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Thursday, 14 May 2020

You're On Your Own

Davy has been at his bedroom window most of the day for the last eight weeks. He goes out for a walk sometimes but can’t be bothered others; there’s nothing happening, nowhere open. Of course. But still he stands there, looking out from his second-floor tenement flat.

The main reason is maybe because he can see both the Alexandra Bar and The Crown Creighton from there. His real favourite, The Duke Bar, is just out of sight but two out of three isn’t bad. In normal times, he pops in to one or more of those bars most days. Just a couple, mind, he’s not a heavy drinker. He goes for the chat, maybe some dominoes. Not too many folk frequent both the Alexandra and the Creighton but Davy is a non-denominational socialiser; for him, the thing is to get out and about, for its own sake.

Jean, his wife, is gone three years. His family now consists of two great nieces and their mum and dad. They only visit him occasionally during the best of times, so… Most of his pals are in the same boat. He doesn’t know though if they stand at their windows too.  Maybe they’ve got a chair they bring over.

He’s one of the luckier ones, he thinks. Some of his friends, living in hollowed-out areas such as Dalmarnock or Haghill or Ruchazie, don’t even have a local Post Office or general store, let alone a decent pub. His pension is lasting not too bad and his health is reasonable too, a couple of stents inserted half a decade ago the only real issue.

So he is well able to stroll down to the Gallowgate for a visit to The Drover and/or Hielan Jessie, maybe even as far as The Braemar, beyond The Barras. On his way back home after a few pints he often gets to thinking on his luck and of people he has known over the years, people less blessed than him. And of course, he has regrets. Drink brings these thoughts out but somehow he knows it’s right that he does revisit his past; contemplating is just something you should do, with or without booze in you.  

Other times, especially weekends, his mood takes him further into town, around and about High Street. It can be MacKinnon’s or The Old College Bar; even better, karaoke in The Old Ship Bank or The Black Bull until midnight. Then a taxi home – he never has done chips or kebabs after drink – or a long walk. More thoughts. 

And at his window, some of those thoughts are returning to his fortune in life compared to others, wondering whether he has taken what he has, what he had, for granted. The friendships; his time with Jean; their holidays to the Dorset coast, or to Spain every couple of years; his youth. All things receding, long gone, of course, but maybe there is still life to be lived. And maybe it won’t be too long until the pubs reopen.

Those who follow the news assiduously will realise I could not possibly interview “Davy” or anyone else face-to-face in these strange times, so they can cheerfully disregard all that I’ve written above. However, there are many people like Davy and some will perhaps share his optimism regarding pubs and clubs and their future. In that regard, a dose of realism is required.

Leaving aside questions of R rates, PPE, care home neglect, the pitifully low capacity for test, trace and isolate; the fate of the hospitality trade in Scotland depends largely on political will. So let’s see where the large political parties in Scotland stand.

To begin with, years of legislation, disparaging statements and general public policy in this country have demonstrated what politicians and their advisers think of Scotland’s bars, social and nightclubs: for them, pub-going is the country’s dirty little secret. They may pay lip service to some restaurants/bars that bring in tourism money but for the kind of pubs Davy might go to, there is nothing but ignorance and disdain. 

In the last few years, there has at last been recognition that home drinking is far more damaging to public health than that in regulated environments such as pubs, but this has come far too late to arrest the decline in the numbers of pubs seen in Glasgow and across the country.

As for the Tory party; unless people haven’t been paying attention for at least the last 40 years, the Conservatives only care about their own. I will leave you to decide what tiny percentage of the population that actually is. And as for the party in Scotland in particular, any party/organisation/piss-up in a brewery/menage that has Jackson Carlaw at its head is in deep trouble. Needless to say, the plight of ordinary, traditional pubs in areas of Glasgow beyond the tourist or Instagram circuit is not at the top of the Tories’ priority list.

The Scottish Labour Party has always failed to deliver on its rhetoric claiming to represent the less well off. The party has more represented the interests of public sector professionals and a slice of their counterparts in the private sector, rather than bus drivers, cleaners, the unemployed. And its record over decades of hegemony in the GCC is a rather shameful one, consigning the city to life under the twin blights of neglect and corruption, especially with regard to Glasgow’s built heritage.

In Glasgow and the wider nation, the SNP has now been in charge for a sizeable amount of time, and can no longer point at past failings of other parties as an excuse for outcomes today. They share the general political distrust of pub-goers and pub and club operators, and may indeed feel it even more keenly, given the deep strain of puritanism and self-righteousness embedded in their DNA.  

And a recent announcement that they have commissioned a Stirling University-led study into how pubs in Scotland could open has raised fears amongst industry insiders that this academic-led work is designed to achieve the exact opposite, namely keeping pubs shut for as long as possible, not as long as is necessary.

There has been talk of the first bar reopenings comprising of outdoor service only, but this will surely require councils to ease their draconian policies affecting outdoor drinking. Going by previous actions of GCC, this kind of flexibility seems unlikely, killing stone dead any early hope of even limited trading. 

Indeed, it is suspected, if council offshoot City Building has its way, the eventual closure of pubs such as The Old College Bar and The Black Bull will be welcomed, allowing them even more scope to facilitate developers’ greedy plans for more and more identikit blocks of student flats.

No, the prognosis for the bar, club, hotel trade is not at all good (I claim the prize for the understatement of the decade) and pub lovers – whether punters or licensees – are on their own. Don’t expect any help from politicians, Twitter’s circuits of self-congratulation, the Edinburgh-based lobbyists, and most academics. The only way they will bend is under sustained pressure.

My prediction – and I fervently hope to be wrong - is that, as bars across Europe gradually open their doors again, those in Scotland will be at least 3-4 months behind, and probably the last in Europe to reopen. And with restricted trading likely to continue for a while after that, a reasonable estimate is that more than half of Glasgow and Scottish licensed premises will be gone for good by the end of 2021.

Pessimistic maybe, but that is where the present evidence points. Who knows how long Davy will be standing at his window?


  1. Very good piece - it's underappreciated how what many people value in pubs is just that change of scene and quiet companionship. And that particularly applies to older men living alone.

    1. Thanks. Yes, pubs are, above all else, meeting places and living links from the present to the past. Without such places, society doesn't really exist.

  2. "the deep strain of puritanism and self-righteousness embedded in their DNA" Perfect summary of the SNP and a fair few other Scots politicians and commentators.

  3. Thanks. It is one of our worst traits, as a nation, this holier than thou attitude. And so pubs and clubs are thus so often a target for these politicians and commentators offended, it seems, by other people having a good time.

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