Closing Time: How many pubs will go?

Every great story needs heroes and villains. And if pubs, bar staff and brewers are heroes (they are), then greedy landlords are playing the role of Darth Vadar, but with Jabba The Hutt’s good looks. 

Brilliant bars are being felled before our eyes: The Junction, The Beer Shop and The Pigeon, among others in South London. And the Stormtroopers are gathering to threaten classics like The Compton Arms, over the river, in somewhere called north London, where it rains. 

Remember, every time a pub closes down, God kills a kitten. She could be very busy this winter with predictions that 70% of our pubs could close, due to surging energy bills compounded with falling sales as drinkers tighten their belts amid the cost of living crisis. In addition, the industry is still reeling from the impact of Covid. Those that survive could be charging £20 a pint, warn CAMRA. It’s getting harder to be an optimist than it is to be an alcoholic, which, ironically, could turn a person towards drink.

The Junction, SE5’s superb jazz joint, has closed down after the landlords, Manlon Properties, offered them an unviable new lease that would have increased their rent by 70%, landed them with expensive building costs, and curtailed their opening hours. It feels like a deliberate move to shut down a fantastic venue, one of the few places in South London where you could listen to great musicians for free. Now it can be developed and turned into flats after previous attempts to convert it had failed. 

The late Junction

Manlon are based in the tax haven of the Isle of Man and are connected to ‘Mr West End’, Asif Aziz, who even The Times suggested could be the meanest landlord in Britain’. Aziz’s companies have form for closing down pubs but the billionaire has managed to present himself as a philanthropist for his charity work, ‘enhancing the city he loves’, while simultaneously perpetrating pub-cultural vandalism in the chase for ever larger profit. 

The tactics are nothing new. Bizarrely, companies associated with Aziz owned more than 150 pubs by 2015, with at least eight of them closed down early in that decade, according to Private Eye. His companies don’t buy them because they’re great pub lovers. It’s because London real estate is a goldmine. But it’s not that he, and businessmen like him, hate pubs. They just see everything in terms of monetary value and potential. Pubs are not, for them, the social glue that we know them as. They are not hubs of the community, they are merely opportunities to be exploited. As are off-shore tax shelters. Billionaires, it turns out, never have enough money.

The Gladstone Arms managed to survive the dreaded touch of Golfrate, one of Aziz’s property groups, albeit after losing its status as Borough’s eclectic live music HQ, and transforming into a delightful desi pub. So did The Grosvenor Arms in Stockwell, now a magnificent brewpub and home of Affinity Brewing. But The Junction, the White Swan in Charlton and The Sovereign in Camden did not survive their brush with the Isle of Man’s secretive money men.

***

The Beer Shop has, in a very short time, become an integral part of Nunhead. By the time December comes round Lee and Lauren will have been there eight years. Eight years in which have made it one of the best pubs in south London. It’s a place with a personality; warm and instantly likeable. That doesn’t happen to a building by accident. They have put their hearts and souls into it. Lee likens it to working in his living room, with beer, music and people he loves. It does have that feel.

But this will be their last December facing Nunhead Green. Their lease runs out and they have not been offered another. The landlords are going to convert the two units above into flats, so whatever retail unit is left downstairs, it won’t be a bar. They have taken the news with good grace, but I asked Lee whether there was any swearing when he realised they would not be able to continue doing what they love and doing what they do so well. 

‘Yeah, I was angry at first. Without this we would be here to stay.’

Typically, he is not just thinking of himself though. He thinks about his regulars, the people whose lives only intersect with his in this room, people whose first name is the only one he knows. Some, he laments, have started to go elsewhere once a week, to try and find a new ‘home’. I wonder how many people’s lives have been impoverished by landlords forcing them to find another spot at another pub, where no one knows their name. 

You can’t put a price on someone’s place and presence in a pub. Its value is invisible, just like memories and the support mechanisms of friends and strangers. Oscar Wilde said that, ‘A fool is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Wealthy fools are running things now, chipping away at our humanity as they retreat further from it.

Sorry, I may have had a drop or two.

***

Don’t stop The Pigeon

The Pigeon is a different story. Anspach & Hobday have taprooms at their breweries in Bermondsey and Croydon, but The Pigeon brought them an outlet in Camberwell, initially as a short term pop-up. People loved it but it simply wasn’t doing enough business after the pandemic, Jack Hobday told me. 

‘I’d be shifting blame if I said it was rents, energy or inflation – although perhaps seeing what was clearly on the horizon helped us make the call early. The reality is it just simply wasn’t trading well enough, it certainly couldn’t have sustained a big rise in costs,’ he said.

Bugger. Another good un gone.

The Compton Arms in Islington is way off our manor, but it did figure on Deserter’s horizon at one point as the Raider and I had a meeting with our agent there to discuss our second book, Shirk, Rest and Play: The Ultimate Slacker’s Bible (out now from all good bookshops, plus grifters like Amazon). It’s a lovely backstreeter, with a handsome wooden exterior, good ale and excellent food from a ‘concept kitchen’ (did I mention it’s in north London?). It is also one of the three places that inspired George Orwell’s famous essay on the perfect pub, The Moon Under Water. There has been a pub at this location since the mid-16th century but it is now under threat after four neighbours complained to the council that it was a nuisance. A pub, a nuisance? I’ll tell you what a nuisance is, Mr and Mrs Nimbyballs. You are the fucking nuisance. Go live in Arselington-on-the-Wane, if you want quiet. 

Ooh. Isn’t it?

So the attacks on our way of life can come from a number of sources, mostly falling under the broad umbrella of ‘Cunts’. Whether they are money-grubbing tax-shy property ghouls, or your unfriendly neighbourhood soul-sucker, they are a curse on our cities. 

Meanwhile pubs try to adapt to survive, opening in smaller premises, like The Shirkers Rest (aka Vinny’s), in New Cross, and, at the other end of the scale, revelling in vast premises like Brewdog Waterloo with the capacity of a non-league football stadium.

But it’s not just landlords and neighbours that are the problem. It’s the pre-eminence of the market. The market is not human. It doesn’t have a conscience, it has a spreadsheet.  Thatcher said you can’t buck the market and that there is no such thing as society. Of course, she was wrong. It would be truer to say the market is preying on society. We have allowed the market to infect public transport, utilities, health and education, so we are sure as shit not getting any help with pubs. It is another element of a war in which wealthy fools are making gains at every level. 

You gotta fight for your right to a pint.  

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