These are a few of the people I have recently met in pubs: a group of bright-eyed girls in London for the weekend, who sang a rendition of Nina Simone’s I Put A Spell On You to me and then bought me a drink. A frazzled landlady, fresh out of a conflict with a misogynistic punter (he was swiftly barred); two very friendly black cats, just in time for Halloween. A few months ago, I met a middle-aged man drinking on his own, whose brother and mother had died in quick succession. His shock poured out of him, until he was talking, at pace, about his grief and immediate, urgent loneliness, before subsequently reeling at his own confessions, to me, a stranger.
I’ve been fascinated by people I’ve crossed paths with in pubs – and, admittedly, on trains and buses and in many other places – for most of my adult life. Naively, perhaps, I am optimistic about them. I’ve met friends – like Eve, an Australian musician and the daughter of Barry White’s pianist, who approached me when I was reading, alone, in a rock ‘n’ roll bar in Edinburgh (after bonding over tattoos and music and the poor behaviour of men, we subsequently went to the London Women’s March, followed by the pub, together). I’ve met dates, too, and many people I didn’t care to stay in touch with, but who I think I have learned from, regardless. I’m often told my habit of “making new friends” in public spaces is, to others, horrifying, dangerous or... just plain annoying, but I’ve never really taken much notice. Because, while it might seem especially unnatural to spark up a conversation at the bar in London, occasionally, the people I’ve met have expanded my mind – or helped me feel comfort – more than people I’ve known for years.
And, besides, growing up in north Lincolnshire, an altogether different perspective seemed to be the norm. There, and in the north east, where I spent six years before making the move south, pubs largely still operate on the basis that they exist for socialising. It is not particularly remarkable to go to the pub on your own and meet people as the evening progresses. While it might sound romanticised (and perhaps it is), as a child, my family – and everyone else’s family, as far as I can remember – had local pubs they visited weekly, where tales were shared and disputes were aired and business deals were sealed and communities looked out for each other. People of all ages gathered there to sip cheap bitter and Bacardi Breezers and roll out at the ding, ding, ding of last orders.
While it might seem especially unnatural to spark up a conversation at the bar in London, occasionally the people I’ve met have expanded my mind – or helped me feel comfort – more than people I’ve known for years
But, at the risk of sounding like a gammon-faced Brexiteer, pubs are not what they used to be. In fact, there simply aren’t as many as there used to be. In the last 35 years, more than a quarter of pubs in the UK have disappeared completely – a decline that the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) attributes to a rise in accessible technology. In April of this year, BBPA’s director of public affairs, David Wilson, said, “People are spending more time in their homes and the technology and the environment at home is more comfortable than it ever was.” Add to that the fact that younger people are (encouragingly) more inclined to keep fit than drink after work, and the deeply ingrained effects of prolonged austerity, and it’s not difficult to see why the industry is struggling.
A move towards healthier living among younger people is undeniably a good thing, but pubs are about more than just drinking. Which is why I was quite overjoyed to read a story in today’s Times documenting a move from The Green Dragon, a pub in Market Lavington, Wiltshire, which has launched a digital hub to support “community wellbeing”. The pioneering project allows customers to access a desktop PC, printer and three tablets (all free to use) and enjoy a free wifi connection. “The equipment is accessible as long as the pub is open, from 9am to 11pm everyday,” says Nicky Wragg, who has run the pub with her husband for 15 years, “and we can be around to support anyone who wishes to use it.” The scheme is part of Pub Is The Hub, a non-profit organisation that supports rural communities through their pubs. It was inspired by the Prince of Wales and has already helped dozens of UK pubs offer up digital services.
The scheme is important because it’s designed to bring people together. Rather than allowing Uncle Tony to check his Facebook notifications over a pint with a pal, the technology is there for older people, generally in more rural locations, to use Skype to speak to family, to book health appointments that no longer provide a telephone service or just get better at communicating online and using technology. And it’s such a brilliant idea because, beyond the practical help that this could provide, it could also help to alleviate some of the pervasive – and far-reaching – loneliness within our older generations. “As more useful and essential services go online it is becoming ever more important to help everyone, of any age, with their digital skills,” Reg Clarke, from Pub Is The Hub, told The Times. “In a rural area where older people can become isolated and lonely, this sort of scheme brings them into a social environment that is warm, welcoming and open seven days a week.”
Right now, loneliness and isolation are hot topics that have snaked their way into the foundations of generations young and old. We’ve talked about using robots to fix it, and we’ve watched toddlers help to quash loneliness in their older peers exquisitely. But pubs have, for hundreds of years, been at the heart of community.
This weekend, I walked into a pub to celebrate my mum’s 60th birthday and found her, true to form, chatting to a “new friend” – a stranger, also turning 60 that day – taking pictures and giggling together. Close by, a handful of family and my best friends were laughing, buying rounds and sharing pub grub. Pubs aren’t just boozers, I realised, they’re homes for relationships, old and new. And if we can harness them to make more people feel better connected to the world, I’ll drink to that.