The Victoria Really Does Vanish
It seems the plot of ‘The Victoria Vanishes’ didn’t go far enough. Pubs are disappearing for good, if the latest CAMRA press release is to be believed (ie. they’re not). But the rate at which British pubs are closing down has now accelerated to 31 a week, and 3% of pubs in the suburbs have shut in the past six months. Thanks to government lassitude and a lack of proper planning control, they’re being demolished or converted to supermarkets, private homes and convenience stores at a faster rate than ever before.
But this time it’s not just the ones which re making a loss. Popular, profitable pubs are being left vulnerable by gaps in English planning legislation as they are increasingly being targeted by those wishing to take advantage of the absence of planning permission. Many of them occupy key positions in towns that make them attractive to Tesco, the hated knotweed of British supermarkets that invades high streets and forces out the competition of independent shops.
And now, a practical demonstration of the change-of-use laws. The only butchers’ shop in our entire neighbourhood closed down last year. The elderly owner was retiring and his family no longer wished to carry on the tradition, so he sold the premises. In its place is now – a fake butchers’ shop. It still has meat trays and window displays, but everything is made of plastic. And behind the displays sit some men on laptops, running a private business. Once a week they employ a girl to stand outside and sell hot-dogs, thus ensuring there’s no change of use. But they’ve realised that the local council is so disinterested they’ve even stopped bothering to do that.
It seems there are all sorts of ways to get around a change of use. I should have used this as a Bryant & May plot, but no-one would have believed me.
Anyway: Pubs. Last year saw the closure of about 1,400 traditional English pubs, and the closures are accelerating. I wanted to preserve some of the quirkiest in a novel, which is why I wrote ‘The Victoria Vanishes’. In London there’s one with a tree growing through its bar, one that’s split in two halves, one filled with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, another that was counted as being in Cambridge even though it’s in the centre of London. Each has a story.
London pubs act as places where opposites can meet and confront each other without prejudice, on neutral territory. That’s why the landlord is referred to as the host, and why rooms in pubs were used to hold local inquests, so that the deceased could be sure of a fair and impartial verdict on his death.
Walking into a pub alone is for many young people an early act of independence. Pubs have had a profound effect on English society, acting as every kind of salon and meeting place, from ‘coffee house’ to gin palace. We get newspapers from pubs, where gossip was first written down and circulated. And pubs constantly reinvent themselves.
They are wilfully eccentric, and every one has a complex set of social codes. Some celebrate their history with rituals or commemorative events where the patrons dress up. You never tip, but you can buy the host a pint when you order another round by saying ‘Have one for yourself’. If you feel your beer glass is not full enough, you can ask for a top-up.
Pubs are in our language; drinkers used to share the same mug, in which the level of ale was marked with a wooden peg, hence the expression ‘to take someone down a peg’. The masons who built our churches were housed at inns, hence the Masonic connections of certain pubs, and the Knights Templar had their own inns. Back when the water of London was polluted, everyone drank at alehouses.
In the late Victorian era there was a pub for every hundred people in the country. Some pubs still sell potted pork, oysters and a dozen types of cheese. I remember the shellfish man coming around in pubs – now they’re gone. Use pubs and you experience part of the nation’s history.