My rock and hard place: the price to pay for loving the pub is the price of going to the pub

To put it brutally, the only way I have managed to remain financially afloat this year is because my local has been shut.

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Everyone keeps asking me if I’ve gone to the pub yet. “Have you gone to the pub yet?” they ask. No, I reply, I have not gone to the pub yet. To be fair, asking people if they have gone to the pub yet is, after a year in lockdown, pretty much the only conversational shot most people have left in their locker. It’s almost the equivalent of “lovely/terrible weather we’re having”, a phatic marker that signifies little more than a grunt of recognition.

Except it is more than that. When people ask me if I’ve returned to the pub, I feel as if they’re asking a vicar if she’s gone back to church yet, or a passionate football fan if they’ve seen a match yet. The pub is important and meaningful to me in the way that public acts of devotion are to vicars and sports fans. (The analogy breaks down when you bear in mind that it is considered poor form for vicars to boo God when he has been seen to make a series of poor decisions on-field, although I must say it would make for more entertaining services if they did.)

But you will notice that, throughout, I say “the pub”, in the way many people do: it suggests that, for all their superficial differences – type of booze and food available, likelihood of getting beaten up, etc – there is a Platonic essence of “pub” to which all pubs are connected, or to which they aspire; sort of in the way each one of us contains some aspect of humanity. Or something like that.

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The last time I sat outside the pub for a drink was in November, when I went to the Eddy in Brighton and found, when I’d got back home, I’d missed a stabbing outside my front door by about two minutes. The last time I was inside a pub? That’s a trickier one to answer.

Was it with my youngest son at the Prince Albert, the one with two working fireplaces and a mural of rock stars (and one DJ, John Peel) outside? Or was it at the Bay Horse Hotel in Wolsingham, when I was drenched and battered after falling down on a steep, slippery hill in a gale on the Bumps near Frosterley? The person I was with had divined that I needed a drink or two after that; never has the term “pick-me-up” seemed so apposite. The Bay Horse itself was the most welcoming of pubs, and I look forward to going back there again one day.

But there is a terrible price to pay for loving the pub, and that is the price of going to the pub. Prices vary wildly up and down the country, but in London and the south in general they are eye-watering, unless you go to a Wetherspoon’s and, for various reasons I’m sure I don’t need to go into, we’re not going to be drinking in a Wetherspoon’s again in a hurry, are we?

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One of the most insane facts I know is that the cheapest pint you can get in London (apart from at a Wetherspoon’s) is in the Bowlers’ Bar of the Pavilion at Lord’s, and that’s only accessible to those with MCC membership, which is not in itself cheap or readily available.

To put it brutally, the only way I have managed to remain financially afloat this year (and I am using the word “afloat” in a somewhat loose and desperate sense, in the way that someone who has leapt off a sinking ship but has yet to find a lifeboat or lifebelt is still, for a while, technically afloat) is because the pub has been shut.

This sorry state of affairs has been the reality for almost as long as I can remember. I still recall the financial gouging I would take in my weekly visits to the Uxbridge Arms in Notting Hill Gate, when doing the pub quiz: even winning the quiz, which my team sometimes did, could leave one seriously out of pocket, especially in the days when it was traditional for the winners to buy the second placed team drinks.

The last time I could afford to go out for a drink was… well, I don’t like to think about it. The point about going to the pub is that you can’t just go there for one, maybe two drinks. You have to do it properly, and “properly” means that when you walk back from the pub, you don’t quite do so in a straight line. Hardened drinkers like me can find it quite ruinous.

Every so often I construct a reverie in which I am chancellor of the Exchequer, and never have I entertained this fantasy without putting, at the top of my policies, one that involves reducing the tax on a pint of beer in the pub to something negligible. This, of course, would be paid for by increasing taxes on the super-rich, none of whom like going to the pub in the first place, and don’t even buy their round when they do. Why has no socialist manifesto ever proposed this? 

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Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 21 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical

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