The vital importance of being in the pub

We should celebrate the reopening of the hospitality sector. It is the very engine of our sociability.

Jim Butcher

Topics Politics UK

On 4 July, pubs, restaurants and other parts of the hospitality sector in England can reopen, albeit under the new one-metre-plus social-distancing rules.

This is good news. The hospitality industry is the hardest hit sector of the global economy. In the UK alone, there are an estimated 3.5million jobs at stake.

But the lockdown hasn’t just imperilled an important part of the economy. It has done untold harm to our sociability, too. After all, pubs, cafes, restaurants and bars are about social interaction: eating and drinking together; meeting and talking; falling in and out of love. In short, they allow for conviviality – that is, for people to come together in friendship, love and sometimes disagreement.

And it is this very quality of conviviality that we have sacrificed over the past few months. That is why conviviality is what we need to cultivate and celebrate as society emerges from lockdown. Indeed, we need nothing short of a convivial revolution.

‘Convivial’ comes from convivium, a Latin word meaning ‘banquet’. This coming together over food and drink has long been deemed essential for human flourishing, as 19th-century gastrophilosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat‑Savarin observed in Physiologie du goût.

Charles Dickens captures the importance of conviviality in his 1850 novel David Copperfield:

‘We had a beautiful little dinner. Quite an elegant dish of fish; the kidney-end of a loin of veal, roasted; fried sausage-meat; a partridge, and a pudding. There was wine, and there was strong ale…. Mr. Micawber was uncommonly convivial. I never saw him such good company. He made his face shine with the punch, so that it looked as if it had been varnished all over. He got cheerfully sentimental about the town, and proposed success to it.’

Shakespeare’s character Falstaff is the personification of conviviality. In the following exchange, he and Henry V banter in a spirit familiar to generations of merry drinkers:

Henry V: ‘I’ll be no longer guilty of this sin; this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh,—’

Falstaff: ‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck,—

Henry V: Well, breathe awhile, and then to it again…’

Where else could such an exchange take place but in an inn or a pub?

Conviviality does not just involve happy banter and enjoyable company, life-affirming as all that is. People also check each other out, form opinions and friendships, make alliances and deals. Take Joe Lampton – the young working-class character in John Braine’s 1957 classic Room at the Top. It is through the pub that he sets out to make his way in bourgeois society, challenging class etiquette and enjoying Romantic encounters.

Conviviality is life. It’s the engine of sociability, with alcohol often a catalyst. And the lockdown has destroyed it.

Of course conviviality does not need to involve alcohol or food. All manner of everyday encounters express the impulse to be friendly, to make connections and to get to know people. It could be a conversation around the office water-cooler, the banter in a sunday-league changing room, the chat in the hairdressers… But, again, all of these sources of conviviality have been lost to the lockdown.

Writers and academics have long understood the connection between conviviality and the growth of social and political life. Political thinkers Hannah Arendt and Jurgen Habermas recognised the role the 18th-century coffee house and salon played in the establishment of a modern public sphere – a space in which people met to discuss public affairs and new ideas. For Arendt this space was a precondition for what she called ‘a world in common’, which itself is the very basis for a healthy polity. Tellingly, she represented a healthy polity as a shared table with people sitting around it.

And no wonder. Conviviality allows people to overcome differences, ethnic, cultural or otherwise. In There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, Paul Gilroy locates conviviality in the city itself, a space that permits and encourages everyday cultural overlapping, allowing ethnic differences to become ordinary and unremarkable. These differences then lose their friction and antagonism. In other words, lived multicultural conviviality can provide a check against prejudice.

Conviviality, then, is central to the development and flourishing of our life together. The sociologist Georg Simmel saw conviviality as democratic, playful, the moment when an individual’s pleasure is contingent on the joy of others, be it one’s friends, loved ones or children. It is to exult in the sheer pleasure of the company of others.

The essential, vital quality of conviviality is precisely what we have lost in lockdown. And it is this that we must regain. It is not a dispensable luxury. It is essential to life itself.

But government guidelines for the reopening of the hospitality sector threaten conviviality. Much of the pleasure in eating or drinking out lies in being able to enjoy the company of others away from the rhythms of working life. That’s why these sociable activities often take place in an informal space apart from work and home.

But government rules infringe on that informal, relaxed setting. They prohibit loud music, televised sport and live performance. And most importantly, in the one-to-two metres of social distancing that is still insisted upon, the rules minimise any contact between you, your friends, and others. Staying at home is likely to remain the default for many.

Recapturing conviviality post-lockdown will therefore be a hard task for the industry, beset as it is by rules and restrictions. And it could prove even more difficult if people, out of fear, in any way internalise social distancing and restrain their impulse towards sociability.

A society needs to be confident enough to socialise freely, and to interact without fear. It is essential for human flourishing. As we emerge from the lockdown, we will need to cultivate and celebrate convivial life more than ever. If there is to be a ‘new normal’, it should be bold, confident and trusting. And, above all, it should embrace the human and economic possibilities inherent in sociability. These are issues not just for the hospitality industry, but for all of us. We need a convivial revolution. To the barricades of today, comrades – to the pub!

Jim Butcher is a lecturer and writer on tourism and politics. He blogs at politics of tourism and tweets at @jimbutcher2.

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Elaine J

3rd July 2020 at 9:47 pm

I get that Spiked’s general view on the lockdown is that it should not have happened, and that it’s continuance in any form is an affront to our individual rights. But I do wonder what the bereaved families of nigh on for forty-four thousand + victims of the virus really feel about the re-opening of pubs when the new infection and death figures are not so very different to what they were when lockdown began? It’s my opinion (and I know I am not alone) that the withdrawal of many rights/ freedoms was for a very good reason – to protect people. And that is why I, for one (and many people I know amongst family, friends and colleagues) will NOT be going to the pub to drink to the resumption of these freedoms on July 4, or indeed until we personally feel it is safe to do so. No one (but absolutely no one) in government is saying or even implying that those freedoms will not return at some point.

Whatever blame can be laid at the government’s door – that has yet to be determinded – opinions vary, and it’s my view that things could have been handled better – this is new territory for all of us. Just how convivial can meeting one’s friends in the pub be if all the time there is a very real risk that a momentary error (a hug given that shouldn’t have been becuase you’ve had one too many, etc. – and we all know it will happen) could result in death for someone further down the line? Perhaps someone dear to you. That’s enough to put a damper on it for me! It’s not even as if we can say with any authority ‘This diesease mostly kills elderly or unwell people’ – well, in part that’s true of course, but we know that it also kills young, perfectly healthy, fit people as well. Would you want to take that chance for a couple of hours of conviviality? With any luck, you will have many years to do just that once Covid19 is either erradicated or under control. Until then, that’ll be a definite ‘no, thanks!’ from me and millions of others, I’m quite certain.

Daniel Goldstein

3rd July 2020 at 6:43 am

The best thing about pubs is that they are free from advocates of the Religion of Peace.

James Knight

2nd July 2020 at 6:55 pm

Can’t imagine Henry V drunkenly saying “You’re my best friend”

Jerry Owen

2nd July 2020 at 5:19 pm

Unless the pubs are as they were before, they’re not worth a light. I go to the boozer to meet my mates, we wander around we chat to different groups and meet new people, there’s no point otherwise except of course if your’e a billy no mates stuck in the corner on your tod.
I’m not going to worry about who I can be close to and not close to. I’m not queueing up behind some plastic screen, from one end of the bar, I squeeze in where I can, no namby pamby bar app expecting some poor lass to bring my booze to my table spilling half of it on the way … because by then I might have moved to another table. I’m not paying for each round on a card instead of readies. I’m not queuing up for the bog, it wastes valuable beer and chin time.
Anyway all the moans aside… I think I’ll give it a go Saturday morning, no point in rushing.
If Boris closes them again he’ll have civil riots on his hands hopefully. Forget the toppling of statues by wimpy namby pamby white middle class students. He’ll be facing real men next time.

Stef Steer

2nd July 2020 at 4:44 pm

I have actually been in the bishop quite a lot, if thats not rude which it probably is.

Linda Payne

2nd July 2020 at 4:19 pm

The few enjoyable things I have done through lockdown is reading David Copperfield, it shows just how people engaged in the pub setting; these days you can’t even smoke in them and social distancing will put a dampener on the atmosphere. I get really angry at these encursions on working class life usually imposed by the influential middle classes, its happened in football as well, so many can’t afford the prices and the terraces have gone, fans are demonised and prevented from singing certain songs is there any area of working class life left that hasn’t been
affected in this way? I can’t think of any

James Knight

2nd July 2020 at 6:56 pm

Smokers are apparently at lower risk of covid19. So maybe we need a re-think.

Gerard Barry

2nd July 2020 at 4:02 pm

The lockdowns imposed on people all over the world have, in my opinion, been the cruelest thing done to people by their governments in living memory.

Gareth Edward KING

2nd July 2020 at 2:13 pm

I was out in Getafe, just south of Madrid, Monday last in a bar, fortunately, this social distancing dystopian nonsense (it’s taken four months though) was not taken into consideration one jot. People seem to have realised that this would be impossible to police in any case. I hope that this is two fingers up to the Stalinists in power in Spain! Cheers!

Gerard Barry

2nd July 2020 at 4:00 pm

Same here in Germany, thank God.

Phil Marshall

5th July 2020 at 7:45 pm

This is certainly the case here in Formentera – apart from shops and offices, people don’t wear masks. Bars are operating as normal except they must close at 02:00am (why?). As you say, it is impossible to police, and notably, the police or Guardia Civil never wear masks either.

I think ordinary people see the nonsense in this, and Formentera is an island of free thinking people who do not like being told what to do by the state.

James Conner

2nd July 2020 at 1:40 pm

The pub was destroyed by a two pronged attack. First the beathalyser and secondly the no-smoking laws. If I can’t go down the boozer in my motor, smoke and drink myself silly and then smash into a few cars on the way home to shag the missus, what’s the point?

Jim Lawrie

2nd July 2020 at 1:16 pm

The pub was destroyed by Blair and the middle classes. Quoting descriptions of hostelries as they were hundreds of years ago is not only pretentious but irrelevant.

Working class people I know have no intention of booking 1½hr slots in the few remaining pubs worth going to, and giving full contact details. The more astute have noted that your first 90 minutes in the pub are the most profitable for the landlord, after which consumption tails off.
My circle have started to meet at each others’ houses. The new rules favour commercial hospitality venues, especially as regards numbers. Apparently they can understand and implement social distancing and hygiene, and make us comply, but we in our own homes cannot.

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