Taxi Noir: Drinking for Britain
What a mad few months it’s been. A lot has happened, and a lot of things have been turned on their heads. For instance, kids could go to Primark but not school; it was declared healthier to visit the pub than the gym; and our favourite comedy programmes had been outed as racist. By July there was no safe space to take my out of shape, long-haired, racist self. I have a nice benefits sun tan, but with the gym closed my body is hardly beach-ready. All that was left was the pub, and pubs were allowed to open on Saturday July 4th.
Planning a post-lockdown pub crawl I started to take on considerations that I’d expect to make if planning a trek along the Amazon. When I told someone I’d be at Wetherspoons on Super Saturday, caution was urged. I was told to think of all the insects that would have been crawling over the glasses during the lockdown. I dismissed their warning. I hadn’t been to the pub for over three months and I didn’t care how many critters were in my beer. I routinely eat pork scratchings with my pint. If you can eat food with hair growing out of it you’re not going to be put off by having to share a pint of Riddles Very Peculiar with a drunken spider. Anyway, what’s more English than a pint of beer with a wasp in it? (my policy is to dry out any insects and return them to their natural habitat).
Media hype was building in anticipation of the big day. The BBC filmed in Chepstow where a pub sat at each end of the bridge. One pub was in England (Hurrah!), but the other was in Wales, where the pubs would remain closed for a few more weeks (Boo!). It was as if war in England had been declared. It was a bit silly, but we like it.
Leighton Buzzard is a hard-drinking town and I imagined queues outside pubs on the first day. I therefore decided to put back the date of my one-man pub crawl to Monday the 6th when things should be quieter. I’d find a table and write out notes for this article. It would be a working day. It’s a tough writing assignment, but one I was ready to step up to the plate for.
It was apparent that not all pubs and restaurants would be open on Super Saturday; my favourite pub, the Black Lion included. In the end though, I decided to test the water and stop by at Wetherspoons on my way to the fish & chippery in the early evening. In the town centre at 6.20, The Lancer was closed, but the Picture House was open. I could see people inside watching football and there was no queue to get in. The Top Bell was the same. I walked straight in to Wetherspoons. The pub was barely half full. There were Perspex screens at the tills and above some of the seating. There was a one-way system indicated on the floor, but you could order at the bar. They were serving food, and the toilets were open (another dire warning I received was of closed toilets). A few tables had been removed but it was barely noticeable.
I blew the caterpillar off the rim of my glass and proceeded to enjoy this historic pint (only joking, Wetherspoons’ legal team). I don’t know if I was over or under-whelmed. It felt normal and natural sitting having a pint, yet the situation since the beginning of spring had been so surreal that it was going to take a little time to get used to the new old normal. I looked forward to an extended visit to some more interesting pubs on Monday.
It was a sunny morning when I packed my backpack with reading and writing materials and planned my walk downtown. I left out the mosquito repellent but briefly considered packing a map of Birmingham in case I outgrew Leighton Buzzard and felt the urge to catch a train to a city where I could spread my wings.
There were only a handful of drinkers in Spoons at 10.20, but for the first time during the Covid crisis I got a bit paranoid. A woman on the next table was sniffing. Where did she get that cold? Was that a symptom of the virus? I’ve been in close proximity to people at Morrison’s but I was usually mobile. Here, I was rooted to my chair listening to someone sniffing. A woman on a mobility scooter came in wearing a mask – another victim of the plague about to sneeze into her pint? My nervousness faded with the second pint.
When I went to find somewhere else I found it was the only pub open before noon. I returned to the same seat at Spoons and enjoyed another pint and a delicious plate of hot chicken wings – always the best item on the menu at £5.10. I did something I’d never done before and ordered and paid for a pub meal on an app. I’ll go back to paying cash at the bar when we’re back to normal as it doesn’t really save any time.
I walked in to the Golden Bell – ranked 3rd on my list – and was told I’d have to sit on a bench outside as all their tables were taken. I sat on my own for half an hour and reflected on my day. I had to concede that it wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped. If you can get a table in a decent pub it’s pleasant enough, but with space limited in smaller pubs, and some places operating reduced hours, or not opening at all, options are limited. Many restaurants in my town and in surrounding villages remain closed. Forward planning is advised.
Things are going in the right direction though. The Black Lion is opening on July 15th, and on the way to the Golden Bell I met the guvnor of the Bald Buzzard Ale House in the street. He’s opening at 4pm on Wednesday. It’ll make a dent in my Income Support but I feel I should continue to show solidarity with the community and go for a beer or two next week too. I’m drinking for Britain.