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Pub Culture

One of the things that Dad bemoaned about Australia after we arrived (there weren’t many, or else we wouldn’t have moved out here) is that there simply aren’t as many pubs in the average Australian (or, at least, Sydney metropolitan) town as there are in the average British town. Other arguments aside, I think it’s fair to say that Dad simply missed the welcoming atmosphere of your local, something that, I think, British readers can attest to. Maybe it was one of those assumptions that people sometimes make when they move to a similar country; that basically the culture will be identical to the one you left.

The question of why Australian (or, at least, Sydney) towns don’t have as many pubs has been lurking in my mind for a while. The point got raised while Melissa was out here a few months ago – I remember discussing it whilst getting us lost on the way to Parklea Markets – and spending a couple of weeks back in urban England, where you often can’t go a hundred metres from one pub without finding another, helped me organise my thoughts on the subject. I understand that liquor and public house licenses and laws may present more and/or different difficulties to would-be publicans in Australia than in England, but not being familiar with said laws, I want to approach the idea from the perspective of culture and geography.

Based on the lack of pubs alone, a visitor from the UK might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that Australians are teetotallers, based on the looking at the comparative lack of pubs. Anyone who’s been in Australia for longer than a few months will readily tell you that that’s not the case. It’s not unfair to say that the average Aussie is a fairly enthusiastic drinker. In fact, that’s probably one of the main differences between the average Australian pub drinker and one from England. It’s been my observation that Australian drinkers tend to be rowdier than their English counterparts; while Australians do treat drink as an aid to relaxation, I’ve more often seen the average pub-goer drinking to get drunk, or at least drunk enough to lose a lot of inhibition.

While British pubs do serve spirits, Australian pubs are more likely to offer shot-glasses of what almost amount to miniature cocktails of spirits; these “shotties” are the modern choice as a “party” drink. Maybe I’ve just not been in any British pubs at the right time, but somehow I don’t see your English local offering a “Cock-Sucking Cowgirl”, a favourite shot of a friend of mine. Australian pubs often attempt to encourage the party atmosphere even on non-party nights by turning the house music up loud enough so that it can be heard over a crowded room, thus making social conversation a strain.

To be fair to Australian pubs, this sort of tactic may be necessary to stay in business, and I’ll get back to this point later.

Another factor influencing the paucity of pubs in Australia is the simple issue of population density. It’s a known fact that England has a higher population in a smaller land area. The majority of homes in urban areas of England share at least one wall with another residence, so much so that a single residence house is almost a luxury. This means a local is more likely to have enough of a clientele within walking distance to stay in the black; nipping down to the pub for a few beers after a hard day’s work is a matter of a stroll instead of a small journey, and the comfortable “where everyone knows your name” atmosphere that helps turn a street or “block” into a community flowers naturally in such conditions.

Australian suburbs are much less dense, and let’s face it, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The average Australian suburb is spaced out enough that individual houses are the norm; a two-parent, two-to-three-child family gets enough space to be comfortable. The downside to this comfort is that because the suburb takes up more land area, getting from one place to another in it, or going from one suburb to another, becomes more a car trip than a walk. This is one of the main factors that make the typical British local impractical in Australia; a clientele that will support the pub and keep it in the black will need to include a sizeable portion of driving visitors. The bartenders are going to be that much more wary about serving any not-drunk person who could still be over, or about to go over, the blood alcohol limit (after all, it’s not easy to tell whether a visitor has walked, caught public transport or driven to get to the pub), and a driving client will also have to be careful in what he or she drinks. Even if you’re not drinking yourself, that air of caution could detract slightly from the general atmosphere of the pub, making it that much harder for the clientele to let their hair down. (It could even be suggested that the rowdy nature of the Australian drinker mentioned above is an over-compensation for this; the need to feel good despite the atmosphere of the pub leads the drinker to over-indulge.)

This issue of geographical distance leads me back to a point I made earlier. As it needs to draw a clientele from a broader area (which, by definition, will include a variety in age groups and interests), the Australian pub will often combine regular bar service with the features of a night spot (dance floors, DJs on Friday and Saturday nights), a live music venue and a poker-machine hall. This diversity allows the Australian pub to draw in more people across longer hours; when the after-work clientele head for home at seven or eight PM, the younger set will arrive for their night out. What’s gained in terms of a broader clientele, though, is lost in terms of the pub’s appeal as a “local”. As the night goes on, the music gets louder and the clientele rowdier, the “local” atmosphere goes out the window.

If there is a set of establishments that comes fairly close to filling the role of a local, it’s the community clubs, such as the Returned Servicemen’s League and the sporting clubs for rugby league teams. They’re large, often well appointed and offer comfortable drinking areas as well as a bistro. Much as with the Australian local, though, the size of the RSL often works against it. Although it’s often a hub of community activities and is capable of hosting larger events, it becomes more of a family establishment. Bistros and bar areas are more likely to be frequented by families or groups of friends who have little to no interest in socialising with others from their area; they just want a family dinner or friendly drink amongst themselves. The sheer number of people, and the space they get to move around in, can also be intimidating for those who otherwise would attempt to meet people from their community.

In short, I don’t think the British suburban local will become part of the Australian cultural landscape unless and until the cultural landscape itself becomes more British – i.e. less rowdy and more crowded. Neither of these is likely to happen any time soon, though – but is that necessarily a bad thing? Our cities are broad and spacious, we aren't (yet) choking on our own pollution and as a people we're known for being pretty laid back. Perhaps we don't need the cultural and personal lubricant the English local is known to provide its patrons. Perhaps it's good that we do have places for the rowdier among us to go and let themselves hang out.

I guess the question is, what does having those palces instead of "locals" tell us about ourselves as a culture?

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