Pubbing in a pandemic

By Jill Segger
July 8, 2020

The manner in which we enjoy our leisure time is diverse. But there can be no doubt that in the UK, the pub is at its heart for a great many people. This has, unfortunately, been connected with a kind of John Bullish bone-headedness: “...the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub”, said Boris Johnson in March, as rather too late, he required pubs and bars to close. Absurdly inflated though it is, the phrase has traction with the stout yeoman libertarian tendency. Only look at the posturing of Nigel Farage and Stanley Johnson if you seek evidence.

The majority of pubs are undoubtedly indispensable assets to their communities. They are meeting places and comfort for the lonely. They enable decent conviviality and bring us in contact with people we might not otherwise encounter. Some do outstanding work in providing food for the homeless, working with charities and offering free meals at Christmas for those who are old, lonely and disadvantaged. Most of them are well managed by responsible landlords and outbreaks of drunken or antisocial behaviour are efficiently dealt with, in most cases without the intervention of the police.

However, allowing all pubs to open after three months of lock down on the same date, 5 July 2020 – a midsummer Saturday – during a deadly and ongoing pandemic, is a questionable decision. John Apter, Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales warned: “It’s crystal clear that drunk people can’t/won’t keep social distance”. He has been proved right as reports came in of “drunk people bunched up cheek by jowl”, of the police being repeatedly called to pubs where drunks had become aggressive and to disorderly behaviour outside pubs. This is bad enough at any time, but right now it is terrifying. The effect on pub staff, the emergency services and the NHS will be seen in the coming weeks. It puts at risk the advances we have made since March, advances which have been made at great personal cost for so many.

A declaration of interest: I rarely go to a pub. I am not a teetotaller but I drink very little and not at all if driving. I am averse to noise and do not like crowded environments. This may be indicative of introversion but it is not ‘virtue signalling’: there are many like me. We are not Puritan killjoys but neither do we find alcohol – particularly in excess – an indispensable component of enjoyment. However, there is something deep in our culture which by default, seems to think otherwise. On Saturday, a young couple were interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme about their lockdown lives. They spoke of spending time in the garden, eating at home and no longer going to pubs. Their tone was one of slightly surprised contentment at what they had discovered about themselves, apparently to the incredulity of the interviewer who asked “Have you become boring?”

The implication that pubbing and partying are essential is very damaging. The Guardian reported landlords as apprehensive about ‘Super Saturday’ on the grounds of having to deal with “four months of pent-up rowdiness”. An assumption that social inadequacy and behavioural dysfunction are the inevitable outcomes of pub-deprivation is disturbing and these attitudes should surely invite us to take stock of our concepts of leisure and recreation.

So long as popular culture continues to give credence to the idea that drinking too much confers a reputation to be admired for knowing how to enjoy yourself and that the intensity of your hangover is met with a knowing wink rather than a snort of distaste, we are greatly impoverished. It is significant that this foolishness seems to be increasingly rejected by young people. There is, therefore, hope for the future. But it would be unfair not to realise that if pubbing is the go-to activity for your peer group, standing back from it could make you feel very lonely. Inviting reflection and enabling change in this area is the responsibility of us all. It is not necessary to spend one’s free time in practising the harpsichord while subsisting on water and lentils to understand that something has gone wrong with our understanding of the relationship between individual rights and public good, between companionship and rowdiness and between enjoyment and excess.

The hospitality industry is under threat. It employs around 10 per cent of UK workers and the need to protect such a large number of livelihoods is of the greatest importance. The balancing act is difficult and requires responsibility from customers and staff alike. In many areas this will have been achieved and therefore will not make the news. But the trouble that there has been, and will probably continue to be, needs our attention, not least as any spike in infections and deaths dating back to 5 July will be framed by the government as the fault of irresponsible punters. Those punters would, to some extent, be justified in pointing to mixed messaging from the government and the prevailing attitude to enjoyment which has hardly been challenged at this critical time.

However that may play out, the causes of irresponsible behaviours in this time of deadly pandemic need to come under scrutiny. When responses to raucous on-the-razz habits of leisure behaviour have been allowed to pass as slightly amusing for so long in so many quarters, it may be that the pandemic has something to teach us.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.