Stripped wood and craft beers are in, dartboards and yellow net curtains are out.
I moved house a couple of weeks ago. Why I moved is a long story, but let’s just say that my plumbing exploded. That’s the plumbing in my London flat you understand, not my body.
Got a good mental picture of that? Good, let’s move on.
The reason I mention the move is because I previously lived between London Fields and Victoria Park. An enclave of super-hipsterdom, packed to bursting with trust-fundees, yummy mummies and fashion students sharing artisan bacon rolls at pop-up laser spaces. Beards and done-up top buttons ran rampant.
And I… uhhh… loved it. I’ve long worried that I’m a hipster. I’m a massive metalhead, which means I have a very long history of listening to weird music that no one else has ever heard of. And hey, I like beer. I like nice things to eat. Say what you want about gentrification, but hipsters sure know how to bake sourdough.
So I was forced to move… to Blackheath.
Going south of the river has long filled me with trepidation. In the past, I would find myself feeling angry whenever I was forced to head to Tooting. Even working on Tower Bridge Road filled me with existential dread.
Possibly because South London has to be travelled through to reach the place where I grew up: Dorset. Dorset is nice, but whenever I visit I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’ll somehow be tricked into taking a job at WHSmith and be forced to move back in with my parents.
Now we’ve delved into my psyche, let’s delve into my new ‘hood.
It, like Dorset, is ‘nice’. With all that this implies. There are wide-open green spaces. There are friendly local cafes and a farmer’s market. There is no chance of getting a drink after 11pm. Or ordering a gourmet dirty burger at 3am for that matter.
And there are pubs. Oh, so many pubs. But these pubs are different.
In Hackney, pubs fell into two categories. Either they sold their own wood-fired pizza and the 22 year old owner brewed 15 styles of beer out the back, or they had broken doors and hadn’t been redecorated since 1972. Large men stood menacingly in the doors of these older hostelries, and the crowds that frequented each type rarely strayed into each other’s territory. Over time however, the rough and ready local boozers were being snapped up and hipsterized. Stripped wood and craft beers came in, dartboards and yellow net curtains went out. And Hackney’s newer residents were happy to visit them.
When you are outside of Hackney though, things get interesting. Hipsterization isn’t all bad. You can now visit almost any pub in Britain and drink a perfectly decent pint of beer. One that has more flavour than fizz. But the aesthetic that goes with them has been forced into neighbourhoods where ‘wearing a hat’ is considered a good reason to give someone a sound beating.
And on the corner of my road is a pub. When I moved in, it was being refurbished. I headed along on opening day to see what had happened.
Let’s start with the important stuff: Booze.
There’s still Heineken and Carling, but Meantime Pale and Camden Hells have slipped in as well. In the fridges there’s Brooklyn and Beavertown standing out among the WKD. It’s weird, seeing these interlopers, muscling their way past the Fosters. Saying that makes me sound like a massive snob (I don’t care, I am a massive snob), but frankly I don’t care if a pub only sells big brewery stuff. Sure, I like craft beer a lot, but I’m also a borderline alcoholic, so if it’s being poured then I’ll have a pint seeing as you’re offering.
Pubs for me are about either good company or none. There’s a unique pleasure in an empty pub on a sunny afternoon. Which brings me to my next point…
Children. Children in pubs.
Let’s get this out of the way. Parents with young children hate you. They hate your life. They hate the way you don’t smell of shit and baby food. And they’ll do whatever they can to ruin anything you take joy in. Primarily by bringing young Tobias and Jonty to the pub with them, then getting sloshed on prosecco while you deal with the consequences.
In the rush to adopt the hipster aesthetic, this pub has allowed large groups of screaming dwarves to colonise the end of the bar. Piercing shrieks reverberate through the bar, and drive that endangered creature – the solitary drinker – away quickly.
There is food, but it’s changed. Now you are invited to create your own burger. But fish and chips hang on tight. The impressively hirsute chef makes a decent stab at them as well, but you can’t shake the feeling that the occasional sausage roll might be enough. If you wanted to get really fancy, then a carvery would be the way to go (possibly pebble-dash the outside of the building too).
Overall, this pub is nice. Remember that word from earlier? There’s a bit of jazz and nu-folk in the background. There’s a decent-ish set of beers, and there’s lots of warm wood. But is there atmosphere? Or is there simple large groups of men in their 50s shouting at the top of their voices on a Friday night?
Hipster and pub culture have similar roots. Both come from a love of the unique. In the past you’d choose a local, and that wasn’t always the pub nearest your house. It was the one that reflected your interests most closely. Maybe it had big screen sport, or maybe it specifically didn’t. Real ale, or nothing but cheap lager. Both have their adherents, but in the rush to exploit both the cutting-edge trendy, and the clean and efficient Wetherspoons uniformity, pubs are losing their uniqueness.
This is a real problem. It forces people into spaces they wouldn’t choose themselves. In an ideal world, I’d find a pub with a decent pint and possibly a Jukebox containing ‘The Very Best of Whitesnake’. I would probably avoid a space full of children. A quiz might be good though…
Instead, I’m now left with limited options. ‘A pint and a fight, a great British night’ are gone forever. Now I have a bland, acceptable, thoroughly suburban range of options. It’s a place where ‘edge’ is replaced with ‘screw some bits of old sheet metal to a wall’.
Pubs don’t really need edge, and certainly not the manufactured kind but the people who run them do if they want to compete and stay open. There’s a race not just to modernisation, but to conformity in these spaces, and for all the thoroughly enjoyable Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons they still provide, that’s a darn shame.