Last summer I worked at a pub in Falmouth, Cornwall, right on the sea. From my position behind the bar, I could watch the activity of the world’s third-deepest natural harbour–cruise ships, naval vessels, paddleboarders, and the occasional millionaire’s yacht. Fortunately, Covid-19 cases in the South West were low, and the hospitality industry was able to take advantage (responsibly) of the summer boom in domestic tourism. Rules were the same all over: table service only. There was no sitting or standing at the bar, which denied dock-workers and fishermen regulars their staple position.
For many of the old men, this took some getting used to, and, watching them grapple with mask straps and fathom QR codes, I was able to engage in some typical over-the-bar dialogue, albeit shouting to people at their tables. I got to know characters such as “Carlsberg Kev”, who we would look out for on the pub terrace, and, in spotting him, race to break the record of fastest time between customer entry and acquiring and paying for a pint. This involved the throwing and catching of a card machine and a hairy break-neck dash to Kev’s table with tray balancing pint balanced on hand. The record stands at 6 seconds, the number of pints dropped stands at a respectable two.
“For these people, the pub is a ritual, something they do to fill a dedicated time period, a break, a pause, a moment of relaxation, of conversation. The loss of pubs as a result of the pandemic is a loss of a building block of life, something which may have previously marked our days and our weeks: a kind of punctuation point.”
The charming Daryl would shout for a Sea Fury dark ale upon arrival, despite a 15-order backlog, and then complain about the number of bubbles in the head of his pint before demanding a new one. And there was Bob, who wore big boots and a bandana and worked on the docks. Every day he would come in, raise a hand to us in greeting, have two pints and two cigarettes in silence, and be on his way. For these people, the pub is a ritual, something they do to fill a dedicated time period, a break, a pause, a moment of relaxation, of conversation. The loss of pubs as a result of the pandemic is a loss of a building block of life, something which may have previously marked our days and our weeks: a kind of punctuation point.
With little left to track the progress of time in lockdown, as we are forced to literally look to seasonal change to remind us that we are not stuck in some timeless vortex, we reminisce over the past and how we filled our lives: the 10-minute pint pit-stop, the Guinness so drawn-out it’s warm for the final gulps, and long blurred evenings when drink number is forgotten and irrelevant. A pint is a measurement of time—one that can be as compressed, as drawn out, or multiplied as many times as an evening demands.
Of all the questionable replacements for pre-Covid-19 indulgences, such as Techno live streams, “click-and-serve” McDonalds, and meet ups on House Party, why are take-away pints so unsatisfactory in replicating the pub experience? Not just unsatisfactory, but sad. In making the idea of the pub portable, that is, the instant of handing over a pint in a plastic cup on a dark street, the core of the thing becomes a transaction. When take-away first came into effect, I personally questioned why anyone would pay the price of a Dublin pint when their drink has been stripped of the experience it normally represents. Pre-pandemic we got fun, friendship, maybe even meeting the person we’ll marry, all factored into the price of €5.50.
What I think is going on is people’s deliberate triggering of those memories of what we had before, to the point where they will bring themselves right to the door of their favourite pub to be handed that bitter-sweet pint of gold. The tap of their card on the sterilised card machine is their investment in hope—they’re showing they are keeping the faith in the idea that what they so love will reoccur. They miss the multisensory experience of these places: the sweet smells, the sticky bar tops where they scrabbled for their damp change, the noisy heat, the dance-like manoeuvre through the rammed bar three pints in hand, the legs swinging carefree from stools, and the cigarettes rolled with borrowed filters and frozen fingers. They miss the time spent with friends, old and new, the goals scored, the songs sung, the subsequent hangovers, the pick-me-ups, the celebration pints and the Wednesday afternoon pints.
“To me, it seems heart-breaking to engage in simply the act of ordering, receiving, paying and drinking, as this comprises so little of what actually makes a pub.”
To me, it seems heart-breaking to engage in simply the act of ordering, receiving, paying and drinking, as this comprises so little of what actually makes a pub. I think I would rather nothing than be part of such a reduced version of this ritual. To go to a pub is to meet people; to talk, to experience that space for an amount of time. The drink is complementary to where you are—it both creates and enhances the atmosphere, but is also dependent on it—the two work in harmony. I understand that the act of buying take away pints is something of a gesture of support, but can we gesture for months and months? The action then starts to become resonant of the gap between the good times and now—a symbol of lack and loss.
No one can say if pubs will ever return in their pre-pandemic form, nor if Grumpy Daryl will ever be able to sit right at the bar and shout in my ear, nor if Kev could take his pint straight out of my hand and replace it with a crumpled fiver. As someone who has worked in the industry for several years, I would consider it a huge shame if the pubs we knew throughout our teen years were to exist only in memory form, as impressions of past enjoyment; as echoes.