Perhaps my proudest moment so far as a father was when my three-year-old daughter said to me one interminable Sunday afternoon: ‘Dad, let’s go to the pub.’ She has spent so much of her childhood there that it’s a second home to her. When she was a newborn, the hubbub of our local boozer soothed her. Mummy and Daddy would have a few pints while the Cockney locals cooed over her. When she was a little older, she would play with the landlord’s children. The other day I overheard my daughter playing ‘going to the pub’ with one of her friends. I’m expecting a visit from the social services any minute.
I used to be evangelically in favour of allowing children in pubs, but I’ve begun to have doubts. The problem is other people’s children. Our nearest pub is often unbearable at the weekend. You can scarcely get into the place for pushchairs. There are tiny children everywhere, running around, disturbing the dogs and throwing chips at each other. Afterwards my ears ring as if I’d been at a Metallica concert. Even on quieter days there will be screaming babies, children watching films on iPads with the sound blaring and the faint stench of dirty nappies in the air. The atmosphere is more like that of a crèche than a place for adults to have a drink.
People go to the pub to escape from the world. Out of control children ruin it for regulars and make life stressful for staff. They’re also bad for business. Those families with their pushchairs take up a lot of space, the parents don’t drink so much and I wonder how many customers are dissuaded from staying by screaming children. Last month a restaurant in North Carolina made headlines when it banned children under the age of five. Despite protests from parents, the owners actually saw takings rise.
Of course it’s not the children’s fault; it’s the parents’. They ignore the fact that a pub is meant to be an adult space where children are allowed on sufferance.
It’s a privilege to go to the pub; there are certain rules to follow: when your baby cries take it outside to soothe it; children aren’t good enough for a whole afternoon in the pub. An hour at most and then they need to run around outdoors — so bring colouring books to amuse them but, most importantly, if you can’t control them, at least have the decency to look embarrassed.
The rules used to be like an unwritten constitution, known by all and policed subtly but firmly by staff and customers alike. In our old local in Bethnal Green the landlord was very strict about pushchairs. And the locals, a rather frightening-looking bunch of Arsenal fans, would by their very presence nip any unruly behaviour in the bud. They dealt with out-of-control children like they dealt with problem drinkers and drug users, with a sort of rough community justice. It’s in the trendier pubs, the sort populated by middle-class couples and their offspring, that the real problems lie. Some parents don’t know — or don’t care — about the rules and many have never told their children off. They treat the pub like it’s a soft play area with craft beer.
It’s a shame, because a few parents spoil it for everyone else. I think the 1995 Act that let children under 14 into pubs marks us down as a civilised country. Unlike say, America, where children are banned from bars, it shows that we have a relatively healthy relationship with alcohol. It’s all a far cry from my childhood, when my brother and I would sit in the car while father had a few pints. In the parts of Scotland where we went on holiday women weren’t welcome either, so my mother would be in the car with us. No one wants to return to those days (well, maybe occasionally).
So what’s to be done? Landlords and regulars need to retake control. If the buggy numbers are out of hand, parents should be told to leave them outside. I’d like to see the return of old-fashioned courtesy: before bringing kids into a pub, ask the landlord if it’s OK. Pub training could be part of the Life in the UK Test for immigrants and taught to new parents as part of NCT classes. That way we will be training the next generation of pub-goers.
Meanwhile, the only option is to avoid gastropubs at lunchtimes. That’s difficult in some parts of the country, but we’re lucky to have found a great old man’s boozer near our house. It does good plain food, real ale at £3.20 and has bar billiards. My daughter loves it and, best of all, she’s usually the only child there.