The Government’s decision to close non-essential shops, pubs, restaurants and gyms from midnight, Wednesday 4 November, caused widespread consternation, even as we pondered alarming infection rates throughout the country. On the one hand we needed to get this dang virus under control and avoid unnecessary death and suffering, while on the other hand, there were pubs.
Of course there’s no such thing as a non-essential pub. All 47,000 of them serve the greater good. It makes me queasy to hear pubs mentioned in the same breath as shops and gyms, as if the mixture of refreshing intoxicants, laughter and slowly loosening humans has any equivalence to shoe-shopping or your burpee personal best. Out of respect, pubs should at least get their own press conference. And be name-checked individually.
But I am not one to criticise caution in a global health emergency, even if it is delivered by a cabal of incompetent grifters.
Yet I could not let the closure of our greatest institution pass without recognition, without saying ‘Au revoir’. I decided to say goodbye properly with a mini-crawl around Borough, with pints and good company. Or failing that, Pompey Dunc.
The Borough was buzzing, but then The Borough is always buzzing. I met Dunc at The Market Porter where the efforts to keep everyone at a distance from each other meant we couldn’t get a table immediately. We could, however, nip round the corner to The Rake and get a superb takeaway pint of Three Sods Rooi Kabouter Red Ale – a superior example of the genre – to see us through the minutes of queuing. Civilisation at its finest.
A reliable sign of good pub management is great staff and all the guys at the Porter were brill, as was, of course, the Harvey’s Sussex Best. Sarah somehow manages to run a perpetually busy pub in the middle of a tourist hotspot with the warmth and geniality of a village local. She deserves a fucking medal.
Next we popped to The Sheaf in the Yard, just a few doors down. It’s taken genius along with some hard work to transform the former car park into a pop-up bar in an open-ended railway arch. The manager, Karina, a Borough veteran now despite her youth, showed us to a table and told us we couldn’t mix with other tables, given that we had friends on several. We were able to intercept some passing mini-burgers though and were then brought a tray of German sausages by Disco Tony, the pub’s owner. Beer! Sausages! Mini-burgers! Why would we want to mix with other tables?
Nonetheless, the lure of The Mistress overcame us at some point, and we headed to the Rose & Crown on Union Street to pay our respects. Having transformed this previously scrappy boozer into a post-work playground of the finest vibes, the Mistress treated us to something tasty from Partizan – the details of which became hazy. We were even able to make the acquaintance, at a safe distance, of a wonky; the kind of character that makes pubs what they are, safehouses for the bohemian.
Andrew has led a long and colourful life. One chapter includes his going to rock legend Lou Reed’s place in New York City, after partying with Madonna. Reed was famously grouchy and took an instant aversion to Andrew, shoving him down the stairs at one point. But Andrew is hard not to like and his articulate patois turned the situation round. He ended up crashing at Lou’s for the next two weeks.
10pm is no time to stop drinking. If there’s anything I have learned from the early closing time it’s that you should always, always, carry some cans. Typically, the one thing I had learned, I forgot, but The Mistress sorted us out. We strolled to the Crossbones Graveyard where I smoked a little doobie, honouring the souls of medieval sex workers in the only way I knew how.
It had been a splendid evening, not unlike many Borough nights, with some fine ale, good pubs, characters and a little skunk. It was a little like the old days and it will be a little like the new days, when they arrive. All these pubs have bent over backwards to comply with the ever-changing law and keep customers and staff safe. They’ve done a stand-up job of keeping the best thing about Britain going, with little help, support or thought from the government, despite their contribution to the national wellbeing. And they’ve contorted themselves with great humour. The NHS is the stout hero of the pandemic, but our bar staff have eased the pain of the healthy.
Hopefully the four-week break will allow us to return to the bar once more from December 2nd, but precious little can be guaranteed in these strange days. But if we don’t know when normality will return, then we do know where. And it won’t be on rush hour trains or in meeting rooms. See you down there.