Beating hearts of the community? Pubs and the politics of nostalgia.
by Lewis Alderton
I completed my bachelor’s degree in history and politics in June 2023, finishing with a 2:1 overall. Having thoroughly enjoyed my time in Loughborough, I decided to complete my MA here as well, and so will be returning in October as a part of the MA International Security course. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I took the opportunity to continue my career in hospitality, moving into management roles.
Whilst undertaking Dr Matthew McCullock’s part C module, Remembering Postwar Britain, I was tasked with producing an essay which considered the implications of nostalgia in relation to a topic of my choosing. Having worked in the hospitality sector for the better part of a decade, nostalgic remarks such as ‘the pub isn’t what it used to be’, ‘I remember when a pint was x, y, or z amount’, and various other reminiscences of the great ‘back then’, have become all too familiar to me.
For a long time, I considered such comments to be the alcohol-induced ramblings of those unwilling to accept change. Pubs had, after all, become more accessible – with a wider range of available drinks and easier means of placing orders. This was the case, at least, until I began to consider nostalgia not as a throwaway sentiment, but as a reflection of broader social discontent within the present regarding the perceived safety of one’s own identity, a notion proposed within Fred Davis’ theory of nostalgia – and one which I built upon when assessing political applications of Svetlana Boym’s theory of restorative nostalgia within my dissertation.
In accepting the scholarly position of nostalgia as a reaction to a perceived attack on an identity, I used my essay to explore the idea that nostalgia for the pub was a reaction to the decline of the British identity, particularly values of sociability and community which have become particularly damaged over the last decade. The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, Brexit before that, and an increase in high-profile social movements such as Black Lives Matter, meant that the British public perceived itself to be becoming ever more physically, politically, and socially divided.
In order to present this argument, I first had to establish the link between the institution of the pub and the traditional British values of community and socialisation. To do this, I first assessed the work of scholars at the forefront of the field, such as Thomas Thurnell-Reid, who argues the institutional importance of pubs as ‘a representation of the social heart of community life’. Following this, I studied primary evidence in the form of government statistics and contemporary articles regarding the closure of pubs, finding that between 2016 and 2017, following the Brexit referendum, pubs closed at a rate of nearly 40 per week – whilst nearly 10,000 licenced premises had been forced to close following the Covid-19 pandemic.
In accepting the pub to be reflective of British values of community and socialisation, this decline in the pub industry – particularly the loss of distinctive ‘locals’ to chains – must therefore indicate perceived damage to these values; leading to conceive of a perceived ‘attack’ on British social identity by the disaffected group and thus causing a nostalgic reaction for the traditional, more secure pub institution. This notion is reflected within contemporary reports of pub closure, which often choose to use emotive phrases such as ‘devastating blows to communities and ‘the loss of the beating heart of a community’ in order to describe pub closures. Clearly, values of community and sociability are of value to the British public, and the broader British Identity. I determined, therefore, that nostalgia for the pub is reflective of broader concerns regarding the British social identity, onset by the increasing decline of the pub industry, which is viewed by many as symbolic of these values.
To find out more:
- Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
- Brown, Pete. “Pubs Are Part of Britain’s Fabric. Why Are They Not Being Properly Helped? | Pete Brown.” Guardian, January 23, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/23/pubs-britain-fabricproperly-helped-lockdown-locals.
- Davis, Fred. “Nostalgia, Identity and the Current Nostalgia Wave.” The Journal of Popular Culture 11, no. 2 (September 1977): 414–24. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-3840.1977.00414.x
- Foley, Niamh. “Last Orders? The Decline of Pubs around the UK.” Commonslibrary.parliament.uk, July 2, 2019. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/last-orders-the-decline-of-pubs-around-theuk/.
- Jennings, Paul. The Local: A History Of The English Pub. (Stroud: The History Press. 2007).
- Thurnell-Read, Thomas. ‘If they weren’t in the Pub, they Probably wouldn’t Even Know each Other’: Alcohol, Sociability and Pub Based Leisure. International Journal of the Sociology of Leisure,4, 61–78 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41978-020-00068-x
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