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Is there a future for the British Pub?
by Jon Bryan

‘We could watch the game tonight?’ read the text message.

That’s how it started. And that’s how meet-ups between friends often start. A conversation over WhatsApp about meeting up in a pub on a Saturday night to have a drink and watch the football.

But this time it was different. It was the first time in almost 20 weeks since either of us had been in a pub. Two weeks after the pubs started to re-open, I met up with a friend of mine to watch the first of the FA Cup Semi-Finals.

I phoned the pub earlier that day to check that they were showing the game and what we had to do to get in. Yes, they were showing the game, and we could just turn up and get in if it was quiet enough. We didn’t need to book. All good so far.

My friend arrived first. He negotiated his way past the guy at the door, controlling those who were coming in. He was then shown to a table by the masked bar staff. Having secured a table and two seats, it made my job of getting into the pub slightly easier as I arrived a few minutes later, although that still involved an overly-long conversation with the doorman.

Jon Bryan enjoying his non-alcoholic beer
‘I’ve got my car’, my friend said to me. ‘I didn’t know I had to book a seat for the 13 minute train ride’, he explained, as I asked him why he was drinking non-alcoholic lager. ‘When I got onto their website, I could book a seat to come into town, but not one coming back’.

‘No problem’, I explained, as I also had my car. There had been no traffic as I drove into town and parked right outside the pub. I had intended having a drink and leaving it overnight, but as it was already not a typical Saturday night watching the football in a city centre pub, I decided I would drive home and I ordered the same non-alcoholic drink.

It’s always good to meet a friend in a pub: you always have things to talk about. But this time the conversation began with ‘I can’t believe we are paying more than four quid a bottle for this?!’

The price had definitely gone up since lockdown, by around 15-20% I think. We discussed what the pub was having to spend in terms of additional costs, including having someone on the door and hand sanitiser. It was a nice summer’s evening, but there was still plenty of room on the roof terrace if we wanted it. The lack of customers and the reduced maximum occupancy is going to have an impact on small pubs like this one. Whether the number of people in the pub on a Saturday night was going to sustain the business was a topic that occupied our conversation, until the whistle blew and the players kicked off.

A Saturday night out watching football with a good friend should be an enjoyable experience, and there were aspects of it that were. We seemed to be the only ones watching the match. Man City looked good and very likely to score, but then Arsenal had some flashes of brilliance and they took the lead in the first half. My friend was pleased – he supports Arsenal. And as I had bet on them scoring the first goal, so was I!

We could order and pay for our drinks from the table and simply tap the card machine to pay. In some senses, great. But in other ways, the trip to the bar in between rounds used to serve as a natural break in a conversation, as well as an opportunity to exchange niceties with the bar staff and fellow drinkers.

A Gunners fan for over 40 years, it was understandable that my friend would want to mark the second goal by Arsenal. 2-0 up and only 20 minutes to go. It looked like that was it and they would be through to the FA Cup Final! Following my success on backing them to scored first, I put a few quid on them to also score the second goal. So we both cheered and celebrated, and I also drummed on the table to mark the occasion. Our voices and noise level were raised for a short time, but we were far from raucous. However, the doorman came over and asked us to refrain from such behaviour: ‘You can’t do that in here lads’, he said. ‘Must be a Man City fan’, I quipped.

I have had trouble with doormen in the past, but not in my 50s, and not while sitting down drinking non-alcoholic lager. We barely looked like football fans, let alone football hooligans. However, we decided not to engage in a discussion about it with him, even though we were both a little bemused. While all this was a good sign for Arsenal FC, I’m not sure that this was a good sign for the future success of the British pub.

The doorman would become a subject of discussion again a few minutes later. There were very few people in the pub, but a couple in their late 50s were at a table next to us. Like us, they had a high table with bar stools and had been sitting down for most of the time that we were there. But now they were standing up, partly leaning on the table. The doorman came across and told them to sit down. I really don’t know why. They were behind us, so they certainly weren’t blocking our view of the football on the TV – nor us them, as the screen was so high up. A little later we exchanged words of solidarity with each other, having both received instructions on behaviour from a doorman who appeared to enjoy his new-found authority under Covid-19. None of us directly questioned or challenged what we were being told, but that doesn’t mean that we accepted it. It definitely impacted on my view of the place, and going out in general.

The game finished, and we left the pub, making sure that we followed the signs and went out of the door marked ‘exit’.

So what was it like then, this new way of going out and having a drink? We both agreed that the company made it – and the football was also good. But I’m not sure what future British Pubs are going to have if this is what it is going to be like. The experience is going to be very different, as will things like the cost, the clientele, the experience, and the opportunity to meet other people. Bumping into someone you don’t know and starting a conversation with them – being sociable, friendly and expressive – all those experiences are under threat by the way we are expected to behave and conform.

I have always thought it’s important to spend money and support local businesses if you can. The economy needs it and the night time economy certainly does. But for a pub that we both liked and enjoyed meeting in previously, if this was to be “the new normal” for this establishment, it was going to be difficult to inspire the loyalty that it probably needs to survive.

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Jon Bryan, 21st July 2020

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