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1st September, 2020

Breweries have done their level best to alienate connoisseurs of the English public house over the years but, touchingly, they keep coming back. Insane prices, tasteless refurbishment, stinky grub, craft beer, uncomfortable seating, screaming kids, vile music and punishing noise levels generally, you’d have to be pissed to put up with it but people do. Now coronavirus has upped the ante in the sod-the-public stakes by a considerable measure.

Last evening I walked into the Spanish Archer*, a large town centre pub in my part of south-east London. It was about half past eight. Five men in late middle age sat round a table. Apart from myself and a couple outside smoking, this was the entirety of custom. There was enough room in the pub to hunt deer or rehearse an orchestra. As I walked through the door a girl hurried over to me and said, ‘Have you booked?’ I resisted the strong urge to reply: Of course I haven’t fucking booked to drink a pint of beer but prudence and good manners prevailed. She showed me to a seat and took my order. With the schadenfreude worthy of some petty official of the public sector she regretted that the ESB was off. I settled for London Pride and presently the pint appeared. Having drunk it I felt that the rigmarole involved in obtaining another was not worth the effort. Shortly afterwards I walked in the Siege of Corinth, a classic Victorian corner pub besieged by Sixties brutalist architecture, and bought a pint quite easily in the normal way with the minimum of fuss.

In Whitstable, Kent, last week I found several pubs had actually gone to the trouble of building small barricades across their doors to keep customers away. At the Temeraire, a once lovely old pub recently RBR-ed (Ruined By Refurb), a rope blocked the doorway. I thought: full marks for this echo of the sea in a pub with navy connections – but there was no one in the place bar an elderly couple enjoying a ploughman’s lunch and two bar staff titting about over a coffee machine the size of a Spitfire engine. I gave it a minute but with no sign of gaining ingress I walked on. The Lord Kitchener Hotel, a large pub with some beautiful Victorian tile porn in its doorways, was open but was deserted of both staff and customers. A large and forbidding sign warned me not to enter but to wait to be seated. I walked on. The Marie Celeste around the corner lived right up to its name. I did as bidden and entered not.

It was a rare sunny day amid the recent tropical storms and howling winds and I was feeling very thirsty, having walked down from Tankerton in blazing heat and sea salted air. I kept looking for a functional watering hole.

The Misty Mountain Hop, a great micropub, was closed. The magnificent old Poseidon was so oversubscribed that drinkers were queuing out the front door and down the street. Queuing for a pub is something that I have always refused to do. ‘All I want is a cold stout!’ I wailed to myself. ‘Is that so much to ask?’ My eyes settled on a trendy looking off licence. I crossed the street with purpose in my gait only to find it had a queue as well. In a side street The Tug Boat Inn also had its door roped, and a barman was making a great fuss over letting people in and out. There were three people actually drinking in the pub. My patience was not up to the barman’s antics and so I moved on.

I began to develop a feeling of rather grave disquiet. I was standing in an English seaside town on a sunny day in August and I could not lay hands on a pint. This feeling reminded me of being in Rome some years ago with my pal Jury. It was 36 in the shade and once the sun was bouncing off all that white marble you could almost touch the air and cut it with your hands; it made you feel claustrophobic. I turned to Jury and said, ‘If we don’t find an air-conditioned bar soonest I will no longer be able to operate as an English person abroad.’ By which I meant I would not be able to drink. Presently we staggered into a commodious Irish bar, built for Erin’s pilgrims no doubt to recover in after their Vatican exertions; it had the most wonderful air-con and as soon as I entered I told Jury I would not be leaving until sundown and more or less re-enacted the final scene of Ice Cold in Alex. We watched Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in the Olympics. Revived by Guinness and ebullient in cool temperatures, we yelled at anyone who left the door open: ‘Don’t let the heat in!’ and I bet Jury £50 that Murray would not win Wimbledon. It seemed a safe bet given no British man had since Fred Perry in 1936. Naturally, Andy Murray won it the following June and I paid up.

But I digress, and wildly. There I was in Whitstable high street, bone dry and feeling like a spent fish. A bloke went past on a bike. He looked a bit like David Essex, who lives in Whitstable. I wasn’t quick enough to stop him and ask where I might get a pint on easy terms. A whole potential afternoon of fun opened up in my imagination: I stopped him, it was indeed David Essex and he not only knew where I could get a pint but fancied one himself and would take me. We would end up in some fantastic little obscure pub with an anchor-pattern carpet, ice cold stout, Sid James behind the bar (which was made of wood from the wreck of a Napoleonic frigate) and I would take the piss out of Dave for making Silver Dream Racer and tell him about how I dared a former girlfriend of mine to call him the old peg seller when she saw him in concert, and encourage him to sing Hold Me Close etc.

But this vision faded and I was still in the high street and the cyclist was long gone. I pressed on and came at last to The Figurehead, an old-school pub bedecked with English flags. I’d been there before. It’s not the sort of place to hold forth about trans rights or why Britain should have voted to remain in the European Union, but it is a rather splendid example of a proper, functioning locals’ pub, free of hipster baloney and nonsense behaviour. Though Guardian readers would rejoice in its demolition, the staff and customers are in my experience kindly and well mannered. I was not at the unattended bar more than ten seconds before an elderly customer called the barman through to serve me. In short order I had a pint of ice cold Guinness in return for money and my track ‘n’ trace details. No fuss and all regulations observed. The nearby Wetherspoon was almost as easy, though it’s quite a ball-ache getting a drink in my local one in London. I have encountered this rooted antipathy to customers in various pubs in various places now and I can confirm that it, as the young say, is a thing.

Now now, social justice warriors and coronaheads, you don’t need to give me an angry lecture about Covid safety. I take reasonable precautions, and reasonable precautions were all that were ever needed. Instead, pubs are now well on the way to committing suicide with over-zealous virus controls. Why is this? Have staff realised that by keeping drinkers out they can have a nice skive? Do breweries actually know what it going on? Their takings must tell the tale. Who knows? The country drifts on like a rudderless barge and God only knows what will happen this winter, when beer gardens are out of bounds.

*All pub names have been changed

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