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There’s a widespread view that, going back to the early days of CAMRA, pub life was pretty dull. Everyone dutifully trooped in to their local pub, to be faced with a limited choice of often poorly-kept beer (if not just keg) and, in the absence of any other form of entertainment, were actually forced to talk to each other. This is expressed in slightly tongue-in-cheek manner in this blogpost on Seeing the Lizards. Like many such examples of received wisdom, it contains a grain of truth, but in most respects things were actually very different.
1. The beer choice was poor
Of course there wasn’t anything like the choice of real ales you get now, but in many places there was still a wide selection of brews available. Within a few hundred yards in Stockport town centre, you could find real ales from nine different breweries, with three others just a short bus ride away. Plenty of other towns were similar. You could get the variety from a short pub crawl rather than working your way along the bar.
Plus, in a perverse way, if you lived in an area dominated by one brewer, it freed you from the compulsion of choosing pubs on the basis of what beer they served, and allowed you to judge them on other criteria.
2. The beer was terrible
It certainly wasn’t! Outside a few “keg deserts”, real ale was generally pretty plentiful, and pubgoers would often make their choice on the basis of how well a pub kept its beer. There was plenty of really fresh, tasty, high-quality beer. And the generally higher turnover of those days could easily make up for deficiencies in cellarmanship, whereas nowadays you get the impression that many pubs, with the best will in the world, are often struggling to cope with low sales.
3. The pubs were awful
Again, completely untrue. There were many more really basic pubs than there are today, but even some of those served a good pint. And there were plenty of smart, well-kept, spick-and-span pubs that you would be happy to take your maiden aunt – or your girlfriend – to. Indeed, in many cases the “lounge side” was plusher and more comfortable than it is today, when bare boards and hard seating seem to be fashionable. There were also a fair number of decidedly upmarket wet-led pubs of a kind you simply don’t find today. It shouldn’t be forgotten that pubgoing, to the right kind of pub, was a lot more aspirational then.
4. Everyone stuck to their local
A lot of people did, mainly from the social groups that today would be at home with a slab of Foster’s. But, in general, there were more pubs to choose from, and many would spread their favours amongst a range of pubs rather than automatically just going to the one. Casual drinking – “let’s go and check out the Red Lion tonight” – was far more commonplace . I would say in those days the more middle-class pubgoers often tended to frequent a wider range of pubs than they do now.
5. Pubs were unsociable
The image presented on TV of pubs like the Rover’s Return where everyone happily mingles and chats together has always been a bit of an exaggeration. But people would often meet up with and chat to people in the pub that otherwise they never met. I remember my late father having, successively, two groups of “pub friends” that he would regularly talk to once a week but otherwise never meet. It was a kind of social ritual. And the simple matter of “going for a drink” with people that you knew in some other context tended to loosen inhibitions and allow you to get to know them in a way that you wouldn’t in any other environment. It still happens, but much less than it once did.
But tell that to the young folk nowadays, and they just won’t believe you.