On Saturday, pubs re-opened in England. It was a day politicians had dubbed ‘super Saturday’, although much of the press hailed it ‘sardine Saturday’. A few bars and boozers were open as early as 6am and, by the time I ill-advisedly made it to a cluster of pubs in West London at 6pm, the streets resembled the aftermath of a huge teenage post-exam-grounding party. Which, in a way, it was: many people’s alcohol tolerance seemed to have regressed to that of an eighteen-year old legally drinking for the first time.
In a podcast with Tom Holland for Engelsberg Ideas, Holland talks about the opening of The Canterbury Tales: the pilgrims all meet each other in a pub before setting out on their journey. It was a meeting that, until this weekend, seemed inconceivable in our current pandemic setting and, when Chaucer was writing the Tales, it was too a hopeful, unrealistic dream amidst the plague. When Chaucer writes:
Bifel that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
It is not just the stories and ‘folk’ of the tales that are imagined, but his speaker’s ease at waiting ‘in Southwerk at the Tabard’. Chaucer’s situation is not unlike all of us watching television programmes and wincing when characters fail to stand two metres away or hug and kiss but, rather than simply commenting on our changed situation, he writes himself into the old ways.
The Tabbard Inn is no longer a pub in Southwark; it burnt down in a fire in 1676. But there is a pub of the same name in Chiswick, West London that re-opened yesterday. It’s nice to think that Chaucer, if he came back to London some 620 years after his death, could just hop on the Northern line and the District line to find a familiar setting.
But, even if Chaucer’s Tabbard Inn is as much the author’s feverish dream of a forbidden pint as it is a pilgrimage setting-off-point, he was not the last writer to indulge and delight in the messy noise and intimacy of the pub. In T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land the second half of ‘A Game of Chess’ is set in a noisy bar. Amidst the overlapping conversation of two women discussing a third – ‘When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said – / I didn’t mince my words’ – is the all-capitalised refrain ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’. The bar is closing, and the casually tragic conversation is repeatedly interrupted by the knowledge that it must end, but it fails to speed up or conclude before the ladies leave. A discussion of de-mobbed husbands, false teeth, and abortion pills is both the fabric of the poem’s setting – nothing is more reminiscent of closing-time conversations than the frank and detailed discussion of someone who isn’t present – and concluded by it. Eliot’s consideration of these lives only lasts as long as he can see them in the bar.
But if it is companionship and slightly drunken conversation that make a pub a pub then it is not Dicken’s many drinkers in Our Mutual Friend, Iris Murdoch’s sad pub-goers in The Black Prince, or even Shakespeare’s political plotters in Henry IV that are the ultimate literary ideal. It has to be a rather bizarre chapter in George Eliot’s Silas Marner that wins this award. In The Rainbow, the drinkers of Raveloe rile themselves up over the breed of a cow – ‘if I don’t know Mr Lammeter’s cows, I should like to know who does – that’s all’ – as each villager weighs in on ‘the star on her brow’ before moving on to the state of the village choir and eventually having to resort to the landlord’s peace-keeping abilities as an insult about someone’s singing ability goes too far. It has all the wonderful tetchiness of a group of friends who have spent far too long together. The insults, jokes, and disputes have all the easy regularity of an over-rehearsed script, and the only purpose of being at The Rainbow is to engage in the script all over again. Before the conversation starts, the men ‘kept their eyelids down and rubbed their hands across their mouths, as if their draughts of beer were a funereal duty attended with embarrassing sadness’.
Pubs at the moment are too full with joyful reunions, too tense with social distancing measures, and real-life conversation far too novel to relapse into the rehearsed anecdotes, jokes, and playful insults of any group of friends out for a drink. But, give it a couple of weeks and hopefully, just maybe, we might all be discussing Mr Lammeter’s cows and the state of Mr Tookey’s choir solos. I, for one, can’t wait to be back at The Rainbow…