I was in the middle of a dull day shift at the pub I used to work at in Hove. The company running the pub had just hired a new landlord – and the community was starting to hear about it. A woman came in, middle class. She hovered by the door, holding back from coming up to the bar where I was stood waiting to serve. ‘Oh hi… are you the new landlord?’ She looked away from me and towards Liam, who was indeed my new boss. ‘I was thinking of coming back to try the lunch here again, but last time I came the place seemed to be full of builders!’
Wow. As I felt winded in the stomach I waited for Liam to give a careful nuanced response. But then: ‘oh don’t worry, we’re getting rid of them, they won’t be here anymore.’ He even laughed in his speech. A few days later and I heard he’d banned ‘work clothes’ from the pub. Of course this didn’t mean suits and ties; it meant paint-coated trousers and hi-vis.
Now two years later, and I continue to observe the so-called gentrification of pubs in the city. The designer lightbulbs and extortionately priced burgers are gradually advancing further and further from the city centre, along with the rise of house prices. Meanwhile, the remaining community ‘pub pubs’ are ridiculed. Indeed Brighton’s local newspaper, The Argus, has been publishing reviews on community pubs with excerpts such as:
“By the time the fully track-suited barmaid, with a bandage on her right hand, served me a pint of Kronenbourg I realised this was Shameless meets Celebrity Juice – but without the class of either of these programmes.”
“The noise and chaos in the main bar was so intense – not to mention the potentially lethal mix of a child chucking darts and an American bulldog that looked like a shire horse – I headed for the deserted middle bar purely on safety grounds.”
“I really don’t think there is much more I can say about The County Oak – there are two pool tables and darts though I wouldn’t recommend either as they can only add potential weapons to an already volatile atmosphere.”
The author of this article seems to feel unsafe because of the material presence of tracksuits, darts, bulldogs, and medical injury. These materialities have become loaded with connotations of lower class and violence which must be excluded from the modern day gastro pub. Indeed the kind of money (£256.5m to be exact) companies such as Greene King want to make each year requires them to exclude people who can’t afford an extortionately expensive burger. One ways the industry seems to be doing this is marginalising pool tables, hi-vis, and people in casual clothing as distasteful and violent. Pubs in Brighton are therefore increasingly places you have to dress up for, perform for, and most importantly, put loads of money in your wallet for.
This discourse on class and violence does not just exclude certain kinds of people but also actively destroys the safety that community pubs actually bring to people’s lives. Much to the industry’s dislike, these community pubs create spaces where people can still gain the material resources of those who can afford to pay for drinks in the new gastro-pubs that have risen up around town (or indeed those who write classist articles in the local newspaper). And I’m not just talking about the ways community pubs actively try to keep the price of a pint as low as possible, do special deals, or pass over the pool keys for their regulars.
Here I want to talk about the ways in which people exchange their skills and knowledge: if you’re moving house, someone will come with their van to help you; if you’ve got a case of the sads, someone will sit and listen to you; if you need to put up a shelf, someone can pop over and do it for you; or if you’re hung up without a place to stay, someone will let you crash on their sofa for a couple of weeks.
It was only the other month – a few days before pay day – and I found myself saying to my friend “you’ve got no money?! That’s no excuse not to come to the pub! I’ll spot in for you.” And indeed I wasn’t the only person who spotted in. Everyone else around us included him in their round as he didn’t have the cash. And anyway, if you ask really nicely the landlord might give you a tab for a couple of days until you get paid. People would rather lend each other the fifty quid cash than see someone go to a pay-day loan or build up debt on their credit cards.
One Wednesday afternoon I popped in to the bar to see my friend who works there, Fran – she was ‘having one of those days’ because her sink got blocked at home and she really didn’t have the money to call out a plumber. The landlord came down to the conversation and immediately said, “Why don’t you call Jim? He’s a plumber”. So she dropped him a text and he came round the next day and unblocked her sink. He was there for half the day but “Let’s just call it twenty quid”, he said. Fran was stunned: “At least let me give you fifty- even thirty!” Jim wouldn’t take it. She ended up putting a couple of rounds behind the bar for him and his wife – that was the least she could do.
And it’s not just the physical work – consolation and long talks that verge on counselling are valuable too. One evening a man called Mark came into the bar at 9:30pm looking distraught. It soon turned out that one of his friends had passed away that day from cancer – “I didn’t know where to go so I just came here” he said to me and a friend. We sat out in the garden smoking cigarettes, hugging, and talking until gone close. Rather than someone going home to a cold and lonely overpriced flat, they’re able to come to their ‘preferred living room’ and find comfort in their community. And this kind of thing happens surprisingly often – one pub I used to drink in was affectionately nicknamed “the mad house” because everyone was so able to express their day-to-day problems.
This kind of exchange evades the mainstream economic market that so many people feel like they can’t escape. The things people do or give to each other are never given a quantitative value – no one really counts how many pints or jäger bombs they’ve bought for one another over the year and putting up a bathroom mirror cannot be quantified next to sitting and listening to someone for a few hours. Although money is often involved as an object in these exchanges, such as with Fran’s plumbing (it’s hard to avoid it entirely in the middle of a city!), it’s given a symbolic, rather than a quantitative value. Because of this, people can access the resources they need to live their day-to-day lives and feel safe in places which are growing increasingly expensive to live.
If it wasn’t for these spaces, us pool-playing, football fan, sometimes noisy, can’t-be-bothered-to-get-changed-after-workers, even occasionally-bearing-a-medical-injury punters would be lonely and isolated; could have ended up sleeping in hostels or even on the street; could be stuck in credit card debt or payday loans; and would have no idea where to go when something traumatic is happening in our lives.
These pubs create spaces where people can evade the mainstream economy and at times they actively resist the kind of gentrification portrayed in The Argus article (see the local bartenders’ petition to boycott buying the newspaper for their pubs). Perhaps there needs to be more recognition of the violence that the extortionately priced burger has on people being pushed out, dressed out, and priced out of their local communities. I would therefore urge people to resist the relationship commonly drawn between class and violence, and look to the inherent violence that newspaper articles such as this cause to local communities.