Catholics know all too well the banishment from the higher things in life – indeed the highest – incurred by the coronavirus lockdown. But like others we endure the more worldly deprivations of these strange times as well. Much ink has already been spilt on the loss of one forbidden zone in particular: the pub.
But how much of a hardship is this, really? In my experience, a good pub these days is hard to find. Or, at least, so I thought. But then, not very long before the great lockdown commenced, I left my home patch in the London commuter belt – where many of the pubs are either sad, confused lunges at what the traditional British boozer is meant to be, or else overly self-conscious departures from the old model – and spent a long weekend in the north-east. I was there to see a student opera, which turned out to be very good, but my trip also allowed me to do some field work in the drinks trade: four pubs in Durham and Newcastle; one a Wetherspoons, the other three independents.
In the Wetherspoons, the atmosphere was pretty raucous. At about three o’clock in the afternoon, a stone’s throw from the Tyne, in the shadow of a large inflatable object I will not name, I had my trousered bottom pinched by the bride-to-be of a hen party. This was one of a series of dares the young woman was racing through with as much dignity as anyone in such a position could muster. My companions and I, meanwhile, had returned to the city centre from hearing a talk on St John Henry Newman given by Professor Eamon Duffy in a fine suburban Catholic church. Newcastle is a great place to go and enjoy what Louis McNeice called, in his wonderful poem “Snow”, “the drunkenness of things being various”.
But the other pubs I ventured into over the course of three days were much quieter, as well as smaller and snugger. (One of them actually had a snug.) There was lots of amiable chatter. Most of the other drinkers were locals, though there was a scattering of students, the voices of working-class north-east and middle-class south-east mingling to create a likeable comedy of accents.
The décor and furnishings of these smaller, slightly out-of-the-way pubs were comfortable, dignified, ancient, well maintained. There were at least two open fires. These establishments had clearly escaped multiple major re-orderings in pursuit of whatever was once passingly thought lucrative or fashionable, the kind of refit that has left other pubs self-conflicted wrecks. On the walls of one of them were framed pictures of past bishops of Durham, but with the faces of some of the regulars skilfully superimposed. This turned out to be funny even if you didn’t know any of the people involved.
Everyone was merry, but no-one was hammered. The beer was excellent (Castle Eden Ale!), conversation was eclectic and I had lovely people to talk to. If good pubs are like unto gold, then I had reached El Dorado on a bend in the River Wear.
I won’t name these premises here. Finding such places through a mix of luck, serendipity and tapping into local knowledge – which is what I did – is after all how it should be. Pub crawls should never be route marches. I hadn’t even been expecting to spend very much time in bars when I left for the north, but I was glad that I had.
However, readers of the Catholic Herald will not need reminding that we live in a postlapsarian world. There is a blot on every landscape. In this case, in one of the pubs, there was, to my dismay, piped music, loud enough to make you raise your voice a notch.
In 1946, George Orwell wrote a loving evocation of his ideal public house, to which he gave the name The Moon Under Water. Here there are “no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries”. No handle-less glasses for serving pints of beer. No obstacle to children coming along because there is a garden with swings and a slide. And no radio. It is always quiet enough to talk. Indeed, the regulars were there “for conversation as much as for the beer”. Apparently, Tim Martin, the founder of Wetherspoons, was so taken with the clampdown on extraneous noise in Orwell’s blueprint that he made his pubs free of background music. Good on him for that.
And good on Northumbria’s calm and civilised watering holes for keeping before us visions of what pubs can be. The outbreak of piped music was a small aberration, really; an exception that proved the rule. I returned south refreshed in every sense.
Moreover, please God, when this lockdown is all over and done with, and the pub doors are flung open again, I will be back.