Many of us in the UK like a pint (let’s be honest, we like more than a pint, we like several pints) and the origins of this go back to the middles ages, when every man woman and child in the country drank up to eight pints of small beer a day. Small beer wasn’t very strong, in terms of alcohol content, but it was safer to drink than the water and so our obsession began.
There’s something we like more than a pint though, and that’s a good pub in which to drink it. Pubs are a long established and deeply ingrained part of the social fabric and landscape of the nation. They’re not just places for drinking, of course; they are places to socialise, to make new acquaintances, to flirt, to fall in love, to argue and to fall out of love. They are places to eat, to listen to and watch live music, to watch the football and to act embarrassingly. And many of our pubs are closing.
Now, while I may have a romantic attachment to pubs, I’m not an idiot; I know that the economic climate has been difficult, that the ban on smoking has hit trade, that only so many premises can remain financially viable, that many have closed and that many more will do so. But when it’s my pub (or to be more accurate, one of my pubs; I drink in several), it hurts and I can’t just sit back and let it happen. I have to… to what? I have to at the very least say something.
The area of Brighton where I live, Hanover, once had so many pubs that it was known as Hangover (a much better name than Muesli Mountain, which we are led to believe by media types is its name these days, despite the fact that I have never heard a single resident of the place use that idiot term). I have been told that every one of the densely packed streets had, at one time, a pub at either end and that some even had a third half way along. Only one Hanover street now has a pub at either end, but fortunately I live on that street and both are excellent establishments.
A little down the hill from this blessed streets one can find The Horse and Groom. When I first moved to Hanover, we went there to watch televised football matches, but little else. It had its ups and downs, but it also had a great back story. Legend (and, sadly, I gather it is only legend) has it that a severed head in a bag was once deposited on the bar of the pub as part of some underworld feud and some people still refer to The Horse and Groom as The Severed Head. Some also refer to it as The Doom and Gloom, but that’s somewhat harsh, although the leaded stained glass windows do let in very little light, while the distinctive and rather splendid green tiling on the exterior add somewhat to the sense of darkness.
Occasionally there would be live music in The Horse and Groom and it had for many years in the past been a regular venue, something which was restored when Pat, the current landlord, arrived bringing with him Friday and Saturday night live music and attracting a group of punters who tended to appreciate that music, whatever it was, even if it was instrumental surf music. This made The Doom a great place to visit on those evenings and it made it an even better place to play for us local musicians thrilled to find an audience open to our music. Better still, you got paid, and the more the audience liked you, the more you got paid, since a good portion of the fee came from whatever they were prepared to put in the hat as it was passed around.
But here’s the thing. Many of our pubs are owned by large corporations: breweries and the so-called pubcos. To be honest, they often don’t much care about what goes on in a back-street boozer in Brighton on a Friday night. They’re not interested that a surf band from Belgium (Los Venturas, Pirato Ketchup), or Germany (The West Samoa Surfer League), or Brighton (The Squadron Leaders, Los Fantasticos, The Space Agency) or, ahem, Surf City UK (Surfin’ Lungs) is playing in The Horse and Groom (and all of those bands have), or what a magical night it was last Christmas Eve when Link Grey and the Dark Country played with Thee Sherbert Peardrop Explosion. They care about one thing only; the bottom line. And the bottom line is this: it’s really difficult for a back-street boozer in Brighton, especially one without a kitchen, to make a lot of money. Especially when it is a tied house and has to purchase the majority of its drink direct from the pubco that owns it, at a vastly inflated price. Especially when the owners decide to massively increase the rent, to the level where it makes no sense for the landlord to extend the lease. Especially when the owners know that the tied house system is going to end soon and they think they would be better off selling the building for development (as they have recently done with three other pubs in the locality, which have been or will shortly be turned into houses or flats).
So that’s it. The Horse and Groom is probably going to close. It is probably going to be turned into housing. A little bit of me will close with it. A little bit of our social history will be lost. A little bit of our community spirit will go too.
But it could be different. OK, so the pubco would rather sell the premises than try and run the pub. So sell the premises, but sell them (or at least try to sell them) to someone who thinks they can make the pub work. They won’t do this of course; the favoured tactic seems to be to sell the property with a clause attached meaning that it cannot be re-opened as a pub. Why would the pubco do that? Because they own other pubs in the vicinity (yes, in addition to The Horse and Groom and the other three pubs which they have sold for development recently) and they don’t want the competition. Now, I thought that we had lived for over thirty years under successive governments who told us that competition was good (in fact that competition was pretty much the only good), that it guaranteed choice, that it made our lives better. So why is one company able to hoover up so many pubs in one small area of this city and then to sell on the premises in such a way that competition is restricted; that choice is restricted? Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Now maybe the market is just too saturated; maybe there really is no place for The Horse and Groom and the only thing is for it to join the growing list of lost pubs in this country, to become just another bit of the fabric of our society that gets rubbed out. As I said, I’m not an idiot; if that’s how it is, that’s how it is, however sad it makes me. But we don’t know that that’s how it is, because no one else is going to get the opportunity to see if they can carve out a niche for The Horse and Groom, free from the restrictive practice of the tied house system, and what we will get is more bloody flats, because the current owners will see to it that that’s what happens.
There’ I’ve done… no, I haven’t done anything… but at least I’ve said something. And what I say is this: “Save The Doom and Gloom. Save The Severed Head. Save The Horse and Groom.” And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get the Bambi Molesters to play there some day!