Phil Mellows muses on the need for more awareness of the value of pubs, places where neoliberal subjectivity and stress can be suspended. The painting is by Norman Cornish
A little over a hundred years ago, in his novella The Machine Stops, E M Forster prophesied a locked-down future in which the world’s population were confined to their rooms, buried in underground tower blocks, their basic needs administered by the mysterious ‘machine’. Not exactly well-known for dystopian sci-fi, Forster was exploring his favourite theme, the value of human relationships, captured in the repeated mantra of his more famous work, Howard’s End: “only connect”.
Perhaps fearing the physical disconnection brought by the new technologies of the telephone and the radio, in The Machine Stops he somehow manages to predict the internet. People communicate through a circular tablet-like device and spend most of their hours attending, or speaking at, online lectures. (Forster clearly also foresaw Zoom.)
They are, for the most part, happy in their isolation. The vaguest sense of loss is momentarily conjured by a strange, almost forgotten, phrase, “the imponderable bloom”, coined by a “discredited philosophy” to denote the “essence of intercourse”.
Forster would today feel his fears confirmed by enforced social distancing, and while he was more familiar with country houses than public houses, finding ourselves suddenly in a world without pubs crystallises that human need for coming together in flesh and blood. Right now, the licensed trade faces its own tangle of imponderables. Britain’s 40,000 pubs, which have been in uncomfortable hibernation.since they were told to close their doors at midnight on Friday, March 20, will begin to awake in early July.
They will do so hesitantly and with trepidation. A concerted hospitality industry campaign to reduce two-metre social distancing to one metre has been successful, at the cost of onerous mitigating measures. Government guidance on what a Covid-19-safe pub might look like runs to 43 pages. They will be table-service only and customers will be urged to register their contact details for tracing in the event of an outbreak. Bars will, indeed, be a place where everybody knows your name, but not in a good way.
Perspex screens will protect staff at the tills and toilets will be ‘one-in, one-out’. Music will be muted to reduce the risk of loud conversation and singing and dancing are definitely out. Servers will not need to wear masks but many pub operators will issue them anyway to give customers confidence at the expense of a smile.
It’s the pub, but not as we know it. And that may not encourage former pub-goers, already painfully weighing the risk of returning against the desire for a social drink, to come back. Pubs are, in their essence, social spaces rather than merely places you can get a bite to eat and a beer. Some have reasonably argued they are fundamentally incompatible with social distancing, even at one-metre-plus. And from a commercial point of view the resulting reduction in capacity and spend, combined with the need for more staff, will make many smaller businesses unviable.
For the first few weeks at least it will be mainly larger premises, which tend to be directly managed by pub companies and brewers with deep resources, that will open - though a relaxation in licensing laws may see some creative use of outside space by those with cramped interiors.
Most traditional pubs, including the new breed of micropubs that have in the last few years helped restore the idea of the ‘local’, face a daunting struggle for survival as government support dwindles and landlords demand rent. If too many pubs are allowed to close for the last time over the coming months, the price will be paid in lost jobs, lost homes for many publicans and an even deeper recession.
But there is more at stake than that. The state must recognise that pubs are not just businesses but cultural, social spaces essential to our well-being. Their survival cannot come down to a matter of profitability any more than the life of human beings should depend on the profit they contribute to the economy.
Mental health is one issue. There is wide acceptance that social drinking in a controlled environment is better for you than swilling a bottle or can alone at home, and academics are already debating the impact of the lockdown on those vulnerable to alcohol problems. Nor can video conferencing fill the social gap left by the pub, even when you do it over a beer.
Pubs are units of capital that at the same time provide a space where the pressures of neoliberal subjectivity, that nagging push to be useful and profitable the whole time, is suspended. A place where you can simply be.
One good thing that might come out of lockdown is a greater appreciation of pubs, and society’s responsibility for their survival. In that context, Keith Flett’s audacious demand to take Wetherspoon’s into public ownership seems not so outlandish. And when we are, once again, able to raise our glass in the convivial embrace of the bar, ‘Imponderable Bloom’ would make rather a good name for a craft beer, don’t you think?
Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist who has been writing about pubs and brewing for more than 30 years.