Not such great expectations

Although it won’t be obvious to you, dear reader, the last two blog entries are related in a way. To clarify, here’s a brief anecdote from our walking trip in Kent a couple of weeks ago…

The B&B where we spent our first night was on the edge of Maidstone, so rather than heading into the city centre, we decided to explore the immediate area. Based on a two independent recommendations, we walked to Allington Lock, specifically for food and drink at the waterside pub (“much nicer than the Beefeater on the main road”, they assured us). The area was indeed beautiful… a real scene of idyllic English country charm. Expecting the cosy country pub that such a scene usually includes, we headed for the Malta Inn… only to find that it was another Beefeater Inn.

Now, if you’re not from the UK and wonder what was so bad about this pub… well, at the best of times, Beefeaters represent a bland, watered-down version of the traditional image of British pubs. This particular example went further… the total lack of decent beer or food was unfortunate but not unusual… many of our large pub chains are guilty of this. Likewise, the dingy, dirty interior of what could have been a fine old building was a shame, but hardly surprising, given the general lack of staff. And the pathetic service (food left unattended at the end of the bar for customers to collect it) could be improved through staff training. But when all these elements are combined, you have a miserable pub experience. Add to this the piped music… imbecilic Top-40 pop is not unusual in large chain pubs, but this one had a large beer garden… complete with an array of PA speakers mounted on a stand. No escape!

Anyway, rant over. If you come to the UK, be sure to avoid Beefeater pubs… that’s not what our pub tradition is all about.

Strangely, though, as we looked around us (the measly portions of food meant we had plenty of time for people-watching) everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves. As we later walked along the pleasant canal path into town, people were walking from the nearby estates (up to a mile away) to the Malta Inn. Why? Surely we couldn’t be the only people there who expected more from their Saturday night pub experience?

Well, maybe that’s just it. Are people’s expectations decreasing? They attempt to make informed choices based on what they see as being available to them, but the all-pervasive influence of lifestyle advertising and televisual peer pressure confuses the concept of “quality”, and the consumer happily accepts less and less each time. The cycle is completed when, lulled by comfortable familiarity, the consumer ceases to look for better options; after all, this must be the best… it was on TV once. I don’t mean to sound patronising here; I’ve been in the same situation plenty of times. However, an inquisitive mind (not to mention too many hours sat in front of this shiny electronic box) means I’m usually unwilling to accept that there isn’t “something better” out there somewhere.

This, I believe, is why a huge number of people will happily sit in a dirty, overpriced, charmless pub, deafened by music they have no control over, seemingly unaware of the crushing contrast with the picturesque surrounding countryside. It’s what they’ve come to accept as The Best. The beer is cold, there’s somewhere for the kids to play, and they even do food. Chips! Free ketchup! Take this argument and read the last blog entry, on the illegal food trade… isn’t this just the same thing? These chickens are so cheap! We’ll buy five! Until people are prepared, en masse, to be cantankerous and argumentative, the gradual erosion of standards and expectations will continue, and the shops, cafes and pubs will continue to be piled high with worthless crap. It’s no use if just a few whinging university types (like me) get wound up; this has to be a mass show of non-acceptance. Someone get the ball rolling, please…

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