Lukewarm speculation is gathering momentum amongst the hospitality industry as to the nature of a new pub phenomenon - the 'silent drinker'. Landlords and bar staff across the country are increasingly reporting on this astonishing development in drinking behaviour, which seems to have started with the smoking ban.
Barmaid Bekki Cleevage of the Fog and Duck public house explains. "They come in, get a pint, sit down and drink it. Then they get up and go home. That's about it, really." She adds, "I don't know why they bother, really, because they don't really seem to like the booze. They certainly don't hose it back like the lot we had before the ban. One of them made his last two hours the other night." Her opinion is that they are probably just "really shy."
But now eminent UFOlogist Penny Lovehandles has jumped into the fray, openly expressing what some pub landlords have been muttering all along - that a strange,new alien species has invaded our pubs. Writing in the monthly publication 'UFO NOW' she states, "These so-called 'people' display certain characteristics that we more normally associate with extra-terrestrials than with bona fide earthfolk. A reluctance to communicate verbally, an apparent distaste for alcohol and an irrational fear of cigarette smoke are classic traits of alien lifeforms. The evidence just keeps on mounting."
Her claims have provoked a mixed reaction.
Cleaning lady Phyllis Leather of the Milkmaid's Arms hadn't come across Ms. Lovehandles' alien theory, but it makes little impression on her when explained. "Aliens or not," she says, "they make a lot less mess than the smokers - especially the buggers that roll their own." Landlord and boss, Steve Ragg, was even less impressed, choosing instead to argue with Lovehandles' definition of 'regular pub-goer'. "She might be an expert on aliens, but if she thinks 'regular' means one pint of John Smith's a week then the woman's barking. They can be as alien as they like as far as I'm concerned but if they don't start drinking a whole lot more, my pub won't be here for them come Christmas. And that'll be your job gone, Phyllis."
Over at the Glory Hole, barmaids Debbie Ayre-Head and Samantha Perm had heard of the alien invasion theory and are, coincidentally, discussing this very issue as I arrived at the bar.
Says 19 yr old Sam, "I think they might really be from outer space. It's like they've read about going to pubs, but they haven't actually seen it done. So they go to the pub and have a pint. And that's it. And it's like they've just suddenly appeared. From nowhere."
Her 24yr.old colleague disagrees. "I think they've always been there. Sometimes I think I recognise one from before the ban but then, when it was noisy and smoky, we just didn't really notice them."
They both agree that their new customer base is much quieter than the old, while rejecting the 'unable to communicate verbally' observation.
According to Sam, "The ones that come in on their own don't talk much. We had three in the snug last night and they didn't speak at all. But we do get family groups, and sometimes a boy and a girl together just like normal people, and they sometimes talk to each other. But quietly - sometimes you can't hear them for all the noise outside"
"And they don't always just sit", Debbie was quick to point out. "Sometimes, a couple of them will have a game of darts. But even then they don't swear, so, yes, I think they probably are aliens."
Finally, 35 yr. old Landlord David (Dave) Harley-Davidson of The Fox and Snare dismisses the alien hypothesis out of hand. "Nah," he says. "Everyone knows aliens are either little grey men or Nordic types who look like Britt Ekland - and we could do with few of those around here lately, I can tell you." In a bizarre twist, he believes he has another explanation for the 'silent drinker' phenomenon.
"I used to put a couple of newspapers out for the punters," he explains. "The Sun, the Mirror, The Sport mostly. But just lately, I've had a few of these new ones ask for the Guardian, which kind of explains everything. These liberal types have got their own way over smoking in pubs - but they're all stoned out their faces. It's like this: have a spliff, go to pub, stare into space for an hour, go home. Makes for a bloody boring night behind the bar, I can tell you."
So - have ETs replaced ETS in the pubs of Britain? Or is the 'silent drinker' just a shy, inexperienced loner who doesn't really like beer? Or an unsociable dope-head enjoying his right to breathe smoke-free air at the expense of the majority of pub-goers?
Decide for yourselves next time you're in your deserted local.