After an exchange of views over rough justice over at Witterings from Witney, I’m reminded of a system of ‘justice’ that used to exist in various out of the way places. Back in my late teens and early twenties I used to frequent a lot of rural pubs and learned quickly that laissez faire was not permissible, but that you could get away with a hell of a lot providing you observed the landlords writ. Which usually went;
- Pay for your drinks and settle your bar tab
- Respect the premises and other drinkers
- Take your fights outside and off the premises
Failure to observe rule 1 often meant having your tie cut off, and more seriously no more beer until you had settled, knowing full well that you had blotted your copybook, and the privilege of a bar tab would no longer be available to you. Rule 2 was a little more fluid, and varied wildly from pub to pub. Where landlord A) Would permit near naked drinking games and all manner of robust hilarity, landlord B) Might eject you from the premises for simply laughing too loud. Rule 3 was sacrosanct. All disagreements that threatened to tip over into a pummelling or even bloodshed would be met with a firm “Outside. Now.” Failure to comply was not on the agenda because landlords always had some form of ‘equaliser’ behind the bar. From a heavy stick or cricket bat to a baseball bat, or even a shotgun reputed to be loaded with blanks wadded with sand. No one was ever stupid enough, at least in my recollection, to test out that particular landlords patience. The subsequent ban from the premises was also a serious incentive to mind your P’s and Q’s, never mind the F’s and C’s.
This was also in a time when there was such a thing as a village Policeman, who was responsible for enforcing things like gun licences, and turning out with a couple of other coppers to hit any trouble spots mob handed, and leave serious drinkers to their own devices. Like the ‘lock in’. also known as “Roll on four o’clock, let’s get out of here”. That was another thing. If you were part of the ‘in’ crowd, you gradually migrated into the serious drinkers bar, and waited for all the strangers to be sent home before the doors were locked, curtains drawn, and the party could begin in earnest. Misbehaviour or disrespect could lose you this privilege, so you had an incentive to respect the ‘rules of the house’. this was a time of course when landlords had the right refuse service to whomsoever they pleased, and suffer little or no sanction from outside. This might be ‘No Bikers’, ‘No Travellers’ or even ‘Anyone I don’t like the look of’. Argument meant a ban. A ban meant no beers. It was a sellers market with plenty of punters, so the system of enforcement after a fashion, worked.
The big change in pub culture was apparent in the late 1980’s. Breweries had developed a policy of asset stripping publicans with punitive rates for ‘barrellage’. Which essentially meant that the more beer a landlord sold, the more he tended to be charged for it by the brewery company. His margins shrank, so prices went up, which drove drinkers away to the few Free Houses and private clubs. Flowers / Whitbread used to be a major villain in this regard. I don’t know whether this practice still continues.
As the 1980’s wore on, country life became more attractive to the suburban crowd, who bought up local houses, pricing locals out of the market and changing the village demographic. These new suburbanites brought their own rules, demanding more food, no smoking areas, and whined about everything. By the late 90’s, the rural worker, once the backbone of any country pubs clientelle was an endangered species. The New Labour war on the countryside, resulting in the foot and mouth debacle, was more or less the death knell for the pubs I knew and once drank in. Quite a number of my farming friends got out of the business, others went bankrupt, and fewer survived. Again this meant fewer rural drinkers, and the rise of the appalling ‘Gastro-pub’. Now there is the smoking ban. Even fewer people visit public houses now, and that’s without even mentioning the frequent drink driving ‘crackdowns’. My last visit to England six weeks ago included a ghastly experience in one of the remaining watering holes I used to frequent. Only one guest beer, and the rest of the place almost deserted on a Saturday night.
There may be places where pubs are still frequented by locals, with laughter and good conversation the order of the day, but their time is almost up I fear. The forces of darkness have driven such people from each others company, and the country of my birth is all the poorer for it.
Or as a drinking companion of mine (an old school country lawyer, and latin speaker) might have said; Sileo in pacis meus imbibo frater. Pro virtus decretum ut vestri carmen quod risus.