For surreal moments, this will take some beating: I’m in a pub watching the prime minister announce the closure of pubs.
It was my first instinct when I saw an online news report saying all pubs would be forced to close as of this evening: to leave my office and get into a pub. I need one more pub pint. I need one more pub memory to sustain me through the dark months of tragic home-boozing that lie ahead for all of us.
The first thing I saw when I arrived was a gaggle of tipsy blokes staring at a TV that had its volume cranked right up. Boris was solemnly announcing the regrettable cancellation of every freeborn Englishman’s right to go to the pub. I couldn’t tell if was being jokey or not. But no one in here is laughing.
The barmaid tells us she isn’t sure if they will close at 8 or 10 this evening. ‘We are awaiting government instructions’. I can’t believe what I am hearing. I feel like I am in North Korea. British governments don’t close down pubs, right? Not pubs.
It is almost too depressing for words. I know that media people and luvvies for whom pubs are just places you go to for a hip gastro lunch consisting of overpriced dirty burgers will think this is over-the-top. Well, then they don’t know the centrality of the pub to life in this country.
Over the past week, as rumours grew of a government crackdown on public houses, I popped into the pubs near my flat a few times. I wanted to know who was still frequenting these places that have apparently become hotbeds of disease and destruction.
It was mostly old blokes, especially during the day. Men in their seventies, usually on their own, sat at a table with a pint and the newspaper. Widowers, perhaps, grateful for a couple of hours out of the house, amongst other people, in the world. It breaks my heart to wonder what will become of these people now.
Sure, young people and even not-so-young people have their Tik Tok chats and Google Hangouts and Instagram Stories. They’ll hold virtual parties, taking selfies of themselves enjoying tinnies as they chat online with their mates. Bully for you. What about the people who need — yes, need — that real, physical space of noise and clinking glasses and unexpected conversation that the pub provides?
Tomorrow, older people who haven’t seen this evening’s news will turn up to their local pubs and be confronted by signs saying: ‘Shut down on the orders of the government.’ If you’re okay with the sorrow and confusion that will grip those people who are just looking for a few hours of social connection, then you’re a stronger person than I am.
The pub is essential to so many people in this country. Forget, for a minute, the shiny, hip pubs frequented by millennials who will very easily shift to house parties following Boris’s mandated closure of every public house.
Think, instead, of those dark, dingy pubs with beer-hardened carpets frequented by elderly people with nothing else to do. Or those ever-so-slightly dangerous Irish pubs in which people not unlike my parents met, and in which people not unlike me may well have been conceived. Or those country-lane pubs in which the woman drinking at the bar will turn around and stare at you when you walk in — not because you’re a stranger, but because you’re a new person to talk to.
Britain without its pubs is not Britain. It just isn’t. It becomes something else. Something worse. Something less free, less convivial, less human.
Yes, we all know that Covid-19 is a serious disease and we all agree that huge amounts of government resources should be devoted to tackling it and treating those infected by it.
But to halt everyday life, even pub life, in response to it? We didn’t do that during the far worse 1918 flu epidemic. Or during the Second World War. Or when the IRA was bombing actual pubs. We carried on. The pub continued. It had to. It’s the space where people meet and debate and fall in love and read their newspaper. As George Orwell said, forget the booze — though that is essential — what a pub really embodies is ‘atmosphere’.
It’s the atmosphere of liberty. The atmosphere of social connection. The atmosphere of life itself. In this pub, Boris has been switched off, music is blaring, and people are downing as many drinks as they can before — and I still can’t believe I’m saying this — pubs are forced to shut down. This is a dark day for the UK. Fight Covid-19, yes, but don’t kill freedom in the process. Now, back to my pint. Cheers.