Tuesday, 16 October 2007

How football ruined the art of conversation

A burly man in the crush of people packed into Mather’s Bar in Edinburgh is swearing at the top of his voice. He is ugly with anger and aggression but no-one bats an eye or takes offence. All the other men keep their heads tilted up at towards the television screens around the walls, groaning or cheering as the action changes.

It is a scene familiar to thousands of people who watched the football match between Scotland and Ukraine in a bar on Saturday. But while most enjoyed Scotland’s win and the craic that came with it, there is growing evidence that behaviour in pubs is changing, and that a never-ending stream of sport on TV is destroying the charm of traditional bars and killing the art of conversation.

For the author William McIlvanney, a television in a bar is like “an alien guest”. No-one will speak in front of it.

“Pubs were always talking shops,” said McIlvanney, who lived for a year in Canada. “The thing I missed was the ability to go in and stand in a bar like a Bedouin tribesman around an oasis and just discuss the news of the moment and way things are. It is crucial that people have a place where they exchange these things, and just talk about them.”

McIlvanney equates many of today’s bars with discos and nightclubs, where the music is so loud, conversation becomes impossible. “If Oscar Wilde spent his life there, no one would have known he was witty.”

Tourist guide books still lionise the best pubs for the pleasant hum of voices, but these places are now the exception rather than the rule. Multi-channel television sets can now be found in establishments from Thurso to Coldstream, offering live football virtually every night of the week. And unlike England, where traditional public houses are separated into Lounge and Public spaces, and TV free areas are common, Scottish bars are often single rooms, dominated by multiple screens.

You cannot avoid them in some of Edinburgh’s magnificent Victorian palace pubs like Bennett’s at Tollcross or the Kenilworth on Rose Street, where there are four in one room. Inside Glasgow’s most famous meeting place, the Horseshoe, television will inevitably draw your eye, because there is a screen on every gantry.

“Good beer and good conversation are the essence of a good pub. Now you just get people gawping at the screen. It’s so sad really,” said Michael Slaughter, the author of Scotland’s True Heritage Pubs.

Mr Slaughter expressed sympathy for landlords and bar managers. Under pressure from the smoking ban and from cut-price alcohol in the supermarkets, bars have to offer customers other incentives. Live sport provides an alternative to drinking at home and appeals to younger generation of drinkers. But the consequences are noted with varying levels of alarm by academics and members of the licensed trade.

Paddy O’Donnell, professor of psychology at Glasgow University, has no doubt that prevalence of the television in bars has not only destroyed conversation, but also led to more drunkenness and aggression.

“The pubs have got into a habit of providing TV, turning up the volume and just shoveling drink,” said Prof O’Donnell. “They often restrict seating areas as well, which again cuts down the possibility of conversation

“You used to have things like darts team and pub quizzes. Old guys and young guys, a mixing of generations which tends to have a dampening effect on male aggression. The loss of older males has probably been a bad thing.”

Sociolinguists stress that the television can have beneficial effects, allowing people to share in experiences like Saturday’s football match or in big news stories, which in turn makes conversation easier. But they also compare its impact with the effects of mobile phones and MP3 players, which have changed they way people speak to each other, and altered the content of conversation.

Dave Waterson, the chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association said he had seen these trends at work outside the pub – groups of young men playing golf together, but listening to their Ipods, rather than talking. Their lack of conversational skills are just as evident in the bar, he added.

“The sociability, the banter between people is diminishing,” said Mr Waterson. “I’ve worked in pubs where young people have come in, and when you say hello from the bar, they get a fright. Because nobody ever says anything to them.”

For Mr McIlvanney, the decline of conversation in the pub is part of a wider decline of “verbal culture” , though Prof O’Donnell is less pessimistic.

“People will always find something to talk about and there is no is no evidence that gossip has declined,” he said. “Although pubs have suffered a decline in conversation, fewer people go to pubs now. In the last 10 years or so there has been a huge growth in coffee houses. Many older people are probably going to Starbucks for a proper chat.”

A shorter version of this article appeared in Monday's Times. The pic I've lifted from The Scottish Patient, which is Kevin Williamson's excellent blog, detailing the ups and downs of his life following deserving causes - Hibernian FC and the Scottish Socialist Party. You can check it out here The Scottish Patient

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