Brown's beer: Westminster Council are heartless morons

Beer writer Pete Brown laments the persecution of London’s pubs by authorities

Only a heartless moron could hate the London pub. 

Pubs in London are grittier than the undeniably charming and cosy thatched roof country pub.  They possess a faded glamour and an ‘I’ve still got it’ bravado that’s missing from other boozers in other town centres.  Despite the inevitable creep of faceless chains run by people who don’t care about pubs and look down on people who drink in them, the vast majority of the capital’s drinking dens still carry an individuality and swagger you don’t really find anywhere else.

So I do worry when Westminster Council act like heartless morons who seemingly despise pubs and do anything they can to deter their continued existence. 

If you Google ‘Westminster Council Pubs’, the first two links tell you how to complain about noise ‘pollution’ from pubs, clubs and bars. 

Last month they ordered the Newman Arms to serve people more slowly and to stop serving food so they could have more ‘vertical drinkers’ inside the pub.  To anyone who has the faintest understanding of pubs, both measures are bound to increase the likelihood of the kind of antagonism and aggro Westminster clearly believes are the lot of pubs generally. 

These bizarre and clueless directives are a response to the number of people crowding the pavement outside this popular and perfectly run pub, forcing passers-by to step into the road.  The council’s concern would be more understandable if the pub were not in a very quiet cul-de-sac where cars seldom go, and which is strongly rumoured to be facing pedestrianisation. 

Two weeks later, the council slapped a statutory licensing review on the Duke of York pub just down the road, once again in response to the number of drinkers standing outside. The pub offered to contain the crowds by erecting barriers on the pavement.  The council then slammed these for restricting the passage of wheelchair users.

Westminster has form – back in 2002, in an attempt to draw a clear yet meaningless distinction between pubs and clubs based on health and safety measures (dancing can be a very dangerous pastime you know), the council warned its pubs that they would be punished if they allowed drinkers to ‘rhythmically sway’ to music, fining the Pitcher & Piano chain £5000 and warning one Fuller’s pub that people had been spotted ‘swaying’ on the premises, and such behaviour would not be tolerated.

“In Westminster’s eyes, pubs are a nuisance, a blight on an otherwise perfectly functional and utterly sane city”

Since 2005, when licensing reform allowed pubs to open later than 11pm, Westminster was roundly criticised for how few extensions it granted in the heart of the West End.

Also in 2005, they ordered the Admiral Duncan and other gay pubs in Soho to remove their rainbow flags, as this constituted unlicensed ‘advertising’.

And so it goes on. In Westminster’s eyes, pubs are a nuisance, a blight on an otherwise perfectly functional and utterly sane city. 

You could almost forget that, after seeing the royal palaces, visiting a traditional British pub and drinking a traditional pint of British beer is the second biggest draw to the capital for foreign tourists, pumping millions into the local economy each year. 

Or that pubs are the primary meeting places for the city’s residents too, the places we relax after work, have a quiet chat with friends, meet and date our partners, hold leaving dos, engagement and birthday parties, watch the game or have lunch with the family on Sunday, or simply take the weight off after a gruelling shopping trip. 

This is not how Westminster Council thinks about pubs.  Their approach reminds me more of Philip Stubbes, the Puritan pamphleteer who hated everything that made people smile.  In 1583, Stubbes wrote that pubs were ‘the slaughter houses, the shambles, the blockhouses of the Devil, wherein he butchers Christian men’s souls infinite ways.’

Stubbes was a prizewinning killjoy.  He wrote the above when theatre was becoming hugely popular in London – or rather, outside the city gates, because it wasn’t allowed inside for fear of fomenting both plague and dissent.  Stubbes hated plays that were religious in theme because this was sacrilege, displaying God and his works in such a base way. But he hated plays that weren’t about God because how dare the players not celebrate His works?  He would have fitted in perfectly at Westminster Council.

I came across Stubbes and his ‘Anatomie of Abuses’ while researching my new book, which is out this week and is, coincidentally, the history of a London pub.

Luckily the George Inn (pictured above) is in Southwark rather than Westminster, which is perhaps one reason it has managed to stay in business for six hundred years without being fined for allowing people to drink outside, sway, or otherwise enjoy themselves.

There are lots of incredible stories about this pub.  There are great yarns and brilliant characters attached to any pub, so imagine how many you accrue over six centuries.  The George has played host to Shakespeare, Dickens, Samuel Johnson and Beyoncé. Churchill turned up with his own port and was charged corkage, and Princess Margaret enjoyed a lock-in with the Bishop of Southwark. 

But the most extraordinary fact about the George is that it survived long enough for any of them to enjoy it. 

For much of London’s existence, London Bridge was a massive bottleneck – the only bridge into the city, and therefore the only point of access from all points south.  The eastern side of the street was an unbroken row of great coaching inns, all arrayed around interlocking courtyards full of warehouses, stabling, private accommodation, wagon sheds, bedrooms, and bars full of eating, drinking and entertainment.

But when London Bridge station opened, bringing rail to the capital for the first time, stagecoaches instantly became irrelevant.  Southwark’s great inns were taken over by the rail companies, converted to warehousing, and eventually demolished.  Wherever there is a mainline station in London today, there used to be a profusion of coaching inns.  Now, only the George survives. 

It not only survived the railways, it survived the Blitz, corporate takeovers, fire, rot, decay, and, yes, local councillors, who tried to penalise the people who kept it alive by making essential repairs in the 1930s.

People often talk about the death of the pub – the number closing their doors for good has just risen from twelve every week to eighteen – and pubs certainly do have to compete not just with natural economic cycles and changing leisure tastes, but also small-minded, petty vindictiveness from both local and national government.

The George shows that while individual pubs are suffering, the idea of the pub – what its stands for and the unique role it plays – will never die.  And at the risk of upsetting the rest of the country, it’s a case study of why London pubs are the best in the world.  A fact that clearly upsets Westminster Council, and is therefore even more worthy of celebration.

Pete Brown’s new book, Shakespeare’s Local, is out now.  A full list of the talks, events and tastings Pete is doing to promote the book can be found here

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