Hold on tight, we’re going down the slide again. I’m not sure how your city is doing but it feels as though most of Europe’s metropolises are reeling from rising numbers of coronavirus infections. And that means “new measures”: curfews, tighter quarantines, everyone tucked up in bed early and no funny business either. In London, my hometown, we cannot now have people from other households in our homes (unless they are in the garden – if you have a garden) or meet them inside a pub or restaurant (you can sit outside in the rain). These measures have been introduced without any suggestion of when they might end. The new rules kicked in on Friday at midnight, although seeing as it was already illegal for a pub or restaurant to be open that late, I am not sure why they set the comedy cut-off time. So on Thursday, aware of what was about to vanish, I did something I rarely do: when I got home from work I went straight to the local pub with my neighbours.
The Duke is an architectural sore thumb: designed in 1937 and completed the following year, it is slotted in behind houses that were erected in the early 1800s. The pub was part of an ambitious project that also includes a small block of red-brick flats and offices, all in a late deco style. It’s what modern folk would call a mixed-use development. Somehow, over the years, it has avoided being made over. It’s pretty much as it was built and yet it doesn’t flaunt its historic status – it’s a boozer.
On Thursday, the four of us took up residence in one of the high-backed wood-panelled booths, ate crisps and drank. There were perhaps another 20 people in the pub – all with friends, all safely in booths, all being served at their tables.
There is no clever way out of this mess but I hope that The Duke makes it through what lies ahead. It certainly has some good precedents to draw on. The first landlord started serving pints just a year before the outbreak of the Second World War and carried on pulling them even when aerial bombardments took out neighbouring buildings. Many of his customers would have lost homes and loved ones. They would have pushed open the pub’s doors to seek companionship, perhaps to dull the worry, and no doubt to sometimes enjoy a rousing song or two. Hopefully those kindly ghosts are keeping a watchful eye now.
People talk about “the hospitality industry”, which makes it sound like some cold, bland trade. It’s not. Restaurants, bars and pubs host communities, allow for conversations, offer sustenance in times of trouble and in doing so keep people going. Now in London, Paris, Barcelona it’s the same story: places that have already shown extraordinary resilience being hit all over again and this time with limited financial aid. In the US it sounds even worse – a friend tells me that every place he frequented in Brooklyn is closed. But it’s the loss of the community service that these places supply that’s so terrible.
There are no simple answers; there is no way to dodge this. So even if it does involve standing in the rain, brolly in one hand, glass in the other, I realise that going to the pub is a mighty fine thing to do. By the way, isn’t it your turn to get the drinks in?