Why bother, you may wonder? Why taking pictures of closed pubs, to put here accompanied by, if I am in the mood, a few bitter or snarky comments. I could tell you that it’s because I am angry when I see yet another pub closing down, which could have, should have stayed open, but I think that is pretty obvious by now. And anyway, it doesn’t answer the question. “Why?”
Well if you don’t know why, then I pity you. Because pubs are important. And they are important even if you don’t use them. We all have our networks after all, our friends, our family. For some it revolves around the church, for others a sports club, for others still it’s the local pub. These are the first to go, but soon it will be your local football club, sacrificed at the altar of modernity, which means the needs to make ever more money for a distant hedge fund on the other side of the globe. And don’t tell you don’t know it; it’s happening already.
And it’s depressingly easy, anyway, to take pictures of dead pubs: their corpses litter the streets of Britain. You just have to be quick, for they don’t usually stay there long: this urban economy is just another ecosystem, and scavenger abounds. So be fast when you see one and take a moment to reflect on this latest casualty in the fight to make us into a better, blander, more sanitized society. One in which we will slowly, but very quietly, all go mad.
P. is in his late fifties, early sixties perhaps, and he has a gamey leg. It’s a bit of a self-inflicted wound, you see, as P. was for long years an heroin addict and, as long-term drug users often do, ended up shooting in his legs in search of a serviceable vein…
How exactly that led to his current situation, I do not really know. Long-term damage to the circulatory system, maybe? An infection? You’ll have to ask a doctor. But P. now uses a heavy walking-stick and has real difficulties going around. Although he refuses my help, it is for instance a major expedition for him to take his drink back from the bar to his table.
He is now drug-free, after decades of addiction. Well… As he had told me earlier, he is prescribed morphine for the pain, so maybe he doesn’t miss the drugs that much after all.
But my point is not about drugs ( although I am sure there will be more on that later ) but about what it takes to be human; how much of it is not inborn but learnt and how quickly we sometimes forget it.
When P. comes in the first time, in the middle of the lunchtime shift, his greeting is a little bit too loud when he crosses the door, his manner too eager; he is a little bit too cheerful, maybe, and my first gut reaction is of the “Oh-oh. Trouble?” variety.
But no. It’s just that he hasn’t spoken to anybody for a few days and need to string up a few sentences together before finding the right pitch. Mind you, even then, he will be just that little bit overly friendly, seemingly keen to establish a rapport with the first person he talks to. He reminds you a bit of a con-artist. Maybe he was one at some point in his life.
But no again: there are a lot of people like P. in today’s Britain. And few, very few of them are ex-drug addicts or con artists. Just ordinary people who, while their lives were grinding on, slowly lost contact with friends and family and, after the death of a partner, say, found out that it was the other one, not them, who had a knack to talk to people.
It’s just that, for P., that other one was drugs.
You see them often, shuffling into the bar, in the early afternoons. Most of them are happy to just sit there, at the counter or a table, and if, while serving them, you say a few words, they will barely answer you. Not rude, just content enough to see people around and maybe snatch a bit of conversation there and then and not to speak.
But a few others are so happy to talk to you, it hurts a little. As a tight-arsed, sometimes insanely-guarded bastard myself, I am often amazed at how fast some people, especially older people, will tell you everything about themselves. Maybe because so very little actually happens to them anymore, so few events, they have no choice but to talk about their lives in general.
And it’s a not-so-amusing truth that people who generalize often go into too much details.
P., in five minutes, managed to tell me all about him, about how he nearly drunk himself to death when he was young and was left with a dodgy liver all his life (he drinks halves, now, so he just goes to the bar more often…), about how the morphine plays havoc with his appetite and he has to force himself to eat (he had one boiled egg yesterday, and today struggled with the small plate of vegs we put in front of him). About how he lives in Bromley, now, (he got into too much trouble here and had to move) and only came back for old times’ sake and to meet a friend.
The truth is, we define ourselves constantly by rubbing against each others. We re-define ourselves, I should say. Whatever our original personality was, if even there ever was such a thing, it’s constantly being deformed and remodelled by the people we meet. This is why places, be they nations or cities, towns, neighbourhoods, have a character of a sort. This is obviously not a function of the stones, steel and glass which compose the physical cities but of the people who inhabit them and keep constantly reminding each other how to behave in them.
And the strange thing is how quickly we forget sometimes; how to react and how to laugh and at what to take offence. How quickly large chunks of our own manual of how-to-behave-in-our-own-society (for there are no universal rules of human behaviour) disappear, or are altered in our memories.
So P. speaks too loud, because he doesn’t realise it puts people off. He doesn’t see people that often. He has forgotten that real people, when they first meet, don’t give one another a complete and exhaustive summary of their life story so far, because that’s what they do on TV, which is the main source of his interactions nowadays. He doesn’t know how dodgy he looks, at first. Hell! That he is dodgy. On TV he would probably only be what is called a “character”.
This is why – or at least one of the reason why – pubs are important. They are meeting places, for some the only meeting places, when we can both remember and remind each other of who we are, and more importantly, how we are supposed to be. And some need them more than other; older people for instance, who are seeing their ancient acquaintances and family members disappearing around them, are more vulnerable in a changing world.
But obviously the slow vanishing of the local pubs in this country, and their replacement by identikit franchises of a handful of pub companies, does not matters to our masters. (P., for one, doesn’t go to the local Woodenspoon. He tries to talk to people and that, in this McDonald’s of pubs, is frowned upon… They don’t even have stools at the bar.) Being old, these people are invisible and often don’t even vote (or, if they vote, they are most of the time entrenched in their political opinions and their votes are not worth fighting for…). Nowadays in Britain, if you cannot vote as a block and are not part of an accredited “community” with easily recognisable “leaders”, however self appointed they are, nobody will listen to you.
And that’s also the problem: you will not see gangs of oldies roaming the streets as their pubs are closing down one by one, as they have to choose between buying food and heating their home. Being of brittle bones and forgetful minds, they prefer going feral slowly, peacefully, by themselves, in the comfort, or lack thereof, of their own homes, where only the TV set talks at them and remind them of who they are and of what society expect them to be : slightly too loud and eager, and a little bit too cheerful.
Which is not the way to be when what you need is a revolution.