Pubs have endured plagues and world wars – but how can they survive this?
At the time, I had no idea it would be my last visit to a pub. But I knew even before it was over that it was one of those rare, lost days with friends that I would remember for the rest of my life.
On Sunday March 8, Sheffield was just different shades of grey, the sky and the city running into each other like setting concrete. But inside the Rutland Arms, the air itself seemed to glow.
Like all the best pubs, the Rutland operates by its own rules. It’s a benign anarchy in which cut-out pictures of cats give menu recommendations, the chalkboard above the jukebox lists an ever-changing selection of banned songs, and Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films sits quietly in the corner, not bothering anyone. Couples meet, families eat, and that Sunday, as other people came and went, for us an unplanned day sailed rudderless, with no destination in sight.
For a thousand years, pubs have been, in the words of 19th-century social reformer Charles Booth, “the primordial cell of British life”. As I write this in June, on a day when the drizzle is constant and the thermometer is low enough for us to consider putting the heating back on, the weather reminds me that for most of our history as a nation, our lives played out in the pub.
Until the 20th century, most of us lived in such poor housing that we did little more than sleep there. The pub was where we met our spouses, transacted personal business, held wedding parties and wakes, formed clubs and societies, and invented most of the sports that still mete out such delight and agony to those who follow them.
The pub is a unique social institution without which British society couldn’t operate. There is no such thing as a successful British soap opera that doesn’t have a pub at its centre. Chaucer chose to start the Canterbury Tales in a pub, thereby making the pub the birthplace of English literature. Chaucer’s Tabard serves the same function as the Rovers or the Queen Vic: it’s the only conceivable place where such a diverse cast of characters could plausibly meet and interact on equal terms.
Every ritual and custom in the pub is designed to help a socially awkward nation relax with each other. The buying of rounds, the clinking of glasses, the invisible queue, and the neutral space around the bar itself, where conversation with strangers is permitted, are just some of the unwritten rules we imbibe with our first pints – and some of the main reasons reopening pubs after lockdown remains so problematic.
When pubs do reopen, they won’t be the same. As Government guidance shifts daily, it’s hard to say exactly what they will look like. We know that pubs with beer gardens will be able to open earlier than those without. When we can finally go inside, it’s a safe bet that tables will be widely spaced, drinks will be ordered via apps and brought to tables, screens will separate us from staff and other drinkers, and idle chat at the bar will be off the menu.
The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) estimates that while social distancing of two metres remains the rule, only a third (12,500) of British pubs will find it economically viable to open. If that were reduced to one metre, in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, the number would rise to 75 per cent (28,000).
The pubs that will cope best with social distancing are the big, soulless city centre barns that feel like mere retail chain outlets serving alcohol rather than proper pubs, the kind of places where managers have replaced landlords, bar staff are “colleagues” and punters are “guests”. The very best kinds of pubs – those hidden-away urban holes-in-walls and cosy countryside parlours – will be the last to open their doors. Last month, a BBPA industry survey found that up to 19,000 pubs may be gone for good.
The picture is bleak. But pubs have endured plagues, prohibitionists and world wars. Creative publicans are surviving lockdown by selling take-away meals and ingredients, and freshly poured pints in sealed containers from the door, delivering items such as food parcels and prescriptions to those who are shielding, and generally maintaining their roles as community hubs in any way they can. When that cosy snug is at last able to reopen on its own terms, I’ll be there tapping on the window, eager to create more of those haphazard immortal memories.
Pete Brown is chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers and author of Miracle Brew: Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer (Unbound, £9.99)