I developed a drinking problem during lockdown. Which sounds serious, and it was. This wasn’t, however, a case of me staggering about my home in a drunken stupor on a daily basis, but rather the opposite: I didn’t enjoy drinking beer!
I was devastated. I love beer, and here I was with some time on my hands, nowhere else to go, and numerous breweries offering to deliver delicious beer to my front door. Sounds perfect. But on closer analysis, it is, I concluded, not the beer that attracts me as much as the experience of drinking beer. In one of my moments of contemplation, I deduced this experience comprises three elements: the beer itself, the surroundings in which you are drinking the beer, and the people you are drinking with. Take one or more of these away and the experience is massively diminished. I’m not saying my house is a shit hole, but it’s no gin palace nor cosy country inn either, and with nobody to drink with aside from my own idiotic thoughts, no matter how good the beer (and it was good), it never quite hit the spot.
This was in many ways frustrating, as I was keen to support my local’s take-away beer in a milk carton opportunity, and also to support my local breweries, but my intake waned as we went through May and June, and by the middle of the year my beer buying was down to zero. I still have several lockdown bottles staring me accusingly in the face every time I open the fridge.
Fast forward to July, and the announcement that pubs could reopen reignited my love for beer drinking as all three elements were once again available to me, even if the pub experience was not what we were used to. Reunited with drinking friends, we organised trips to Oxford and Witney to see what the new normal was really like, and although it was far from perfect, helped by good weather, it was a hundred times better than lockdown.
There were of course differences, not just from the good old days, but within the new order and from pub to pub. An enjoyable Saturday out in Oxford took us to the Chequers (table service, reduced beer range), Teardrop (very similar to normal), The Plough (table service and a sneaky service charge), the White Rabbit (temperature check, table service and traffic lights for the toilets), the Four Candles (bar service an option) and the Royal Blenheim (table service). We got used to card payments, sitting down to drink, one-way systems and millions of bottles of hand sanitiser. But with good company in good pubs, my appetite for beer had miraculously returned!
Nevertheless, the new normal is not the friendliest place for the lone drinker. How happy is a publican to give you a table for two, or even four, to drink alone, thus restricting the income from that table, in a time of already reduced capacities, by a half or maybe a quarter? I often visit pubs on my own, but standing or sitting at the bar not only do you take up minimal space, you can always get involved in conversation. Pubs are designed to bring people together, so making them suitable to keep people apart is a very alien concept. Having to sit at your own table, separated from others, kind of takes away one of the magic three ingredients to enjoying a beer. Most people in my local arrive alone and join in with friends; it’s not a pre-arranged meeting, you just turn up and there will be someone there you know to talk to. But these days this is not strictly allowed: you have to be in a bubble, whatever that means, which is quite an inconvenience to the single drinker. If your bubble is as empty as Donald Trump’s head, social distancing can equal social isolation.
Undeterred by potential isolation or exclusion, or by the sensationalist media reports of millions of people crammed into to narrow streets and onto beaches, I embarked on a trip to Cornwall in August.
The village I stayed in has three pubs, and their responses to the new rules and requirements could not have been more different. One comprised a room mostly emptied of furniture, a sea of Perspex screens and mask-wearing staff: it was borderline whether I’d walked into a pub or an operating theatre. I went there once and didn’t return. The second, a St Austell pub, had a more friendly appearance. Orders were taken on an app, which on installation thought I was in Cairo before settling down, though it was always convinced I was 150 metres from the pub even when I was sitting inside.
The third pub operated a one way system, but aside from this (and the requirement for you to sit down) it was very much business as usual, a friendly welcome and a smile at all times, helpful staff and a full range of interesting beers. Naturally I went there a lot.
I’ve regaled one of my favourite Cornish bus and pub crawls on this blog before. This year, a much-reduced bus service (partly down to Covid and partly down to a bizarre reorganisation) and reduced pub trading hours made pub crawling more challenging than usual. I attempted the same trip this year, and the experience was far less satisfactory, even though the staff everywhere were most welcoming. As a bonus I was able to admire the electric fence at the Star at St Just, an attempt to keep the bar area clear that made the national papers in July.
A friend posted on some social media platform a sign from a pub in Weymouth stating that it was only open for locals and not for visitors. My initial reaction was one of horror, discrimination and dismay. How dare they!! But after some reflection, I did a Boris-esque U-turn and changed my mind. Pubs have reduced capacities. Times are hard. By December, those grumpy excluded tourists will be nowhere to be seen, their disappointment at not being able to eat their scampi and chips in a basket there long forgotten. The locals will, on the other hand, still be around. Keeping them sweet over the summer may well have been just business common sense. After all, they’re the ones who will keep the pub going through the difficult winter months ahead.
And it will be a difficult winter. We’ve the prospect, in some areas at least, of the pubs closing down again. Another lockdown would be catastrophic for businesses; pubs, breweries and suppliers alike. Scotland has already made that move, a blanket closure in certain counties and implementing trading restrictions in the rest of the country so restrictive that it’s not worth opening at all. Though mindful of the reasons and the dangers of the pandemic, we should resist this approach being repeated across the country. Despite some beliefs, pubs are not the hotbed of superspreading. Milling around in the streets after a 10pm closure might be, but the pubs themselves have invested time and money to make them a safe and secure environment.
I hope it succeeds, and the pubs can survive. Quite frankly, I’m relying on it. I never want to fall out of love with beer again.