'Imagination will take you everywhere'
It seems ironic that one of the defining features of British culture is slipping into an alarming decline. The good old pub with its roaring fire, creaking floorboards, friendly atmosphere and comforting pints of beer has long been seen as the beating heart of a community. But could the new Department of Health guidelines on alcohol consumption be the final nail in the coffin for our beloved boozers?
Labelled as an ‘Endangered British Species’ by the Times, the British Pub Association says up to 29 pubs closed per week in the UK during 2014. There are currently fewer than 52,000 pubs in the UK – a decline of around 3,000 from 2012. London is the worst offender with rising property prices and the threat of gentrification pushing many locals out of business.
Down St John Street alone, nine pubs have closed and are now used as residential or commercial space according to the Lost Pubs Project – a website archiving all the pubs that have closed down in England. So will this be the last call for the British pub industry?
Polish born, Jan Klos, hopes not and is using the medium of photography to preserve the unique spirit of our watering holes. Entitled, The Photographic Guide to the Pubs of East London, his photo series pays homage to UK pub culture. He depicts the communities behind London’s local public houses in the style of family portraits; each one is different, showing not only the diversity of pubs in the city, but also the diversity of the people that work within them.
Klos, 31, expresses his love for the stereotypical British boozer; “On the Continent there is mainly a bar culture, which is completely different; places open early evening, they never open from noon. You can’t bring your dog; you can’t bring your child.” Pubs, he says are more like homes. “A social meeting point; the centre of the village, like a hub,” mumbles Klos wistfully while fiddling his beard.
Several East End pubs that Klos photographed are now facing closure, including the Nelson’s Head in Hackney, which was the photographer’s favourite to shoot; “I just love the pub itself, I love the staff and I love everything about it. But it shut down unfortunately in February. It’s been a joy to work with them,” says Klos. The photograph of Nelson’s Head has been particularly well-received – it won the Gold Award at the 158th Royal Photographic Society International Print Exhibition.
Another one that Klos shot was The George Tavern, a quaint public house and vibrant arts venue on Commercial Road which has had a colourful past. It’s 700 years old and was mentioned in the writing of Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys. In more recent times it has hosted photoshoots for Kate Moss, Georgia May Jagger and Amy Winehouse, as well as events for Plan B and Nick Cave.
Now the renowned watering hole is under threat from developers who plan to build flats on an adjacent site which will affect their late license. Almost 3,000 people signed a petition to stop the developers – including Sir Ian McKellen, Jo Whiley and Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs. Alas it was not enough and now the pub is appealing the decision in the High Court.
Despite the closures, Klos insists “this was never a project that was supposed to aim at grieving”. For him it was about documenting the moment. He adds that he wants the photographs to be seen as a “celebration”.
Klos’ work often looks at traditions and communities in a rapidly changing society. Dependants, his previous collection of photographs focused on religion in his home country (80 per cent of Poland’s population are Catholic). He says; “It’s interesting because for British people it is the pub that is the meeting point. I think for quite a long time in Poland that was the case for the church and it’s still like that, so I felt a lot of pressure to go to church [as a child]. I never really believed in anything so I thought it was a waste of time.”
The images evoke isolation; Klos explains that many young people in Poland are still going to church, but not because they believe. “They are being forced by society and by their parents. I see it as more of a tradition than religion.” This documentary style is woven throughout his photographs; “I always like to observe things in different cultures, I think that’s important,” says Klos.
The Photographic Guide to the Pubs of East London is an observation of British culture – a social commentary on our modern world but with a subtle nod to an old photographic technique. The series was inspired by 18th century classical portraiture – known as ‘conversation pieces’. Klos says; “I like the dynamics of the situation; how people sit in different heights and different depths.”
For now, Klos plans to continue photographing pubs and hopes to produce a book of the series; “I’m chatting to a few publishers about that, so there’s quite a lot of work still to do.” So far he has photographed 20 pubs, but plans to photograph 30 – 40 more. It’s a timely depiction of our much-loved pubs – albeit with an added sense of melancholy at the loss of such a strong part of British heritage and culture.
Klos’ pictures are a metaphorical toast to our assortment of pubs and the vibrant mix of personalities that drive them. So let’s drink to them – they may not be here for as long as you think.
Jan Klos’ photograph of Nelson’s Head is currently being exhibited at Aberystwyth Arts Centre for the Royal Photographic Society International Print Exhibition 158 (28 November – 30 January).
This article was originally published on St John Street News.