My folks came out of industrial Scotland a little over fifty years ago now. Even in the 1950s the end was near for the shipyards where at least three generations of we folk had riveted and steering gear fitted their way to a pretty modest level of economic despair.
When their chances came mid-century the cousins scattered - leaving for new countries throughout the Empire, leaving behind not only their elders, grim streets and dark tenements but also their local pubs, whose exotic names like The James Watt of Greenock and The Suez Canal of Largs have been passed down as part of the clan's tartaned heritage training. When I was a backpacking pipsqueek, I even found that old Suez, one great-grannie's favorite back around 1935 (which would be somewhere in this photo-map) back in 1986 or so, its port hole windows still visible on the ungentrified back side of the since renamed and otherwise rebuilt pub. Amazing to believe that was a person's favorite entertainment.
So, it was not without some sense of the issues facing the pub that I read about CAMRA blaming the recent resumption in the decline in the number of UK pubs on something else - this time supermarkets. CAMRA rightly points to increased taxation and input costs as challenges to keeping doors open but also points to supermarket sales. I think the reaction of Dominic Walsh in Monday's issue of The Times makes a lot of sense:
Just like corner shops, post offices, bakers and any other type of retailer, pubs are having to adapt to changing social mores. Once upon a time, industrial workers would head straight from the factory gate to the pub and slake their thirsts on several pints of ale. Those factories have long since closed. Men who once thought nothing of leaving their wives and families at home to spend evenings in the local are now sharing domestic responsibilities. If they go to the pub, it is to have a meal. Where once going to the pub was seen as the principal leisure pursuit, today's consumers are just as likely to stay at home to watch a zillion channels on their home cinemas or sit at the computer on Facebook, MySpace or playing internet poker.
Times have simply changed and entertainments have diversified. A pretty hard argument to challenge as far as I can tell: no one wants to live like my great-grannie. Plus, from the CAMRA press release, it appears that the nub of the problem is what we in Canada would call "buck a beer" pricing, the sort of highly successful pricing that has undermined the stability of traditionally strong but pricier macro-brands like Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue. And why wouldn't it? Most people don't want to buy their beer for any more than they have to any more than they want to spend their lives dreaming of the annual half-day Saturday trip ten miles down the coast to the magic of The Suez Canal.
CAMRA's stance to the converse is both understandable and a bit sad. There is clearly a concerted real effort on its part to tie real ale or good beer to one main traditional method of consumption - going to your local pub. Good for them...but why shouldn't people be able to pay one-fifth or so to have their beer at home instead of going out to a pub? And why aren't all mechanisms of beer acquisition equally valid in the eyes of CAMRA? How fundamentally different is today's takeaway from the supermarket from home delivery by the potboy of two hundred years ago?
Wouldn't it be better for CAMRA to co-opt the supermarket, to bring out guides like the Good Bottled Beer Guide more regularly and accept that the money where it goes for a reason - people voting with their wallets?