Comment Opinion & Features

Once they were dens of iniquity. Now they’re community lifelines

One of the more amusing aspects of growing older is to observe the reversals of history and the shifting of concepts. How piquant to see Chinese protesters in Hong Kong and elsewhere singing God Save the Queen as an affirmation of freedom, rather than as a symbol of colonial rule.

How sweet to see baking make a popular return, when once it was a metaphor for women being oppressively tied to the labours of the kitchen. How instructive to be told that young people “don’t watch television any more” – it’s now a medium for oldies, not for moderns. (They download entertainment on their private screens instead.)

And now we come to the altered status of the public house. Ah, the local pub! So often denounced, in the past, as the den of iniquity, the destroyer of the family, the setting of unwise seductions and facilitator of spendthrift ways, the place where women lost their reputations and men lost their manly control.

How many Methodist sermons inveighed against the dangers of the tavern? How many temperance songs (Please Sell No More Drink to My Father) were composed to keep folks away from the temptations of the public house?

All changed, now. The pub is morphing into a community centre – because pubs all over Britain and Ireland are closing down at a rate of knots. In the UK three pubs are shut permanently every week and there’s an ongoing campaign to reduce beer tax so as to save the pub as a social institution.

Is it just the tax that is destroying the pub? Yes, money plays a role – it’s a lot cheaper to buy hooch at a local off-licence or supermarket and drink it at home.
But so does the (very responsible) ban on drinking and driving. As does the prohibition on smoking – and even on vaping, in some pubs.

“When we lose pubs, we lose communities,” says the pro-pub campaign (online at longlivethelocal.pub). This is credible enough. A nice pub could be a friendly place where neighbours met up, and newcomers to a town or village could strike up conversations.

But now that the pub is disappearing it is becoming part of a threatened heritage. Like so much else, it is reversing its image and status from past times.

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Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish ecology campaigner has recently faced much criticism – even hostility. Commentators say she’s unrealistically zealous, “disturbed”, and worse. When she took a boat to America, rather than flying, one public critic said that “accidents happen to boats”, as though wishing a mishap might occur (he insisted it was a joke).

It is sometimes gloatingly claimed that this purpose-built yacht – skippered by Pierre Casiraghi, son of Princess Caroline of Monaco – took as much energy and carbon resources to construct as any aeroplane. Perhaps so, but Greta was ready to suffer for her principles: the Atlantic crossing in a small yacht is, literally, sickening.

Much of this negative commentary is uncharitable towards a young girl who has purposefully engaged in a worthy cause. Yes, she is on the autistic spectrum, which explains why she doesn’t smile a lot, and has a serious, focused expression. So what? Plenty of people have this condition and it’s not a reason to disparage their contributions to the common good.

I can think of several teenage girl saints who were inspired to leadership through their dedication to a cause – Joan of Arc for one. Bernadette of Lourdes was not dissimilar – a young girl who took on the powers that tried to denigrate her truth. Greta Thunberg is a good kid and she has stirred our conscience about the state of the earth.

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There’s a saying in English which means something isn’t acceptable as fair play: “It’s just not cricket.” I learned in France last week that the French equivalent is “Ce n’est pas très Catholique”: “that’s not very Catholic” – not a proper way to behave.

Interesting how religious values and language can get intertwined: the Jewish phrase of disapproval is “that’s not kosher” – referring to the religious practices
relating to Jewish dietary law.

Some have suggested that cricket is a form of English religion. Certainly, our parish priest’s announcements from the altar on the state of English cricket make it seem part of the canon …

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4