As every etymologist, or pedant if you prefer, will tell you, nostalgia is a malaise, a morbid, sentimental yearning for the past. It is an affliction of the old, or at least those old enough to have experienced better days; but no one is quite immune from the appeal of unattainably happier times.
The fact of their unattainability makes the folly of their pursuit the more admirable. Though we laugh at the quixotic, there is something in us that responds to magnificently lost causes, especially those that are pursued with an unquenchable zeal. We English are especially good at this sort of thing, partly because we have such a long, lost past on which to dwell with varying degrees of morbidity, but also because England is, above all, a sense of place.
Think of England and you think of green fields, country churchyards, cottage gardens, village greens, hedgerows and birdsong. Much of this, we are told, is lost and what remains is threatened by the ineluctable march of progress. What can be done? The answer, of course, is very little, but that doesn’t stop us trying.
The latest lost cause summoning people to its tattered banner is the country pub, or rather the country pub in particular and the old-fashioned boozer in general. Rural pubs are disappearing at the rate of three a week, most of them converted into second homes for those afflicted by a nostalgic attachment to the rural idyll. Some, however, are being converted into gastropubs, which, as every etymologist will tell you, means stomach pubs. Others are re-emerging as US-style bars, venues for those who get hog-whimperingly drunk to music so loud that conversation is impossible.
Regrettable though these developments might be, they are irreversible. The long decline of the country pub began with the introduction of the breathalyser in the 1960. That so many have hung on for so long is perhaps a testimony to their appeal, but local trade alone is not enough to make the businesses profitable. The answer was to turn them into rural restaurants. These are fine in their way but increasingly pretentious as a generation of young cooks inspired by telly celebrity chefs strive to do minimalist things with quails’ eggs and monkfish.
The same thing is happening in our towns and cities; pubs where once people met over a pint to relax and chat are being turned into restaurants with a marginalised drinking area. Whatever these places are, they are not pubs. You can have either a restaurant or a pub, but not both. The hybrid gastropub is neither one thing nor the other.
All the same, it meets a demand. For whatever reason, people are less inclined to drink in pubs, preferring to take their tipple in the privacy of their own homes. But while they drink at home, they do not eat there. One of the most marked social phenomena of the past 30 years is the growing enthusiasm for dining out. We are too lazy, too tired or too lacking in skill to cook for ourselves, so we call at what used to be the local, not for a drink and companionship, but for a meal.
Just how far these changes have gone is highlighted by a survey showing that dartboards are going out of pubs as fast as sea bass on a bed of watercress is coming in. Rightly, this was seen as emblematic, with commentators wistfully evoking images of flat-capped codgers playing dominoes, shove ha’penny and cribbage amid a fug of tobacco smoke. All those games have gone (and soon so, too, will the smoke) with darts the sole survivor. When that goes and the last board is removed from the last pock-marked and yellowing wall, a little more of old England will have been laid to rest.
In an attempt to halt the inevitable, the Daily Telegraph and the Prince of Wales (not the pub, the man) are backing a Save Our Darts Campaign.
Good luck to them. Because a cause is lost that does not mean it is unworthy. And we can all dream. Maybe, marketing might one day salvage the situation. In years to come, some bright young entrepreneur might have the idea of a retro-hospitality unit. It would be a small, cosy, welcoming house, with a log fire crackling in the hearth inside and destroying the planet outside. It would serve Timothy Taylor’s Landlord bitter and echo to the buzz of conversation, the clicking of dominoes and the thud of darts. Patrons who developed an appetite would be offered a pickled egg. There would be no television, no piped music, no games machines. It would be called a pub and, you never know, it might just catch on..