Death to the Pub, Long Live the Pub

A few months back I was talking to the plumber and he was lamenting the opening of a JD Weatherspoon’s public house in his small Lincolnshire town. From the rant that followed I gathered that this was a disaster of epic proportions. It seemed that from his point of view the opening of this national corporate chain of pubs spelled the death knell to his local and most of the real pubs in the town.

He suggested that the traditional pubs could not compete on price and did not have the money to invest in the fixtures and fittings. Indeed, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), last year 29 pubs were closing down every week.

Closures are being blamed on factors such as high taxes on beer, competition from supermarkets selling cheap alcohol, and in urban areas even changing demographics, such as an increase in the Muslim community. Other reasons cited included the smoking ban and more awareness of the dangers of drink-driving.

In response to some of these claims, last year CAMRA started a campaign to persuade people to nominate their local pub as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) under a Government scheme. Currently pubs can be demolished or converted to other uses without planning permission, whereas pubs with ACV status are given planning protection under laws introduced in last April.

So far this campaign has met with some success, with the rate of pub closures falling to as little as 21 pubs a week. Back in December the Dyke Pub & Kitchen in Brighton was saved from being a furniture shop after locals rallied and slapped an ACV listing on it.

Although not all publicans are thrilled with this approach, according to the Morning Advertiser one landlord branded campaigners as ‘hypocrites’ in response to his pub getting an ACV listing. He is reported as saying that the only way to save a pub is to put cash behind the bar.

Perhaps this is the point. Maybe, and I struggle with this concept here, some pubs deserve to die. Many of the pubs that end up closed are in areas where people have money to spend. They just don’t want to spend it in a place with bad wine, indifferent beer, in an environment that has less atmosphere than the moon.

One of my not so minor passions is the pub.  Generally speaking I would rather drink in a good pub than at home. But confronted with a choice of ‘red or white luv,’ and Sarson’s on tap, in pub with  dayglow walls where all character has been studiously removed, then I will rethink that choice. Especially when these are all indifferently served under a PVC banner proclaiming Sky Sports,

The pub has changed, for a good pub people will pay more so long as the product is right. A pub that respects its heritage and is women friendly can still do well. In the end the smoking ban has attracted as many as it has put off.

A case in point, the pubs in my plumber’s small Lincolnshire town seemed not only to have survived, but they have thrived with competition. There are now three or four pubs worth a look, where once I barely tolerated one.

Not that we can be complacent.  In my old stomping ground in London there was a great pub with characterful corners and little nooks. It was always crowded and it served some of the best beer in North London. Then the brewery accountants stuck there noses in. First they challenged the beer. The landlord’s choices weren’t on their computers apparently. Then some bright spark worked out that a pub with such a huge turnover could be improved by increasing the floor space. Out went the little corners, the nooks and eventually the customers.

Sometimes it comes down to this. Why don’t the landlords and brewers ask the basic questions? Do I like pubs? What do I like? Would I drink here?

The Die is Cast

interior_mallarme_dice_dorefrontisFor anyone growing up before the 1990s, elections were relatively straightforward. There was the red team and the blue team. The BBC regularly featured a swingometer to illustrate where these two contenders were in the contest and how close the race would be run on election night.

It was simple. Everyone knew where they were. The journalists knew who to talk to, television could have heads to heads with the two leaders and apart from a few mavericks, and everyone knew which of the two evils they would vote for.
This apparent consensus was reflected by the fact that for most of the 20th century the turnout at general elections held steady at between 70 and 80 percent of the electorate and most of those who did vote, did in fact vote for one of the two leading parties (Conservative and Labour).

The rise of the Liberal Democrats, and then UKIP, the Greens and the various nationalist parties really threw the traditional way of voting up in the air. So much so that at the last election in 2015 the combined support of these two leading parties was just 44 percent of the total potential electoral vote. That means that not only did two thirds of the population fail to vote for the Government, but they didn’t vote for the official opposition either.

When in a democracy two thirds of the voting public have no faith in either the Government or the opposition one would presume that it would be cause for concern. Yet politicians, the media and most political commentators brush this away as a mere detail.

Even now there seems to be an agreed truth of fiction of the two-horse race. Only just to make it interesting, when Jeremy Corbyn seemed so overmatched and the contest already won, we saw sections of the press talking up his chances. After all a done deal does not sell newspapers or top the ratings.

However, the electorate might just have had enough. Out there is the most disgruntled and divided country for decades. They feel thoroughly shafted by the Conservatives, who some might argue told a pack of lies in a referendum aimed more at their party’s unity than the national interest. Nor has xenophobic nationalism gone away.

There are many choices on the table and political complacency has been severely challenged of late. After all, every sound commentator knew we would not leave the European Union. Every credible economist said it would be a disaster. Only Nigel Farage and Donald Trump said otherwise. Once upon a time that would have been a joke. As for Trump, everyone knew that he would not win the presidency. Now the joke is on the world.

Even now the polls are showing that the 2017 election could be a much closer run thing than anyone imagined. Remember the great silent uncounted two-thirds. Maybe this time they will have something to say. The die has been cast and who knows where it will fall.

An Identity Crisis

eyeKnowledge is power and often the most powerful information people possess is their own identity. It is curious then that so many of us are so carelessly willing to give away that prime property.

Identity fraud is the fastest growing crime in the world and it is perhaps no surprise that there is some correlation between the growth of this type of theft and the expansion in the use of social media like Twitter and Facebook.

Nor is it just criminals who are seeking to usurp our identity. Increasingly Government and International Corporations are collecting data on us and repackaging it as a commodity. For instance, did you know that there are two versions of the electoral register? Unless you tick the box to opt-out you will be put on the ‘open’ list and the Government can sell your data to anyone.

Nor is this the only personal data on the privacy battlefield. In the past key organisations such as NHS England have proposed selling personal data on to pharmaceutical companies and any other corporation that wanted it.

They are not the only organisation to try playing this game. Both Government and business insist there are safeguards and argue that more information will help them better serve the citizen-client in future. The danger is that as ever more data is collected on us it will be these faceless bodies that increasingly define and control our identities. Remember that rightly or wrongly this data can describe such things as our financial status and every facet of information they hold becomes a ‘fact’ about us. Furthermore, what is not sensitive today, may well be of critical importance tomorrow.

When my mother’s brother was on his death-bed, he revealed that his maternal grandmother was Jewish. This meant that my mother and her children were also considered Jewish by many people of that faith. This is more than a minor, if interesting, piece of family history. For if the Second World War had taken another course my mother and grandmother would not have lived to see me born. It is a sobering thought, but information and personal records can define ones identity as much any beliefs we have about ourselves.

However, before we are all lost in conspiracy-theory paranoia, the information age brings many benefits and it is here to stay. But just as you would lock your house against burglars, so guard yourself online. When filling out a form or answering a survey, ask yourself who wants to know and to what purposes they could put your data?

Increasingly we live a world where we are defined not by the people we meet but by the websites we sign up to, the social media we use and the information-sharing choices we make.  Once a careless word was just a careless word, now it is information loose in the world that may come back to haunt us. Never has it been truer that information is power. Those who control that information own it and perhaps, unless we take care, seek to own our identities along with it.

Unresolved Stories

booksIt was to be hoped that publishing here would have been more constant. My previous blog averaged 10,000 hits a day and in seven years it had 16 million visits. Back in the millennia I managed a website that topped the one million mark every month. Those projects had two things this one lacks (so far): regular updates and quality content.

There is a small secret I am going to share here. When I was complimented on my content, people usually expressed surprise that these projects managed a high standard on such a regular basis. The secret is: content follows quality. If someone has something to say, then volume will soon gather in its wake. It is all about momentum.

It was envisaged that this blog would be about writing and editing. However, after days working on a publishing project the last thing anyone wants to write about is the methodology of writing and editing.

To this end this blog will broaden its base and maybe, just maybe it will find a stronger identity.

Beginning tomorrow there will be regular articles on subjects as diverse as politics, history, culture and maybe even a little science now and again.

A detour through history

vintage-strollingIt might be interesting to write about the ongoing development of a project, but generally the subjects are quite dry and in any case most of the details are usually confidential. But now and again and a side project can throw up a bit of fun.

The other day I noticed the tourist information for our town was at best out of date, but more likely never accurate in the first place. What triggered my attention was the claim the oldest building in the town dated from 1856.

Now there are three churches in the town that are all significantly older than that and one might assume that whoever wrote the tourist information meant house and not building. The town has no real money for a tourist officer and it is likely that some worthy amateur offered their services.

What happens in these instances is that someone knows their subject very well and it is perfectly clear to them what they mean but they forget to communicate that clearly.

However, since our house is older too than 1856 and is certainly not the oldest dwelling in the town, I assumed that it is not only the writing that is at fault but the original research.

It has been years since I did this kind of research and the available resources for it are limited. However in a fairly short length of time I found out that town used to have a prison, an old priory and was once the home of an English queen.

It would be good to revisit this subject here again some time.

Passing Through

stormThe first rule of blogging is post something. Quality is important, but quantity is not as vital as regular updates. In the past I have turned blogs from dozens of visitors a day to well over 10,000.

So far I have not been happy with the level of time I have found to update this project and sadly it shows. The reasons were a perfect storm of summer holidays, business commitments and elaborate domestic arrangements.

No excuses though, a good blogger posts right through a perfect storm even as the house falls down around them. Incidentally, mine actually is. By the sound of the builders at work the storm still continues.

Note to self: must do better.

All’s well that means well

old pub sceneIn our recent discussion of the not-for-profit world we did not touch upon community projects. These kinds of jobs mostly consist of either maternity coverage or working up a flier for a particular event. However, I did once pitch up at a voluntary event and talk myself into editing a local newspaper and entered a new world of civic journalism, but that is best left for another day. The point is local community projects can be diverse, challenging and some of the most fun encountered in a working life.

One of the most interesting projects yours truly was engaged in was a local history project. It was initially conceived to extract the oral history from elderly residents before they moved on, so to speak. This was an example of a well-meaning project based on untested assumptions that threw up quite a few unforeseen obstacles.

On the face of it the idea was sound enough. Our team arranged interviews at care homes, local clubs and followed up several interesting leads. There were six of us, three researcher/writers and three support staff, all self-starters working to a single paragraph brief. We would capture those soon-to-be lost memories for posterity and 40 or 50 elderly people would have something useful and therapeutic to do.

The idea had been conceived by the head of the local teacher training college and the funding had been provided by the county council. Early on we made contact with a retired BBC producer who was a gold mine. His first response was ‘great, but I tried that back in the day and… well it wasn’t easy.’ He warned me, ‘just because people have lived a long time doesn’t mean they have anything interesting to say.’

This was not to be our only problem. The brief was to focus on one town and get a residents’ eye view of the 20th century. However, many of our contacts turned out to be incomers who would regale you with such stories as the town hall being blown to smithereens. Fantastic copy until one pointed out that the Victorian town hall was still standing.

“Not that one, I am talking about Yorkshire,” was a typical response.

The project turned out to be great in theory, but beset with challenges, to say the least.

Then we had a breakthrough. I met a man in a local pub who had only moved to the area in 1960 and was reluctant to talk. However, given he was articulate, available and had a memory of the town going back further than anyone else we had spoken to, I pressed him.

He eventually explained that he had been the founder of a local business in the hitherto unknown entertainment sector that had been developed in the 1960s and 70s. He also turned out to be the town’s first legal bookmaker. Once he got talking, a dozen people in the pub chipped in with their own personal memories’ and suggestions of who to talk to.

The outcome was not only new leads, but a new line of inquiry. Instead of asking individuals, we followed businesses, such as pubs for instance, and generated yet more lines of inquiry. Then we asked people about what we had found, who in turn suggested new people.

Two particular finds made it all worthwhile.

One landlady of the local pub talked about her famous customer John Betjeman, author of the ‘Village inn, the dear old inn, so ancient, clean and free from sin…’ might it have been inspired by his visit?

She laughed when she told me about an old meat platter she had removed from the wall when she had retired. She had taken it because during the Second World War the pilots had used it as an impromptu sled and had ridden it down the pub stairs. It had many fond memories for her until following an insurance claim it transpired that it was 400 years old and worth £40,000, having been in the pub for centuries. She happily returned it, after all, “Who was she to take it?”

One man of 100 worked as the town’s first mechanic. He spoke of putting candles under the engine to get it warm enough to start in the mornings. He had also worked part-time as a telegram boy in the First World War. “It was grim work,” he said, but bringing bad news to families had stuck in his mind, immortalising them there for some detailed retrieval by the project.

He recalled a very old man who had once been a pot boy fetching beer for the war veterans. Which war was this? He was asked.

“Oh, these would have been the old Waterloo veterans housed at the alms-houses,” he replied.

I had met man, who had met man who knew veterans from Waterloo, which was now 200 years ago. Nothing has ever made me realise more that history is at the end of our fingers.

Third Sectors and finding meanings

political correctness

Much of my career has been spent either working in or for the not-for-profit industry sector. In recent rimes this has often been collectively known as the Third Sector, as opposed to the Public or Private Sectors, in case you were wondering. Although the term is not universally popular within the sector itself, it is a useful catchall.

This is a complicated arena to work in because of the vast and varied type of organisations that operate in this area. Outsiders mostly think of this sector as the charity sector, but most not-for-profits are not charities and could not be under UK law. But at least charities have clear sets of rules and procedures to follow. A situation addressed by the 2006 Charities Act. Before that registered charities had to operate under a morass of regulations developed since an Elizabethan 1601 statute. We might be a charitable nation, but it seems this is not always reflected by our Parliament. We had better not hold our breath for more charity legislation, 500 years is a long time without air.

Most of my charity experience has been within the area of education or working abroad where the definitions are less restrictive. The writing and editing challenges here are nearly all associated with not breaching the rules and being mindful of what charities can and cannot say.

In the UK much of the Third Sector is political and embraces think-tanks, pressure groups and movements seeking empowerment for one issue or another. Each interest party has its own no-go areas in language as well as having to keep a weather eye on changes in what is generally acceptable within developing social dialogue.

In my view there is rather too much emphasis put on the real and imagined historical minutiae of various words. This is because it can become a distraction from the issue at hand. It has also led to many people developing negative associations with the phrase ‘political correctness,’ which while well-meaning, if not necessary, tends to have an Orwellian ring to it.

Word usage and phrases tend to be subject to fashion, if that is not too controversial to say, and often someone only has to question the use of a given word for it to become tainted.

In January 1999 an aide to the Mayor of Washington DC was forced to resign over his use of the word niggardly, meaning picky or mean-spirited, because of its phonetic similarity to the N-word. It was a misunderstanding that was thankfully resolved, but it demonstrates how sensitive this issue can be.

One regional police force was so out of touch that it wrote its race policy from a poorly researched Internet article and ended up banning the phrase ‘nitty-gritty.’ Most linguists now agree that the word has its origins firmly within the 20th century and does not have the once-touted slave conations. However, one might think that organisations would be better served actually developing better social skills than second guessing language, but that is another topic.

The lesson to take from this is that words are emotive and intellectual arguments are no substitute for not causing the offence in the first place. Third Sector writing can be a minefield where one needs to be streetwise as well word wise.

Late Copy is Dead Copy

deadlinesYou might think everyone knows what a deadline is. However, I am not sure that they do.

We have never had a problem with deadlines in terms of meeting them. In most of my past operations, even where we have run junior staff or contractors, they have usually met all deadlines or have approached me at an early stage for others to fill unforeseen gaps.

On the whole writers and editors, especially those with a journalist background, know that often late copy is dead copy.

However, clients are not always so clear about this. When asked about the deadline some clients will say things like, “Sometime next week,” or “not for a few days.” One can never take this on trust. There is almost always a deadline even if the point of contact with the client is not aware of it. It behoves the editor to try and tease this out.

The ‘sometime never’ deadline is not the only issue that arises. Sometimes an over eager client will set potentially unrealistic targets.

We once worked on a project over Christmas. The client wanted the text first thing in the morning on the Monday between Yule and New Year. The biggest challenge was the implementation of XML tags within the copy, all of which had to be live tested on a website to make sure that stray code didn’t crash the page.
To our families’ relief by 9.00pm on Christmas Eve we figured we had cracked it enough to take two days off and finish up over the weekend.

In the event the client was surprised that we had met the deadline given the season and had just plucked the date out of the air. The true deadline had been by the end of that month.
Now even though this was slightly annoying, it was far preferable than rather more vague ‘after Christmas sometime’ that we have just discussed. This was a client who understood that projects like his needed a clear end point to be achieved.

If you should encounter a vague deadline and after inquiries it is clear that no definite date has yet been required, then set your own target. Preferably set one that is drawn on information supplied by the client and have it agreed with them first. That way if there is a problem or their requirements are firmed up they know to tell you.

In order to develop this blog I set definite copy deadlines, although in this case I am my own client. Otherwise there is a tendency to have project drift.