There is nothing to write about apart from the continuing stamp of the lockdown boot on the way we have to live our lives. So I tramp through the streets of Exeter, a walking meditation if you like, which are as damp and forbidding as a Sunday from Wales in the 1930s. I pass the sightless eyes of the windows that front the pale battalions of closed pubs, and see chairs stacked on tables and a single light on behind the bar, evidence of the night of December 30 when all had to close as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were on their way (they might well have been as doesn’t one of the riders represent pandemics?).
So all is gloom, or perhaps not. There are lights in the distance, glowing rather than glowering, signs that the dawn could be coming closer. And during one gloomy, rain-washed Sunday morning, when I walked out, I saw something that lifted my soul and made me think of the resilience that people have shown during this third lockdown, which at times has been the worse one for me.
On the side of a pub called the Bowling Green, to which I have never been, there was a coloured mural based on the famous BBC Test card image of a young girl and a clown. ‘Normal service will be resumed’ it said and being an optimist at heart I believed it. Then later on, damp beneath the drizzle of the Lord’s Day, I pondered as I pounded the pavement. What will normal service be?
I suspect we will all have to socially distance, wear masks for the loo, gingerly enter establishments looking for clues as how we should behave and tap our phones on the test and trace thing, which I haven’t really understood. Will we be allowed inside or remain al fresco at the mercy of the rain, which comes and goes with the predictability of an English batting collapse? Will our favourite breweries still be going, will cask beer become as rare as the candour of a politician, will we want to go out? I know I will, but I suspect beers on Zoom will still remain the thing to do even though I want to go out and, even more pressing, I want to travel.
This year, Europe seems out of the question, so at long last I will start traveling through the UK, visiting the beer and brewing hotspots that I haven’t been to for a while. I think I forgot the UK while I swanned around Bohemia or Bavaria: Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, I type their names out as if uttering an incantation and a promise to travel. I want to sit in the corners of darkened pubs, pint after pint flowing, a book to hand, or stand in the brightness of a chrome-lit bar, picking my way through an imperial stout here, an DDH IPA there, and exchange remarks and salutations with people I will never see again.
I want to pound the streets of northern towns, passing one-time breweries the sight of which brings a sudden frown as I think of the end of their time, but then around the corner there’s a tap-room with a garden and beer is being served from glittering chrome taps, and I know I will blow the froth off my first pint of the day and drink deeply and let the beer seep through the layers of my soul, like rainwater entering the ground and slowly but surely pouring through the rocks below ready to be brought up to the surface one day, probably to make a brew.
Prague, Bamberg, Brussels, Berlin, they will remain out of reach for a while longer, and instead these northern towns and cities sparkle with the glitter and sunlit ardour of the faraway domes of Samarkand or a legendary settlement through which Timur rampaged in the 14th century. It is to them I will travel and find the stories that have been missing over the last 12 months, and when I do I will know what to write and every day, even Sunday, will have a glow to it.