Pubs are fascinating at the moment. On the day that the Prime Minister advised us not to attend them, I turned up at one in leafy Highgate, London N6 to find it much fuller than you might expect. I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing. People are still getting out, having a jolly time — but carefully. At the Woodman earlier this week, while I sat alone with my book and a drink, everyone was very politely giving each other a metre of space because that’s now the done thing. One couple, in the early stages of courtship, were wondering how close they could get to each other. She was keen. He was less so. I’d dump him, if I were her.
In France, Spain and Italy all bars and restaurants have been closed and everyone has been ordered to stay at home. I’m not sure you could do that in Britain. I am guessing that Boris Johnson has had the brewing industry in his ear telling him that on no account can he close the pubs, for other-wise they will demand enormous compensation, which obviously he does not want to pay them. It’s much easier for him simply to tell people not to go to pubs and restaurants, which costs the government nothing at all.
But the British are crucially different from their more voluble European neighbours in two ways. One is that, historically, we ‘keep ourselves to ourselves’. It’s no hardship to stay indoors not speaking to anyone for several weeks, because that’s what many of us do anyway. I have had the same neighbour for 31 years. I have never been in her house, she has never been in mine, and we have rarely spoken more than a handful of words to each other in all that time. And that’s the way we both like it.
The other difference is that the British hate, hate, being told what to do. For such a mild-mannered race we are strikingly disobedient. Tell us not to go to the pub and some of us go straight to the pub. As my friend Oscar said: ‘On Monday I shall be self-isolating at the King’s Head, and on Tuesday I shall be self-isolating at the Prince of Wales.’ And he’s over 70.
It occurs to me that the population now cleaves very neatly into two. Those who don’t care if they catch it or not — and this includes the oldies, who say they lived through two world wars and this is a mere bagatelle. And those who are so terrified by the virus that they have battened down the hatches and are sitting in their front rooms watching Netflix, surrounded by loo rolls. I don’t think there’s an age issue about this, it’s purely temperamental. You’re either almost too relaxed about it, or it’s complete brown trousers.
In its way, this split is as significant as the Brexit divide. It’s not the same, because everyone feels quite differently about this, but it is felt every bit as strongly and it will split families. And yet, patchwork and random though it may be, this might just be the most practical solution to the problem. Some of us will get the virus, recover from it and carry on with our lives. Others, more vulnerable, stay safely indoors. The ancient art of British compromise triumphs again. Mine’s a pint of Amstel.
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