The blackboard message outside the Cavalier, in Copse Lane, Marston, sums up the position admirably. “Pubs are closin’,” it says. “Don’t let this pub be one of them. Pop in for a drink.” In essence, people are being told to use it or lose it. It would seem from another sign on the pub (see below) that a change of management there is in the offing; indeed, may already have happened. “Pub business opportunity available to let,” the notice says.

Driving around Oxford over the past week or so, I have seen such signs everywhere. The pubs are in most parts of the city, except the north. There are two close to each other in Abingdon Road, the Berkshire and the Duke of Monmouth; heading west there is the George in Botley Road; in Cowley, there is a To Let sign outside the Nelson; in St Clements, there is one on the Port Mahon – an architectural gem in an area short of them – while in nearby East Oxford there’s a Business Opportunity at the James Street Tavern.

“Opportunity to lose a shedload of cash” might be the cynic’s response to the concerted drive by Greene King and other companies to find tenants, or rather leaseholders, for their pubs. The business frankly is not booming – a position not helped, of course, by the decision of Alistair Darling to raise the duty on alcohol in his recent Pre-Budget Report. Mark Hastings, of the British Beer & Pub Association, not surprisingly, found the Chancellor’s move “truly staggering”.

He added: “With pubs closing at record rates, this sector needs a fiscal stimulus just as much as the rest of the economy”.

The amusingly named Nick Bish, chief executive of the Association of Multiple Licensed Retailers (no, I hadn’t either) said: “This procession of more and more excise duty completely disregards the pub as a small business, as a local employer and as a social pillar for the local community.”

He is right, of course, and especially so where his last category is concerned. The loss of pubs as a pillar for the community is what is sure to be most sharply felt as more and more go out of business. The Campaign for Real Ale says it expects to see one in eight pubs close in the next three years because of the recession and the competition from supermarkets able to offer much cheaper booze. The claim was reported as if it was a shocking statistic; in fact, it seems likely to be a considerable underestimation of the problem.

From what I see on my travels around the country, the pub scene is changing far faster than anyone had predicted. The ‘social pillar’ type pubs which used to exist on almost every street corner are becoming a thing of the past. With them is going the sort of pleasing activity – darts, Aunt Sally and the rest – they used to lay on for their customers.

Meanwhile, people are taking their money for drinking where it goes farther. And I don’t just mean to supermarkets.

Huge managed pubs of the JD Wetherspoon variety are packing in the customers because economies of scale in their operation mean they can offer customers excellent value. Lately, for example, at Wetherspoon outlets I have been enjoying a perfectly drinkable chardonnay (Californian Fetzer) for less than £5 a bottle.

I would be lucky to get a large glass for that in an old-style local – mainly, of course, because its landlord would be paying vastly more for his supplies in the first place.

It struck me, incidentally, that in offering wine for sale so cheaply Wetherspoon (for all it talks of encouraging responsible drinking – check out its website) is offering an easy way for its customers to get bladdered for less than a tenner. It is quite clear to me, having studied other patrons, that sluicing back wine as if it were beer is becoming more widespread. I first noticed the phenomenon a couple of years ago at a Diana Ross concert at Blenheim Palace; draught wine, as offered by Wetherspoon and others, is contributing to its spread.

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