Some news writes itself. A binge-drinking episode is only worth reporting if it involves the young. Drug use among the respectably middle-aged is not worth a paragraph. One murder or kidnap is fascinating, the other banal. The difference between the two is not the crime, but the social or racial profile of those involved.
One positive story of recent months was last year’s ban on smoking in public places. Cleaner air, fewer horrid smells, an improvement in the health of the nation: even when the ban was extended to include private clubs, all but a few moaners saw it as the acceptable face of government nannying.
But giving certain stories the good-news treatment can lead to some strange distortions. Noticing from my local press that an extraordinary number of pubs were closing in East Anglia, each attributing the collapse in trade to the smoking law, I was intrigued to find out whether the trend was peculiar to East Anglia. It was not. All over the country, particularly in the north, local newspapers have been reporting that pub closures have risen steeply since November.
The national media has been considerably less interested – rather odd since the pub is normally closely associated with all this traditionally British. Yet an accelerating trend of closures, currently said to be around 67 every month, is barely mentioned in the news pages. When it was reported this week that between 50 and 100 outlets of the pub chain, the Laurel Pub Company, were about to be put into administration, the story appeared, but only in the financial pages.
Even consumer surveys, confirming this trend, have been presenting their findings with a cheery gloss. According to a recent report from Mintel, over two million adults admit to going out less since the smoking ban while 22 per cent, described as “a small percentage”, said that it had affected their socialising. Admitting that “the smaller, independent, more traditional pubs” were being worst hit, Mintel’s leisure analyst added that “those pubs it hasn’t sounded the death knell for, the smoking ban has forced to re-evaluate their business”. There were “positive moves” which had “fuelled profitable trends such as the blurring of the lines between a pub and a coffee shop”.
In those places which don’t want their pubs to become coffee shops, the effect of the smoking ban has been seismic. The pubs that are now closing have, for generations, been the focal point of the community, the place where company and conversation have mattered as much, probably more, than drinking. It is no surprise that, as pubs close and supermarkets promote cheap booze, we now lead the world in binge-drinking. Take away the pub and drinking at home is only and exclusively about the consumption of alcohol.
There are other unseen health implications of the ban that was meant to be so good for us. Recently, there has been a debate in Ireland as to why levels of suicide and depression have been rising in recent years. The experts have generally agreed on one of the main causes. “The pub was a social centre. It created a sense of togetherness,” one of them said. “That is all dying out now and people can find themselves alone, in some cases drinking alone, which can lead to an even greater sense of loneliness.”
Sincere busybodies within government will probably welcome the arrival of clean, respectable gastropubs and cappuccino joints. But it turns out that the old-fashioned pub, scruffy and smoky as it may have been, was bringing us together and doing us more good than anyone realised.
But didn’t we invent this game?
Embarrassingly, England now has the most successful football league in Europe. As the Champions League enters its final stages this week, four of the last 16 teams are English, more than from any other country.
The embarrassment lies in a less happy statistic. Of a total of 176 players in the starting line-ups for the competition, a grand total of 11 are likely to be Englishmen, Wayne Rooney of Manchester United being one of this special group.
Other countries – Italy (three teams, 16 Italians), France (one team, 13 Frenchmen) and Brazil (no teams, 23 Brazilians) – do rather better. Now that most of our top players are foreign, as is the national coach, the plan to start playing Premier League games abroad has a certain humiliating logic to it.
* Here is a heart-breaking story from north London. A gap-year student called Max Gogarty decided to write a blog on his travels in Thailand. He sold the idea to the online travel section of a respectable liberal newspaper where his father occasionally writes.
He wrote one blog – and all hell broke loose. Readers of the respectable liberal newspaper turned out to be a chippy, thuggish bunch. Sensing that Max was a privileged middle-class boy using his connections, they attacked. He was “flamed” and “went viral” – blogspeak for getting a good kicking online. There was much huffiness from the newspaper, one of whose columnists attacked “mob rule online”. Max retired, hurt.
It is a truly sad affair. The blogosphere, as it is known, is not a pleasant place. Envy and resentment are part of the air its inhabitants breathe.
Max has merely discovered that public writing can be a bruising business.