Published by October by Pitchfork, in December 2020.
At the pub in lockdown London
“I can’t order at the bar! They say it’s table service only!” My friend Ben is an experienced pub-goer, but the government’s new coronavirus rules, which had gotten stricter back in September, had him shook. We found ourselves a table and faced the strange at The Kings Arms, a proper boozer just behind Waterloo Station in South London. The bell for last call was jarring when it rang at 9:30 pm, but there’s a pandemic and we must all do our bit. Honestly, I was just happy to be out—every single bar and restaurant in England was shut for 104 brutal days this spring. “Cheers!” I said to Ben. “Some pub is better than no pub!”
The next time I met up with Ben, only people from the same household could sit inside, leaving us huddled around a patio heater—let’s just say you have to really want it to do that in London in November. The rules have changed so many times this year I’ve lost track, but I’ll never forget that first weekend of freedom after the spring lockdown. The relief was palpable in the streets of Soho—we would get a summer after all! The bars and restaurants flooded the newly pedestrianized streets with tables to serve us at a safe distance, and it felt like a celebration. I ordered two glasses of wine at the bar at The Lyric, my favourite Soho pub, dropping a quid into a glass labelled “Boris says stay alert and tip us.” Sitting down at a freshly sanitized table I had a feeling that this reprieve wouldn’t last, but hey, let’s ride it like we stole it.
During this magical summer I visited my favourite pubs as often as I could. Who knew who’d survive? In November, pubs could only do takeaway, and now, in December, the rules are only slightly looser. The coronavirus doesn’t care how much we miss idling away a Sunday afternoon in the pub, and by the time this is over many of them will be gone. The pub industry was under plenty of pressure before the pandemic (running a pub is long hours for not much money, and 25 percent of UK pubs have shut since 2001) and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) didn’t mince words: this year will “make or break” the pub industry.
“For many pubs, it’s not really viable to be open. They’re not making any profit. But they are doing it anyway, because they want to,” says Nik Antona, National Chairman of CAMRA, over the phone from Staffordshire. “The local pub is where people meet, where they have a chat, where they put the world to right.” Rent and bills are still due, but pubs haven’t received any insurance money because insurers are refusing. The government’s furlough scheme has been helpful, but many London pubs found their business rates were too high to qualify for support grants. “It’s been quite a harrowing time for the industry,” says Antona, who estimates about 2 to 5 percent of pubs didn’t open after the first lockdown. “If we hadn’t gone into any other restrictions, many would probably have opened up eventually.” Now it depends how long the restrictive rules will last and what happens next in terms of formal support. Resources are stretching thin: “If pubs can’t reopen [after the November lockdown], we may see more casualties.”
The Queen’s Head, a charming Victorian pub near King’s Cross in Central London, has been closed since the first lockdown. “Every time we plan to reopen, [new rules] come up,” says landlord Nigel Owen over Zoom. He’s hoping to reopen in January. “But right now, the area is a ghost town. A big part of our footfall is local office workers, tourists, and people travelling in and out of King’s Cross station,” says Owen. The locals are still there, but the pandemic could have a lasting effect on the way people work and travel.
Owen has run The Queen’s Head for more than ten years. “It’s a proper pub,” he says, telling me about first going to see it: it was closed down and the etched windows were covered in newspaper, and he peered through the letterbox to be amazed by the big bar and mirrors. The Queen’s Head is a conservation site and can only ever be a pub, which is helpful; Owen has been negotiating with the property owner for rent relief because paying the full amount for the year is impossible. Asked about insurance, Owen shakes his head: “It’s a mafia. You pay all this money for insurance, but you’re not insured for anything!” Owen knows pub landlords who’ve handed back their keys—it’s been a rough year. “But one of the benefits that could come out of all this is people realising we need to support local businesses. Without support, they just aren’t going to be there.”
Heath Ball, landlord at The Red Lion & Sun in Highgate Village in North London, credits local support with keeping the pub afloat this year. Ball never closed the classic Edwardian pub, keeping it open as far as regulations would let him: “I’ve still got staff to look after. I can’t sit still. It’s about survival of the business.” Ball gives me a cup of mulled wine as we sit down outside the pub—the winter warmer is selling well to people who go for walks on nearby Hampstead Heath. The Red Lion & Sun is part of the community: “We’ve got a lot of elderly customers who we deliver food to. David, next door, he’s in his 90s, he likes a pint of bitter. We put it on a tray with his dinner and leave it outside his door,” says Ball. When regulation for a time dictated orders must be made by phone, Ball rigged up a handset on the pavement, and people collected from a marvelous shed out front.
Ball, who’s run The Red Lion & Sun for more than 13 years, says they’re holding their own and no one’s lost their job, even though they didn’t qualify for support grants. They are tied to the Greene King pub company which discounted the rent: “Greene King have been really supportive. I think they want to keep their tenants in place—this is a good business here.” Stark figures from the British Beer & Pub Association suggest 72 percent of pubs and restaurants could be unviable by next year, unless they’re either able to be open or receive support to be closed. I ask Ball, how much longer can he keep this up? “This second lockdown is a lot harder financially. The summer was [busier], but the novelty has worn off,” Ball sighs. “Who can survive this? Where are we going to end up?”
I leave The Red Lion & Sun with a takeaway, taking the long way back to the Tube so I could finish it before putting a mask on. I realize how much I’d missed it, being at the pub and getting the train home, half-cut and relaxed after putting the world to rights. Most of my favorite pubs are still hanging on, but a lot of people’s favorites won’t make it till the end of this pandemic. Cities change constantly but it’s usually slow, and it’s a very strange feeling to watch your city transform like this. Any time could be the last time.