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Let's raise a glass to the local heroes

AS the bus pulled into Mauchline snow was lightly falling.

It was about quarter past six and I reckoned I had about half an hour to find a taxi and get to Tarbolton in time for the Bachelors' Club Burns supper. Where, I asked a solitary local, might I find a taxi? "Ayr", he said helpfully, and disappeared into the night.

Across the way I spied Poosie Nancy's, the legendary pub which the Bard himself said was frequented "by the lowest orders of Travellers and Pilgrims". Surmising that I could call for transport from there I entered. There were four men at the bar, having a pre-prandial cocktail of beer and whisky before attending a masonic supper, and two young women discussing the merits of a chicken toastie.

Supplied with a glass of that which makes us "unco happy", I dialled the number of a local taxi company. Nothing happened. I dialled again. Same result. My phone, it transpired, was drained of energy. In panic I used Poosie's payphone but it too was hors de combat. To my rescue, however, came one of the women who kindly lent me her phone. In less then 10 minutes I was on the road to Tarbolton.

Where would one be without pubs such as Poosie Nancy's? Better off, certainly, but poorer surely in spirit. But if recent trends continue it seems they are as endangered as the African elephant. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) 16 pubs close every week in the United Kingdom, up from 12 a year ago. In the past decade thousands have closed, never to reopen, left either to decay or to be transformed into tattoo parlours or nail salons.

The evidence is everywhere apparent. Circumnavigating the boundaries of my home town I am struck by the number of "for sale" signs above pubs which were formerly a familiar part of the urban landscape. One has newly been converted into a Nepalese restaurant, the authenticity of whose food has probably been confirmed by a passing sherpa. How, in the midst of a recession, when Marks and Spencer offers for £10 a meal for two people, including a bottle of wine, such establishments can survive and pubs cannot confounds me.

One new pub did open in our neighbourhood in the past few months. It's owned by Wetherspoon and serves food and ale for tuppence. Consumed by curiosity I paid it a visit on its opening day and was horrified to find several regulars from my local already in situ. "Traitors," I called each one, albeit somewhat hypocritically.

But fears that Wetherspoon would spell the death knell for a pub were premature.

Why is this? There is nothing special about our local, though I'm assured it serves beer that tickles the most fickle of taste buds. It offers no food, unless you think pork scratchings qualify. It has a fruit machine out of which no fruit pours. Moreover, the television is constantly on, invariably tuned to a channel devoted to sport. Once, a fellow regular got hold of the remote control and accessed Radio 4, prompting the cultural equivalent of a nuclear explosion.

What our pub does have though is an atmosphere which, while indefinable, is undoubtedly congenial. For example, it is the kind of place a stranger can wander into without thinking he had stumbled upon auditions for Deliverance. Even women have been known to enter it alone and sit unmolested while reading a book. When this phenomenon was pointed out to me, I suggested she might be an autodidact. You can imagine how that was received.

There are, of course, many reasons why pubs are failing in such numbers, from the punitive rates charged by breweries to the giveaway offers made by supermarkets. But too often pubs do not help themselves by their exclusiveness and their generally threatening demeanour, where the dourest of drinkers, such as those described in a famous essay by Hugh MacDiarmid, almost dare you to partake of a libation. I visited one in a northern town. Let's call it Wick. By early evening everyone was stocious or comatose or psychotic. Feeling macho, I ordered a white wine spritzer. I won't make that mistake again.

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