It’s about a five minute walk to my local pub. It’s set in Oxford, by the river, and because I live in a (slightly) unfashionable part of the city, you can generally get a table there, even at the weekend.
The welcome is warm, the pints are cold, and the décor is eclectic. It’s a place where I always feel comfortable, even if I sometimes wince at how much the prices have gone up. And it now serves an all-vegetarian menu, too, which takes a bit of getting used to.
But over the last few weeks, because west Oxford is an impeccably right-on spot, I’ve noticed that the queue at the bar is a bit less busy, and that the hummus and pita isn’t quite flying out like usual. And the reason for this, alas, is that we’re in the midst of one of the most joyless events known to man: ‘sober October’. Because the Puritans who control public health have decided that ‘Dry January’ is no longer enough to protect the nation’s health.
No, instead the libertines and carousers who make up the great British public must be told that they need at least two months off a year: so, in the midst of the increasing drab, cold evenings, if you go to the Punter – my beloved local – or anywhere else, it’s a gin-less gin and tonic, an alcohol-free beer, or a very sober shandy for you.
Too many pubs are closing. It’s awful to see yet another boozer giving way to luxury flats, or being turned into some identikit chain restaurant. Figures reveal that in the initial half of this year, 383 pubs closed, the equivalent of two every day. In 2022 alone, 386 such venues ceased to exist. The problem is that we’ve all been conditioned to believe that the pub is no longer essential to the community; indeed, with all the government health warnings about excessive drinking, even stepping into one’s local seems a dangerous act, the kind of thing that might be taken down against you in a court of law. And every week, a dozen or so pubs disappear, and landlords lose their livelihoods.
This isn’t so much regrettable as thoroughly wrong. The pub has always been at the heart of every community that it serves, and has done for centuries. We’re not even talking about the fancier end of the market, the la-la gastropubs, which have been disappearing for a while. And a solitary pint remains one of life’s greatest pleasures, especially if taken with a newspaper or a good book. An hour or two’s relaxation for less than the price of a cinema or theatre ticket? Well, I’ll sign up for that in a trice.
The pub has always placed a vitally important role in English culture. From Falstaff at the Boar’s Head Inn in Eastcheap to The Spaniard’s Inn by Hampstead – where everyone from Dickens to the ever-thirsty Byron popped in to quench what must have been a formidable appetite, given its distance from central London.
London has been at the centre of the country’s love of boozers, but there are endless numbers of deservedly reputed places throughout Britain, from Ye Olde Jerusalem Inn in Nottingham, reputedly the oldest pub in England, built in 1189, to one my own favourites, Edinburgh’s perennially stylish Café Royal – a favourite of the novelist Ian Rankin. And one of the joys of these places is that you’re never quite sure who you’re going to meet when you pop in, from the great and good to the barking mad. Long may it continue.
Sober October is not such a bad thing. But at least observe abstinence in the pub, and order a non-alcoholic beer, or spirit. Otherwise, one of our great traditions might vanish, and who on earth wants that?