Eight years ago, a pub chain bought up a redundant medium-sized supermarket on the main shopping street near me. Supermarkets were getting too huge for such intermediate spaces. But pubs were getting bigger too, and found the space much to their taste, just as chains of pizza restaurants discovered the potential of the surplus-to-requirements banking halls around the country. So our high streets did not die – indeed, they got more lively – and everyone was happy, except the handful of people living over the shops, who no longer had any quiet evenings.
I watched in awe as the pub company arrived with lorries full of pub components. They worked with extreme speed. Virtually overnight, the dingy supermarket became a perfect Victwardian pub, complete in all its details. The etched glass. The seasoned panelling. The yellowed Anaglypta ceiling. The scuffed wooden floors. The snug little corners, the fire, the trad wooden-topped iron tables. And especially the nick-nacks. The company had an endless supply of period gewgaws which it placed artfully round the building. Finished, they gave it a poncey polysyllabic, cod-heraldic name and watched the punters rush in.
So far, so normal. It was a universally accepted notion that there was only one golden era of the pub – the Victwardian – and that therefore all pubs – even fine 1930s and 1950s examples – must be made to fit that theme. Until now. Proof that there has been a taste revolution, a seismic shift in popular culture, is evidenced by the fact that my instant traditional local pub has now become an instant modern pub. The pub chain sold it to another pub chain, the interior was gutted once again, and I now find it a symphony of light wood, chrome, clear glass, halogen downlighters and contemporary art. Strewth!
It’s not the only one. Round me, it’s one of half a dozen such revamps. No wonder beer’s so expensive when so much money is spent rebuilding the places you sit to drink it. But just think what it means. It means that the triumph of the new modernism is now absolute. When it was confined to a few loft apartments in the glossy magazines, and the usual tally of architectural award winners, traditionalists could comfort themselves with the thought that this was just the taste of a tiny metropolitan elite. Not any more. Pub chains are the most ruthlessly commercial organisations, working on tiny margins. If they don’t get precisely the numbers through the doors that they have calculated, they are in big trouble. And if they think modernism sells, then don’t doubt it.
Which is why modern design is now mainstream. Go to any halfway decent department store – another barometer of public taste – and it is now surprisingly easy to find reasonably good contemporary crockery or cutlery, and even furniture. “Modern” is a term of approval on TV home-makeover programmes, though it might not be the definition of modern that you might think of. It’s more of a historical style, a retro 1960s thing. But significant, nonetheless.
Now this leaves some of us in a bit of a pickle. Back in the dark days of the retro decade, the 1980s, when the tastes of Prince Charles seemed to guide the nation, there was glory in being modernist. You were going against the grain, you were a persecuted minority. Then all through the 1990s it felt like you were winning some great war. Fogey after fogey discovered modernism, editor after editor became interested, new talent emerged, a sympathetic Government took office; you were pushing against an open door instead of bashing your head against a brick wall. And now, like Susan Traherne in David Hare’s play Plenty, we find ourselves ill at ease in the new dispensation. We are victorious. But how we miss the war.
Of course, we are magnanimous in victory. Kitsch, post-modernism, classicism – we tolerate them, because these are now the minorities. They do not challenge the hegemony of modernism. But, God, it can be boring. Did we fight the war just to hand the laurels to Nicholas Serota of the Tate? Did we let the Puritans in through the back door? Is Polite Modernism all there is?
But take comfort, modernists, as you sit in your holly-free pubs this Christmas: the backlash is well under way. If modernism has finally become a popular fad, then you know that it does not have much longer to run. We know that retro design is roaring back, in all areas. Which means that it won’t be long before the battle recommences. Gird your loins. Rejoice, rejoice.
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