(Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Pasteurisation of the pub

Pubs may have reopened, but its new landlord is the Nanny State

“Excuse me sir, have you booked a table?” No, I hadn’t, so the barman asked me to wait at the entrance. After pulling someone’s pint he got me registered on the track-and-trace database, remarking: “Gone are the days when you can just walk into a pub and order a drink”. Yet that’s exactly what I’d just done at an establishment of JD Wetherspoon, I replied. After a well-versed summary of the contact system and data protection I was allowed to proceed, but what a palaver for a half pint on my way home.

At my allotted table I peered around this usually bustling pub, recently voted the best in Greater London by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). The finely-hopped bitter from the cask was real enough, but the atmosphere was surreally sterilised. Few of the older regulars were present, possibly deterred by not having the ‘app’ by which customers are asked to book in advance. Beer guides and other ephemera have been removed from the shelves. Pathetically, a chap was chastised for sipping the head from his pint while awaiting his change: “You are not allowed to drink at the bar; it’s the rule”.

How wrong I was to look forward to lockdown ending in something like the VE Day celebrations, with crowded bars and a throng of merriment. According to a Daily Telegraph report last week, a CAMRA survey showed that drinkers are avoiding pubs through ‘fears over coronavirus’. Yet a different conclusion could be drawn from the data: while 23% had not stepped over a tavern threshold at all, almost double that proportion (42%) visit less frequently. This suggests that people who returned to the pub don’t like the sanitised environment and profusion of antisocial signs (‘Do this’, ‘Don’t do that’). They are made to feel guilty just by being there.

In the ‘new normal’ of coronavirus constraints, the pubs are open but with Nanny State as landlord. This very essence of British culture, a place of conviviality where ordinary folk make mirth of a maddening world of petty bureaucracy and political correctness, is in serious danger of losing its raison d’être. Social life, centred on the local pub, is being neutered by the two most dangerous words in English language: health and safety.

With their Covid-19 licence, the authorities have been rewriting the rules of social engagement. But they display an austere functionalism, misunderstanding the essence of our being. We don’t go to the pub only for refreshment. We don’t go to watch our favourite football team only to see who wins. We don’t go to the theatre only to see the actors perform. Those are all necessary but not sufficient purposes. People like to feel part of something, to participate, and to feel that life is worth living.

Unless the government realises the damage it is doing to the hospitality industry, thousands more pubs will close

Coronavirus is a boon to party-poopers. Understandably pub proprietors are worried about being forced to close again, either as a blanket lockdown or because a snitch complains that too many people are enjoying themselves at a specific venue. A pub in Staffordshire was forced to shut after a charity worker reported unbridled revelry and lack of social distancing (how charitable to deprive fellow citizens of their fun, and to cost several workers their livelihood). Sadly, three bottles from Tesco Express, bought for the same price as a pint on tap, is more appealing to many pubgoers. Unless the government realises the damage it is doing to the hospitality industry, thousands more pubs will close, as a chastened clientele loses the habit of a lifetime.

On Radio 4 last week the arch-modeller of doom Neil Ferguson suggested that pubs should close so that school can open. No justification was given for this formula, but it follows a pattern. Covid-19 has given the middle-class establishment a stick with which to beat the great unwashed. The old saying ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ is reworked for a secular progressive culture that eschews tradition and ritual. And like the fear of God was invoked in the flock by puritanical priests, now we must abstain from selfish indulgence or we will kill grannies.

Yet we cannot be muzzled forever. Surely the British trait of irreverence shall overcome this excess of prohibition and class snobbery. Right now I’m off to join some like-minded folk at the ‘Spoons.

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