A strap on the front page of a Sunday paper invites you to look inside and see Jamie’s Christmas Recipes. I don’t look inside, at least, not for Jamie’s contribution. How many more new Christmas recipes can anyone need? I ask myself. How many more recipes from Jamie, who has already published the thick end of twenty books of them? I’m sure I’m not the only person bored rigid with being confronted with his bogus cheeky chappy, man of the people, demeanour, deployed as his USP (Unique Selling Point), perhaps his only SP, to promote the countless ‘socially relevant’ initiatives thought up by his PR people to keep the punters loving him.
His publishers cannily gave his early books faintly naughty titles, like The Naked Chef, encouraging his largely female readers to picture the lad leaping around the kitchen from station to station, dressed only in a chef’s toque and a sweaty sheen. I bet if Jamie looked like David Mellor, far fewer young housewives, or old ones, would buy his books by the dozen, let alone by the tens of millions.
Jamie, of course isn’t unique; a legion of putatively desirable telly chefs have appeared since the Galloping Gourmet lurched and slurped into view in the late 60s. The same approach has been followed in many fields of popular pass-time… gardening (with the earthy charms of Alan Titchmarsh and thinking woman’s crumpet, Monty Don), travel (the handsome white-haired Venetian with the old Alfa) and antique collecting (a titillating gang of flamboyant, amber-hued, florid bow-tied, fancy-moustachioed auctioneers and dealers – none of them as true to type as the fictitious but shrewdly drawn Lovejoy, recently back on the Drama Channel. I’d forgotten how convincing Ian McShane was as the disingenuous charmer, ducker, diver, conman and gigolo that most dealers wish they were. Meanwhile, the nonsense of ‘reality’ TV antiquers has made life hell for actual antique shops, where now the punters come in expecting far more money off than most respectable dealers would demand of their fellows.
It’s surprising, perhaps, that the reality cameras haven’t yet followed the life of a pub landlord, though if they did, and the publican were a tenant of one of the ogreish multiple PubCos, viewers might be horrified to see into what a Kafkaesque landscape these romantic innocents have wandered.
Companies like Punch Taverns have cynically tapped into the popular British dream of owning a little cosy pub, pulling pints of delicious ale, chatting with the locals whilst the missus is happily knocking up home-made pies in the kitchen. When that dream turns into a nightmare of spiralling debt, either because the PubCo is charging so much above the industry norm for the ale which their tenants are obliged to buy from them or the pub is selling enough beer to activate contractually automatic and unsustainable rent hikes, the PubCo knows there is a queue of retired policemen or soldiers, naively eager to invest their nest-eggs and show that they know what it takes to run a successful pub, waiting to take over from the previous bankrupt tenant.
The terrible irony of this tragedy, both for the individual hopeful landlords, and the alarming depletion of the stock of good pubs across the land and especially out in the countryside, is that it is an unexpected consequence of a parliamentary decision twenty five years ago intended to neutralise the tyranny of the huge brewing companies from tying the pubs they owned to selling their own, mostly vile, product (remember Watney’s Red Barrel?). Of course, there were always good brewing pub owners, like some of the London brewers, Youngs and Fullers, who were selling real ale at a time when most of the industry was selling cheaply produced dishwater. But they weren’t among the ‘Big Six’ who were then the chief culprits.
In 1989 Lord Young, Trade & Industry Secretary under Mrs Thatcher, somewhat surprisingly recognised the unfairness of the tie, and the damage it was doing to consumer choice, as reported by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and was responsible for the Beer Order, which severely limited the extent of the ‘tie’, by requiring the brewers to dispose of a large proportion of the pubs they owned. Regrettably, he didn’t foresee the resultant creation and emergence of the far more damaging multiple, non-brewing pub owners. These monolithic companies, some of which have owned as many as ten thousand pubs, have subjected their tenants to far nastier leases without even the minor benefits that had been offered by the breweries.
Punch Taverns, the largest and possibly most ogreish of the PubCos, greedily over-extended itself to such a point that it is now saddled with almost insoluble debt. Its viability has just sunk a little lower with the passing of an amendment to a Bill, voted through Parliament last month by a sensible majority of MPs, ignoring their whip. This Bill, should it survive its passage through the Lords, will give PubCo tenants the right to buy beer from wherever they want in an open market, and negotiate normal commercial leases on the premises they occupy.This will give the pubs a far fairer chance to prosper and survive and should help to curtail the alarming rate at which they have been closing.
The pub in its traditional form is uniquely British and an invaluable institution in providing a meeting place and discussion forum for people of widely divergent backgrounds, profession and wealth, where the playing field is generally level and in which anyone who feels like it can join without any of the dangers of modern social media. It is unquestionably worth preserving, and anything that threatens its continuing existence should be resisted.