LONDON – The phone rings and the voice on the other side gets straight to the point: "Fancy a pint?"
The response, equally pointed: "God, yeah."
That brief conversation, or some minor variation of it, is going to take place up and down the U.K. on the day the pubs eventually open their doors again to thirsty regulars.
They've been missed badly during the country's coronavirus lockdown. In fact, the country's pubs, which number around 47,000 according to the British Beer and Pub Association, were told to close their doors on March 20, three days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the full lockdown.
“We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub and I can understand how people feel about that,” he said when announcing their closure.
And again, on Sunday when extending the bulk of the lockdown restrictions further, he referenced the “darkened pubs” to relay his understanding of the social impact of the fight against the coronavirus. No change before July it seems.
The industry, which has seen thousands of pubs close over the past couple of decades, faces the prospect of thousands more going under. Many are doing what they can to serve the community, such as The Prince in north London, which is offering freshly pulled beer for takeout to queuing customers in 3.5-pint (2-liter) containers.
That's something, but if it was just about drinking beer, then the living room or the garden would suffice. But it's never quite the same.
The pub, after all, is a public house, a home away from home — for drinkers and non-drinkers alike. It's the go-to arena for friends and family in good times and bad, for first dates and breakups. Or just to while away the hours with nothing much to say or do.
They are host to life’s rich pageant.
The pub holds a special place in British culture, unmatched anywhere else in the world. They are key building blocks of a shared identity and shared connections from the tiniest hamlet in cider country in southwest England, such as The Montague Inn in Somerset, to the more whisky-focused havens in Scotland, such as the Stein Inn on the Isle of Skye.
Some, like the Groes Inn in north Wales, go back hundreds of years and are in places shadowy and confined — seemingly conspiratorial discussions in the isolated corners. Others are gleaming and new, wide open expanses, fodder for the sound and fury of a crunch Six Nations rugby international. More like the old sporting terraces that our fathers used to stand on on Saturday afternoons.
And there's everything in between from top-notch dining to the weekly quiz.
They even have an array of names, to solidify the bond, history lessons in themselves. Who ye John Snow? The 19th-century epidemiologist of course. The Duke of this and the Duchess of that — let's do some research. Others are just plain bizarre. Really? The Pyrotechnic's Arms in southeast London or The Bucket of Blood in Cornwall.
They change through the year, comforting in winter as the log fires roar and the real ales are supped. Refreshing in the height of summer as the beer gardens mutate into a kind of mini-festival — especially so now that they are kid-friendly.
It's the closeness of strangers that's perhaps most missed. Opining on this and that. It's where many learn their diplomatic skills — and use them. Sometimes, it can get too much, especially when one too many has been imbibed — a cross word here, or an inappropriate look there, can turn the air blue. Or worse, violent.
Without the pubs, nothing quite works as well and their reopening, even in an era of social distancing will signal the start of a path to normality, more so than perhaps anything else. After months of lockdown duress, communities will need to re-engage, and the pub will undoubtedly be the main vehicle to lift the spirits, for life's rich pageant to make itself heard once again.
Fancy a pint?