The pub is dead, long live the pub

Anyone worth a damn will tell you that life in Brighton and Hove is life in pubs.

The city and its various haunts are inextricably linked to one another. Each bar a green shoot of life, belying the undulating tangle of roots that tie them to one another. Without leaving the Brighton and Hove local authority area one could go to a different pub every day for more two thirds of a year and hardly find a dud among them. There is a pub for every occasion, every emotion, every person and every commotion.

Sitting outside Mash Tun in the summer as mates pass by and join; cramming into The Bee’s Mouth and drinking Belgian beers you can’t really handle; tucking into a roast at Earth and Stars; finding new weird stuff on the walls in Hope and Ruin; watching the footie at King and Queen and dodging the lairy lads; Fortune of War plastics down the beach; falling up all the stairs in Lion and Lobster; the bouncer turning you away from Hop Poles; standing next to a hen do in Mesmerist wishing the barman would stop flipping stuff and give you your drink; falling into Dead Wax at 2am; getting lost in The Walrus; digging the locals in Great Eastern; always forgetting how good Sidewinder is; feeling cost in Basketmakers; wobbling on stools in The Wick Inn; partying with grungers, estate agents and hip hop heads in Black Lion.

And right now we can’t do any of that. It is, however, important not to lose hope.

“The general consensus that I am getting within the bar community is that when everything reopens people are going to go mental. Whilst yeah, you could advertise an event or whatever, but all that you really need to do is unlock your doors and get it going and we’ll be at capacity by two in the afternoon until the end,” commented Tom Axtell, assistant manager at the city’s prime time party spot, The Black Lion.

“I mean, Black Lion is one of those perfect kind of places where we get everyone and anyone coming in and I’ll always stand hand on heart and say we’re one of the best Friday/Saturday nights around.”

Tom Axtell, assistant manager, The Black Lion

The Lion, as it’s known, often gets painted as a refuge of West Street wankers but such couldn’t be farther from the truth. On any given Friday, a cursory glance at the people on both sides of the bar will reveal one of the most diverse crowds in Brighton.

Yes there are sockless estate agents trying to look macho in spray on jeans and the odd hen do, but there are also hip hop heads, the after work crew, grungers, emos and general weirdos all absolutely having it to some bangers.

Axtell himself spent the best part of a decade touring the world in a metal band before taking over the pumps at Lion and he sees this diversity as a point of pride.

“I mean, Black Lion is one of those perfect kind of places where we get everyone and anyone coming in and I’ll always stand hand on heart and say we’re one of the best Friday/Saturday nights around.

“There are people that may not be from Brighton and are down for a night out, we get people coming over from West Street, people coming in covered in tattoos, student crowds, people in work clothes, anything and everything gets going on.”

The melting pot for a crowd is diametrically opposed to other venues which hone in on subsects and in turn tends to keep staff on their feet. Those behind the bar, however, come as varied a background as those slapping their cards about for rounds.

“It’s important to us to have this weird family of people working here. Not only can different staff vibe in different ways with customers, but I think it promotes a real eclectic, inclusive atmosphere. Man, if you saw us all outside work you’d think there’s no way we all hang out like we do, but it’s cool to bring this kinda diverse group together all in one place and all get along so well. It’s like a proper family.”

The misconception over the pub’s clientele seems to have been primarily constructed by people that don’t go into it. Those that exist in our fair city should know full well that you can’t judge a pub by its smokers, or whichever dickhead is failing to convince the bouncer to let them in.

To sanitise these elements, however, would be to lose a certain amount of The Lion, or even the wider Brighton charm.

“It goes to show that people that i’ve known for years, and maybe lost touch with, people from old scenes, band things and that, they always pop up here on nights, I’m always recognising faces and people are always surprised I’m here, but I think it just shows the mix of it all. There’s definite preconceptions about the place, the clientele and that, but it’s nowhere near as cut and dry as people think. There’s no ‘Black Lion drinker’ that people seem so weirdly afraid of, it’s all of Brighton distilled, all mixed up in a good time,” said Axtell.

For what is Brighton if not a diverse place anyway? There is much to be said for the differences between us, for how boring would it be to only go to pubs you’ve been to before? To only see the same regulars, to hear the same playlists day in, day out?

In daylight hours the Black Lion is a different proposition still, offering a markedly quieter experience for friends, families and others. In the rush of headlines generated by out of control stag dos and West Street scuffles, the existence of Brighton’s pubs as critical social cornerstones often goes unnoticed.

With the country heading towards its 60th day in lockdown, it is becoming apparent that pubs are places for more than pints, that it was the simple act of sitting around with close friends that makes the overall experience so valuable to our wellbeing.

“Pubs just provide the setting for social interaction, rather than being the main interaction itself, and that’s something that people may not have realised before, but will be realising now,” said Axtell.

“I feel the mental health side of it gets glossed over a lot. There are people that thrive on having somewhere like a local pub, not to drink away their sorrows, but because for them it is a comfortable, safe environment where they can relax and engage with other people, which is so crucial,” he added.

With ample separation from our old ways, one would hope that we refocus on these connections and that in our increasingly distanced lives we may begin to prioritise the simple joys of human interaction more so than ever.

“We are all isolated at the moment, and I feel that brings into focus how important just speaking to another human being is, even if it’s a few words with bar staff. It may seem so small, but it can have such a huge impact on a person’s day and their wellbeing.

“I hope that people can take a newfound respect for each other forward.”

And so forward we must look no matter how foggy the view.

There will come a day when we will bump into each other outside Mash Tun and there will come a day when we one more hear the hallowed words “You want a pint, mate?” We must not lose hope.

We will shimmy round each other to get to the bar in White Rabbit, we will despair at the price of a pint in William The Fourth, we will wish they would turn the music down in Seven Stars and we will witness ten lads waiting for a single cubicle in Temple Bar. We will go to the pub again and the pubs will be ready for us says Axtell.

“There’s never going to be a question of us disappearing anytime soon. Nothing can take us out.

“ Without the customers we don’t have a bar, and without the staff we don’t have customers, so we appreciate every person that has put in a shift, every person that has come in and had a drink, and everyone that will come in when we’re back. We’re not disappearing any time soon, you can quote me on that.”

“The Black Lion is for the people, on both sides of the bar, it’s for everyone, it’s for Brighton.”