Thursday, 15 September 2011

John Barleycorn is Unwell.....

For the second time in the past five years, the local pub has shut down. The curtains are closed, the car park is empty and cellar door is wide open. The landlord and landlady packed all their stuff into cardboard boxes and disappeared into the night; leaving a mess of debts, thirsty locals and a stripped out pub.

I guess we should be getting used to this by now. The previous incumbents did exactly the same. A moonlight flit and weeks of disruption to the local community ensued.

Rural pubs aren't what they used to be. They are less tied into the community than they ever have been. Take our local for instance; there used to be two pubs in the village, a rough and ready drinking pub and a smarter (but not much) eating pub. The drinking pub closed down more than fifteen years ago and has long been turned into executive housing. The local drinkers; the hunt, the rabbit men, the long dog men and all the other local nere-do-wells, moved to the posher pub, but it was an uneasy union. We wanted to sit in a pub where you could swear, drop your brace of pheasants and dogs in the snug, tell a filthy joke or two and not have to take your boots off or mind your language. The occupants of the executive housing wanted a gastro pub – coordinated paintwork (Farrow and Ball of course) minimalism, brushed chrome, and definitely no stinky beater's dog pissing up the curtains or in your Bolly! The occupants of the executive housing got their way, after all they have the money (don't they?) and they refurbished the pub from distressed functional charm to something that looks like the interior of George Michael's bathroom. But there was a problem; the occupants of the executive house were so worried about their mortgages and jobs that they forgot to come out and spend the credit card company's money. So the old boys were tolerated for their real cash, but they were told to clean up their act, leave their dogs and boots outside and definitely no dead things or guns on the premises. So eventually the old boys drifted away; some finding other more forgiving places to drink, some to the warmth of the allotment shed and a bottle....

In 2009, an independent study estimated that 52 pubs were closing each week – things have hardly have got any rosier since then. The increase in VAT to 20% and talk of a second wave of economic depression, all seems to have taken their toll on the viability of the rural pub. But it isn't just the economy that's sounding the death knell of the rural local; the real villains in this piece are the pub management companies who are playing fast and loose with an untenable business model and the morons who buy into their propaganda and think that running a pub is easy. Well, they have been on the pub management company course and have certificates to prove it.... what more could you need.

Pub groups such as Punch or Enterprise Inns care for only one thing; the bottom line. They care not a jot that the pub used to be the heart of the community, a meeting place, a focus, a lifeline. They only care for profit. If the current managers don't cut the mustard, there will be another idiot along in a minute wanting to spend his or her retirement fund to replace them; and generally there is!

And the moral of the story is "cater for your real market, not the one you would like to have!" If you want to run a restaurant, buy a restaurant. If you want to run a swanky designer bar, buy a bar in a city. If you are running a pub in the middle of the country the people who pay your wages don't wear designer suits and sip champagne, they wear green or tweed, probably smell a bit, drink pints, have lots of dogs and drive proper 4x4s, not Range Rovers. These are the only people who will be spending real money (the type that makes a noise and isn't plastic) in your pub in February, when it's snowing and the Audi TT won't make it off the block paving drive of your executive home. These people don't want designer cocktails and modern British food, they want it the way it used to be.

Warm, friendly and unrefurbished.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

‘Tis My Delight On A Moonlight Night.......

How things change. Gamekeepers have been having hard times over the last couple of years. Increased pressure to perform, increased pressure on shoot margins, inclement weather during rearing seasons and on top of that the profession is demonised in the media, attacked by the RSPB at every turn and had to suffer rouge individuals stupid enough to think that they can get away with poisoning raptors. It's enough to make you think about chucking it all in and becoming a poacher.

However, away from the propaganda of the RSPB, keepers are generally seen as key players in the stewardship of the countryside – a lynchpin in conservation and a deserving contributor to the success of the countryside. In reality, the lot of the gamekeeper is far better than it was a couple of hundred years ago.

If you want to know about the lot of the gamekeeper in the 1800s, you could do a lot worse than listen to some traditional folk music. There is a considerable body of English and Scottish folk music which focuses on the relationship between the gamekeeper and the poacher. Invariably the gamekeeper is portrayed in a bad light. A brutish thug, in thrall to the landed-gentry, whose sole purpose in life is to prevent the gallant poacher from earning a (dis)honest meal. Gamekeepers were often described as wandering in gangs, with cudgels and axes, to murder and brutalise at will, anyone who dared to trespass on their master's hallowed turf.

On the other hand, the poacher is rarely mentioned without being qualified as gallant, a likeable rouge, pushed into his exploits by the necessity of poverty and feudal penury. A dashing figure; the perfect foil to the dastardly keeper. Strong links are seen between the romanticism of the highwayman and the life of the poacher. 

The penalties for poaching were stiff to say the least. If the poacher was caught, if he survived the beating, he could look forward to deportation to the colonies aboard a hell-ship. Poaching songs are usually adventure songs, about the thrill of the moonlit night, and the eternal contest with the gamekeeper. The better ones also comment on the iniquity of the squire owning so much when poor folk are starving, and are often linked to the barbarity of the legal system of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In the traditional Yorkshire song "Rufforth Park Poachers" a band of 40 poachers take on the Rufforth Park keepers leading to the death of Roberts the Head Keeper. Only four of the gang were caught, tried and deported for the murder.

A buck or doe, believe it so, a pheasant or a hare
Was set on earth for everyone quite equally to share
So poachers bold, as I unfold, keep up your gallant hearts
And think about those poachers bold, that night in Rufford Park
In the Death Of Poor Bill Brown, the rather inept poacher Bill is killed by the gamekeeper as he attempts to take a deer, but his death is avenged in gory detail as his companion shoots the keeper in the back.

One starry night as you shall 'ear,
All in the season of the year,
We went to the woods to get a fat buck,
But ee that night we 'ad bad luck,
For Bill Brown got shot and 'is dog got stuck.
In all my time that I have loved English folk music I have never come across a song that glorifies the keeper or even represents him fairly. Even in relatively modern protest songs such as Manchester Rambler, written by Ewan McColl, concerning the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, keepers come out with a bad press.

The day was just ending and I was descending
Through Grindsbrook just by Upper-Tor,
When a voice cried, "Hey, you!", in the way keepers do,
(He'd the worst face that ever I saw).
The things that he said were unpleasant;
In the teeth of his fury I said
"Sooner than part from the mountains,
I think I would rather be dead"

He called me a louse and said "Think of the grouse".
Well I thought, but I still couldn't see
Why old Kinder Scout and the moors round about
Couldn't take both the poor grouse and me.
He said "All this land is my master's".
At that I stood shaking my head,
No man has the right to own mountains
Any more than the deep ocean bed
Why is it that in the canon of English and Scottish traditional music, the gamekeeper's image is that of dullard and thug, whilst his opponent the poacher is a gallant romantic figure, hard done by, by both the state and gentry? Well perhaps the old keepers were thugs and perhaps intolerable social injustices drove normally honest men to commit the "crime" of poaching in order to feed their families rather than see them starve. All that daresay had a part to play.

Perhaps however, poachers had more time to write songs than keepers; more time to weave an unreality of spin and PR. Certainly McColl was a socialist (to say the least) who disapproved of the idea of land ownership, and liked nothing better than to tilt at the English Class system and those who he perceived perpetuated it.

This vision of the roles of the gamekeeper and poacher is pretty different from modern day perceptions (or is it?)

Why does the devil have all the best tunes? Because he writes his own press release! That's why.

We would do well in current times to remember that in the future we may be judged not by our deeds, but by what is written about them. We should choose those who elect to speak on our behalf with the utmost care lest our best intentions be misrepresented.