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The Mask and the Queue

Pubs are reopening, but they don't feel the same as they did before the pandemic. What are the possibilities for the future of the public house as a public space?

In a 1946 column for the Evening Standard, George Orwell dreamt the ideal pub of his imagination. ‘The Moon Under Water,’ as Tribune’s former literary editor called it, was a place at once quiet and heaving, formal and full of conversation, conveniently-located and out-of-the-way. It was a place of solid, ugly Victorian fittings and middle-aged barmaids who call all the customers “dear” (but never “ducky”); where you can drink draught stout served in pewter pots, and ale from china mugs. It also had a beer garden, where children were able to play – a feature Orwell added so as to be maximally inclusive not only to families, but to women. At its best, he imagines the pub on a bright summer evening, with prams parked near the gate; older children milling around the bar against the letter of the law, running back and forth fetching their parents drinks. 

In ‘The Moon Under Water,’ in short, Orwell was describing his ideal pub as the place where he, or anyone, might have felt most at home – most happy, secure, and at ease in the world. ‘The Moon Under Water’ did not exist, and in a way could not exist: what Orwell wanted from it was often obviously self-contradictory. But here at any rate we see a key part of the power of the pub as an institution: for their enthusiasts, pubs invite this sort of utopianism. The simple pleasures of one’s favourite pub can rapidly take on a sacred sheen of perfection – a perfection at once faux-universal (there is a sense that anyone ought to recognise it) yet deeply personal.

Thus earlier this year, at the start of lockdown, the writer Stan Cross endeavoured to recreate his favourite pub – a place called Skeehan’s in Nunhead – in VR. Skeehan’s was already, in Cross’s eyes, “the objectively perfect pub” – for reasons often rather similar to the ones Orwell gives in ‘The Moon Under Water’ (nostalgically homely, unfashionable décor; you can always get dinner at the bar; the layout is good both for talking nonsense with friends, and for watching the Champion’s League). But one of the most striking things about the pub was the way Cross found himself supplementing his fussily perfect recreation of its architecture with a cast of regulars modelled not only after his friends, but the likes of Tony Soprano, Nelson Mandela, and Jürgen Klopp. Hence to view the videos Cross made of his VR pub was to witness an image of heaven, a canon of the greats sitting around the perfect pub, chatting and enjoying a beer.

Now, the pubs are back – but they hardly match the longing in the hearts of the likes of Orwell and Cross. Cross himself, he tells me, has only been to two pubs since the restrictions were eased – and even then, this was only to sit outside, when there was no-one else there. “So my pub experience is basically, ‘drinking on a bench, but it costs more.’” Neither of these pubs was Skeehan’s – although that has “by all accounts, been heaving.” In the world after lockdown, going to the pub now brings with it not only the fiddly chore of the various security procedures one is subject to, but the weight of the knowledge that you may be endangering the health of others just by going there. No bar service; a one-way system; some system of separation dividing the tables. Maybe you have to book ahead, and cannot simply saunter in. A certain coldness is enforced between oneself and the other drinkers, and the staff: one never knows how close anyone else thinks it might be OK to stand. The pubs exist again, or are pretending to – but they are not somewhere that anyone can really feel at home.

Throughout lockdown, the pub I most longed to sit in was the Town Mouse in Newcastle – a small basement bar a short walk from Haymarket metro station in the city centre, where one always has the option of joining the chat with the regulars at the front or sitting quietly with a book at the back, and where the beer tastes better than it does anywhere else. For Jon Sibley, the owner, the whole point of running a pub has always been to foster a spirit of community and camaraderie – to create for his regulars, in his words, a “home away from home.” He’s been open again for a couple of weeks now, with “90%” of his customers being regulars who’ve booked ahead of time – as well as offering beer deliveries to those who remain reluctant to stop by. But inevitably, the community feel of the bar has suffered from the need to socially distance, and he’s constantly worried by the stress of the rules, as well as the recently-mooted threat of a second lockdown – which would cut off at the knees people like him who are already struggling to remain open.

What’s going to happen to the UK’s drinking culture after this? Assuming the hospitality sector still exists after Covid – will pubs ‘go back to normal’? As far as I can tell, there are three likely models here. The first is the one that the government seems to prefer, where people mostly drink in big, chain bars that have the infrastructure to enforce some form of track-and-trace and social distancing. This, perhaps, is the reality of the Nationalised Wetherspoons that some Corbyn supporters used to joke about – be careful what you wish for, I suppose. Sunak, of course, is attempting to make patronising these sort of establishments a matter of patriotic duty: where is your Ruddle’s, citizen?

The second is one which Jon says he is considering for the Town Mouse: in short, he says he is thinking about offering subscriptions. With a dedicated core of regulars, some sort of membership club which offered things like discount pints, exclusive beers, and preferential booking – or perhaps curated beer deliveries, with the staff knowing what everyone likes to drink – would provide the pub with the sort of secure, base-level monthly income which might underpin its long-term viability. Something closer to a private member’s club would also be preferred by people still wary of how responsible other drinkers are being in relation to the pandemic – it would be good to know you were drinking somewhere with people you could trust.

But of course, a private club is hardly a public house. Don’t get me wrong: I would, personally, pay to be a member of a pub like the Town Mouse. But the more closed pubs are likely to get, the more the old Orwellian utopianism will be lost – one might feel at home in them, but not just anyone could (and besides which, there is also something to be said for the feeling of being able to sit happily with a pint somewhere nobody knows your name). 

Which brings us to the third option. Already, plenty of pubs are offering takeaway pints, which one can drink anywhere: at home, yes, but also in the park. Here, brewery taps have an innate advantage: since lockdown I have been a regular visitor to a brewery on the outskirts of Newcastle city centre, which offers two-pint milk jugs fresh from the source, and which you can sit and drink in a nearby field. This is not the pub – all it really needs to be is a stand with some kegs by the side of the road (access to a toilet is to be preferred too, for obvious reasons). But in many ways, it’s actually kind of better, especially if (like me) you have a toddler who wants to spend all his time running around outside. Perhaps in time a post-Covid UK might develop a drinking culture closer to somewhere like Berlin, where the best thing is always to buy a (cheap, excellent) beer in a Spätkauf to drink outside. 

The old utopianism isn’t really present here either – but perhaps we might recognise a new one. Imagine a post-Covid settlement in which public space has been reclaimed through the power of recreational assembly: a world in which there is not only some small set of enclosed spaces where one might feel at home, but where it is possible for anyone to feel at home, anywhere in the world. The pub unfolded into everything: the Moon Under Water, down to Earth.