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The bad pub guide

For many, summer is the season of liquid lunches and early evening pub-crawls, when beer gardens buzz with people cheering themselves up. But if the new breed of 'safe pub' is anything to go by, getting drunk will soon be barred.

JD Wetherspoon's pubs are opening across the country at an alarming rate. Originally the brainchild of Tim Martin ('I was fed up with all the noisy pubs in my area'), the Wetherspoon's aim is to counter the traditional British watering hole (smoky, loud, drunken) with a more user-friendly alternative (non-smoking, quiet, sober).

In Wetherspoon's pubs you are not allowed to smoke at the bar (non-smokers use the bar too); there is no music (it kills the 'art of conversation'); there are no pool tables or dartboards (competitive sports lead to bar-room brawls); and you are not allowed to swear. Seriously. There is a sign in Wetherspoon's Moon Under Water in Leicester Square which says 'No swearing please'. A friend of mine was barred after the landlord told him to stop using bad language. 'Does this count?' my friend enquired: 'Fuck off.'

Even chains of pubs which present themselves as more traditional can be stifling. O'Neill's pubs (no relation to me, or to any O'Neill - the name was chosen by British publicists for a British company wanting to create an 'authentic' Irish pub) are opening everywhere, often taking over smaller, non-lucrative pubs in the process. Unlike Wetherspoon's, O'Neill's have live music, dancing, and, apparently, 'craic on tap' (a good case for being raided, if ever I heard one) - but even here, only certain kinds of behaviour are acceptable.

O'Neill's boast that 'you won't find louts' or '16-year olds getting drunk on lager' in their pubs - instead they are aimed at thirtysomething couples and those who want to enjoy a 'sociable drink' in a 'safe environment'. Sexist language is outlawed and chatting up 'barpersons' is strictly forbidden. You get the feeling that if any of the 'fighting Irish' descended on an O'Neill's pub, the place would be closed down.

With the arrival of the 'safe pub', it is not surprising that our sober, non-smoking, illiberal leaders can consider overhauling the licensing laws. Originally introduced in 1915 to 'boost the First World War effort by cutting back the workers' boozing' (Brewers' Society), the licensing laws are notoriously restrictive. Jack Straw, not known for his libertarian instincts, has announced that there will be 24-hour drinking over the millennium and a radical rethink of opening hours, and even a conference of senior police officers called on the government to 'let people decide where, when and if they wish to drink'. But with pubs as bland, stifling and sober as Wetherspoon's and O'Neill's, who needs laws to keep drinkers in their place?

The new pubs are less like proper 'public houses' than the dreaded teenage parties where your parents stay to watch over everything - you only get in if the landlord likes the look of you, and you only get to stay if you behave yourself, keep your voice down, avoid being sexist and don't swear. In other words, if you don't get drunk.

Brendan O'Neill

Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999



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