A friend of mine went for a walk in the Cotswolds last weekend with his wife. At around four o’clock, tired but happy, they fetched up at a country pub. ‘You’ll have to eat a substantial meal,’ said the landlady, crossly. ‘But it’s four o’clock,’ said my friend. ‘We’re not hungry.’ The landlady tutted and showed him a long and expensive menu. My friend and his wife turned around and walked out of the pub.
This, I think we can safely say, represents one end of the Tier 2 pub spectrum. At the other is a pub I know which used to be up the road from the local police station. This pub had, and continues to have, a famously good relationship with the rozzers: late-night lock-ins have long been a speciality. This pub is open but does not appear to be serving any food at all. If you peer in through the window, the front room is deserted, intentionally, while the back room is heaving with boozehounds, some of them former officers.
As a dedicated pub-goer of long standing, I have spent much of the past week sitting in and, very reluctantly, outside pubs taking the temperature of this ancient but ailing British tradition. The problem is that this government, whose back-of-fag-packet regulations have made our lives such a misery this year, has specified that we can go into pubs in Tier 2 only if we order a ‘substantial’ meal as well as the sundry pints of wallop we were intending to consume.
This seems to me a distinctly middle-class and middle-aged view of why people go to pubs. The young, who seek only oblivion; the solitary, who want only to sit in the corner with their pint; the poor, who cannot afford a £13.50 burger, however many amazing toppings it comes with; and the postmen, who habitually infest my local Wetherspoons every afternoon and engage in jocular post-related banter: all are excluded under the new rules.
But pubs want to survive. They need to survive. One landlady told me at the weekend her solution to the problem, which is, I think, the simplest and most imaginative yet. Everyone who comes into the pub has to order a cheese roll, or maybe a ham roll, for £2.50. They don’t have to eat it, although almost everyone does, and when they have finished it, the plate won’t be cleared away, but left there, possibly for hours, so that if anyone does come in to do a spot check, it looks as though they have just finished the roll. Otherwise they will be allowed to sit there and drink for as long as they want. It’s fascinating, said the landlady. If you put a roll on a plate, it doesn’t look like anything very much. But sprinkle a little mixed salad next to it and voilà! — a substantial meal.
What is a ‘substantial meal’? Another friend of mine, of legal tendencies, looked at the regulations and saw that the word ‘substantial’ is nowhere to be seen. They talk about you having to order a ‘table meal’, which I suppose is anything beyond a bag of crisps. Might two bags of crisps qualify? ‘Substantial’ was the word used by Michael Gove, who probably hasn’t been in a pub
Gove, who may have been talking first and thinking later, also wondered out loud whether a Scotch egg might be a substantial meal. On Friday I had a toe-numbing lunch with a fellow freelance writer — a business lunch, under the rules, and therefore acceptable — outside a pub in the City, where we spotted at least a dozen people eating Scotch eggs. The Scotch egg industry must think it’s already Christmas. By January there could be a national shortage of Scotch eggs.
The business lunch is a magnificent loophole. When I rang another local pub to book a lunch for later in the week, the woman said we could sit indoors only if we were from the same household or accompanying support bubble. Business lunch, I said, and she laughed.
Maybe that’s what TV presenter Kay Burley claimed recently when she hosted an intimate birthday party for ten at a ‘Covid--compliant restaurant’. She got into trouble only because her gang went to another establishment later and then back to hers for an after-party.
But it’s not just Sky News anchors and daft pop stars like Rita Ora behaving badly. We have been transformed, by this ridiculous and self-defeating set of regulations, into a nation of Arthur Daleys, bending and twisting the rules until they are utterly out of shape. And they were never in any sort of shape in the first place.