Monday, 18 January 2010

The Future Of Pubs: Doubleplusungood?

I've been musing a bit on how the pub would look in The Future. Would we still have them? What would they sell? Who will use them? I got to thinking about George Orwell and The Moon Under Water as a benchmark for the perfect pub, so I thought I'd flick through his novel dealing with future society and see what he has to say about pubs and drinking.

We've had Nineteen Eighty-Four, so, ladies and germs, it is with profound pride and no sense of shame in ripping off one of the classic first lines in 20th century literature, that I present Twenty Eighty-Four!

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Boggle, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, thought, "bugger this, I fancy a pint!"

Maybe not.

In Orwell's classic, I wouldn't be permitted beer without risking investigation and arrest by the Thought Police. Beer was for proles, sold in filthy overcrowded pubs. He describes the "hideous cheesy smell of sour beer" when he enters a pub in order to mine the memory of an old man about the times before the Revolution. The old man empties his bladder into a "stinking urinal" at the side of the main bar room.

In this regimented and stratified society, gin was for the Outer Party. Orwell refers to the "Chestnut Tree", a café marked by its patrons - "haunt of painters and musicians" - as a place "ill-omened". Whatever passes for an intelligentsia in this part of Airstrip One congregates here, and indeed Orwell's hero is himself to be found here at the end of the novel. The Chestnut Tree Café appears to sell only the ubiqitious Victory Gin, albeit tweaked by a flavouring of cloves. Otherwise, Outer Party members appear to do their drinking at work during lunch or at home. Wine is the preserve of the Inner Party, the elite of Oceanic society.

Orwell may well have been using these drinks as a kind of shorthand for each of the clearly-defined strata of this society, and of course, he could have used Britain (as he knew it) as his model. However, it occurs to me that with the growing intrusion into personal lifestyle choices in Britain, perhaps we could end up with a kind of Ingsoc. One that uses language, state apparatus and peer disapproval to manage personal habits. One that uses unverifiable or distorted statistics to sell us on the idea that our lives are better, will get better still, especially if we cut out the demon booze, stop eating red meat or sausages, march to the beat. We get all that now. It's demonstrably possible to bring all these mechanisms to bear to get the right outcome, as the smoking ban proves.

So what if dozens, hundreds, of pubs close? Less opportunity for the proles to get wankered in public. Minimum pricing? It'll keep the gin out of their hands, as well as WKD and Bacardi Breezers. And all the time, keep pouring out the messages - 1 unit of alcohol increases cancer risk; the Scots drink a bottle of vodka a week, and spend £20 million a year on Buckies; 25% of the population are problem drinkers; two pints yesterday? Your health records say you're a binge drinker...

I'd like to think that somewhere down the line, somebody will revisit Orwell's favourite pub for the 21st century (no bloody kids, though!). Even if the decline in pub closures is arrested, I'd hate to think that, like Winston Boggle, I must seek my favourite tipple in some grim back street in a grey conurbation somewhere in Airstrip One. However, all of this neopro stuff seems to have momentum behind it, and I fear the worst...

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