That was the Year that Wasn't
Three hundred and sixty days ago, I set out on my quest to visit all the pubs and bars within Oxford’s ring road. I had aimed to do this in 2019, but various, in hindsight insignificant, things got in the way so I postponed my marathon pub crawl for a year. On 6 January 2020 I took a seat at the bar of the Lamb and Flag and made my first entry in my newly acquired notebook. Pub number 1 ticked off. By my reckoning, the challenge would mean visiting 170 pubs. Fourteen a month. Three pubs a week. A doddle. Nothing was going to stop me this time.
We all know now this wasn’t to be the case. Within ten weeks of my visit to the Lamb and Flag, all pubs had been closed down and would remain shut for another 15 weeks, and then onwards intermittently until the present. You don’t realise how much you love something until it is no longer there, so now I realise how much I love pubs and beer!
But I can’t complain. I’ve missed the pubs, the beer, the banter, and all those cancelled events. But I remain well. All my immediate family remain well. I have a job. I’ve been paid. I spent two months of the summer furloughed – new word – when the weather was at its best and I could enjoy the sun. I didn’t do anything heroic or useful. I didn’t invent a vaccine. I’m a naturally solitary creature so being alone for long periods was tolerable if not desirable. But I survived. I feel lucky.
That’s not to say I haven’t been annoyed, disappointed, even angry. But focusing anger is difficult and pointing the finger of blame likewise. Everybody was dealing with an unprecedented situation; some were coping better than others. I did feel anger, however, that the pubs were bearing the brunt of the blame for spreading the disease, when the scientific evidence – which we were all assured was what decisions were based on – clearly exonerated pubs and pointed the finger elsewhere. Schools, universities, illegal raves, mass demonstrations: they were ok. It was all the pubs’ fault.
The trouble as I see it is that all the old Etonians that make up our government know nothing about pubs*. Or nearly nothing. They know only of two types of establishment: firstly, the gourmet-gastro type of place where they can be wined and dined at a couple of hundred quid a head, and where the number of Michelin stars is more important than the beer. Then there’s another type of pub they have only read about, mainly from the red-top press: vast city-centre vertical drinking warehouses where the alcohol (not often beer) flows, the music is loud and everyone stays until the early hours before leaving noisily to fight in the streets or throw up in the gutter.
The reality that seems to have escaped those in charge during this pandemic (from a pubs perspective) is that 99 per cent, maybe more, of pubs fall somewhere between these two extremes. The majority of people who go to pubs don’t go to eat, nor to fight, nor to throw up, nor to get excessively drunk. They go to meet friends, for company, conversation, fun. And for the many lonely souls out there, they visit the pub for what can be a rare opportunity for human contact and social interaction. For these, the pub is a lifeline.
This lack of awareness has led to some bizarre, ridiculous and, from a business point of view, catastrophic decisions. The 10pm curfew. The “substantial meal” debacle. Pubs not being able to sell alcohol (Wales). Pubs only open for takeaway. Who goes to the pub for takeaway? Were they thinking of the off-sales hatches that every pub used to have sixty years ago? The one I liked most was rule 17 (3) (a) (iii) of the Tier 2 regulations for offering takeaways from pubs, which had to be pre-ordered either (i) online, (ii) by telephone or text, both sensible, and (iii) - by post! I hastily wrote a letter to my local; I think I get my beer in early February.
Throughout the summer and autumn I tried to visit pubs as best as was allowed. I ate out to help out, and I drank out to help out too, but didn’t get a discount. I had my fill of substantial meals. I sat in pub gardens facing arctic winds and biblical rain. I accepted the need for card payments, I used apps to order and revelled in table service. I supported and signed into the NHS track and trace app. But I enjoyed real ale in a pub again; I enjoyed the company again.
The substantial meal malarky killed off all the enjoyment of pub going at the back end of the year, and made opening a no-go for so many wet-led pubs. I refer the right honourable gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago, or more accurately what I said above: most people don’t go to the pub to eat. And they certainly don’t go to the pub to eat at 4pm, spending an extra five quid on their tab on food they do not want nor have any intention to eat. It was another nail in the coffin for the pub trade, driven home with gusto by this blinkered government.
It’s 2021 tomorrow. A new year, in number if nothing else. I’m not promising to visit all 170 pubs within the ring road this year as I’m not sure when or if I can start. I’m certainly not sure there will be 170 to visit whenever that time comes. But I will as soon as I can, when the vaccine is doing its work, as soon as pubs are open again, I will be there, new notebook in hand, desperate to taste my first pint. The pubs will need me, and you, and everybody else, more than ever before. Make sure you do your bit.
Happy new year.
* and a lot of other things besides