Pub season is well and truly underway. I mean, this is England, so that's meant blinding heat one week, then a month's worth of rain in one day the next. That hasn't stopped the gentle pilgrimage outside, on weekdays when the sun suddenly comes shrieking from behind a cloud and commands you to the packed pavement outside a pub. It hasn't held back loose Saturday texts – "pub?" – when the temperature creeps over 19C.
Like I said: this is England. The pub is part of our social fabric.
Except it doesn’t necessarily feel that way for everyone. Journalist and author Hussein Kesvani has already covered some of the realities of being Muslim at the pub for VICE. But, as I was heading out to respond to the sun’s siren call on a recent weekend, I realised I don’t tend to see many other young black people in big groups, at the pub. At restaurants and bars? Sure. But pubs (beyond Wetherspoons, the inclusive GOAT) are different – and that’s been bandied about in conversations I’ve had with friends of my own, while also popping up time and again on UK Black Twitter this year.
Of course, pubs aren’t for everyone and there are people of all backgrounds who don’t like them for whatever reason. Even so, black people have established communities in parts of London where their demographics aren’t massively represented in pubs. I set off to investigate why that may be, at least anecdotally.
“I remember when I was younger, I would run into pubs and they were just all white men, so I had no real desire to stay there,” says Clem Ogbonnaya, who’s owned southeast London’s Prince of Peckham pub since 2017. “I see why a lot of young black kids in London now don’t want to go to pubs as the pubs move into areas like Peckham, but only want to cater to new incumbents. They forget about all the people who have been here for the past few decades.” He remembers working in a pub in Kensal Green, “and they shut out the locals there and only really catered to the people buying the £650,000 one-bed flats. I didn’t want to do that here.” Clem hopes to change a lot of young black Londoners' views of pubs as unwelcoming places.
And he’s not doing too badly. Punters see the Prince of Peckham as a sort of safe haven. Like so many neighbourhoods "regenerating" fast enough to take your breath away, Peckham’s charged into a period of immense change driven by rising rents, new businesses and the ever-present turnover of new faces attending the two art schools in the area. Sometimes, it can feel like a transitory place designed to entertain, rather than serve the communities who’ve laid down roots there.
"Clem really went out of his way to incorporate the community," says Anton, a Peckham local. “We go to a lot of places where we could be the only black people there, and it really puts me off sometimes." His friend, Tish, also from Peckham agrees. "This pub really caters to us. We can come here and see people who look like us, but when we go to pubs in other parts of London, it can feel slightly uncomfortable. We come here just to chill sometimes, not even drink. I feel at home."
When you think of a traditional pub, you imagine one that caters for an older, largely white demographic (of whatever class fits that specific area). But while that borderline stereotype can put off some of the people I spoke to, several young south Londoners mention the new batch of "gentrifier" pubs as a new frontier of quiet hostility.
"So many of these new pubs don’t even do Guinness or Heineken. They’ve just got all these local pale ales," JJ, another Peckham local, begins. "At least in Prince of Peckham, you can get a Red Stripe. How many gastro pubs serve Red Stripe?!"
"I’ve had people start debates about racial or socio-political issues with me. Sometimes I just want to go for a drink – I’m not there to explain race to white people" – Malachi, from northeast London
For Tish, those pubs only seem to reinforce old stereotypes. "I think that if a group of black boys walk into a posh pub wearing trackies, they might feel like they stand out too much or that others don’t want them there." Anton agrees, citing an observation he made, working in a local Peckham bar: "I saw this group of local boys walk in, dressed pretty casually, and you could just see them looking around and generally look uncomfortable. The drink prices definitely didn’t help as well. It’s a real shame because that’s the area they grew up in and it doesn’t feel like theirs anymore."
"I’ve had people tell me that I've come into Peckham just at the right time or that they can’t believe that Prince of Peckham is owned by a black person," Clem says. "I'm not concerned if people walk past and view this as a yuppie pub or whatever. Come in and actually see for yourself. We just try to stay true to the culture in any way we can."
But differences cleave across parts of the city, too. I venture into central London, looking for some "gentrifier" pubs that the south London punters pointed to as being divisive. Dashing into one that looks particularly fancy, I meet Habiba, a 23-year-old journalist from east London, who I once had a brief conversation with about her dislike of pubs. Stating that certain pubs often make her feel uncomfortable, inevitably Brexit – and the post-result spike in hate crimes and heightened sense of difference – comes up.
"There can be a bit more tension in those predominantly white working class pubs" as a result of the referendum, she says. "I went to Wetherspoons the other day and just didn’t like it. I think it’s just the connotations of pubs – they're just not a bit of me. I don’t ever see people there that look like me. Even after work with colleagues, we would just go to bars instead of pubs."
Across the room, I spy a group of guys in suits. I get chatting to Malachi, a northeast Londoner working in finance. You could say he’s already accustomed to being in a racial minority due to his job, but he’s also the only black player on his local rugby team, who often hit majority-white working class pubs after matches. Being one of a few black people or the sole black person in a pub is nothing new to him. He points to often awkward conversations with fellow punters at post-match socials.
"I've had people start debates about racial or socio-political issues. And while I do have views on those topics, sometimes I just want to go for a drink. I’m not there to explain race to white people. I understand that they just want to learn about these things, but there's a time and place."
That said, for Malachi, the more gentrified pubs aren't without their problems – cost and clientele can still be deterrents. "When I’m not with my rugby mates, I usually hang around Angel, as I know I can find a drink that's not as expensive as in central, but it’s easy for all of my group to get to. I also know that it’ll be a little bit more diverse than some of the places in Soho, for example, but still feel quite young and modern."
Pubs historically serve "the public" (the clue is in the name). When several ethnicities live in an area, faced with a history of myths about "self-segregation" and inherent difference based on race, that throws up complicated questions about how to serve that public. For plenty of people, race is irrelevant as long as a pub has good wine, a solid beer selection, that one great corner table. Yet most of the young black Londoners I spoke to are keen for pubs to also accurately reflect the community around them.
"Of course, Prince of Peckham is a reflection of me and what I’m about, but first and foremost, I wanted it to be welcoming to everyone that’s here," says Clem. "We have the Nigerian aunties, the Jamaican uncles playing dominoes, the kids from the block over there. Those guys over there came and had never been to a pub before, but came because they heard the jerk chicken was sick!"
In time, everyone might be able to let go of old assumptions and step right in. Tis the season, after all.