The doors are open. The gabble of chatter can be heard from the street. The sky is an undisturbed blue. The anticipation has been building for hours as the seats are taken, the orders received and the first glass is placed on the table. The moment is finally here.
At least, that is the romanticised version of events that had played in my head for the months leading to this time.
Pubs have reopened – or their gardens have anyway. It was a decision that went mostly unchallenged by a weary populace, devoid of any desire to criticise futilely any further. Even in the Greater Manchester region, where restrictions have been tight since August, the last pub visits still allowed people to enter the actual building. Households were not to mix and everybody was masked up nearly the whole time but we were still in the pub. They key component of a pub visit still existed.
We’ve successfully been worn down and therefore as many custodians as possible transformed car parks and storage areas into astro-turfed, decking led, wonderlands; many with the feel of being in a wedding gazebo for a backyard ceremony.
My favourite locals and regular spots do not have the facilities for such things, but that doesn’t matter right now. This is about all pubs. All pubs are important now. All pubs need the support. The beer doesn’t matter either. I’ve bought nothing but quality beer from independent businesses for 12 months now. A few pints of macro won’t do any harm now. Give me whatever is on draft at any establishment. This is the moment.
Yet as the sun moved across the sky and the pints of beer I wouldn’t normally choose were ordered, the novelty began to wear thin quickly.
Positively, the suspected bounce back for pubs appeared true around here. Places that would be lucky to have three or four daytime customers on a normal Tuesday afternoon working week were at full capacity in their beer gardens. Outside space may lead to limited volume but this didn’t change the fact that these pubs had 5 or 6 times the numbers they would normally expect.
Beneath the new canopy with a pint of Guinness, I observed many regulars reconvening as though the pub had been closed only a matter of days. I looked around at the once familiar sight of a mix of people from single households putting the world to rights once more. Even the added musk of cigarette smoke hanging beneath the awning took me back to my inaugural pub visits in my late teens. For a good half hour my senses consumed more than the beer in glass.
I caught up with a friend I hadn't seen since pubs closed in his area in October. The catch-up was a welcome one; from the serious to the banal. It was the sort of pub session where the beer choice or quality scarcely mattered, though a couple of Robinson's cask beers were doing an okay job.
As teatime passed and the shade descended upon us, my chest began to tighten as an uncontrollable shiver took hold of my layered up torso. I had imagined that it would have been difficult to drag me back home, but instead fingers stiff from the cold couldn't wait to order that taxi. It was cold. Not wintry cold but early evening cold. It was barely 6pm but the temperature drop was sharp. This was the time when normally somebody would say "shall we go inside" and the remainder of the evening would be carried out under a wall of brass fittings and bad curtains. Instead, we went home.
The following day, for the first time in 6 months, the morning farewells featured that once commonplace question, "Are you going to the pub after work?" Pubs are back and so my old routine was presumed to have returned too. However, I was almost surprised. No, I won't be going to the pub after work yet, but the cold isn't the only reason.
In the early days of lockdown number one (I will call it a lockdown even though it was not) I was a champion of a positive outlook. Embrace the abnormality. Enjoy this once in a lifetime experience. Espouse the slight changes for this unique period for they won't be here long. There were exactly four months between my final pub pint in March 2020 and the next in July. Though they seemed to go on forever, I have now had to reevaluate just how long that is.
This time the difference has been closer to 6 months and I have become institutionalised. The way my working days are structured. The walks that I take at the weekend. The time that I spend at home. They have become my normality but they can only exist in a publess world. Coming out of that is proving more difficult.
Saturdays were always a pub day, whether it be on the way to match or out for a day in town. Now the idea of taxis and trains seems arduous when I have a nice garden and beer stock at home.
The thrill of seeing friends in real life, rather than through a screen, had seemed to be one to hold onto. Now I have become accustomed to the comfort of speaking to them from my spare room, throwing a blanket over me when I get cold and closing the screen when tiredness sets in. Already home, without the need for delayed trains and expensive taxis.
Even the vow to drink whatever was available on the bar, just for the thrill of being in the pub, has proved a lie after one visit. There's only so much John Smith's you can force down yourself before thinking about that large stash of quality beer sitting at home.
The largest turn off though is something that I told people to embrace last summer. Booking is not something I like doing for the pub, but when it was deemed a novelty last summer, I printed its pros on the side of a double decker bus. Now it is a frustration, though equalled by turning up to a potentially full venue. For those of us that must travel to pubs, the risk of being turned away is too great but the need to book when spaces fill so quickly too difficult to plan.
Add to that the social anxieties heightened for those that suffer. There is truth in the many humorous memes that appeared last year regarding people being content in a quieter world, where shops and trains are less populated. My ideological nature now longs for the world that we caught a glimpse of; where deer come to my garden fence. But too many are quick to want to return to Joel Goodman’s snapshot of modern day Britain.
The sorry truth is that this triumphant return to the pub paled in comparison to last July’s prequel. There is a huge difference between returning to that spot in your favourite corner once more and interacting with staff and customer’s alike to this 2021 al fresco version. My real pub returns beckons in May.
I’m sure somewhere I will be accused of kicking pubs whilst they are down or unnecessary negativity but my love of all pubs is well documented. I don’t need to sugar-coat the pub experience – I’ve been living it my entire adult life. Many will find that their own individual experiences have been brilliant, with outdoor heating and better beer, but I’m not here for that. I’m not discouraging people from going with my honesty but people shouldn’t feel pressured to return immediately.
People have struggled, in the last 6 months more so than the first three. Anybody using the idea that physical contact is so important to them is feigning it as, guess what, you’ve been able to do that in a garden or public space for weeks.
This April drinking seems better suited to taprooms, where the seating outdoors often mirrors that from inside and the atmosphere is not one of a pub anyway. Perhaps that will create a different atmosphere, replicating the way tap rooms always felt before restrictions and a pandemic. I’ve seen many happy faces enjoying those spaces.
For now at least, I find myself joining a crowd of people I was once set against. I suddenly align with my old foes, whom cannot be convinced that sitting watching the long-tailed tits build nests amongst the hedgerow where the chickens roam, with a cat in my lap, my own toilet facilities and a wedge of delightful beer to pick and choose from is somehow inferior to a bench in a car park next to a main road whilst drinking Smoothflow.
I hold onto the memory of the exact pub experience that does trump anything that can be found at home. But we are just not there yet.
Soon. But not yet.
All the love for those working in pubs and bars at this time. Customers - be nice and tip where you can.