13 August 2009

Fading newspapers, second-hand bookshops and quaint English pubs

The former Duke of York in Lichfield ... a sign of the time for English pubs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

What would you miss if local life and culture changed dramatically? What do you take for granted that’s in the background but that you would be sorry to say goodbye to?

Families, friends, people, Church, parish life, local sports fixtures – and even the weather – apart, is there something you’ve given very little thought to that you’d miss nevertheless if you found it isn’t there when you wake up tomorrow morning? Local newspapers, second-hand bookshops and old-fashioned English pubs come high on my list this summer.

The demise of the local newspaper

I think I’d miss local newspapers. I’ve worked for so many of them in the past that I know their value and their place in local society. I began my career as a journalist freelancing for local newspapers in the English Midlands in the early 1970s, including the Lichfield Mercury, the Rugeley Mercury and the Tamworth Herald, before I contributed to the Kilkenny People, and then landed a job with the People newspaper group in Wexford and Wicklow, including the Wexford People, the Enniscorthy Guardian, the New Ross Standard, the Wicklow People and the Bray People.

I stayed in Wexford for three years, and then moved on to The Irish Times, staying there for another 27 years.

And so, after more than 30 years in journalism, I’m sad to see local newspapers are closing down left, right and centre across England. The latest one to come to my attention was the Lichfield Post. It may have been a rival to the Lichfield Mercury, but it’s still sad to see a local newspaper being shut down by its proprietors.

The Lichfield Post, which started in the 1980s as a companion paper to the Chase Post, closed last month with the loss of 17 journalists’ jobs and 94 jobs across all departments. Other titles to shut down in the Midlands recent weeks include the Tamworth Times, the Burton Trader, the Walsall Observer, the Bedworth Echo, the Rugby Times, the Loughborough Trader Xtra, the Ashby Trader & Echo, and the Coalville Echo. The Birmingham Post has gone from being a daily newspaper to being a weekly.

Writing in the Guardian on Tuesday, Simon Jenkins said: “At present the newspaper industry is like the British army retreating at Wapping … Local newspapers are dying quietly …”

But the crisis facing the print media is not just a crisis for local newspapers. There’s a large question mark hanging over the future of Britain’s oldest Sunday newspaper, the Observer. In many ways, blogs are replacing the local newspaper. They can be updated quickly; they’re there when the news breaks. They communicate with people in a way that just serves to show how many newspapers have lost contact with their readers. One of the best examples of an up-to-date, punchy, lively, informative and well-designed local news blog is the Lichfield Blog: http://thelichfieldblog.co.uk/.

Many local newspapers in recent years reduced themselves to thin news wrap-arounds that helped to sell advertising bumph for car sellers and estate agents. And now that the recession has hit house and car sales more than many other sectors, local newspapers are left wondering how they play catch up with their revenue losses, rather than asking why they lost touch with the reason they are there in the first instance – to give us the news.

In Lichfield this week, I was happy to buy the Lichfield Mercury and catch up again with the local news in a part of England that is still part of me.

Lost dogs are being reunited with their owners after many years. Award-winning teachers continue to retire. Local writers are producing new books. Parish pump news is still worth telling. People from this part of England are anxious to tell their neighbours that they’ve been reading the local newspaper in far-away laces, including the Alps, the Gulf and the Antarctic.

The fate of second-hand bookshops

The Oxfam shop in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

I think I’d miss good second-hand bookshops. Last week, the Guardian claimed that Oxfam’s second-hand bookshops are posing a real threat to the best of English second-hand bookshops. Oxfam shops often pay lower rates as charities, are often staffed by volunteers, and by going for the popular blockbusters and the pool-side favourites they often fail to stock books of specialist interest, such as local history, theology and classics.

On the other hand, some of these advantages are enjoyed by other mainstream bookshops, including some cathedral, university and student union bookshops.

Oxfam can hardly be blamed for the closure of some of the best second-hand bookshops in Dublin. Other forces were at work, including the greed of landlords who demanded higher and higher rents, and the decision by some proprietors to go online.

But being online can never replace physical presence. I love that serendipitous experience after walking into a first-rate second-hand bookshop and tumbling across ideas and subjects that never came to the frontal lobes before, before walking out with two arms longer than the physiotherapist recommended, and still having change deep in my pocket.

The Staffs Bookshop, Dam Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

On Wednesday morning, I spent more time than I expected to, and bought less than I ought to have, in two of my favourite second-hand bookshop, the Staffs Bookshop on Dam Street in Lichfield, and the bookshop that is part of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Breadmarket Street.

Advice from Dr Johnson outside the Queen’s Head in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Sadly, the Staffs Bookshop has fewer books on local history, and the new entrance takes way from its formrer fading elegance. In the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, they’re preparing to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Dr Johnson, a Lichfield bookseller’s son, next month … but more about that next month ...

The pubs with many names

I think I’d also miss local pubs. I’m not one for warm beer on an English summer afternoon. Give me my Pinot Grigio instead, please. But there’s a certain charm about English pubs that’s not found in Irish pubs.

The Talbot in Quemerford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Two weeks ago, I was pleasantly charmed by the warm welcome I received in the White Hart in Calne and the Talbot in Quemerford. They’re both in North Wiltshire, and while they may never feature in a Blue Guide to English Pubs, they had an easy-going authenticity and a genuinely warm welcome.

This week, I revisited some pubs in Lichfield that I had more than a passing acquaintance with in the early 1970s during my late teens and early 20s. And it is sad to note that some of these pubs have gone forever.

The Prince of Wales on Bore Street, Lichfield is long closed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

At one time, when I was staying on Birmingham Road, I had a nodding acquaintance with the Duke of Wellington. I knew the Prince of Wales and George IV well as I joined many local people and local bores in both places in Bore Street. I had my photograph taken by the Earl of Lichfield. And I was a guest of the Duke of York in Greenhill – waking up to hear the news of the coup against Salvador Allende in 1973. The Duke of Wellington is still there on Birmingham Road, the Earl of Lichfield stands beside McDonald’s in Conduit Street, and the George IV has had a new lease of life as a popular music venue. But the Prince of Wales has long closed, and the Duke of York is finding it difficult to find a tenant.

The Duke of York was named after James II. With its broken windows and its faded signs, it cuts a lonely picture today. Inside, I remember it as a timber-framed building – for all the world like a traditional English country pub. It must have dated back to long before the Duke of York became James II in 1686, and it was the principle pub when Lichfield’s Greenhill Bower was celebrated here.

The King’s Head ... ideal for a lazy drink with old friends in the cobbled courtyard in the summer sun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

After Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral on Tuesday evening, I spent half an hour with an old friend and colleague in the sun in the cobbled courtyard of the King’s Head in Beacon Street, close to the former offices of the Lichfield Mercury when I was trying to start working as freelance journalist. After dinner, I passed Paradise – they say I’m too old to know what goes on there – and had a glass of wine in the Queen’s Head in Queen’s Street. The King’s Head and the Queen’s Head in one evening – a right, royal combination, even if I didn’t venture into Paradise.

But what is happening to Lichfield’s old, historic pubs is symptomatic of what is happening to old, friendly pubs throughout England. Almost three centuries ago, in 1732, when Lichfield had a population of 3,500, the cathedral city had 80 pubs, one for every 44 people. Today Lichfield has a population of 30,000 and about two dozen or so pubs.

Some of the names of Lichfield’s long lost pubs open up curious historical debates. Did the name of the Three Crowns – once beloved of Dr Samuel Johnson who was born a few houses away on the corner of the Market Place and Breadmarket Street – refer to the union of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland under James I? Or did it refer to the Triple Crown of the Papacy?

The Swan ... was it the oldest pub in Lichfield? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Of course, the George should not be confused with George IV. The King’s Head claims to be the oldest pub in Lichfield, dating from 1408, but no-one knows which king it was called after. Despite those claims, the Swan is older – it dates from 1362, but it’s not a pub in the traditional meaning of the word today … it’s a very fine restaurant.

John Shaw, who is an expert on Lichfield pub names says the Talbot – which has long given way to an arcade of modern shops – took its name from the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury and patrons of Pugin’s architectural career. But perhaps it stood on the site of the 17th century Lichfield townhouse of the Comberfords of nearby Comberford, who used a talbot as their heraldic emblem.

In the desire to follow fashion, some pubs in Lichfield have lost their traditional names. The Acorn in Tamworth Street, which may have taken its name from a local legend about Charles II hiding in an oak tree during the English Civil War, was sadly renamed the Pig and Truffle in 1988.

The Queen’s Head, on Queen Street, oozes a strong sense of community. Both the pub and the street date from the 1830s and take their name from Queen Victoria. This area had a large Irish immigrant population in the 1860s, and yet it has remained one of the most traditional English pubs in Lichfield.

The loss of places like the Prince of Wales or the Duke of York is the loss of a sense of community, an awareness of place and perhaps too a sense of history. But I was happy to be back in the King’s Head and the Queen’s Head this week, and to spend some of my time in both places reading the Lichfield Mercury. I would hate to lose old local newspapers, good second-hand bookshops and those quaint English pubs.

John Shaw’s The Old Pubs of Lichfield was first published in 2001, and reprinted in 2007 by George Lane Publishing, Lichfield, Staffordshire, WS13 6DU (£9.99 in bookshops in Lichfield).

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