“A Pub Co Christmas Carol” a year on.
The Characters in this Jovial Christmas Tale are purely fictitious and any similarity to real people is not intended, but it might just prick a conscience or two.
It was 11.30 pm Christmas Eve 2010, a foul night, freezing with sleet and snow, gale force winds roaring across the West Country.
The M5 was blocked and a few diversions were in place, the North Coast Road was the only one open to Cornwall and that was blocked on Countisbury Hill.
Two cars were pushing along, one following the other and the one in front kept going because the other was behind.
The driver of the first car, thought this is bizarre, this happened last year, it can’t possibly happen again.
The diversion from the M5 had taken them through Minehead from Taunton, not an easy drive, Porlock Hill was just manageable with loads of salt and grit.
Just before Culbone Stables another diversion to the left, down into the Doone Valley where there was very little snow and some icy roads, by- passing Countisbury Hill.
The driver of the first car began to feel shivers running up and down his spine, he instinctively locked the doors.
The two cars picked their way carefully down the narrow lane, one a dark grey Aston Martin and the other a silver BMW.
It had taken ten hours to get this far from the Midlands, both drivers hoping to get to Cornwall for Christmas.
Both cars were slipping on patchy ice along the lanes, their speeds far slower than the speeds that they were built for, stupid driving was not on the agenda. They passed through a hamlet and up an incline beside the East Lyn River, which was in full flood and not a place to skid into on a dark night.
The incline flattened and then descended down, both cars slowed to a crawl and inched down the hill to a pub with a car park beside the river.
The road immediately started to rise on the other side of the pub and they realised that neither would be going anywhere with the snow and ice on the road and gently reversed into the pub car park overlooking the river.
The lights were on and it looked like a haven in the wilderness with a big fire flickering through the windows, the time was 11.30 pm, it had been a long day.
The driver of the first car was now in a cold sweat, he had stopped here last year and somehow the world had walked across his grave. He knew the pub, when he had arrived the lights were on with a jovial landlord a blazing fire a warming drink and when he left it, there were no lights and it looked derelict.
Somebody had obviously bought the pub and reopened it.
There were no cars in either car park, the second car was pulling into the other car park.
They both climbed out of their cars with hats pulled down and collars up and dashed for the pub door, they stepped in and shut the door quickly.
A large jovial man dressed as Father Christmas, behind the bar chortled “Happy Christmas”, both drivers grunted about how foul the weather was and made a beeline for the seats on either side of the fire, removing their coats as they sat down.
The bar was decorated with holly and festive decorations, carols were playing quietly in the background, the subtleties of Christmas celebration were wasted on the two exhausted drivers.
The jovial Father Christmas brought over some mince pies and said that they were on the house, since all his usual customers were long gone.
The first driver looked at the second driver and realised that it was his colleague from Titanic Inns, Obadiah Townshend. He said “What are you doing here? This is miles out of your way.”
He replied that he had followed the diversion and thought he recognised the car in front and kept following.
The landlord asked them both if they would like to try some mulled ale, producing two halves of a very dark beer and plunging a hot poker out of the blazing fire into the glasses with a loud hiss.
They both drank the warming ale and lapsed into a near totally relaxed state, in fact any movement was an effort, they both looked at the glasses which had a logo saying “The Devils Brew”, fresh from the Devils Brewery on Dartmoor.
Both men felt a gentle squeeze on their shoulders and came to.
The large jovial Father Christmas said to them “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past, come and join me.”
The door opened, the wind had stopped blowing and all three stepped outside.
They were both bemused but in a fuddled state and the jovial giant picked them up and they all three zoomed upwards and Eastwards.
Neither felt cold or terrified as they sped back across Exmoor, Taunton with the lights flickering, the M5 snaking Northwards covered in snow with lines of stationary cars with twinkling lights.
Swinging East along the A303, over Andover, Basingstoke, the River Thames was shimmering in the moonlight meandering through the white countryside.
They finally floated down on to the car park of a pub in a small village called Laleham on Thames.
Ebenezer though, “I’ve done this before it’s all very familiar.” Obadiah was lost for words and looked terrified.
The pub was called “The Ash Tree”, it didn’t look inspiring, there were some very old cars parked outside, all covered in snow and not a place that either would frequent.
All three walked into the pub, nobody even noticed them, the pub was packed, everyone was singing carols and having a fabulous time, the staff were all working like mad, the landlord Frank was everywhere, the two had never seen a pub as busy as this for years.
The Ghost of Christmas Past eased them out of the door for a short walk towards the centre of the village and the “Saracens Head”, this was a much smaller pub, but again, this was packed with people enjoying themselves and celebrating Christmas Eve, they were all local people, the same as those in “The Ash Tree”.
The Ghost eased them once again out of the door, they appeared to be invisible, nobody noticed.
They walked round the corner by the village church and a hundred yards further on was the “Five Horse Shoes”, there were some wonderful old sports cars parked outside, again covered in snow.
They walked in, again the pub was packed with young people and a few older ones all enjoying themselves celebrating Christmas, it was a beautiful pub with genuine beams, polished brass and a big fire.
Stanley the licensee was dispensing hospitality to everyone.
The two looked at each other, their thoughts were the same what incredible businesses.
The Ghost once again eased them out of the door again and said that they must get back because time was limited, they flew West to Exmoor and back to their seats in front of the pub fire.
They both immediately started to doze, the door flew open and a lady in a long white cloak with fur trimming came in clutching a book, in fact she looked just like Bridget Jones with her Diary from the Beer and Pub Association.
She looked at our two weary travellers and said, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present, come and join me.”
She took them both up and over Exmoor, in exactly the same way as the Ghost of Christmas Past, finally landing in “The Ash Tree” car park, there was one car in the car park and a fairly old one with two flat tyres and no tax disc.
The pub was boarded up and sign saying possible redevelopment, all offers considered.
All three moved out very quickly the whole thing was totally depressing, the “Saracens Head” further down the road towards the village centre was boarded up, with a tired business agents sign hanging off the wall saying business opportunity, and looked as though it had been there for a long time.
Once again they walked round the church and could see the illuminated sign of the “Five Horse Shoes”.
Three cars were in the car park, the door opened and a scruffily dressed man walked past them.
They entered the bar that had been so vibrant and fun, the air was subdued, piped pop music was blaring out with about three customers and a tired barman.
All three walked into the pub it was looking tired, there were three customers and a manager from the Management Company running the place, the pub that had been so vibrant was like a morgue.
They were discussing how many people had failed in the pub, because the rent was too high, the discounts were non existent and people couldn’t make a fair living.
The conversation once again was about greedy landlords or Pub Co’s, the difference was the same, nothing had been invested in the pub, a succession of inexperienced people who had all failed miserably because the landlords draconian demands had been too much for any to survive.
All the time the Ghost of Christmas Present was scribbling in her Diary, she finally took them outside much to their relief and transported them back to the West and the comfortable chair by the fire side in the Exmoor pub.
They sank into the chairs almost exhausted, she gently opened the door and departed.
It seemed no time at all when the pub door opened a large man in a strange Garb came in, he looked familiar and could easily have been mistaken for the Chairman of the Select Committee who both our weary travellers had managed to incur some scathing comments from.
He approached our two very weary travellers and said, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, please come and join me”.
They both pleaded that they had driven miles and been transported miles and their systems had reached breaking point and they had no desire to see the final ignominy of what had been three brilliant pubs.
He said, “You won’t, you are going into the future in another direction and have no option.”
They staggered to their feet and walked outside the Ghost whisked them upwards and Westwards, across Barnstaple, Okehampton.
Tavistock was away to the right, they were crossing the centre of Dartmoor, the prison loomed up, with Princetown beside it.
The prison was not as Ebenezer had seen it last year, the walls and the security had gone, much to his relief, a large battered sign saying the Dartmoor Devil’s Brewery, steam was rising and people were shuffling in and out moving beer barrels, it was like the last place on earth.
They floated down through the prison wall into the corridors of the old jail, two grey haired and bearded figures were shuffling along pushing some beer barrels, they looked familiar, their hands were gnarled and callused, they appeared to stoop with premature old age.
The terrible premonition that these two sub normal beings could have been them, sent shivers down both their spines, the Ghost looked at them both and shook his head having read their minds, they are just a couple of over zealous BDM’s.
Ebenezer was dreading what might come next, Obadiah was grey with terror, it was nightmare that didn’t stop.
They moved on through the steam laden gloom into where the beer was brewed, there was a very large open topped circular tank with Barrel-Dregs over the top, numerous shambling bodies were emptying the dregs out of every barrel, to their horror, at least twenty of these shambling creatures were up to their necks in the tank trying to walk round with the aim of agitating this foul mess of ullage.
There was a nauseating smell of rotting meat and activated ullage, they thought that they recognised the faces of several colleagues, including themselves though neither dare admit it, but it was the Devil’s Cauldron, the odd carcase rose to the surface to roll and vanish again.
The Ghost smiled at them at their obvious horror and nausea, the added thought that the mulled ale that they had drunk earlier must have come through this disgusting mess.
They both looked at the ghost dressed in his strange garb and mentally asked the same question, “What happened?”
“It’s a long story, the Select Committee were furious that nothing was done and got the new Government to bring in legislation to outlaw increasing rents and over valuing the freehold without considering true business viability and declared it a Ponzi Scheme, since so many people had lost billions of pounds buying leases that were not viable. Every Pub Owning company that followed that method, at least one director, accountant or valuer whose idea to follow suit was held liable.
The Government directed that all people with a justifiable claim against the company even retrospectively could do so, this caused the total collapse of the majority of large Pub Co’s, the directors were held personally liable because it was deemed a criminal act, consequently you both lost everything and were sentenced to fifty years hard labour without reprieve.”
Ebenezer had a frightening thought, his colleague of last year, Silas had retired prematurely and vanished, whereas, he in the cold light of day, thought it was only a nightmare caused through tiredness and exhaustion, and had laughed the whole thing off, lightening doesn’t strike twice or maybe it does.
Silas’ rapid retirement left his successors with the unenviable task of disposing of thousands of pubs worth a fraction of the company debts or their book value, Ebenezer knew that the knock on effect of these problems could or would cause Titanic Inns, massive problems of confidence or even an exposure of how fragile their position had become.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come continued,”Since Dartmoor was closed as a prison last year, a wealthy Russian brewer offered to set up a brewery in the old prison, provided all the inmates of Dartmoor with experience in the pub industry would be allowed to serve the remainder of their time there, which you all agreed.”
They both said, “What happened to our families?”
“They are still living in high rise Council Flats in the Midlands on Social Security with many other prisoners families.”
The Ghost said, “ Have a look at some of your fellow convicts and the ex guards”
Again the terrible realization that there were loads of corporate Pub Co Directors shambling round and the supervisors were all ex licensees, they actually made more money as brewery supervisors than running pubs.
They were both in total shock, much to their relief the Ghost whisked them away from that awful scene and dropped them back in their chairs in front of the fire on Exmoor.
They were woken by the jovial Father Christmas saying the gritter had been through, the weather had warmed up and they could continue their journey.
They both looked at each other and said that they had had the most dreadful dreams and realised that they were both exactly the same, both were in a state of shock.
They put their coats on and walked out of the door thanking the licensee for his generosity and walked to the railings around the car park overlooking the river.
They both said, “Were we really that bad?” and sadly they agreed, “What can we do to make amends?”
Ebenezer said I was going to do that last year and I thought it was a spooky dream, but it doesn’t happen twice or I might just end up in the ullage.
“We can do an awful lot if we really try, we need some people that really understand the industry and licensees, we also need to listen to licensees.”
They had just had a “Whistleblower” expose all the scams that the Pub Co’s had been enforcing for years, the majority were just legal, but morally unacceptable, a BDM had tried to intimidate a lessee in front of two people, who it turned out were influential people in the industry, it was not a good week to be a Pub Co Boss, they were all being tarred with the same brush.
“Let’s see if we can put the clock back, I would prefer to have pubs like those in the past and make honest money for everyone. My shareholders wouldn’t have blocked all our perks if we’d focussed on profitability instead of false property values, hindsight and a prod from the unexplainable might just get our integrity back, if it’s not too late.”
The lights had been turned out on the pub and it was very dark as they climbed into their cars.
They started their engines and the lights came on, showing a boarded up pub with a sagging sign with a faded Titanic Inns Freehouse sign and a sagging banner acquired by the Devil’s Brewery, closed until next Christmas.
They both felt a cold shiver run through their bodies as though someone had just walked over their graves.
It must have happened they still had the after taste of the mulled ale in their mouths.
Looking at the dashboard clocks in their cars it said 11.30 pm????
Please email this to anyone that may appreciate the story and every BDM and Pub Co Director that might benefit, it would be nice if it happened but I think it unlikely and a very Happy Christmas to all our readers.
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