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The Vacuum Issue 3 spacer Issue 3
Time For A Themed Experience
by Martin Bruhns
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Like other cities, Belfast prides itself of its unique nightlife culture - at least for visitors. The pubs in articular, it is suggested, are an intrinsic part of the cultural heritage of the city. As if to emphasise this there are historic pub tours; and who has not dragged visitors to the Crown Bar, regardless of whether they are teetotallers or not, trying to impress them with the information; that it is the only pub owned by the National Trust and some half-remembered facts about Italian artisans who were responsible for the stunning interior.
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The idea of this cultural heritage provides a link to an illustration from a publication of the Shankill Road Mission from 1898. It consists of two contrasting maps of central Belfast. One showed the churches and mission halls indicated by white dots against a black background, the other showed the public houses, spirit grocers and distillers as black spots defacing a white background. Unsurprisingly, the desecrating spots outnumber those that radiate the bright light of hope. Starting out at St George's market to drink your way up the Ormeau Road if you had a pint in each and every one of the pubs along the road it would have been difficult to stand upright by the time you reached the entrance to the Gasworks. A hundred years onwards things are different. Along the whole of the Ormeau Road there are now only a half dozen of pubs, enough to give you a buzz but you would still be able to walk back home in a straight line. There are evidently far fewer pubs in Belfast than there used to be. (Disregarding the now obsolete 'spirit grocers' and 'distilleries', though off-licenses need to be taken into account.) This may be seen as an indication for the success of the Shankill Road Mission and other temperance advocates, but is more likely the result of wider socio-economic and cultural change and particularly the recent violent history of Northern Ireland. It was, in fact, the absence of pubs that - among other things - struck me when I first came to Belfast. Over the last ten years Belfast has undergone some major cosmetic surgery and new pubs and bars have opened while existing ones have expanded.
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I was initially reminded of the Shankill Road Mission's maps the other night, standing on the Malone Road and watching the spectacle of people emptying out into the streets from the pubs after closing time. S. who was with me said that it reminded her of a stock-scene from horror movies, zombies filing out of a graveyard. She was right, they were indeed released and their movements were not unlike those of automatons, if slightly unbalanced. There were of course also differences, short spurs of activity of people running, jumping, stumbling and laughing. This is no criticism of their behaviour, having just completed an evening of alcohol consumption myself I was in no position to criticise. It was the sudden release of such a large number of people onto the street that reminded me either of a church after its service, or of a factory at the end of a shift - only less organised and noisier. This sight brought home to me why I have always felt uncomfortable in these and similar pubs. They are spaces of a highly mechanised process of intoxication.
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If one is to believe statistics, people drink more now than they ever used to. Be that as it may. If we do, we do so in fewer places than before. The commercial pressure on alcohol retailers, particular public houses, forces them to create ever larger drinking venues that ensure a maximum turnover in relation to the capital invested. Not only have the places to get larger, to allow for a larger number of customers, but they also need to be encouraged to drink more and therefore faster. This is not a phenomenon unique to Belfast or Northern Ireland.
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Time For A Themed Experience
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Researchers have concentrated their activities of analysing the factors that determine the speed of drinking. Scientists from the US proclaimed that it was while listening to country music that people drank the fastest. (just to get out of the place?) But another factor is the relationship between the noise-level in general and drinking speed. If the background music becomes too loud, effectively dominating the soundscape, people start drinking faster as conversational units become shorter. The same is true for seating arrangements and tables. Traditionally activities in the pub would concentrate on the area in front of the counter. This would allow people the liberty to drift in and out of conversation with different clusters of people, but the counter also provided them with a place to leave their pint. In most large pubs and bars these are suspiciously absent. Most of us are forced to clutch our drink in our hand, which ultimately leads to us to drink in shorter intervals than we would if we could put our glass down.
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You can see these tricks at work in the newer and most popular pubs and bars in town. Most places along the Golden Mile combine loud music, fast drinking, and short conversations. I am not suggesting any nefarious conspiracy. People evidently enjoy going there, otherwise they would not be there. Trying to talk to acquaintances that I meet when going out, they tend to give at least guarded support for their choice of entertainment.
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However, it usually proved difficult to probe deeper into the issue: either because it was too loud or it was an inappropriate topic of conversation. One other tendency is clearly distinguishable: the themeing of pubs and bars. Leisure theorists in the mid nineteen-eighties predicted this trend towards stage-managed entertainment as a way to attract customers to businesses, that alcoholic drinks themselves would not be enough as they are too universally available. Hence the phenomenal spread of Irish Pubs all over the globe (many of them staffed by people from Northern Ireland) and the explosive increase of new drinks, most of them hiding their alcohol behind strong flavours from mixers. Interestingly, many of the new pubs model themselves on older predecessors, liberally decking the place out with reclaimed wood, old trinkets and hiding their size behind partitions and multi-level lay-outs.
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Time For A Themed Experience
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It would be misleading to suggest the dichotomy 'authentic' drinking places against 'invented' ones. There is no hierarchy and the difference rests on aesthetic values and individual preference. Fibber Magee, the back-bar of Robinson's is a good case in point. The main bar is itself a rare hybrid between grocery-bar and hotel-lounge but the back-bar is even more themed, as a rural shop-pub, complete with theatre props (plastic bacon and sausages hanging from the rafters), assorted bric-a-brac and a peat fire. The set up would be too much even for a theatre production aimed at tourists in county Kerry. This is given further poignancy by the fact that it is located just next to the Crown Bar, the jewel of Victorian pub architecture that has been deemed to be a national treasure. However, it is the latter in which drinking becomes more of a spectacle, where a visit entails not only the consumption of alcohol but the space itself. Hence the regular influx of people who just walk in, look around, take a picture and walk out again. Here the pub itself becomes more important than the social relations of the people drinking in it. The people next door in the faux country pub seem at least to be less ensnared by that particular fetishism.
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Drinking, more than most other forms of consumption, lends itself to being packaged in such a fetishised way. The economic character of drinking are hidden from view because it is seen as a primarily social activity, even when located in a pub. The psychoactive nature of alcohol furthermore enhances this as it creates - at least temporarily - a sense of well-being and generosity among its consumers.
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It is risky to make sweeping generalisations, particularly as there are many pubs in Belfast that don't adhere to this pattern. But, particularly newer pubs, do and as licensing law restrictions and constantly rising costs are affecting the industry it is difficult to imagine how new places can survive that donot fit the pattern. Business consultants are all too eager to work within tried and tested strategies. Their relative success proves them right. In the university area pubs that cater primarily for the student population have no difficulty continuously reinventing themselves, as they have a transient clientele, few of whom are likely to return after a few years. What remains constant across the board is a tendency by an increasing number of pubs to cloak their primary motive (the selling of alcohol) by pretending to sell an experience. The tourists walking into a pub and just taking a picture are just the logical (and unwanted) consequence of this tendency. What these places do not provide is a social integration of drinking in the pub and a community. They can not do this because they rely on a large transient clientele.
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There are of course some large pubs who still manage to do so. They mainly manage to do this by compartmentalising. A place on the Ormeau Road might epitomise the compromise for the future. It combines four distinct pubs under one roof. The first one caters for the sport enthusiasts, with several wide-screen televisions providing coverage of sport events, the aural environment dominated by the voice of the television commentators. The main or public bar combines a standard lounge and bar area against a background of loud music. There is a function room up-stairs that hosts pub-quizzes, socials and provides a venue for music and comedy events. And then there is a 'back bar'. To get there requires insider knowledge. The doorway is tucked away in one of the many corners of the main bar and even recently I found myself walking through the entrance of the Ladies instead through the passage to the back-bar. Once inside, it feels like you have stepped back in time, into a room without any other noises but voices and the clinking of glasses. This room, like the rest, is carefully designed, from the stained ply-wood panelling to the faux-Tudor carvings and decorative wooden beams, to create the impression that one is in neighbourhood pub that maintains a carefully cultivated air of being just-out-of date. These rustic elements are mixed with stained-glass windows that depict metropolitan cocktail-glasses. This pub is, in a way, like a large cruise-ship with themed restaurants and bars or a family theme-park, catering for several generations. It is a further step along the themeing of pubs. It is not too blatant and it might work as it allows people to move from one sphere to another without stepping into the rain. The commercialisation of drinking as a commodifiable experience has almost completely replaced the social value of communal drinking. This is not yet Las Vegas, but it is certainly a watering-hole on the way towards it.
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