This is the last article you can read this month
You can read more article this month
You can read more articles this month
Sorry your limit is up for this month
A LITTLE over a century ago in his novella The Machine Stops, EM Forster prophesied a locked-down future in which the world’s population were confined to their rooms in tower blocks, their basic needs administered to by the mysterious “machine.”
Not exactly well-known for dystopian sci-fi, Forster was exploring his favourite theme of the value of human relationships, captured in “only connect,” the repeated mantra of his more famous work Howard’s End.
Perhaps fearing the physical disconnection brought by the new technologies of the telephone and the radio, in The Machine Stops he somehow manages to predict the internet. In the novella, people communicate through a circular tablet-like device and spend most of their hours attending, or speaking at, Zoom-like online lectures.
People are, for the most part, happy in their isolation. The vaguest sense of loss is momentarily conjured by “the imponderable bloom,” a strange and almost forgotten phrase coined by a “discredited philosophy” to denote the “essence of intercourse.”
Forster would today feel his fears confirmed by enforced social distancing and, while he was more familiar with country houses than public houses, finding ourselves suddenly in a world without pubs crystallises that human need for coming together in flesh and blood.
Right now, the licensed trade faces its own tangle of imponderables. Britain’s 40,000 pubs, which have been in uncomfortable hibernation since they were told to close their doors at midnight on Friday, March 20, are due to awaken this weekend.
They will do so hesitantly and with trepidation. A concerted hospitality industry campaign to reduce two-metre social distancing to one metre has been successful, at the cost of onerous mitigating measures.
Government guidance on what a Covid 19-safe pub might look like runs to 43 pages. They will be table-service only and customers will be urged to register their contact details for tracing in the event of an outbreak. Bars will, indeed, be a place where everybody knows your name but not in a good way.
Perspex screens will protect staff at the tills and toilets will be “one-in, one-out.” Music will be muted to reduce the risk of loud conversation and singing and dancing are definitely out.
Servers will not need to wear masks but many pub operators will issue them anyway to give customers confidence at the expense of a smile.
It’s the pub, but not as we know it.
And that may not encourage former pub-goers, already painfully weighing the risk of returning against the desire for a social drink, to come back. Pubs are, in their essence, social spaces rather than merely places you can get a bite to eat and a beer. Some have reasonably argued that they are fundamentally incompatible with social distancing, even at one-metre-plus.
And from a commercial point of view the resulting reduction in capacity and spend, combined with the need for more staff, will make many smaller businesses unviable.
For the first few weeks at least, it will be mainly larger premises, which tend to be directly managed by pub companies and brewers with deep resources, that will open although a relaxation in licensing laws may see some creative use of outside space by those with cramped interiors.
Most traditional pubs, including the new breed of micro pubs that have in the last few years helped restore the idea of the “local,” face a daunting struggle for survival as government support dwindles and landlords demand rent.
If too many pubs are allowed to close for the last time over the coming months, the price will be paid in lost jobs, lost homes for many publicans and an even deeper recession. But there is more at stake than that.
The state must recognise that pubs are not just businesses but social spaces essential to our wellbeing. Their survival cannot come down to a matter of profitability any more than the life of human beings should depend on the profit they contribute to the economy.
Mental health is one issue. There is wide acceptance that social drinking in a controlled environment is better for you than swilling a bottle or can alone at home and academics are already debating the impact of the lockdown on those vulnerable to alcohol problems.
Nor can video conferencing fill the social gap left by the pub, even when you do it over a beer.
Pubs are units of capital that at the same time provide a space where the pressures of neoliberal subjectivity, that nagging push to be useful and profitable the whole time, is suspended. A pub is a place where you can simply be.
One good thing that might come out of lockdown is a greater appreciation of pubs and society’s responsibility for their survival. In that context, Keith Flett’s audacious recent demand in the Morning Star to take Wetherspoon into public ownership seems not so outlandish.
And when we are, once again, able to raise our glass in the convivial embrace of the bar, Imponderable Bloom would make rather a good name for a craft beer, don’t you think?
Phil Mellows, a freelance journalist who lives in Brighton, blogs at philmellows.com. This is the latest in the series of articles on culture after Covid-19, jointly published by the Morning Star and Culture Matters, culturematters.org.uk
You can’t buy a revolution, but you can help the only daily paper in Britain that’s fighting for one by joining the 501 club.
Just £5 a month gives you the opportunity to win one of 17 prizes, from £25 to the £501 jackpot.
By becoming a 501 Club member you are helping the Morning Star cover its printing, distribution and staff costs — help keep our paper thriving by joining!
You can’t buy a revolution, but you can help the only daily paper in Britain that’s fighting for one by become a member of the People’s Printing Press Society.
The Morning Star is a readers’ co-operative, which means you can become an owner of the paper too by buying shares in the society.
Shares are £10 each — though unlike capitalist firms, each shareholder has an equal say. Money from shares contributes directly to keep our paper thriving.
Some union branches have taken out shares of over £500 and individuals over £100.
You can’t buy a revolution, but you can help the only daily paper in Britain that’s fighting for one by donating to the Fighting Fund.
The Morning Star is unique, as a lone socialist voice in a sea of corporate media. We offer a platform for those who would otherwise never be listened to, coverage of stories that would otherwise be buried.
The rich don’t like us, and they don’t advertise with us, so we rely on you, our readers and friends. With a regular donation to our monthly Fighting Fund, we can continue to thumb our noses at the fat cats and tell truth to power.
Donate today and make a regular contribution.