What is the death of the British pub doing to our love lives?

Article @ CityMetric, published 19 September 2017

An ex-boyfriend of mine had the habit of pointing out, every time we went down a certain south London road, that “that pub there” was where he had had his very first pint. I thought it was a funny thing to say, looking as wistfully as he did, because, goodness, he must have had hundreds of pints since. And yet that little pub stayed in his mind, powerfully enough to remind me, someone who had never even been inside it, that something as magical as a first pint had happened there.

Recently I found myself going down that street once more, and looking at the fated pub. But the pub is no longer there: nothing is. The property is up for a new lease, the front not even looking like the pub that it was. The building has been literally whitewashed. An advert on Right Move from earlier this year suggests that, while the property is a former bar, “the landlord is willing to consider different usages.” Indeed, “its excellent size and prominence on the high street would make the property ideal for a variety of uses, subject to planning”.

Thus died yet another London watering-hole.

The same ex used to tell me an amusing anecdote about how, in his younger days, a friend confronted him over a pint. In response to my ex’s sullenness the older man allegedly shouted, banging his hand on a table, “What you need is pussy!”, or something along those lines. The pub, once again, was the background to these displays of male affection.

How many times, one wonders, did the pub play the stage for not just hypothetical cries for pussy, but very literal ones? To late night hook-ups and first dates? To awkward kisses and passionate coming-togethers and Sunday roasts with the missus? The first time that ex and I kissed was in a pub, a few good pints in. We exchanged many others – pints and kisses – in pubs in the subsequent years. I have since shared many more with other exes, but perhaps in fewer pubs.

And here lies the crux of my worries: as our capital loses its public houses at an unprecedented rate, are we all hooking up a lot less?

According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) Britain is losing no less than 29 traditional pubs every week. Since 2001, London has lost a total of 25 per cent of its pubs. The boroughs of Newham and Barking & Dagenham alone have seen over half of their taverns disappear. CAMRA figures suggest that the total number of pubs in the capital has gone from nearly 5,000 to just over 3,600 in the last 15 years – an average loss of 81 pubs each year.

Dating contributes a whopping £5.9bn to the British economy (Match.com, 2017), which raises the question: what is all this doing to the dating scene?

“I’m reluctant to go on dates I’m unsure about if it means blowing cash,” single man-about-town Tom Mellors confesses. He adds that the rise in alcohol costs has affected the frequency with which he dates: first dates only happen once a month now.

He isn’t alone. South Londoner Simon Kelman too admits that “cost is a factor” when it comes to dating. “Renting and living alone in London isn’t cheap,” he adds.

Changing places

But it isn’t just the high costs of boozing that are pushing the pub out of the dating routine. CAMRA believes that poor regulation has allowed gentrification to obliterate our cities’ pubs. “Holes in the current planning system allow pubs to be sold off, demolished or converted to many other uses,” the group’s head of communications, Tom Stainer said in a statement.

Local communities often need to come to the rescue of their beloved spots. The Elephant & Castle had thrived in the south London neighbourhood of the same name for 250 years, but closed in early 2015 after a violent incident lead to the loss of the establishment’s license.

When estate agent Foxtons made a bid to the council to turn the venue into one of its branches, the community went into uproar. A months-long battle, including the temporary squatting of the pub by anti-gentrification activists, had a happy ending, with the venue being listed as a community asset and quirky pub chain Antic Collective taking over.

A good thing too. I’ve never seen anyone suggest a date at an estate agent, yet.

“I work with a lot of pubs and there’s definitely a change in how they operate,” public relations consultant Allie Abgarian tells me. “Due to the power of the internet and social media, people have infinitely more choice and they no longer want to settle. It’s all about demand and if the demands aren’t met, they can simply choose to go elsewhere.”

In many parts of town, she notes, there are “plenty of ‘hipster’ venues – but only a small part of these actually survive past the first few years. They’re very niche.”

It’s not just pubs that are at risk of gentrification. “The local underground public toilet closed opposite my flat and re opened as a gin bar,” says Kelman. (I’m pretty sure that offering to meet people in public toilets meant something other than coming across as hip on Tinder once.)

It’s not that I am afraid that people have stopped drinking before mating. I had someone telling me recently that “coffee dates are for job interviews” – boozing is alive and well in this fine nation. It’s just that while our attitudes towards mass dating have become far more liberal in the age of Tinder, our decision making processes on who to date have turned more thrifty with the collapse of the pub.

“Despite rising costs of alcohol and eating out there is more competition and new reasonably priced places or ‘deals’ constantly opening up. So I would never use the excuse of not being able to afford to go somewhere to not go on a date,” comments Kelman, who seems nonplussed about such dating dilemmas after five years of singling and mingling in the capital. “There are lots of places I can’t afford to go, I just look harder for the best of the ones I can afford.”

The sad reality seems to be that gentrification is not just murdering a type of establishment that has until now been part and parcel of British identity. The days of dating prolifically and carefree are drawing to a close at the same speed as our much esteemed pub.

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