Two years into the English smoking ban, pubs are closing at a rate of 40 a week. The New Labour government and much of the media still claim to see no connection between the two, instead blaming economics and competition from supermarkets. But pubs have thrived in previous recessions, and supermarkets have always sold cheaper booze. People used to go to pubs for the social atmosphere. Some of us still would, if that atmosphere wasn’t fast disappearing.
Though I’m personally infuriated by the ban – which forbids smoking in enclosed public spaces and enclosed workplaces – and don’t believe that it’s doing anything for anyone’s health, I don’t claim that it’s the only factor in the decline of a once-great British institution. But I do believe it has had an insidious effect, which needs to be more widely recognised. Traditionally, a pub is supposed to offer hospitality, tolerance, free choice, and a place to relax away from official interference. The ban goes against all of this. It also sets a terrible precedent by overruling the property rights of publicans, and prohibiting adult citizens from negotiating their own arrangements – in this case, with regard to a perfectly legal habit.
For many pubs, already burdened by high costs, the need for special permits for just about every activity, and onerous health and safety regulations, the ban is the last straw. It is also the last straw for many pubgoers. The oppressive licensing laws (which in most cases haven’t changed that much), the small measures and high prices, and the CCTV cameras were bad enough; now, with the smoking ban, it’s as though we have to do our best to relax with not only Nanny looking over our shoulders, but Matron too.
I’ve always loved English pubs, but just how awful they are becoming wasn’t completely clear to me until I relocated a couple of years ago to Berlin. While too many pubs these days are soulless, generic commercial enterprises, staffed by people who clearly don’t give a damn, Berlin bars are often wonderfully idiosyncratic, and operated and patronised by people who clearly love them.
In my neighbourhood I’ve discovered, to select just a few, a bar run by a Frank Zappa lookalike who brews his own beer, a surreal dive run by an Albanian refugee who has Gypsy musicians playing on the street outside, a bar where patrons sit outside in an ex-Soviet Army jeep, and the world’s campest gay bar, whose walls and ceiling are lined with pink fur.