Amid the furious debate over vaccine passports, we should not lose sight of the simple pleasure of being able to return to the pub.
This Easter had the most beautiful soundtrack imaginable: the sound of children playing in the park.
I never expected to write such an embarrassing Hallmarks card of a sentence. Until now, I’ve never had much time for children. They show little interest in me and I have none in them.
When friends ask me to occupy their child, I am completely baffled as to what it is I am supposed to do with it. Talking to it always seems beyond its level and playing with it is beyond mine.
But it turns out that I really do like the sound of children playing in the distance.
It’s been nearly half a year since we’ve heard it. The school playgrounds have been empty. The parks have been barren and grey. There’ve been solitary people walking their dogs and runners jogging along the paths – but no conviviality, no laughter, no play. A deadening silence fell over everything.
That changed over the last few weeks. Through some kind of ordained synchronicity, warm weather broke out when restrictions on outdoor socialising began to ease. Old friends sat on park benches with a cup of coffee and caught up. Dogs darted around groups of people sat on the grass.
Most importantly, the children were back: doing handstands, chasing after each other, rampaging through the playground. And with them came that delightful background noise: the highly-pitched clatter of children playing.
It’s not just a noise, really. It’s a promise – of youth and change and renewal. That life goes on.
Next week, pub and restaurant gardens open. And again it’s the background sound I’m most looking forward to.
It’s not possible for a British person’s spirit to be at peace when the pubs are closed. Even the sentence itself is unnerving: ‘The pubs in Britain are closed.’ It’s a kind of show-don’t-tell euphemism for catastrophic national emergency. If you were writing a science fiction book about an alien invasion, you could begin with that sentence and it would tell the reader everything they needed to know.
I’d stopped going to pubs well before they closed them. Even before the first lockdown, you could feel the jarring disconnect between the mood in them and the reality of what was facing us.
The headlines were becoming increasingly apocalyptic. But when you passed a pub, things seemed normal, even convivial. And somehow I knew that if I were to step in there, the conviviality would overcome me as well. The feeling of the pub would take precedence over my rational mind. And by the time I’d ordered my second drink, I’d have that devastating thought: that this surely can’t harm me. Talk and laughter and being with other people in a nice warm room can’t possibly do any damage.
It’s this intuitive disconnect – between what we associate with safety and the reality of viral infection – that is so dangerous in a pandemic.
But I missed the pub terribly. I occasionally started to visualise cold pints with a kind of religious enchantment, like they were an altar to an ancient god who I very much looked forward to worshipping again.
I missed that uniquely British egalitarianism they have. No matter how unequal things are in society, pubs operate according to leveller principles – anyone can walk in, nearly everyone does, friends buy drinks in rounds, and rich and poor alike must stand at the bar to get served. And, yes, I missed that giddy, joyful silliness of getting drunk with friends. We’re taught to disdain drunkenness. But a little bit every so often does no harm, and can perform wonders for the soul.
There’s a pub near me called the Southampton Arms. It is a perfect distillation of everything that is wonderful about the experience. The beers are varied and very good, the wooden floorboards creak as you walk across them, the clientele is mixed, and there’s a battered old piano in the corner which, at some point in the evening, someone will get up and play. As soon as it’s possible, I will sit in that pub and drink my beer and listen to the piano and all will be right in the world.
These things are still some way away. We won’t be able to sit inside pubs for a few months. The specific pleasure of popping in for a cheeky pint will be replaced by the tediousness of booking-ahead. Table service will be the norm for a while yet.
There’s a good chance, unfortunately, that those normal days are still very far off – more than the government’s roadmap would suggest. No.10 is refusing to do the thing which would really get us back to normality: closing the border, helping businesses ventilate their establishments, dedicating money to supporting people through self-isolation, and getting a decent test-and-trace system functioning.
Instead it is putting money and attention into projects that will not help. It’s latest high-tech wheeze is vaccine ID cards. But these offer only false reassurance. Vaccines are only partially protective and we do not yet have the data on how long they last or how effectively they reduce onward transmission.
This is the peril of living under an incompetent government. But still, no matter how gloomy the long-term prospect looks, we know that for the next few weeks pub and restaurant gardens will be open and the weather will be on our side – or as much as it can be in Britain.
Once again, we will get that delightful background noise: of glasses clinking, laughter, arguments, general hubbub.
It’s not really the doing that we miss. It’s that distant sound – of children, of activity, of spirited conversation. It is the sound of normality. And slowly but surely, for a while at least, it is coming back.