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Cultural Demise: The Gutting of the Hospitality Sector is About More than Jobs

Chris Sullivan, who founded the Wag Club in Soho, considers the sad end of London’s Café de Paris and the future of the UK’s pub, bar and club industry

Chorus girls known as ‘The Television Toppers’ perform a show at the Cafe de Paris in London in November 1952. Photo: Barratts/S&G Barratts/EMPICS Archive

CULTURAL DemiseThe Gutting of the Hospitality Sector is About More than Jobs

Chris Sullivan, who founded the Wag Club in Soho, considers the sad end of London’s Café de Paris and the future of the UK’s pub, bar and club industry

The 96-year-old Café de Paris, one of the West End’s oldest nightspots, has closed for good.

“We tried everything but the devastating effect of COVID-19 in the end was too much, said a spokesperson for the venue’s owner. “Like so many other hospitality businesses, we have reached the end of the road.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, the hospitality sector has been hit harder by the Coronavirus pandemic than any other. It accounted for a third of all national job losses (270,000) between February and November 2020 – 130,000 more than in retail, its nearest rival.

The new lockdown in England has been a crippling blow to businesses already on the verge of collapse. The Government’s response has been a one-off cash grant of £1,000 from local councils, but this figure is negligible – considering that the average rent for a London pub is £25,000 plus business rates, which usually amount to more than half as much again.  

“If you look at the number of people losing their jobs, the number of people on furlough and the vacancies available for people looking for jobs in the hospitality sector, all that adds up to a very difficult time for that industry,” the ONS’s director of economic statistics, Darren Morgan, told the BBC’s Today programme.

Therefore, unsurprisingly, the public clamour for more Government support is palpable. After two public petitions obtained more than 250,000 signatures, a House of Commons debate was held on the future of the hospitality industry last week.

Labour MP Catherine McKinnell asked the Government to “commit to examine urgently the inadequacies of their support measures as they relate to hospitality suppliers” and to “consider introducing some flexibility to the local restrictions support grants, to give local authorities the freedom to grant and target support towards the businesses that need it and can use it best”.

There is little doubt that, without further Government assistance, the hospitality sector will take decades to recover. But this collapse will not just be suffered by those who have been financially devastated or left without a job – it will also be felt in the membrane of our collective culture.

Pubs and clubs are social places – for many a second home. Many young and old people, living alone and otherwise solitary, rely on these places to meet and be with friends. Without them, we risk dragging the effects of lockdown into the post-pandemic era. Indeed, there will be no ‘opening up’ for many venues and for the people who previously relied on them.

Although various public sector and charitable organisations have set up initiatives to address the problem of loneliness, the country is facing a mental health epidemic.

The Office for National Statistics survey indicates that depression linked to isolation has risen from 7% before the pandemic to 18%. Among women, this figure has risen even more worryingly, from 11% to 27%. The London Ambulance Service has seen suicide attempts double over the same period, while anecdotal evidence suggests that alcohol and drug misuse has increased.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have substantially affected our use of legal and illegal drugs,” said Dr Will Lawn and Martine Skumlien, of the Society for the Study of Addiction. “In the UK, we have adapted to the closure of pubs and restaurants by purchasing considerably more alcohol in supermarkets and off-licences”.

The Café de Paris, for its part, was a cultural institution, frequented during its illustrious history by Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie and Prince. It even survived a direct bombing in World War Two that killed Ken “Snakehips” Johnson and members of his band.

It then weathered post-war austerity, the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, and the banking crash of 2008. The pandemic, however, has proven too much.

The Café de Paris is now an object of history, along with dozens of other venues across every city and town in the country. Soho alone, once the centre of the UK’s £16 billion night club industry, has lost an estimated 90% of its night clubs.

Ironically, the Café de Paris was created in 1924 during a boom in creativity, cultural revitalisation and hedonism that followed the end of World War One and the Spanish Flu pandemic.

If the Government seeks another ‘Roaring Twenties’ – an innovative, creative, cultural recovery – then it must create the conditions for this to happen.

This is not just about money and jobs – it’s about the fabric of our society and culture; the places we go and the people we meet there. We should not deny this to future generations.

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