It is the fourth week of the UK’s experimental appropriation of Bart Simpson’s “Do-What-You-Feel” Festival. Keeping yourself and others safe is now a choice rather than a requirement. “You have no idea how long we’ve waited for this” says the nightclub punter interviewed on local news, possibly living in a different universe to the rest of us who are all working to the same timescales.
They called it “Freedom Day” because everything in this country must now sound as though it is woven into tapestry. It was so named to appease those that have fought restrictions at every turn, making the lives of those whose livelihoods involve implementing them hellish. The sort of people who would have you believe that their passion for the likes of Wetherspoons and Samuel Smith’s is down to a humble demureness – and yet the last 18 months has shown their true and honest deep contempt for the hospitality staff that work in those venues.
It is those attitudes that created an atmosphere of unease upon the loosening of restrictions. It isn't fear as they love to call it but it does involve a degree of cautiousness, that we are still encouraged to take anyway. What will it be like? Do we want things to go back to normal? Maybe we like table service! Will other people take care? Will I want to stand at a bar again?
But like most moments in life, overthought these days by scrolling through too much social media beforehand, the reality was much less dramatic than any of that.
I approach the pub with those thoughts and questions milling around. I enter the pub, walk up to the bar area for the first time since March 2020, order a beer, go to take a seat and then just... stay. Stood up. Still a reasonable distance from any staff. Pint resting on the bar. And I'm just there. No drama. No feeling of trepidation. No reticence from staff. Just having a pint in a pub.
For somebody who can over-romanticise much about beer drinking, nothing about the action felt monumental. It felt noteworthy but undramatic. It reminded me of my recent experience of returning to your empty childhood home to clear it of all the possessions gathered during your lifetime. The preamble suggests that it'll be emotional and nostalgic; pausing in every doorway as the memories of your infancy flash by in a dreamlike sequence. Each scrapbook or photo album will cause tears to form. The reality is that you just pick a room and crack on sifting through waste and the odd item to throw up on eBay, hoping that there is still a lust for a broken 1980s Ectomobile somewhere.
There was, however, a trickle of endorphins running through my body and warming me up as I stood at the bar. I was here again. That's my happy place. The next step in a return to joy was physically manifesting within me. For I don’t mind table service at all – but I don’t love it
That's been the issue for many throughout the last 18 months - the trepidation in change. Some people simply could not adjust to the idea of staying home, not travelling and not seeing friends at the start. Now others are struggling with the opposite. I understand. But the thoughts beforehand are always different to the act themselves.
If you aren't ready to stand at a bar yet then take a seat. If you aren't ready for places that serve in any way other than table service then don't go to them. If you aren't ready to go out at all yet then that is okay. Stay home. But don't manifest your trepidation as loud online criticism. I'm not ready to return to Beer Festivals yet, but many people that I know have been to the likes of Hop City and BrewLDN in recent weeks. I haven't aimed fingers at those people, I've just avoided the event.
I won't lament the loss of table service. Those who have sung its praises or wished for it to stay have often limited views on the function of the majority of pubs. They tend to inhabit newer places whose layout is often nothing more than one large square room, with every table visible to bar workers.
What about pubs with many nooks or different rooms? What about pubs that need to start maximising turnover to survive? What happens when it is standing room only? What happens to the pubs that are near capacity if six couples or even solo drinkers take up the only seats? Table service only works if the number of tables always exceeds the number of customers. That isn’t the case in a lot of pubs I visit.
I wasn't sure prior to that first visit how a pub devoid of regimentation would sit with me but the only way I could find out was by performing the act. If safety was questionable then leaving is always an option. The longer the wait, the worst the scenario plays out in your head. Whilst I'm not suggesting a gung ho approach, it is worth trying it for yourself.
It is good to be back.