Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Pub Signs

The painted pub sign, one of the oldest popular visual arts traditions in Britain, is locked in decline. That is the fear of conservationists who hope to alert pub chains and breweries to a 'catastrophic' loss of the traditional skills involved and a failure to preserve a heritage that dates back to Roman times. The Guardian reports:

They're a pleasant relict from the era when most businesses would have some sort of sign to indicate what they were; but since most people can read these days it's not of the utmost importance that pubs have the traditional sign outside. They are a nice part of the urban and village landscape, though, and it would be a pity to lose them entirely.

What the demise of the pub sign really symbolises, of course, is the demise of the pub. Some modern pubs do, after all, manage to keep up this visual tradition by picking signs in keeping with their own characters. You could do worse than to have a look at the Inn Sign Society, some fine examples there, and by no means all olde world stuff.

(Some of the chains also make a bit of an effort their own pasteurised version of pub signage, sometimes with more success than others; remember Wetherspoon's John Masefield in Merseyside, which bore an unfortunate resemblance to Hitler?* But far too many of the chains will allow now form of independence or personality at all).

But many more traditional inns and smaller pubs are shutting (57 a week, according to Camra) – you must know the reasons by now: high taxes, smoking ban, cheaper alternatives elsewhere, changing habits. Note too the rise of the super pub, the wine bar and other vast pile 'em high, get em' pissed emporia. As the Graun reports:

The growing corporate ownership of public houses across the British Isles has led to the standardisation of what is on offer, both inside and outside the bar. The situation has worsened in the past five years because of the increasing number of pub closures. Figures compiled by the Campaign for Real Ale show that an average of 57 pubs shut permanently every month.

While corporate dominance and the homogenisation of Britain are both to be deplored, it's not wholly a surprise: if that's virtually the only way you can make money running a pub in the city centre, then identikit chains will dominate. (It's not the only way of course: a good pub with excellent beer might just do it, but it's a damned struggle. Worse, the more of the big chain pubs there are, the more they can use their oligarchic powers to put the independents out of business).

When Gordon Brown stood up earlier today, trailing clouds of misery as he begged his party to let him carry on with the job he's doing so well, he missed one simple, effective and cheap way by which his government could make life a little more enjoyable for millions. A commitment to helping smaller pubs – lower taxes on beer sold in pubs, planning laws that don't favour the large chains, maybe even a rethink of the smoking ban (Gordon likes rethinks, after all). It won't happen of course, simple measures that don't involve ponderous bureaucracy aren't his style, and anything that encourages people to enjoy themselves in an unhealthy matter is quite out of the question. Well, more fool him; I doubt anyone'll name a pub after him anyhow.

One might at this point argue that this concern with preserving traditional aspects of British life is somewhat John Majorish. But it need not, in fact it should not, be about party politics or imposing a particular view of the world on anyone. (Especially since, Major's warm beer speech was a rip-off of Orwell, talking about, among other things, "the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs".)

It's surely not too contentious to say that it would be a pity if the traditional forms of sociability and community that the pub encapsulates had no place in the modern world, nor that there should be a place for the things that symbolise that.

* NB: The Führer's nephew William Patrick Hitler really was born in Merseyside. If only they'd thought to name the pub after him.



Blogger Glamourpuss said...

I wonder if the smaller pubs will become the preserve of country life. The big chains proliferate in the city, but out in the depths of Kent we have many, many small pubs of character, lots serving good grub, too.


1:35 pm  
Blogger Elaine Saunders - Complete Text said...

Pub signs are a pictorial record of our history - from Roman times, through the Crusades and the Dissolution of the monasteries to the present day. It would be a shame to lose these works of art along the High Street.

Pub names have been inspired by religion, royalty, lust, pride, murder, heroes and scandals but, in the rush to get to the bar, few of us take time to notice the pub's name.

It's worth doing a bit of research on your local - it may have an illustrious or very dark past!

Elaine Saunders
Author : A Book About Pub Names

4:58 pm  
Anonymous Paul said...

I suspect the pubs that are closing are just crap pubs - there's a lot of lame excuses bandied about. Clean, friendly establishments offering quality ale and service is what we need more of!

11:34 pm  
Blogger bill said...

Paul and Puss, I think you are both right up to a point. Clearly a good pub has a better chance of survival than a crap one.

However, I can think of several good city pubs that have been forced out of business so I'd say offering a decent product and service will only give you a better chance of survival. I don't know about Kent, really, but I can think of several good country pubs in Notts and Derbyshire: I hope they survive, but I rather fear some of them won't.

Elaine, it's a topic well worth a book: I certainly know about some of the Medieval signs - Red Lion for John of Gaunt, White Hart for Richard II; but there's a whole lot more there.

I tend to find pubs named after Victorian worthies are often worth the effort. (The Lord Clyde in Borough, for instance. Often I have seen a thin red line in front of me at closing time).

11:46 pm  

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