It was just a matter of days before Christmas and in the heart of London’s Soho the festive season would normally be going full throttle but when I opened the door to the compact Lyric pub on Great Windmill Street at 2pm, I was not met with the happy sounds of revelry but instead there was complete silence. There was not a single other customer in the place.
With the government’s ongoing flip-flopping covid-19 policies, it was sadly no great surprise to see such little activity in this part of town, including a closed-up Be At One bar across the road when I glanced out through the Lyric’s window. I thanked the bar staff for remaining open when so many other businesses around them had decided it was not economically viable to open during what would normally be their peak time of the year.
During my visit, I was joined by a modest number of people who were equally pleased to have the opportunity to enjoy some hospitality – including a substantial meal, of course. This appetite for some pub time was made more acute on this particular afternoon because by 3.45pm, with the volume on the TV having been briefly turned up, we had listened to Matt Hancock deliver the well-flagged news that London and other southern counties would be moved into tier three. Pubs and restaurants would be forced to close their doors again. In the Lyric, this was greeted with universal disappointment and disdain, most notably from the bar staff who, like many hundreds of thousands of other people in hospitality, find their livelihoods hanging by a thread – yet again.
The announcement gave something of a bunker mentality to the Lyric’s clientele as the pub is, to many people, still regarded as an oasis where you can escape from the troubles swirling around beyond the doors. And there are certainly plenty of troubles about right now. Even Brexit seems like a bit of light relief on the news at the moment. We all know the pub was deemed vitally important for morale during World War II but in the battle with today’s war against covid-19, the boozer is seemingly the enemy. Rather than offering it any protection – or at least treated fairly – the government seems hell-bent on inflicting as much damage as possible on the pub and the wider hospitality sector.
Wet-led boozers, in particular, have been in the firing line. With the “substantial meal” rule causing much pain and leaving many businesses struggling to introduce food into their mix. Such odd moves, based on no scientific evidence, can only mean one thing – that the anti-alcohol lobby maintains influence. Victorian-era temperance has not gone away by any means. The argument that pushes the dangers of alcohol always wins out over the one that promotes its life-affirming capabilities and argues for the vital role pubs play at the heart of their local communities.
The pub has faced many threats over the years. I have sitting upon my bookshelf “The Death of the English Pub” by Christopher Hutt, which was published in 1973. It highlights the threat to the traditional pub from the growing power of the large brewers. Their power was nothing compared with that wielded by those individuals in and around government who are more than happy to see the pub as collateral damage in the war against covid-19. In fact, it might be the case they regard the virus as rather a good opportunity to inflict some damaging strikes on the pub sector.
Whatever the motives, the reality is many viable businesses are being forced over the edge and the number of failed pubs, bars, restaurant and nightclubs is growing by the day. When Shepherd Neame announced it might permanently close some of its City of London pubs, I immediately recalled the many happy lunchtimes spent drinking in the East India Arms on Fenchurch Street in the 1980s.
And then there is the Roadhouse in Covent Garden where, in the 1990s, I met my wife. It has sadly closed its doors for the last time, as has bikers bar the Crow Bar where, during the 2000s, I’d frequently pop in for a quick bottle of Icelandic beer and a shot of bourbon, and in the latter 2010s, I enjoyed visits to the hidden-away London Beer House that is now boarded up. The way things are going, who knows what will be left for pub lovers to enjoy during the rest of this decade and beyond.
Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.