I sometimes think that one day I might stop writing, and simply become an editor who posts up pieces that other people have written – because Jax dropped in such a long and thoughtful comment in response to my post on the Death of Convivial Society yesterday that I think it merits promotion to “the front page” of this blog, with my response appended afterwards.
It’s something I’ve often wondered about – this loss of conviviality in the wake of the smoking ban. And it was in the wake of the smoking ban, literally, to the day. At first I thought it was just me and I put it down to my personal dislike of going anywhere where I felt treated less well than anyone else. It was, after all, understandable for me as a smoker – nobody likes to feel that they are less welcome than someone else, particularly when they are nonetheless still paying the same money for the same things (drinks, tickets, entry fees etc) as the “more favoured” ones.
In those early days, I assumed that many smokers probably felt the same, but that most non-smokers weren’t that bothered either way, which, in my experience was, and still is, most non-smokers’ view of the ban generally. So whilst it might be expected that smoking customers might not bother with the pub any more, or might not stay for as long as they used to, there was no reason at all why non-smokers would stop going or not stay as long.
But then the pubs started to close – and how! Not gradually, in line with the Chancellors’ increases in tax, as postulated as the main reason by many ban adherents, but suddenly and in great numbers. As everyone on here knows, the promised non-smokers who had never visited pubs before because they hated the smoke failed to materialise – if they had the closures wouldn’t have been at such a massive and rapid rate – but, more importantly, even as increasing numbers of smokers have given up smoking over the last 10 years, very few of them have returned to the pub even though now as non-smokers, they no longer have to go and stand outside for a cigarette. And I’ve often wondered why, as the number of smokers has fallen, pub numbers haven’t started to recover from that initial, hard and heavy first “hit.”
But I’ve noticed more and more of my non-smoking friends making vague comments about things “not being so much fun” any more and stopping doing things that they used to do, and I started wondering why the smoking ban – which I personally despised so much, for obvious reasons, as a smoker – seemed to be affecting all these non-smokers in the same way. Why would it affect them? Theydidn’t have to go and stand outside in the cold. They didn’t have to sit feeling uncomfortable and miserable if they wanted to stay inside in the warm and dry. There was, on the surface of it, no reason at all why their pub-visiting behaviour should have changed in any way at all. Why would they stop going down the pub in their droves, as they did? Smokers had a good reason not to go, but non-smokers? That big majority that the anti-smokers had so carefully nurtured over the previous few decades? There was no reason at all that I could see. The pubs were still there on 2nd July 2007, the same landlords were still behind the bar, most of the same people were there – apart perhaps from a few smokers – and beer prices (the most oft-quoted “other” reason given by ban adherents for the almost-overnight disappearance of so many pubs) hadn’t made a sudden jump on that day to suddenly render a few pints which had been affordable on 30th June suddenly out of their financial reach by 2nd July. So why did they stop going?
And yet, when asked, pretty much all the non-smokers I know these days admit that, like me, they can’t be bothered with going out any more, all of them alluding to a vague feeling that they just “don’t enjoy going out like they used to” and confessing that (again, like me), they’re always privately quite pleased when some previously-arranged social event is cancelled or when some excuse comes up which is good enough for them to make a “sorry – we can’t make it after all,”-type call. Now, why would that be?
It’s a serious question and one which I’ve never quite been able to come up with an answer for. Why would so many people, unaffected by a particular piece of legislation, react to it as if they were? It just doesn’t make sense. It’s tempting to say that perhaps the hard fact is that the smokers were the best company in the pub, the ones who got the good conversations going or the started the fun happening and, without them (or with them vanishing outside every so often) it’s a bit like turning the music down at a party. In theory, it’s still possible to have a good time, but …
Or maybe it’s because there is now a sort of “them and us” divide between the staff and the customers that just wasn’t there before. Previously, the pub regulars and the landlord of their local were equals. Landlords set their own rules – no swearing, no fighting, no spitting, no kids, no dogs, or whatever – and regulars chose their pubs accordingly. If a punter didn’t like the rules of one pub, they simply chose another with rules that they did like. There was no animosity in this, it was just a matter of mutual respect between equal parties, a bit like choosing which shop to buy things from – if one shop doesn’t sell the things you like, then you find a shop that does. But there’s something different about this rule, isn’t there? It’s decided by the Government and landlords have to enforce it. And that gives them an authority over their own customers that doesn’t sit comfortably with the old relationship. Perhaps even non-smokers can feel this at a subconscious level, because the newly-acquired authority of landlords applies as much to non-smokers as it does to smokers, and their continued custom in their local is as dependent upon them continuing to “obey the rules” every bit as much as it applies to smokers having to start to do so. It’s easier for non-smokers to comply, of course, because they don’t have to change their behaviour, but comply they still must, just as every smoker has to. And perhaps it’s this very vague feeling of knowing that the “authority figure” is there in the background watching them just as much as they are watching the smokers that is discouraging non-smokers from patronising their local. Authority figures, whether willing or not, are never good at encouraging “conviviality.” How “convivial” was school when the teachers were present? How “convivial” is the army when the Sergeant-Major is inspecting the troops? I’ll tell you how “convivial” they are – not at all, until the “authority figure” in question leaves! While the cat’s away and all that. No wonder pubs aren’t “convivial” any more. They couldn’t be less convivial if they had a policeman behind the bar serving the drinks and keeping a careful note of which of the customers might be driving home!
And “will they be too late?” Well, yes, I think they already are. It’s many a long year since I’ve been in a pub which still has the atmosphere that real pubs used to have, and I’m not just talking about the air quality, either. The majority which are still going are now nothing short of glorified restaurants which keep a pubby name as a nod to their origins, but where the idea of simply spending an evening drinking and chatting and laughing with friends and acquaintances is as incongruous as the idea of sitting for a whole evening at that little bar in your local Indian takeaway. The few wet-led pubs remaining are joyless, largely empty places where the chances of getting into a conversation involving anything more than polite small-talk is vanishingly small. The smoking ban, quite simply, sucked the heart and soul out of the local pub, and pubs – real pubs, that is – have now been in the deadspace for so long that the chances of resuscitating a tradition that had taken hundreds of years to gradually develop into a part of our national culture is, to be honest, practically zero. Which is, probably, precisely what the Healthists intended.
The mention of the Sergeant-Major conjured up a memory: I had driven one day, some time in 2007 or 2008, to Tony Blows’ pub, the Old Dog Inn in Herefordshire (years before I moved to that county). Tony Blows, like Nick Hogan, was one of the pub landlords who had refused to become an unpaid prison warden, making his customers stop smoking. And I’d driven there to lend my support to him. Once there I spent a long time talking to him and his wife, smoking and drinking at the bar. But after a while I wandered off into the interior of the pub, and fell into conversation with a tall, rather distinguished looking man, who was also smoking inside the pub, just like me. And he turned out to be a retired British Army Sergeant-Major who had bawled out orders on parade grounds. We talked about that, with me asking how they all had such loud voices, and he explained to me that the parade ground voice didn’t come from the lungs, but from the stomach, and perhaps from the entire chest. Needless to say, he wasn’t employing this sort of voice to me, standing a few feet in front of him. He didn’t need to. In fact, I remember him as speaking with a very soft and gentle voice. I thought he was a perfect gentleman. And was glad that both of us were, so to speak, fighting in the same trench together, as we both stood in the Old Dog Inn, defying the smoking ban – he the old soldier, me the ex-hippie. These “authority figures” are really only playing that role for a little while in their lives, and their real humanity is never far below the surface, as I found with the grizzled old maths teacher at school who, after I finally thanked him for all the lessons he’d taught me, promptly burst into tears.
As for why the non-smokers stopped going to the pub, it doesn’t seem too surprising to me. When the smokers were all “exiled to the outdoors” there would have been fewer people for the non-smokers to talk to, fewer people for them to have games of pool or darts with, fewer subjects of discussion, less of everything. It would have been like all parties are before the guests have started arriving, or after most of them have left. It’s not, I think, that smokers are wonderfully interesting people: it’s that the departure of anyone diminishes these occasions.
It brings to mind the lament of The Deserted Village, published in 1770 by Oliver Goldsmith:
How often have I blest the coming day,
When toil remitting lent its turn to play,
And all the village train, from labour free,
Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree,
While many a pastime circled in the shade,
The young contending as the old surveyed;
And many a gambol frolicked o’er the ground,
And slights of art and feats of strength went round;
And still as each repeated pleasure tired,
Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspired;
The dancing pair that simply sought renown
By holding out to tire each other down;
The swain mistrustless of his smutted face,
While secret laughter tittered round the place;
The bashful virgin’s side-long looks of love,
The matron’s glance that would those looks reprove!
These were thy charms, sweet village; sports like these,
With sweet succession, taught even toil to please;
These round thy bowers their chearful influence shed,
These were thy charms—But all these charms are fled.
Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green.
Its most famous line is “Ill fares the land.”
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
A time there was, ere England’s griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintained its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more:
His best companions, innocence and health;
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.
When I left the Old Dog Inn, knowing that Tony Blows was already facing some pretty stiff fines, I offered him a small wad of cash towards his defence. He refused the offer. And ended up being crushed with fines, as were all the other refusenik pub landlords.
I’m more optimistic about whether it’s too late to revive the dying English pub. It’s not the first time in history that that den of iniquity, the pub, has come under attack. I somehow doubt that pubs prospered in Oliver Cromwell’s puritan era. But I think that conviviality is a part of human nature, everywhere in the world, and when the killjoys have (once again) been driven away, a new convivial society will rapidly re-emerge. It won’t be the same as the old one, of course. But I’m sure it will be just as convivial.