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Artillery Row

The sad decline of London pubs

Or, why the hell can I not get a drink after 9?

There are no Shakespeare sonnets about the pub, but if there were, I’m sure the Bard would’ve said something like, “Wow, I really enjoyed that”.

It’s a shame he didn’t, because he wouldn’t have been lacking for inspiration – London’s taverns and alehouses of the day were not exactly known for their civility. Dens of vice, they were hotbeds of everything from gambling to prostitution, sedition, animal baiting, illicit substances and even the odd Catholic. All and sundry could be found, and all and sundry occurred. 

Oh, how the bard would weep if he could see what has become of the capital’s watering holes. He would probably say something like “wow, this sucks, what the hell.”

Though losing the fight against cliche, the pub has successfully maintained its position as a cornerstone of British culture for centuries — a warm and welcoming place where friends can congregate through celebrations or grievances, to forget the travails of the working day or to escape a significant other who just wishes you’d pull your weight around the house a bit more. But over the years they’ve become sterile, expensive, cold and increasingly rare — so much so that just going home and taking out the bins has gained some allure.

Pubs today have far less charm, cordiality, or sense of community – they may as well be McDonalds with alcohol. The only problem with that is the pub closes far earlier than McDonalds, not to mention Maccies’ clientele being far more varied and entertaining these days than the narrow subset of those still able to afford a pint.

It was on a cold January night that I found myself looking for a quaint little central London pub to sit in, hoping to – perhaps – slurp up the last of their winter mulled wine. Lo and behold, such a place in the heart of Mayfair, half empty, wooden panels, copper-topped tables. Everything you could want. But on the door, a large, menacing sign telling punters the closing time: 9pm.

Pub? Closing? 9pm? Do my beer-goggled eyes deceive me? Please don’t be mistaken, the Christmas holidays were over, it was midweek, and London finally was at work again. Surely even in the bleak midwinter a pub wouldn’t close so hideously early? Last orders at 8:30? Was there really no one in London joining me for damp January?

I would have been more outraged but, unfortunately, this was not a unique experience. Over the years, I’ve encountered the same issue at pubs and bars all over: final rounds being squeezed in around the time an eight-year-old would consider too early for bed.

But 9pm was a new low.

It’s incredibly disheartening; there’s nothing I love more than a pub date — this is in fact a lie, fellas, I prefer a warmly-lit restaurant where I can binge on oysters, steak tartare and champagne with a man double my age (with easy access to a bathroom clean enough for a swift window exit when full) but that’s not the point — the pub should be a place of solace or socialisation for any young Brit, at a time when the capital is battering us.

My youthful pub experiences have not been of boozy bliss. I was 18 when I left home for post-lockdown London in the autumn of 2020.

Finally gaining my freedom during lockdown was bittersweet, because London was not London. I quickly got used to early closing times, empty streets, closed venues once highly rated, and I have developed an incredibly unfortunate habit of wanting to eat a full meal every time my lips meet a pint because (Old West sheriff voice) “it’s the law”. Naturally, I assumed lacklustre London pubs were simply a result of Covid and post-lockdown lethargy, but three years later I struggle to see what has changed.

Not only are pubs losing their charm, they’re closing down at a disturbing rate. In 2023, nearly 400 pubs closed in the first six months of the year, almost matching the total for the previous year, which lost 386.

It comes as no surprise. Pubs were hit heavily by the social restrictions of the pandemic, and that’s not to mention today’s soaring energy costs, inflation, or simply the outrageous cost of going out in the first place. Then you have to keep in mind the fact that so many of the capital’s older inhabitants seem totally oblivious to the reasons why London is, or was, so attractive in the first place. In a nation of NIMBYs, Londoners take the piss rather than get on it. One need only look at how they are slowly strangling Soho, an area synonymous with adventure and excitement, to (twink) death.

Young people sacrifice a lot to live in London. Most of our money is spent on ridiculous rent and public transport (when it actually runs), the job market is tighter, everything from food to alcohol is more expensive, and if you leave your phone in your pocket for half a minute, someone in a cap and fake North Face jacket — or an authentic one that they’ve also stolen — will most certainly steal it. The least we deserve are cheap and plentiful pints at the end of the day to cheer us up or drown our sorrows. How are we meant to alleviate/worsen the mental health crisis without it? Alas, now we even have ever earlier mandated bedtimes courtesy of our elders. We have to be out of the pub by 9pm, lest we aren’t at our best to clock into our subsistence-wage jobs propping up the Boomers come 9 am

O, why should nature build so foul a den as London in 2024, unless the gods delight in tragedies?

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