A pint without the boys in a pub full of not much noise because loudness increases the chances of shouting and more droplets of virus in the air. Is that living alright? We send Danny Smith, the canary in our covid coal mine, into town as pubs open their doors for the first time in god knows how long. Will he get irate about the R-rate?
I’m in a Wetherspoons and things are not going well. In the Before Times being in a Wetherspoons was usually a pretty good indicator of how well things were going in general. The binary state of being in or out of a Wetherspoons nearly always correlates to ‘not so great’ and ‘going well’. But now, on this historic day? It’s both a historic and personal failure – and there’s a sheet of paper here with evidence.
To be honest it didn’t start well. I was dropped off on the Smallbrook Queensway and the first thing I see is Snobs with its windows boarded up*. It’s a sobering sight – literally – but also like the ravens of the Tower of London, if Snobs ever closes for good Birmingham falls. There is no reopening sign on the boards, just a note directing deliveries to next door.
Heading south I see the Old Fox has had a refurbishment and somehow earnt the qualifier “sly” into its name. It’s closed too, which is probably how it earned its new name. Opposite, the Hippodrome lies dormant. Stripped of the livery of show posters and lights it looks corporate and dead. As I write this the entertainment industry has still yet to receive any support from the government despite it hugely important to both the financial and emotional well being of the country. Some cunts need their names up in lights so people know who’s to blame.
The Dragon Inn is a Wetherspoons and this early in the day I was reluctant to go in. I’m here in town to cover the opening of Birmingham pubs after over 100 days closed, the longest enforced closing of public houses in this country since, well, ever. Given, the founder of The Wetherspoons chain, Tim Martin’s close ties to the government and headlines at the start of the lockdown, it’d be impossible to talk about pubs reopening without going to one, but not my first one, and not here. Before it was a ‘spoons, the Dragon Inn was an O’Neill’s, an O’Neill’s I worked at four two years before it closed. I worked the last shift: good memories dust my mind like fresh snow and are too dear to me to sully them with that ruddy faced scarecrow’s dirt wellingtons.
The bars in the Arcadian are all closed and my thoughts flash to all the lower division footballers and dental technicians sitting at home on Saturday night bereft of places to sell them mid-range wine and forgettable cocktails.
OK, I thought, I’ll start at the Bull Ring Tavern, a place notorious for being where nights end, not start. Often maligned for the perceived quality of its patrons, I’ve always found it nothing if not friendly. And the clientele is self editing: the sort of person that drinks there is the sort of person that doesn’t care about what type of person people think drink there (if you see what I mean). So it’s devoid of lower tier footballers and dental technicians.
As I get close a woman with a high ponytail, smoking over the top of a disposable face-mask, dramatically sidesteps in front of the door: “We’re full love” she says, and I become the only person in history to be knocked back from The Bull Ring Tavern**.
Then, I think, it’s perhaps fated that my first actual pint is at a place that has a good claim to be the place where I bought my first actual pint ever: Subside, a rock bar that has been around since I was drinking in town – except for a brief time in the nineties where it inexplicably turned into a lap dancing club. I was there on its last night at its old location, tucked away next to conservatoire, part of the concrete brutalist complex that included the sublime Central Library.
Subside is closed. The air today is close, not warm per say but oppressive, the mood so far is far from jubilant. As I walk past the coach station a man in a tracksuit is attached via his phone to one of those BT information points. He’s pacing and talking into one end of the phone rather than holding it to his ear, leaving his other hand to never leave the inside of the crotch of the grubby light blue tracksuit bottoms he’s struggling to keep up.
The Old Crown then, that will be my first drink. A pub that legitimately has a claim to be the oldest in Birmingham. There is a fitting start.
As I approach the door the door woman in a mask says something I don’t quite hear, I shake my head, she tries again and all I get is muffled vowels. She pulls her mask down sharply and gestures a rectangle with her fingers.
“Bucket? Do you have a bucket?” she snaps.
“A ticket?” I ask.
“Yes, you’ve got to book it in advance”. I don’t have either a ticket, nor a bucket. So I move on.
The next closest pub is The Ruin, but rather than walk all the way there I check their website on my phone, it’s closed too. But then I remember The Bull, The Bull is never closed. The Bull is, in fact, closed, I find out.
It’s been a solid hour of walking and I’m yet to find a drink. I cut through the Bull Ring, it’s busy enough, everyone looks mildly disappointed. I’m reassured to find the christian evangelists and the stall selling Islam are back shouting at each other over their respective PA systems, outside Waterstones. Pleasingly, due to the busking beatboxers outside Primark both are unwitting MCs over a chunky drum’n’bass beat.
‘Costers is another teenage haunt. I’m not surprised when I find it closed though, seeing as it’s a windowless underground petri-dish that a decent sized Orc would be uncomfortable in. Walking down the ramp over the road to Scruffy’s I interrupt what very much looks like someone buying drugs. Dealers being the very definition of ‘nimble small business owners’ have done very well during the lockdown and I absentmindedly wonder if there will ever be a time where capitalism will soak our moral compasses to a point where “Dealers Choice: What selling drugs taught me about business” could be a bestseller.***
Scruffys doesn’t look closed, it looks abandoned. Scruffy’s has been threatening to close for a while. Dale End is constantly caught in a cycle of the threat of being redeveloped so no new business move in, because no business is there nobody wants to invest in the area. I partly suspect the redevelopment of Dale End is on permanent hold because Birmingham City council are broke and any restructuring of that end of town would require the developers to carry the entire cost of the road closures and infrastructure changes.
Up the road, the local boozer for the defendants, The Crown Hotel, is equidistant between the Crown Court and Magistrates Court. It too is closed with a sign that not only is the place alarmed but also has had all the stock and valuables moved and has people living on site. Criminals.
Next door is a barbers, it’s a tiny little shop but is packed full of shaggy haired men and hairdressers elbowing their way through shearing masked punters. Outside a dour man is pointing a device at the head of another scruffily-mopped man. Presumably taking his temperature. I’m starting to worry at this point. I run a little hot anyway and after walking for nearly two hours I suspect I may be a little flush.
The next nearest pub is The Square Peg, once billed as having “the longest bar in Europe” and for some reason, referred to by my friends as “The Squarety Peg”. A Wetherspoons.
The reason anyone goes to a Wetherspoons, is because they couldn’t get into anywhere else. So I go to have what will probably be my last ever drink, in Wetherspoons.
Now there can be no ethical consumption under capitalism, our hands will never be clean while our global supply chain hides its injustices in steps further removed from us. But, much like how in the times of a global virus, we can never be completely risk free but only mitigate the risks we take, so we can only strive to be as ethical as we can be when it comes to our consumption. If people need to go to Wetherspoons I refuse to judge them for it. Tim Martin is and was one of the main propagandists for the Leave campaign, encouraging his staff to push Brexit talking points to its older and more vulnerable customers. Tim also pioneered the zero hours contract in the bar business, so when it came to close the pubs (something he refused to do until required by law to do, complaining as he did so) thousands of people were left with no money. The people he was obligated to pay through the fourglough scheme, he refused to do so until the money from the government was in his bank. Acknowledging it could be weeks for the money to come through he said he didn’t mind if staff wanted to go work for Tescos instead. Tim Martin is worth £448 million.****
After being told to disinfect my hands I’m seen to a table by a member of staff in a headset and given a slip of paper with my name phone number and time of visit to post on the way out. The government guidelines for bars to reopen feature little or no music, table service – preferably by an app – and large areas with socially distanced seating. Coincidentally enough these guidelines already describe the exact things that nearly all Wetherspoon pubs have as a matter of course. As I look around, the customer base is typical of the ‘spoons, all the people left without a community hub by government cuts and left without a local because smaller pubs aren’t able to compete with the chains or rebrand themselves as street food selling eateries with craft cider and fruity gins.
Not going to lie, the first cold pint after three months was sublime. Even in a Wetherspoons.
As I drink, the rain crashes into the streets outside, like god is disappointed in me. An older man, drunk, stands in the space by the exit, while one of the staff explains that he must return to his table or leave. Every time he goes to speak he leans uncomfortably close to her which virus aside is a personal space violation. She keeps backing off and repeating herself. Eventually having to be stern and holding her hand out to stop him breathing into her mouth. A little later another member of staff calls back a customer who walks past her. When he does she dresses him down for being rude adding she is not here to take abuse. I’m glad the staff are sticking up for themselves and hope they’re applying that attitude behind the scenes by joining a union.
There has to be somewhere else, anywhere. The rain has turned into a fine mist at this point and town seems to have emptied. Over by Poundland some police officers are wrapping up someone on the floor with a silver emergency blanket, I dip round the back of Rackhams and in the passage underneath stands a man frozen by intoxication midpoint between falling down, legs not quite buckling entirely, spine fetally curved, eyes closed but flickering in seemingly REM sleep, some people next to him are chatting either not seeing or caring. I stop.
“Is your mate okay?” I ask, pointing at him.
“Yeah he’s all fine”.
“NOW,” one of them adds and they all laugh, one of the women goes over to help him.
In Pigeon Park a group of young men stand six foot apart under one of the trees, two boxes of Fosters between them. Them seem to genuinely be having a good time, in the rain, standing amongst the gravestones. Going down Temple Street, Las Iguanas, Flight Club, The Botanist and The Trocadero are all closed. So is Sputnik’s but that is not a virus thing, it hasn’t been open in years and I miss it more than any of the other trendy bars with elaborate cocktail menus and ‘eclectic’ decor that have moved into the area since. Back up Bennetts Hill, The Sun On The Hill is closed, next door a queue extends up the road for the Briar Rose, another Wetherspoons. The bar on the corner has a bouncer outside. He clocks me looking.
“Imagine queuing for a Wetherspoons” he confides, I agree.
“Are you guys taking walk-ins?” I ask, he looks me up and down
Opposite is a place that was once the best Thai food I’ve tasted, now a bar called Dirty Martini. Outside are two young women wearing ‘out out’ leopard print and glitter in a sheer material that threatens to become see through in the fine rain.
There isn’t a queue for The Wellington but I don’t try it, never liked a place who seemingly styled themselves as an expensive ‘spoons with no food. I suppose you have to be a craft beer fan to see the attraction. In the words of twitter user @bayoulejeune “enjoy your bread flavour soda”.
Ahead of me the woman in stacked heels and tiny denim jacket sits down on an estate agents doorstep, as I pass I can see she’s crying. Fumbling for her phone.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine,” she manages.
“Are you sure you look really upset.”
“I’ll be OK”
I’m not sure she will be, but I don’t want to be pushy.
Paradise Circus is all but finished, with smaller see through fences showing off the newly paved area. The guy has a radio that says “Paradise Security” on his jumper, he’s doing the brisk walk you learn as a security guard, running attracts attention, so you respond to things with a brisk walk. He stops to stare pointedly at a seagull.
There are people sheltering under the architectural overhang of the second story of the Library of Birmingham. I realise I quite like the new library and would probably like it a lot more if I didn’t have to walk past the site of the old library, the demolition of which I’m still bitter about, to get to it. My plan is to walk through the ICC and pop up in the centre of the Gas Street Basin. But the ICC is closed so, for old times sake, I bear right to go round the back of it. The Flapper with its large beer garden space would have been perfectly positioned to open during the covid restrictions but greed closed that a place year ago.
The Prince of Wales is open and as I get closer an old boy outside keeps waving and acknowledging me. I can see him properly when I’m close, rolled up burglar’s hat, long wild white beard, nineties windbreaker covered in vintage badges. Literally the look that twenty year olds now are appropriating but authentic.
“Sorry I thought you someone I know” he says “ you have the same walk” he says referencing the limping shuffle that three months of inactivity and a slipped disk has given me.
“Is his back fucked too?” I ask.
“Yeah, he was a professional goalkeeper before he retired” I don’t mention my neon yellow hair that must have been visible before my gait.
Inside it’s as busy as it’s allowed to be with people spread out. It looks unnatural: like a bad set dressed with eager extras doing their best. The manager puts a large glass of red wine under the bar when she notices me waiting. She comes over and takes my name and phone number gives me some hand sanitizer and tells me she has a table at the back for me. She’s so nice, and smiling I feel a sharp feeling of what I assume is guilt for being part of the reason she’s out endangering herself. The table is in the furthest corner, dark and with the back to the wall. Normally the first place I’d pick to sit. But not today, it seems too closed off, claustrophobic. I ask to sit on the tables outside in the rain with the old boy. A minute later my drink arrives, ten minutes later a member of bar staff comes out and unwraps a new garden brolly for me to use, I tell him to let the old boy have it.
“Old soldiers never die, they just smell that way” he says cryptically.
When I’ve finished I nip inside to use the toilet and at the bar is an even older boy head bent with age on a mobility scooter. He’s slowly backing up and powering forward into the bar with a bump, over and over. The manager is hovering around, trying to distance but wanting to help. Zipping up, I hear a crash and once outside I see the same mobility scooter pulling forward out of the table full of spilled drinks, the same manager apologising to the occupants of that table.
The Malt Shovel is closed, but most of Gas Street Basin is open, not that I’d be allowed to go in dressed like I am; a look I’m calling ‘hobo goth’. Walkabout is open for bookings, The New Coyote Ugly is open but has a surfeit of bouncers, as I walk past another bouncer arrives and tells the rest of them,“Do me a favour? Sort HIM out will you?” referring to the homeless guy asking the people in the smoking area for change. The homeless guy seems to sense he’s been noticed and moves on.
The Figure of Eight is open, and so is O’Neils, I walk on to the end of Broad Street. And when nothing else is open, walk back again. Between the closed pubs, the empty buildings, the mess of building work that is the main road broad street is a mess. O’Neills doesn’t want me and I’m not going into the Figure of Eight so I walk on, remembering the Tap and Spile.
Back way before blanket later opening for pubs there used to be a few that opened later anyway. Subside (then exposure), The Actress and Bishop near the Jewellery Quarter and The Tap and Spile. It’s quiet when I go in and the table is so close to the bar I can shout my order over. Two couples bluster into the bar.
“Put some UB40 on love” one of them shouts. The men are polo shirts and tattoos. Fresh haircuts. The smaller woman, a long expensive looking dress, the other a blue crop top and jeans that are more hole than denim. When the three songs of UB40 finish she goes over to the jukebox. She puts on a song I don’t recognise but is perhaps Ed Sheeran or the other one. The woman dances holding her arms out to the side and rolling her body, it’s not how I imagined someone would dance to this, if anyone could dance to it at all. But it’s not completely out of place. She catches my eyes and grinds on over, never stopping dancing as she talks to me.
“You like this song” (I kinda do, at the moment)
“but you’re sad” (again not too wrong)
“You’re a good person” (i’m not) “ I can see it in your eyes,” she gets close and locks eye contact. It feels foreign, intimate.
“You think it’s bad right, but it’s not that bad, and it’ll get better. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
“Thank you” I say, for the lack of something else to say. She dances away. I go to the bathroom and by the time I’ve come back, they’ve gone, leaving nearly full drinks at their table.
A lot of the bars are open behind the Mailbox and nearly all of them are full, there are more people about now. Dressed for a night out. Tonight will be busy. There is no electric crackle of potential that runs through the early evening of a Saturday the evening just feels pregnant with malice.
My parents are vulnerable to covid-19 and as such the whole household has been shielding for three months. For me to come out today, and trawl the pubs of Birmingham I will have to quarantine myself away from them and the rest of the world for two weeks. Was it worth it? No.
Well maybe. If this helps you to stay home then it might be.
The bars that are following the rules have turned themselves into Wetherspoons, rigid and soulless, the ones that haven’t are even more increasing the risk of spreading a disease that is still killing scores of people a day. And – as police have admitted – when people get drunk all bets are off anyway.
I love pubs, but everything I love about them — relaxing, chance, friends and good people — isn’t there and won’t be there for a while. Legal and allowed doesn’t mean it’s alright. Make your own mind up, but stay safe.
Until then, I agree with that bouncer: imagine queuing for a Wetherspoons.
** Twice! I tried on the way back too.
**** Sunday Times Rich List 2018