We are living through a moment in time that has shaken up our world like a snow globe. The corona virus poses a threat not just to our lives, but to our way of life. We are grieving not just loved ones, but all the things we loved and took very much for granted. It is little wonder, then, that as the habits that traditionally bring us together suddenly become impossible, we immediately attempt to recreate them in our newly isolated environments. And it is no surprise at all that in Britain one of the first things that opened its online doors was the virtual pub.
What’s so special about pubs?
It is their very Britishness that makes pubs so special, the character that rises from the spit and sawdust on the floorboards as strongly as the smell of spilled beer. They distil our very language. The pub is the boozer, the rub-a-dub, the local, the drinking hole. A drink can be a jar, a snifter, a swifty or a pint. And never mind the rise in designer gins, it is that iconic pint that your pub ‘regular’ clings to as hard as the handle of their preferred jug or straight glass. It is that warm pint of real ale or bitter that traces its bloodline back through the medieval inn or tavern all the way to the Anglo-Saxon alehouse.
It is also their architecture and furniture, from the barstools and optics, to the cellars and pumps. It is the glass-panelled doors etched with the names of the different bars, each with their own mythology: the public bar, where working class men once sat on stools and benches to drink cheap beer and liquor, and women feared to tread; the lounge or saloon bar, where men could sit with their sweethearts on upholstered seats and watch the variety of shows that were the origins of Music Hall; and the snug with its frosted windows turning a blind eye to the clandestine drinking of policeman, priest and lover.
And it is the pub names and tell-tale signs themselves, telling our nation’s story and sounding like a call to arms. They speak to us of royalty (the King’s Head, the Prince of Wales, the Royal Oak in which Charles II once hid); of battles (the Trafalgar, the Nelson, the Duke of Wellington); of religion (the George & Dragon, the Lamb); of our pastimes (the Cricketers, the Hare & Hounds), our transport (the Railway, the Ship) and our landscape (the Windmill, the Castle). Some bear the arms of the lords on whose land they stood (the White Hart, the Red Lion, the Unicorn, the Bear itself); others celebrate the liveries of the workers (the Three Compasses for the carpenters; the Three Tuns for the brewers).
Will our pubs survive?
But there is much more to pubs than their fixtures and fittings. They are the places where we meet outside of our work, where we cast off our British reserve and come closer to each other. That is why, in these times of social distancing, we grieve for them. They are our secular churches and our community centres, because the pub is the place where we share an inherited, common and familiar experience. This might not always be the most refined, but therein lies its charm, for the pub is also at the heart of the British sense of humour (“an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walked into a pub…”). We are happy to raise our glasses to grumpy landlords and frumpy landladies; to lemon cakes in urinals; to beer signs and Guinness adverts; to mismatched wallpaper and black-and-white photographs of half-remembered movie stars; to darts, dominoes, skittles and bar billiards; to pork scratchings and pickled eggs; to light & bitter and port & lemon; to my shout, your round, and why’s it never his round?
In truth, the traditional British pub has been under threat for years. Between 1970 and 2018, some 30,000 British pubs closed their doors for good, ravaged by beer duty, cheap supermarket booze, the smoking ban, the recession and high business rates. They contribute an annual £23 billion to the economy, £13 billion in tax, and employ nearly a million workers, and yet communities have had to fight to preserve their precious local from greedy property developers. Now, those communities and their pubs face an even starker threat.
In the First World War, when opening hours were restricted, landlords introduced the great British tradition of the ‘lock-in’, taking their customers’ money before the bell was rung for “last orders” and “Time, gentlemen please!” so that they might keep them late behind locked doors for a ‘private party’ (for the pub is also the epitome of British mischief, rebellion and ingenuity). Now, the lock-in has been replaced by the lockdown, and we all have a duty to drink together in our Zoom bars while staying in our own homes. But we have a duty also to keep our local pubs in our hearts and minds, and to ensure that when the time comes we offer them our support in helping them return to the great British establishments we need them to be.
Learn more about the Business
If you want to want to talk to me, Ali, this is my business and I’m a Londoner who has lived in this area all my life. We have been hosting business travellers and families from around the world for many years. I would love to talk to you about how we can help your relocation feel like you’ve not just moved house, but moved home.