Timothea Armour on the future of the pub

Timothea Armour is one of this year's selected participants in the mentorship programme Satellites, by Collective Gallery. She has structured a series of events and publications around different Edinburgh pubs and the precarity of these establishments

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 10 Oct 2017
  • Timothea Armour on the future of the pub

As one of the selected participants in the 2017 Satellites Programme, Timothea Armour has curated The Last Hour! Throughout this month and into November, she has devised a series of events and a newspaper to be distributed in pubs around Collective Gallery. Her proposal emerged from spending some time working in pubs since graduating, and beginning to observe some of the troubling trends of commercial pressure from big chains and difficult trading conditions for independents.

One of the most important pubs to Armour’s project is The Waverley. “That had a pretty special interior that had been unchanged since the 1960s, and it had been run by the same person for a long time. When he died, the future of that pub looked uncertain.” After some chats with a friend about whether they could buy it, eventually the Collective project replaced initial suggestions to become first-time pub-owners.

The shape of the project is loosely based on a Mass Observation study from 1938, titled The Pub and the People. Mass Observation has since fallen out of fashion as a research method, being considered as overly subjective. “Observers were almost undercover and would get involved in the situations they were observing. A flawed subjective methodology seemed appropriate to pubs. There’s a lot of feeling there; a detached approach would have seemed inappropriate.”

As part of the Mass Observation exercises, there is an emphasis on listening and smells, creating a multisensory experience. A series of prompts will be given to participants as part of the Field Trip (7 October at 3.30pm), when artist Lloyd and Wilson will guide participants to visit a series of pubs around Calton Hill – places are free, drinks not included.

Through the process of formulating the Satellites project, Armour gradually began to perceive the increasing precarity of the pub as we might know it. “If you have a pub that prioritises its sociability and hospitality over making money, a lot of them will struggle to survive. [Eventually] they’ll have to put up the price of pints and [so] exclude more people because they’re paying rent to a large company. [These companies] structure the industry and pubs that put ethos in front of profit are put at a disadvantage.”

Armour also realised at one point that many pubs that seemed to have persisted unchanged had in fact been absorbed into larger chains, without any obvious outward appearance of the change. “In Edinburgh, a lot of pubs that have been there for a long time and ostensibly haven’t changed that much are actually run by massive, but fairly hidden, property developers.” In these places, Armour admits they often have interesting decors and good pints, but there’s something missing, or a bit “uncanny” when there’s no personal touch. By contrast, Armour mentions the good vibes of the new pub Dreadnought, and the more established Jolly Judge by the Castle.

As the final event, Armour presents Public House by Sarah Turner, which for her brings out some of the most important questions of the project. “What it means to be local and what sense of agency does a community have that it uses when it’s under threat? It’s a nice note to end on, [as it tells the true story of] locals that were successful in buying a pub. It can be done, even in London.”

The Last Hour, Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, until 5 November, free