A sense of belonging

Pubs and the friendships they enable are key to tackling the UK’s loneliness epidemic, argues Katie Taylor

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In front of a roaring fire that was welcome if not a little premature for the time of year, Kev, a retired traveller of the world, recalled his vivid memories of a trip to Tanzania more than 25 years before.

“I was trekking on foot down a dirt track,” he said, seeing the yellow grass of the Serengeti against acacia trees in his mind’s eye as he retold his favourite story. “I asked our guide why we hadn’t seen any lions – we’d seen zebra, and giraffe, as close as you – and cheetah, elephants, but no lions. He pointed into the long grass on the other side of the track and said ‘They’re in there. Two.’ I didn’t want to hang around after that.”

A pint, a fire and a tall tale. The ideal way to while away a wet afternoon. Kev had brought a book with him, but with the prospect of a new audience it became a prop; a signal that although he often came alone to the pub, he enjoyed that time by himself. In our company the book lay forgotten and instead, the worldly experiences he’d had on motorbike, on foot, vertically up cliff faces and on donkey-back came to life before us in the stories he told. His eyes sparkled with the excitement of remembering rainforests and waterfalls and mountains and sketchy border crossings and luxurious five-star train carriages. It was quite literally a world away from the horse brasses and black wooden beams of his current situation. He said life is to make memories in, and when it was time to part ways, left some advice behind:

“Don’t stay still. See as much of the world as you can.”

The Campaign to End Loneliness, a creation of the late Jo Cox MP, was initially developed to help the growing number of socially isolated people in our communities. The Office of National Statistics reports that during the years 2016 to 2017, 5% of adults in England said they “often” or “always” feel lonely. Loneliness isn’t feeling left-out. Loneliness is a chronic state of mind. In a government report, it states that loneliness poses as much of a threat to citizen health as smoking, except with smoking, you can advise people to quit. It’s much harder, and begins a lot more conversations about infrastructure and local governmental spending, to reduce the effects of loneliness in isolated and withdrawn members of society.

A project run by Bristol University in early 2018 looked into the way older men used pubs as a source of community involvement. During a focus group of men run at a local pub, participants over the age of 65 gave their reasons for visiting. Most used theirs to interact with other people and to add a break to their daily routine, a particularly important resource for those living on their own. Some answered that they visited to enjoy live music with friends and people they know, and as a reward in the working week. Drinking beer was, of course, a good reason for going to the pub, however for most of the group this was incidental to other aspects of enjoying social time there. Isn’t that surprising?

In beer writing it’s common to see odes to local pubs. We have a romantic image of what they are and what they should be, and this usually involves perfectly poured pints and conversation and time slowing to an imperceptible hum. Over time the classic pub and its uses have changed. A lot of this change has come about through necessity – your local needs to find more ways to make money. Running a decent pub is a trade that’s becoming notoriously difficult to scrape a living from. An accidental side-effect of this can mean people who’ve popped in to nurse a drink in good company can easily find their local no longer invites this kind of behaviour. Tall stools and efficient service might be perfect for fast-paced craft beer bars, but stand at odds with the gentle dust mote ambiance of the community pub.

Bob, a participant of Bristol University’s Men In Pubs project speaks about why he loves his pub so much, which resonates with our own ideas of what a pub could, or should be.

“As soon as I walk in, it’s, ‘Hello, Bob’. And they know what I drink, and it’s ready waiting for me. By the time I’ve got my seat, put my papers there, put my glasses there, that’s my seat now. Gone back to the bar, it’s ready waiting for me. That’s what I enjoy.” 

It begs the question: How many of our favourite pubs are favourites because of the people who work there? Is an immaculate beer list worth the chalk pen it’s written in if the people serving it aren’t welcoming, friendly and ready for a conversation? For many lonely people, a quiet pub is just another empty living room. Seeing familiar faces behind the bar, feeling a sense of belonging, that’s what a pub means to so many regulars. Creating a social space where people feel welcome and wanted is a major part of any landlord’s job. It’s easily overlooked, but a sense of social occasion is what drives so many from their armchairs and into their local. 

Unfortunately, many pubs can’t or won’t allow their staff to spend time making conversation. When there’s upselling to do and mystery guests to impress, the onus is very much on “cleaning, not leaning”. Engaging with the punters is very much the opposite of skiving, but there are plenty of pub companies who see a back-and-forth as wasted upselling time. Surely this increases loneliness not just in the pintee but the pintor too. 

In The Lonely Society report by Mental Health.org, Professor David Morris, director of the National Social Inclusion Programme (NSIP) at the Institute for Mental Health in England says this, on reducing loneliness in society: 

“We need to do two things: to develop deliberative strategies to help people who are at the margins become less socially isolated at the same time as promoting people’s well-being... One example of these strategies is to develop a ‘less reductionist’ view of people throughout society, so that different generations might find it easier to integrate.”

Professor Morris’ view that much more should be done outside of the limits of the individual is realistic and calls for real change on a Governmental level. For him, so much more should be done to tackle loneliness as a public health issue and in his work, a cynicism can be seen in the reliance on individual goodwill to solve the problem. After all, you can create community centres and social events in local pubs, but if the bus that gets people there has been cancelled, the point is lost. 

At the same time, however, he wants to see inter-generational communication crossing barriers of class, nationality groups and backgrounds, something he feels is at odds with our current societal norms. It makes sense. The best way to reduce loneliness is to communicate. Pubs are, by their very make-up, a hotbed of potential cross-community conversation. Where is there a better place to practice at least a passing “ahreyt?”

Without getting preachy about it, there’s an element of limiting your own personal experience by only talking to the people you already know. The Millennial generation is the first to avoid visiting the pub alone, afraid of being awkward, or looking strange, or speaking to a stranger. Next time you’re in the pub, instead of avoiding eye contact with someone who wants to speak, try passing the time of day. Who hasn’t got time for a conversation? Why travel the world for Kev if you don’t talk to the people who inhabit it?

Things I’ve talked about with strangers in pubs over the past month:

Travelling on the Orient Express

Queer culture in the 1950s, 60s and 70s

Photography

Strictly Come Dancing

Motorbikes

Homebrewing

The Rugby

What I’m writing about in my notebook

The Weather

Dark Mild


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