I've been out of sorts the past fortnight, and it's not just the usual stuff - getting a bit too drunk at a family function, the thankless grind of work, the weather. It's that I don't have my pub right across the road from me any more. The Horse and Groom, Woodbridge Road, Ipswich, shut down a fortnight ago - and I feel like I've lost a limb.
It's not the booze: it's the people. The Horse and Groom, aka the Doom and Gloom, was a proper old-fashioned working-class boozer. The landlord, Eddie, and his wife, Sarah, ran the place as pubs used to be run. There was a crib team, a darts team, a pool team. And there were regular quizzes, a meat raffle, a lottery syndicate and an annual coach trip to the Newmarket races. You could sit there and read the papers or talk as you fancied. And now - it's sinking in - it's all over.
They had a great send-off the weekend before last, but then the shutters went up - or rather the corrugated metal sheets they now screw over windows and doors to stop squatters and break-ins. And now ... well, now, it's a choice between the Dove or the Grinning Rat (previously the Olive Leaf) 100 yards away or the Milestone 200 yards in the other direction.
So what, you might think. But the reason Ed and Sarah got out was that they'd been made an offer they could only refuse by the company that owned the pub freehold - increased rent plus a continuation of a disgraceful tied deal on booze that meant they were forced to buy most stock at wholesale prices that were beaten by every local supermarket's retail offers. On those terms, they couldn't make a living.
And the reason the company made that offer was that it saw the pub simply as real estate. With Ipswich's dockside redevelopment moving apace, you can get £250,000 no problem for a two-bedroom flat round here - and the pub could easily be turned into four or five bijou dwellingettes. Conveniently, because there are so many boozers within walking distance, change of use is a potential walkover, particularly with a Tory council. No one has been moved in to manage the pub.
Three weeks ago, this time on Sunday, I was thinking of going over for a pint - and I did. Today, I could catch one somewhere else before closing-time if I went out now. But all the other pubs are anonymous places where I don't know anyone. I still see my neighbours, but there's no longer an automatic meeting point: the football and rugby and cricket on the telly, the Saturday lunchtime get-together of the old Labour guys, Nick two doors up very late on a Friday, old Terence talking about books at opening time early evening when the cricket's on.
The point is simple: closing proper pubs wrecks communities, and the criminally anti-competitive practices of the property companies that now run so many of them deserve to be busted. But as things stand there is nothing we can do to stop our boozers being shut and turned into yuppie residences. Time for some serious legislation, Gordon?