Mask on, gloves off. As covid restrictions drop, and we head into ‘normal’ (whatever that is), we wanted to see if normal was, normal. We sent our ‘normal’ correspondent Danny Smith to see if the pubs are on track, or lost without trace. We did not pay him billions of pounds.
In the 1933 film Duck Soup an incompetent huckster becomes leader of a tiny country through borrowed wealth and inherited money and proceeds to bumble it into war and potential ruin.
Why mention that?
Welcome to ‘Freedom Day’ where the only thing stopping you acting exactly how you want is common decency, and to paraphrase Voltaire – common decency ain’t that common.
It’s hot today, the sort of hot where you’re peeling your ballbag off your thigh whenever you think no-one’s looking. The bus at 30°c is oppressive and it is one of the couple of times that wearing my mask has seemed a genuine inconvenience. The bus is fairly full and everyone seems to be wearing a mask, despite not having to legally do so, West Midlands Travel (or whatever anagram of ‘West Midlands and Travel’ they’re calling themselves these days) could have followed London’s transport and extended their use on public transport. But rather they issued a statement saying they hoped people would. Which is either a cynical gamble of their drivers’ lives, or a rather naïve but sweet way of looking at the world.
“Can you hear me…CAN YOU HEAR ME?” shouts someone on the back of the bus, I sneak a glance and don’t see a phone so no choice to assume she is some sort of really aggressive clairvoyant. she glares back, daring me to say something. I look away, it’s too hot to get into it with someone, about either bus etiquette or mask wearing. I clock her T-shirt before I swing myself downstairs: ‘100% Brummie’.
Grand Central isn’t at rush hour but it’s heartening to see the crowd to be mostly masked up and keeping appropriate distance. I expected more in the city centre today but, although a far cry from the deserted streets of lockdown, it’s not busy at all.
I drop some books back at the library, there are security staff on the door making people sign into the NHS tracking app or write out their contact details on paper and post it into a miniature postbox. I ask the security guard how many people use the app compared to writing down their details.
“About 20% use the app, and some of them are only pretending”. A man outside the library is set up in the shade of its overhang, he is melted into a plastic chair, almost liquid in his slump. Only the hi-vis vest delineates him from the chair. He occasionally waves a NHS box with the covid testing kits inside. There are no takers.
During the last Freedom Day, one or two lockdowns ago, I came to town and drank in the pubs. One of the few places open was the Prince of Wales and it’s only fitting, I feel, that I start there. It’s closed. The outside furniture is gone and windows black. It’s always sad to see a pub closed but The Prince Of Wales only reopened after a refurb in 2018, The Prince first opened in 1858 and has had a long connection to Birmingham music history: most recently, local legend says, Lady Gaga stopping in for a swift half. Online there doesn’t seem to be an announcement about it, but you can find the to-let listing here. It’s not surprising , the hospitality industry has been suffering without much help during the covid crisis, with almost 10,000 licensed premises closing (that’s a 175% rise in closures in 2020 compared to 2019). And while those numbers are too big to comprehend, I think back to the community of people that were here the last time I was, I wonder where they are now and even if some of them even made it themselves.
So round the corner to the Malt House, a pub so lax in their standards they let Bill Clinton drink there. It’s weird not to be met at the door by staff, odder still to actually go to the bar and order a drink. I expect the bartender to explain that I need to sit down and order off an app. But he serves me like the last 18 months haven’t happened. Although the lager is a little warmer than I expected and a tad more expensive than I remembered.
I walk through Brindleyplace, the middle of Broad Street, as in middle class, middle aged, and middle brow. There’s a triangle which All Bar None, The Pitcher and Piano, and the Slug and Lettuce all surround. The middle crowd are there now, the outside furniture surrounded by so many fences and partitions and canopies that it really pushes the definition of ‘outside’. I opt for the Slug and Lettuce because it’s the only place never to have thrown me out.
Once a by-the-numbers ‘wine bar’, a little more upmarket Yates that lived week-to-week for the Friday after office crowd. Full of people wondering when they will be drunk enough to lower their standards enough to cause something to talk about on Monday. Now it has been transformed into some cushioned summer fairy queen industrial mishmash pinterest aesthetic, with instagrammable cocktails and garlands of flowers over bare wood. Look a bit closer and the flowers are plastic.
I check with a passing member of staff and I’m told I can sit where I want. At the bar I order a drink, the barman pours the lager, nearly half of the pint is white foam. I laugh.
“You’re going to top that up right?” I ask
“Oh, yeah sure,” he tops it up watching me, waiting for the nod so he knows when to stop.
It’s a crowd that appears heavily female, all men are accompanied by a responsible adult. Apart from me. No one behind the bar is masked as they run about making cocktails in golden pineapples or layering six colours in one glass, and very occasionally pouring pints. They’re slightly over-staffed for now, but buzzing around setting up for a busy day. Either the tables are booked, or they’re expecting a heavy freedom crowd.
A group of lads have arrived, looking bemused by the cocktails and atmosphere, they’ve already knocked a glass off a table. The lead lad is wearing a bewildering combination of skinny jeans and long sleeve fleece top. His chummy flirting has been knocked back by four different staff so far. Three girls have finished six of the nine martinis in the martini tree on their table and are now working through a tray of shots, the lads are eyeing them hungrily from two tables away.
The Tap and Spile also appeared in the last write up so I nip across the road. The front door says the entrance is on the canal path, but once I get round that entrance is closed too. The website just has a large “Really sorry, but we have closed down!!! Thank you very much for your support and custom over the years.” over the front*.
Bereft I stumble into Coyote Ugly. I am low key obsessed with this place. A simulacrum of a place that only existed in a movie. A big chain bar with principles that are diametrically opposed to the thing it’s hoping to copy. Maybe that disconnect is the reason there are zero customers. Not one.
Or maybe it’s the lager. It had obviously been in the line for a while so fobbed enough the bartender needed to run it through with a bucket. I didn’t finish it.
As I sit, I see my socials fill up with the announcements of how people clubbing or attending large events will have to show some sort of vaccine passport come late September – you know, just in time for the big club and festival season of late September.
More groups of customers have come in. I don’t feel safe anymore, it’s nothing to do with the people, not directly. It’s the knowledge the people running the country don’t give one solitary shit about my life. They spend their time bouncing from the buffers of public opinion and their own back bench: anything as long as long reaching and effective reforms are never spoken of. The government would gladly sacrifice my life and thousands more if it meant we never talked about workers’ rights, sick pay reform, and support for the long term ill and disabled, Or even properly address racism or wealth inequality. Being on the frontlines of a culture war is to watch people gamble with your life and it being a risk they’re willing to take.
Clearly nothing is happening tonight, no rush for freedom, no celebration. I walk through to one last pub.
The Bull Ring Tavern wouldn’t even let me in last time. As I get close some very red faced people are arguing outside, it seems to be just after the fight and everyone has a loud opinion about why it happened. It’s not packed but I do have to share the end of a table.
“Can I sit there?”
“Nothing stopping you now, bab.”
It’s perhaps something that the best drink of the day is somewhere most people would turn their nose up at.
So that was it, Freedom Day, no mad crowds rushing to spray droplets into each other’s eyes in an orgy of unfettered joy. A quiet summer day. I’m on the bus before I realise that not one of the pubs or shops I went into today asked me to check in. Fuck.
But even if this is a disaster, and waves upon waves of a preventable disease drown us and down the NHS in the next few years it will still be no one’s fault but the current government.
In Duck Soup once the bumbling con man gains power of the small nation of Freedonia he sings a little song. In it is this couplet:
“The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn’t know what to do with it / If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ’til I get through with it.”
Why do I mention that?
*literally as I write this someone has announced its reopening in a couple of weeks time. I’m glad, but not holding my breath. It’s not properly open till I’m there at four in the morning singing terrible karaoke.