The last three blogs on this site all involve visits to pubs and bars. I have enjoyed nearly 50 years of that pleasure. Not because I crave alcohol. I can go for weeks without.
It is the other people, the chat, the lifting of self-consciousness, the sheer sociability. The smell and taste of the alcohol plays its part, but the possibilities opening take centre stage. Maybe Germaine Greer will talk to you. Could be the guy next to you at the bar once met the Queen; or was in prison for tax evasion. Your eye becomes more lustful with each drink. You might need Dutch courage to ask your brother or friend for a temporary loan.
That sense of freely merging with the new and unpredictable is enshrined and embodied in the classic joke opening where a man (or woman) walks into a bar. Perhaps he/she will then encounter an Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman. Maybe a horse will be serving the liquor, or a dog will be sitting alone with a bowl of beer. The drink may have a transforming effect on the characters. Disrobing may occur. Vomiting or violence could ensue. The dog may show astonishment at the horse’s fluency in German.
A couple of months ago I interrupted an afternoon countryside walk in mid-Essex by entering The Compasses hostelry, in the remote hamlet of Littley Green. I waited at the bar to be served, standing as proscribed, at a social distance from other punters. I must have been 9 feet from the nearest person, lost in so many good memories of the place.
Something I have always done without thinking is to lean on the bar. Deep in thought, I inadvertently stepped past a green line on the floor, placed both elbows on the dark panelled wood, let my eye rove along the optics and the various photos adorning the back wall.
It was a terrible mistake. The visored guy behind the bar almost leaped at me, barking out that I needed to stand behind the green line. Wow.
I complied, apologising that “old habits got the better of me”. He didn’t reply: but set about spraying the infected area and vigorously wiping away my dangerous germs.
I bought a pint. He served it sullenly. I understood. Maybe he was genuinely scared.
He was certainly being paid to observe official hygiene protocol as part of his job. I had just provided him with an unexpected and unwanted pain.
The regulations he was observing have subsequently tightened. When I started writing this, you could not enter a pub in Essex – nor go to the toilet – without wearing a face mask. You could sit outside with a friend, but not inside, after Essex was moved to the UK government’s Tier Two alert grading. Pubs closed at 10 p.m.
I suppose there were jokes waiting to be discovered somewhere in all the bureaucracy; they don’t spring to mind easily. Maybe a man tries to enter a bar but has forgotten his mask. So he sits outside and tries to order a pint using his phone app, but the horse brings him a bourbon. Four Jack Daniels later, he tries to kiss the horse, which is looking ever more attractive, but is wearing a visor. About to go home, he sees a mass of tiny Covid-19 particles congregating 50 yards away, waiting until their 10 p.m. moment, when they will pounce.
Not funny. I know. It really isn’t.
For the past week or so, all British pubs have completely closed their doors, until the government declares an end to lockdown. When I drive to see my father, or take my daily exercise, they sit empty and unused, no sign of life.
Many of Britain’s 60,000 plus pubs were already under hefty financial pressure. Some will clearly not survive this time in our history. I can’t help wondering if the pubs that make it through will ever be the same. Will there be restrictions on who can enter, linked to taking vaccines or flashing a ‘health passport’? Will there be screens all over the place? Arrows on the floor? Service at the tables? Card-only payments?
If so, I might call it a day. Keep the good memories. Leave the new pub experience to others.