Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist who has been writing about pubs and brewing for more than 30 years. 

Pubs: a cultural space where you can just be
Saturday, 04 July 2020 16:51

Pubs: a cultural space where you can just be

Published in Eating & Drinking

Phil Mellows muses on the need for more awareness of the value of pubs, places where neoliberal subjectivity and stress can be suspended. The painting is by Norman Cornish

A little over a hundred years ago, in his novella The Machine Stops, E M Forster prophesied a locked-down future in which the world’s population were confined to their rooms, buried in underground tower blocks, their basic needs administered by the mysterious ‘machine’. Not exactly well-known for dystopian sci-fi, Forster was exploring his favourite theme, the value of human relationships, captured in the repeated mantra of his more famous work, Howard’s End: “only connect”.

Perhaps fearing the physical disconnection brought by the new technologies of the telephone and the radio, in The Machine Stops he somehow manages to predict the internet.  People communicate through a circular tablet-like device and spend most of their hours attending, or speaking at, online lectures. (Forster clearly also foresaw Zoom.)

They are, for the most part, happy in their isolation. The vaguest sense of loss is momentarily conjured by a strange, almost forgotten, phrase, “the imponderable bloom”, coined by a “discredited philosophy” to denote the “essence of intercourse”.

Forster would today feel his fears confirmed by enforced social distancing, and while he was more familiar with country houses than public houses, finding ourselves suddenly in a world without pubs crystallises that human need for coming together in flesh and blood. Right now, the licensed trade faces its own tangle of imponderables. Britain’s 40,000 pubs, which have been in uncomfortable hibernation.since they were told to close their doors at midnight on Friday, March 20, will begin to awake in early July.

They will do so hesitantly and with trepidation. A concerted hospitality industry campaign to reduce two-metre social distancing to one metre has been successful, at the cost of onerous mitigating measures. Government guidance on what a Covid-19-safe pub might look like runs to 43 pages. They will be table-service only and customers will be urged to register their contact details for tracing in the event of an outbreak. Bars will, indeed, be a place where everybody knows your name, but not in a good way.

Perspex screens will protect staff at the tills and toilets will be ‘one-in, one-out’. Music will be muted to reduce the risk of loud conversation and singing and dancing are definitely out. Servers will not need to wear masks but many pub operators will issue them anyway to give customers confidence at the expense of a smile.

It’s the pub, but not as we know it. And that may not encourage former pub-goers, already painfully weighing the risk of returning against the desire for a social drink, to come back. Pubs are, in their essence, social spaces rather than merely places you can get a bite to eat and a beer. Some have reasonably argued they are fundamentally incompatible with social distancing, even at one-metre-plus. And from a commercial point of view the resulting reduction in capacity and spend, combined with the need for more staff, will make many smaller businesses unviable.

For the first few weeks at least it will be mainly larger premises, which tend to be directly managed by pub companies and brewers with deep resources, that will open - though a relaxation in licensing laws may see some creative use of outside space by those with cramped interiors.

Most traditional pubs, including the new breed of micropubs that have in the last few years helped restore the idea of the ‘local’, face a daunting struggle for survival as government support dwindles and landlords demand rent. If too many pubs are allowed to close for the last time over the coming months, the price will be paid in lost jobs, lost homes for many publicans and an even deeper recession.

But there is more at stake than that. The state must recognise that pubs are not just businesses but cultural, social spaces essential to our well-being. Their survival cannot come down to a matter of profitability any more than the life of human beings should depend on the profit they contribute to the economy.

Mental health is one issue. There is wide acceptance that social drinking in a controlled environment is better for you than swilling a bottle or can alone at home, and academics are already debating the impact of the lockdown on those vulnerable to alcohol problems. Nor can video conferencing fill the social gap left by the pub, even when you do it over a beer.

Pubs are units of capital that at the same time provide a space where the pressures of neoliberal subjectivity, that nagging push to be useful and profitable the whole time, is suspended. A place where you can simply be.

One good thing that might come out of lockdown is a greater appreciation of pubs, and society’s responsibility for their survival. In that context, Keith Flett’s audacious demand to take Wetherspoon’s into public ownership seems not so outlandish. And when we are, once again, able to raise our glass in the convivial embrace of the bar, ‘Imponderable Bloom’ would make rather a good name for a craft beer, don’t you think?

Healthy drinking behaviour vs. neoliberal capitalism
Thursday, 08 November 2018 12:36

Healthy drinking behaviour vs. neoliberal capitalism

Published in Eating & Drinking

Phil Mellows reviews the arguments around harm reduction for drinkers; the current dire situation under neoliberal capitalism in terms of harm done by alcohol to the poorest fifth of the population; and argues for a 'paradigm shift' - government policy to address poverty and deprivation, and encourage healthy drinking behaviours.

At a guess, most people must have been totally bemused at the storm that broke around Public Health England’s recent campaign suggesting drinkers take a break from the booze a couple of days a week.

What could possibly go wrong with such a modest and sensible proposal? Yet there was a fury of recriminations and resignations. Why? Because a public health organisation had chosen to collaborate on the project with the industry-funded Drinkaware. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, the cataclysmic reaction was surely way out of proportion, and a well-meaning message totally washed away in the deluge of exasperated outrage that came from much of the health community.

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The alcohol field is, as a leading player pointed out at a recent event, criss-crossed with such political tripwires. A well-intentioned policy-maker’s knee-jerk in one direction is more likely than not to tangle in a snare and leave them flat on their face in a cowpat. There is a good reason for this. The history of the drink question is long and convoluted, and anyone seriously thinking about getting engaged in alcohol policy would be well-advised to take a step back and survey the battlefield before wading into the mud.

But where to start? How about 1974, a year of global recession and stagflation when Keynesian economics began to give way to neoliberalism and, not by chance, the year the Lalonde Report initiated a radical shift towards the idea of people taking individual responsibility for their health.

The following year saw the publication of Alcohol Control Policies in Public Health Perspective, a spin on Lalonde written by a kind of super-group of specialists led by the Finnish social scientist Kettil Bruun. In Britain it became known, cryptically, as The Purple Book. Basing its argument on a 1956 paper on alcohol-related mortality by French statistician Sully Ledermann, the Purple Book asserted that the answer to the drink question was, briefly, to reduce the availability of alcohol, chiefly through raising the price and restricting the numbers and activities of outlets.

Over a couple of decades this idea overturned the orthodoxy that had prevailed among the medical profession since the 1930s – the disease, or alcoholism, model. Rather than focusing on the plight of a subsection of humanity stricken with alcoholism, Ledermann’s research seemed to indicate that alcohol harms could be addressed by reducing alcohol consumption across the whole population. Alcohol harm became seen as a continuum in which all drinkers are potentially on the slippery slope towards dependence and everyone is drawn into alcohol policy’s remit.

This hypothesis underlay a paradigm shift in understanding the drink problem. While most people still talk of alcoholism, the term has largely disappeared from medical discourse and has been replaced by a new orthodoxy that, for its similarities to 19th moral campaigns against the demon drink, you might call medical temperance. It was, indeed, an approach that the residues of the prohibitionist arm of the Victorian temperance movement could buy into and it produced a coalition of scientists and moralists that straddles harm reduction and post-prohibitionism.

The Drinkaware dispute starts here. The alcohol industry, while it has for centuries operated profitably within the state-imposed strictures of licensing regimes, understandably lobbies against measures that might further impede trade among the broad population, including those previously deemed not to have a drink problem. Many in the public health community consider PHE’s dalliance with the industry body as such a serious error because it distracts from what they see as the ‘real’ solution – reducing availability.

Setting recommended drinking guidelines can be viewed as another aspect of medical temperance in that it tends to sweep a broader swathe of the population into the category of ‘risky drinkers’ and conveniently presents policy-makers with a ‘problem’ on a scale that demands action at a population level. In fact, a well-publicised paper in The Lancet that recently asserted there is no safe level of alcohol consumption might well have taken this strategy a step too far. As well as undermining the credibility of the guidelines as far as the drinking public is concerned, it has divided public health.

Public health is a far from homogenous body, but it formed an unusually strong consensus around minimum unit pricing, in place in Scotland since May with Wales to follow next year. The situation in England is a sensitive one since the government was accused of backing away from the measure, under pressure from drinks industry lobbying.

The irony is that the Scottish government’s move to minimum pricing only escaped European competition laws because, while it started out as a whole population measure, its advocates were able to show that it is, as it turns out, a policy that targets heavier, riskier, drinkers. The success of that argument has prised open the possibility that perhaps whole population measures are not the only answer, and this doubt has been given an urgent impetus by austerity.

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In May a report from Alcohol Concern, newly merged with Alcohol Research UK, identified a crisis in treatment services – it almost called it a ‘meltdown’. It showed that only 20% of those in need of help with their drinking are getting it, and the figure continues to fall as services are starved of resources, with reports of cuts of up to 58%.

The lack of political will to repair the welfare state means there is no guarantee that the hypothecated tax Alcohol Concern is arguing for will be effectively spent on alcohol treatment - any more than the recent freeze on beer duty will save the pub, as the official industry pre-Budget lobbying somewhat disingenuously implied.

Under a left-wing Labour government, and in the context of a long overdue review of the structures of alcohol taxation, including VAT, it might turn out to be a good idea. However it’s done, though, restoring and improving treatment services has become an urgent task. Beyond that, there is no simple policy wish-list that can fully address the alcohol question (nor, indeed, the pub question). It can only be approached from a broad social perspective that steps out of the polarised arguments that rage ever more ferocious between the drinks industry and public health.

Both positions, it can be argued, have their roots in neoliberal capitalism. Lalonde’s concept of a ‘new’ public health was taken up in an, admittedly, idiosyncratic fashion by Bruun et al, yet like the industry’s attempts to restore the ‘alcoholic’ approach, the whole population approach is essentially an individualist perspective in which a constructed rational subjectivity, here with free will, there under pressure from price and scarcity, chooses a healthy lifestyle.

They are two sides of the same coin, and what we need is a new coin. Another paradigm shift is due that takes us away from the bankruptcy of the alcoholic, disease model, and towards something more like the ‘old’ public health in which conditions are created in which people might enjoy a drink, and even get a little squiffy, without slithering into difficulties.

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Exactly why the positive benefits of social drinking that human beings have enjoyed for most of their existence – and still enjoy today – should, in the modern age, cause problems of excess for some individuals is not well understood. The pink elephant in the bar-room, however, is that mortality statistics consistently show that the poorest fifth of the population are six to seven times more likely than the wealthiest fifth to die an alcohol related death – despite drinking less.

Yet this ‘alcohol harm paradox’, as it’s known, is not a paradox at all. Health in general is socially determined, a matter of class and a matter of the political will to address poverty and deprivation, to create a healthier society for all. And that should include a regulated environment that does not simply restrict alcohol availability but encourages the healthy drinking behaviours that can enrich our lives and strengthen social bonds.

PMHip Hip Hurrah by Danish painter P.S. Krøyer 1888