The writer is a novelist and co-founder of Peach Pubs, an independent group of 19 pubs
Samuel Johnson defined “hospitality” as “the practice of entertaining strangers”. At a coaching inn near Chipping Norton he remarked to his friend and biographer James Boswell: “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good tavern or inn.”
It was true in 1776, and still true at the start of 2020. There were just under 40,000 pubs in the UK then — down 22 per cent since 2000, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. But the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdowns and restrictions that have followed threaten to cause the decline to snowball. Industry bodies now predict that more than 10,000 may never reopen.
This year has been agonising for those who love and practise hospitality. Not merely financially — although the terror of losing everything, whether you are a pub tenant living over the shop with a young family, a fifth-generation family brewer, or (like me) the owner of a group of gastropubs built with a long-serving team over two decades — is real.
Much worse is the torture of being forced to dismantle, inch by inch, everything that makes us hospitable. Every late-announced, badly communicated, ill-considered restriction is another sword-cut to hospitality’s body, until we are left like Monty Python’s Black Knight, limbless and impotent, roaring that we can still fight on, even when it’s so hopeless it’s funny.
A line from a Philip Larkin poem keeps running through my mind: “And that will be England gone.” In “Going Going”, Larkin was lamenting overdevelopment and pollution. Even at his most melancholic he never dreamt they would come for the pubs. But they have.
I don’t think the well-meaning epidemiologists and scientists advising the government mean to kill the pub forever. But they’re doing it, with their dogged insistence on Covid-19 deaths as the sole measure of gross national health condemning as collateral damage the places that contribute so much to gross national happiness.
They must think that the publicans who had to shut down in the first national lockdown in March when they were stuffed with stock for Mother’s Day, and who gave it away to good causes, pivoted to takeaway, phoned their lonely elderly regulars and invited them to join online quizzes, cooked for the NHS and the homeless and kept smiling, can take it.
They may assume those who reopened in July, hemming in conviviality with stripy danger tape and Perspex screens, who smiled fiercely behind masks, were forced to confiscate glasses from regulars at 10pm and watch them form a disorderly queue outside the nearest Tesco Express, can take it.
So, let me be clear to the government and its advisers. We can’t take it. The irony is that, during lockdown, the pub is the one place people have longed to return to. As the man on a mobility scooter outside Turf Moor football stadium in Burnley told a polite young reporter who wanted to know if he was happy: “I’m bloody miserable actually. Pubs are shut. What d’you expect?”
What will Britain be, without its pubs? As social media algorithms drive the polarisation of public opinion, where else but at the bar of their local can a bishop discuss the news with a local groundworker? Where else will someone new to a town get recruited to the Sunday five-a-side football team? Where else will an unofficial village “mayor” be elected? Pubs are our truly democratic spaces, where we meet and joke and sometimes even listen to each other. You cannot hate a man who gets his round in, however much you may despise his views on Brexit.
Even if you imbibe British culture from your television set or radio at home, the pub is at the centre of it all. Where would the cast of EastEnders be without the Queen Vic, or the inhabitants of Coronation Street when the Rovers Return is boarded up? Where will the Archers sit down with their neighbours when The Bull at Ambridge has been turned into a cottage for a Birmingham banker who wants to work from home.
They are disappearing: the real pubs and the ones of our imagination. And with them goes our shared culture, our simple, unplanned fun and our necessary relief on a Friday night. Oddly, there are few protests. Perhaps no one yet believes the situation is as bad as it looks. The government does not fully understand the political damage it will suffer as the chancellor quietly abandons his pledge to stand behind all good businesses, and beloved local pubs are destroyed by clumsy restrictions imposed for too long to be survivable without support.
But things are as bad as they look. So I’m starting a protest here. One simple chant, to get Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attention: “Hey, hey, hey, BJ, how many pubs did you kill today?”