Any comments on the blog, propositions (legal, of course), ideas for places for me to go see, please get in touch at and don't forget to follow me on Twitter

Friday, 28 January 2011

The Decline of the Glasgow Bar

It’s Friday night, the second last before Christmas. A bitterly cold evening with treacherous winds but there are plenty of people about and traffic is choc-a-bloc.

Warm light from the corner pub beckons and I gratefully accept its invitation. Harvey’s Bar is one of the better-known watering holes in Maryhill, its smart maroon and black exterior a landmark in this shabby part of North Glasgow. I’m sure I can hear raucous sounds as I approach the door.

But inside springs a surprise. There is very little noise. I order a drink at the island bar, admiring the unusual canopy with its exquisite tiling and pillars. Everyone else in here seems used to the interior, all eight of them. I’m getting some attention now; in this area non-regulars do get noticed. But it doesn’t last, and I can observe them instead.

A couple of groups chatting quietly, crowded on one side of the counter. Every few moments one or more goes outside for a smoke, letting the outside chill circulate effectively. One of the group wears a Tesco uniform, a recruit of the newly-opened store up the road. It’s the only kind of mass employment in Maryhill. There are no Xmas office parties round here. One reason for the quietness on what is meant to one of the busiest evenings of the year.

The nearby Botany Bar is up for lease. Not a going concern, though. There are more punters outside smoking – 3 – than inside. The dismal interior and rickety furniture part of the problem. Even the cheery service doesn’t prevent me moving on swiftly.

I’m walking past a concrete block of take-aways and bookies, a post-office (giros) and chemist (methadone) in between. Down a gap between two fast-food outlets a wheelie bin overflows, an upturned trolley’s wheels spin and polystyrene food cartons litter the ground.

The pub at the end of the row looks like an exhumed bomb shelter and has two floors to the shops one. It sits almost opposite the large Maryhill Police Station, the fictional residence of one Jim Taggart. The Elephant & Bugle, named after the badge cap of the old Highland Light Infantry whose barracks were nearby, had a notorious reputation as, allegedly, the haunt of choice for local dealers trading in commodities other than stocks and shares.

I hesitate at the door. But inside there are neither suspicious stares nor guys with anything to hide. Just four or five middle-aged blokes at the counter in the far corner watching two others play pool. One of the pool players is quite a bit younger. The wheelchair he sits in isn’t proving much of a hindrance as he dispatches his opponents as quickly as the balls, while effing and blinding much to the amusement of his audience.

No one else enters for a while, apart from a chap with hair dyed black and the edges shaved to at least an inch away from his ears. A distinctive look, but I’m not going to discuss it with him. He goes over to his pals at the bar who have enough space to set up a game of dominoes on the counter. I finish my pint and leave with the sound of the disabled guy challenging anyone else for a game, “Who’s next? Ya cunts ye!”

The street has emptied somewhat in the time I spent inside, suburb-bound traffic thinned and the locals mostly hidden away in their homes. In a short distance I pass two more pubs, both with For Sale/Let signs outside and little life within. But half a mile away in Glasgow’s trendy west end I know the stylish bar/restaurants, the ones you see in lifestyle reviews, will be full of prosperous revellers ordering cocktails, Pinot Grigios and other premium beverages at backlit bars, after enjoying organically sourced meals on the mezzanine level. Passers-by check them out through massive floor-to-ceiling windows. The party has only just begun.

A matter of economics sure, the rich always have a better time. But something more than that. The inexorable decline of the community pub, even in Glasgow, a city famous for its raucous bars and hard-drinking culture. Health campaigners will be encouraged by this trend, set in motion by, amongst other factors, the smoking ban of 2006. This legislation, passed by people who don’t spend time in the pub, solely affected people who do. Now most of them smoke at home, and drink there too.

Publican James Clancy, who along with his brother John, has run pubs in Glasgow since the 1960s, is well aware of these changes. He has seen the ebb and flow of the bar scene and how it reflects changes in society. Home drinking has, of course, affected the trade badly, but Clancy offers a comparison between the supervision exercised by good landlords and the lack of controls at the supermarket check-out. “I know most of the people who drink in my bar, I can vet them. I know who can handle the drink and those who can’t, I know their limits better than they do,” he tells me. “If I hear of a guy who misbehaves on the booze, even at home, I won’t be serving him. Do they do that at the Asda?”

James’ place is The Laurieston, a historic bar just over the River Clyde from the city centre. Its immaculately maintained 60’s interior with features such as suspended counter canopy with hidden lights, original formica mini-tables and period pie-heater, was used in the existentialist thriller, Young Adam, to re-create Glasgow of 50 years ago.

This status, along with attentive service and conviviality, helps it maintain a viable amount of punters, which includes each Saturday night, the local deaf society. And everyone inside will get home safely, Mr. Clancy personally phoning a taxi for each person that requires it. To Clancy, his pub is the haven from the troubles outside, not vice versa.

Lack of jobs and money in working-class districts are the reasons behind the decline of community pubs, he believes, that and societal problems which see an area like the Gorbals, just along the road, now have barely a couple of pubs but plenty of chemists dispensing methadone. For the Gorbals and Maryhill substitute, Shettleston, Yoker, Springburn and many other districts on the periphery of the city. All with similar problems and all with falling pub trade.

Alistair Don of The Doublet, another of the dwindling band of independent owner landlords, has his own ideas why. Apart from complicated, expensive legislation including continual presence of designated license holders, exhaustive operating plans, increasingly rigorous health and safety provisions, the unfair deals and margins large pub estate landlords impose on their tenants mean there is no money left to re-invest in the pubs, leading to a vicious circle of decreasing footfall and revenues.

His own place, which recently celebrated its 50th birthday, sits between the city centre and the west end in the relatively prosperous area of Kelvinbridge that insulates the pub from the worst of the economic trends. But he knows of previous customers who have changed their ways due to the relatively high costs of drinking-out. One such guy now buys his booze in Tesco and drinks it on the sly in the nearby Botanic Gardens public park.

Don, like James Clancy, has learned the value of good landlord to punter relationships, “I got told this early on: if you’ve two drinkers at the bar, strangers to each other, start talking to them and once they are chatting to each other, you’re job is done.” You have to wonder who the guy in the park will be talking to as he enjoys his drink from a poly bag.

When I put it to him that the days of the wet-led (non-food operations) bars are over he disagrees, seeing a future in premium drinks, like cask ales and malt whiskies. And in a catchment area like this he may have a point but where does that leave pubs in places where folk can barely afford basic booze brands let alone the high-end versions, or any kind of bar food?

Heading west from The Laurieston is the Tradeston district, an area in the shadow of the huge M8 Kingston Bridge over the Clyde, earmarked for regeneration for many years, but its resurgence has stalled as the new flats have failed to sell.

The historic Old Toll Bar (established 1893 and once owned by footballer Jim Baxter), just along the road, can lay claim to being Scotland’s finest interior with extravagantly carved dark wood and original spirit casks, but it is virtually empty on a Saturday night in January. Two staff and four customers vie to be the most disinterested. Even karaoke, incongruous in this splendid gin palace, fails to rouse anybody.

I leave quickly and move along to The Lord Nelson where there is also karaoke. But only a little more interest. Maybe nine customers? This is a Rangers pub, but the karaoke master is under strict instructions not to allow any songs that could be construed as inflammatory. Instead we get a trio performing the ultra-bland “I Will Fix You” by Coldplay. The three down-at-heel blokes speak their way through it, but at least they’re trying.

Outside, I talk to two of them as they shiver between drags on a shared fag. One of them reminisces about time spent some years ago in neighbouring bars such as The Red Lion, a start point for their trip to fans’ favourite and fellow-karaoke devotee Stuart McCall’s testimonial in Bradford. In the end the police turned them away before they even made the ground.

He heads inside but his pal hangs back, as if wanting to speak privately. He tells me something of his history. Divorce made him homeless, now he’s staying in a hostel, over the river in St. Enoch’s Square. “I miss my kids,” he says, “but I need to get on my own two feet first. I just want a job.”

This guy’s simple wish echoes James Clancy’s view about the lack of decent jobs and the choices thus denied. Half an hour later I’ve returned to The Laurieston where he is polishing his mixer bottles before replacing them in ordered rows under the gantry. I ask him about the future for the pub, and for himself and his brother, both now beyond standard retirement age. “Ah, we’ll just keep plugging away,” he smiles. Any doubt in his eyes vanishes when I mention future levies on all licensed premises, threatened by the Scottish government. “You have to realise,” he says, “we don’t sell booze in here. We sell conversation.”

Politicians, health professionals and interested commentators have been clear in their wish for a change in our drinking habits. Alcohol should be enjoyed, they say, in moderation in clean, modern, safe establishments, serving refreshments such as food and coffee alongside. And they are partly right. But not everyone can afford this sophisticated mix. What happens to their community meeting points? What fills the role provided by the pub for hundreds of years? Coffee shops?

Bars are places where lifetime friendships are forged and broken, partners won and lost, and political movements founded. Places where the good times are never forgotten. They are truly the heartbeat of the community. Can you say the same for Starbucks?