 11:32

So the government has, after all that, decided the pub industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself, and is proposing a statutory code and independent adjudicator to ensure landlords treat their tenants fairly.

The industry, or at least the part represented by the British Beer & Pub Association, is exasperated at the surprise move. It has already set up new structures to deal with complaints and its code of practice is currently on its sixth draft.

Personally, though, I think the government is doing broadly the right thing. If it had only done it sooner it would have saved a lot of bother. In fact, the previous Labour Government, which was making a lot of noise about the need to take action in the days leading up to the announcement, could have done something itself when pubco practices were more inflexible than they are today.

My suspicion is that it is somehow tangled up in the survival of the coalition. Did the Tories concede the principle self-regulation to its partner in a policy swap? Perhaps we’ll never know, but LibDem business secretary Vince Cable seems to have taken more trouble than most politicians to get a good grasp of the issues. It’s significant that he chose not to include a statutory right to a free-of-tie option. This is not a threat to the tied house system as such.

Important questions remain, however. The main one being exactly which pub operators and which pubs come under the legislation.

“The Code is expected to apply to all pub companies which own more than 500 tied leases,” says the Department for Business Innovation & Skills. In the pub industry ‘lease’ is shorthand for the long assignable leases introduced as an alternative to the traditional tenancy. If that’s what the BIS means only two companies, Enterprise Inns and Punch Taverns, will be affected.

Cable, however, said in Parliament that six companies will be subject to the new regulation. This suggests that ‘lease’ here includes tenancies. It makes sense, too, because the 500-pub threshold neatly excludes family brewers, who are reckoned to have a better relationship with their licensees and would feel the burden of regulation more heavily.

If I’m right the New Big Six (the old Big Six were the brewers who dominated the industry before the 1989 Beer Orders) are: Enterprise, Punch, Marston’s, Greene King, Star Pubs & Bars and Admiral Taverns (Trust Inns sits just about the threshold but can easily dispose of a few pubs to get under it).

Where the line is drawn will be debated in the consultation period, but as it stands there appears to be logic to it.

However, isn’t true that all the problems lie with the bigger pubcos? The tenants of family brewers need protection, too, and the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers has suggested that a voluntary code should remain for them.
What none of this will do is have a dramatic impact on the rate of pub closures. The damage has already been done and the challenges faced by publicans reach far beyond the tied house system.

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Have we really wasted 25 years promoting alcohol guidelines?

7. January 2013 11:33

Decisions made by various royal colleges some twenty-five years ago are coming back to haunt them.

Alcohol guidelines that recommended a weekly limit of 21 units for men and 14 for women were “plucked out of the air”, a doctor involved in the decision later admitted. The guidelines were not based on scientific evidence but political expediency. The medical profession needed some hard numbers that could sell to policy-makers; numbers that were neither too low nor too high. They had to set a credible target.

And the guidelines have, until recently, been a great success to the extent they have been accepted not only by doctors and governments but by the drinks industry, which uses them in its educational materials.

But there is little evidence that they have been adopted by drinkers, which you would think is the best way to judge their effect. People generally know about the limits and understand the concept of a unit, but unfortunately alcohol doesn’t come by the unit but by the glass, bottle and can. Even in the on-trade, where strict measures are poured, the number of units in a ‘glass of wine’ can vary wildly according not only to the size of the glass by the strength of the wine, which can be between 8% and 15% ABV.

It is, of course, impossible to keep track of unit as Sir Liam Donaldson admitted in a special report on Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ programme last week. He claimed, “[it is] not an easy thing for people to hold in their minds when they are going out to a bar or the pub.”

Sir Donaldson was Chief Medical Officer for England for twelve years until he left his post in 2010. During the time he never, to his knowledge, questioned the validity of unit guidelines. He told ‘You and Yours’ host Dr Michael Mosley that revisiting alcohol units and addressing the issue “more scientifically” was “one of the things on my list I didn’t get round to”.

Now the current CMO, Dame Sally Davies, is getting around to it. There has been speculation that her review will simply lower the recommended limits. But it now seems more likely that the whole idea of units and weekly and daily guidelines will be scrapped. There were hints on ‘You and Yours’ that drinking advice is better tailored to the individual, which would be progress as long as it isn’t confined to genetic factors.

Meanwhile, it looks as though we’ve wasted a quarter of a century on a futile exercise.

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Shakespeare’s Local – and Yours

17. December 2012 11:50

As I sit here in front of the screen, wondering what to drivel on about this week, Tony ‘Baldric’ Robinson is reading BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. It’s Shakespeare’s Local; Beer Writer of the Year Pete Brown’s history of a single pub, the George Inn in Southwark.

Multi-tasker that I am, I’m also going through the morning’s typically seasonal headlines:

‘Thousands of People At Risk Through Christmas Drinking’
‘When Social Drinking Becomes a Problem’
‘“Families Like Mine Pay More for Food to Subsidise Binge Drinking,” says David Cameron’

Whether or not there actually are any other families are like David Cameron’s it makes for cheerless reading, especially against the background of Brown’s effervescent narrative.

I’ve read the first couple of chapters myself and it is madcap stuff. Brown is off the leash, scuttling here and there, delving into each and every nook and cranny that takes his fancy, veering off at tangents, shuttling backwards and forwards in time. It’s a style that evokes a bustling, busy inn with all its comings and goings, its quirks and colourful customers.

Eyebrows have been raised over the idea of writing a whole book about a single pub, but when you’ve got six centuries to cover there’s plenty to work on. The book is an extraordinary celebration of our drinking culture, and it’s great that it is on the wireless. It should make sure Shakepeare’s Local is wrapped up under plenty of trees this Christmas…

Taking a step back, though, it’s curious that we can be so enthusiastic about pubs and so depressing about the consequences of going out and having a drink. There is much more to pubs than drinking, of course, but alcohol remains an essential part of the experience. The George Inn would certainly not have survived as long without it. A similar contradiction is revealed too in the way politicians express their devotion to the pub, but end up doing precious little to support it.

It’s that time of year when you’re allowed to hope that things will change, but until it does I encourage you to support your local over the festive season - and into the New Year - as Shakespeare supported his. There are still plenty of great pubs out there.
 
Have a merry one!

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About the author

Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in the UK pub industry and alcohol policy. For more information, and the Politics of Drinking blog, go to www.philmellows.com
You can also follow Phil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/philmellows

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