Caught by the River

Virtual inanity at the Zoom Inn

Ben McCormick | 18th April 2020

Armed with laptop camera and under-stair keg, CBTR beer correspondent Ben McCormick attempts to emulate the pub.

Some weeks ago, I joked there may soon be a time when we are no longer allowed to go to pubs. Just fancy that. This was during the period of the Government’s spectacular mismanagement of the pandemic that immediately preceded the current period of spectacular government mismanagement of the pandemic. I urged my tens of Twitter followers to get out there and drink while they still could, coining the hashtag ‘#panicdrinking’ to boost its popularity. This strategy was as effective as herd immunity; barely anyone heeded the call until it was far too late. 

And now what? My grim prediction came true, of course. When the inevitable shutdown was announced, it reminded me of the bombing scene in the 80s series Threads when one of the characters emerges from under a builder’s truck, clutches his forehead and blurts out: “Jesus Christ, they’ve done it…” Not for a moment am I suggesting the closure of the nation’s pubs is akin to nuclear annihilation, but there must have been many millions of us uttering similar words under our breaths. 

Under a little more scrutiny, however, the analogy isn’t a billion miles wide of the mark. An industry that’s seen nothing short of devastation over the past few decades was just on the point of staging a modest recovery, only to be hit by a catastrophe that could see many inns, taverns, bars – call them what you will – wiped out nearly overnight. It’s almost certainly no exaggeration to predict around one in four drinking establishments will not survive the current crisis. That’s a lot of lost jobs, broken dreams, spent savings, wrecked livelihoods. All salvageable with a liberal application of Sunak’s Selective Salve, of course, but traumatic all the same. 

It’s the damage you don’t see immediately that’s perhaps more difficult to resolve. Pubs are far more than merely businesses. Yes, they need to make money and are run with that aim in mind. But as we’re discovering with each passing day, they’re slap bang in the heart of the community and absolutely necessary to people’s grasp on what that particular c-word means. Like many, I’ve sought to recreate the experience by staring at a screen full of like-minded individuals grappling with the vagaries of their internet connections and various overwhelmed video conferencing platforms. It’s a disjointed, booze-fuelled cross between Through the Keyhole and Celebrity Squares, where no one is quite sure how to act, react or interact. We haven’t settled on the right rules of virtual social engagement yet and it shows. I’ve even gone to what many would describe as extreme lengths by installing a bar under my stairs, complete with beer chilling unit, keg dispense system and drip tray. Thus far, I’ve seen no warnings from the Government about the health risks of having high-quality, cold beer on tap 24 hours a day, but I don’t imagine they’re far away. People, including me, are anecdotally drinking a lot more than usual. While boredom and not having to get up early in the morning may account for a large part of that, for many, there’s more to it – we are beginning to realise just how important nipping to the pub for a pint is to us and we’re desperate to conjure up something similar. 

The results are largely disappointing, but I know why we’re trying. We need that contact and we need that context. You’re never alone in the pub even if you’re on your own. We need to drink with others in a social environment and the enforced distancing has made that desire insatiable. So we sit, embarrassed at our own mirrored images projected back at us alongside a rogues’ gallery of other gormless humans longing for that spark; that sense of belonging; that love. People go to pubs for all sorts of reasons and getting drunk can often result, though that’s the sole motivating factor for few of us. The odd glance, the snatch of smile, the nod, the handshake, the nudge, the raise of glass, the cheers, the clinks, the shouts, the braying, the bellowed laughter, the spillage, the kerfuffle. And the contact. That’s what it’s about. We can try, but we can’t live without it. And when all’s said and done, for many of us, there is not much in the world that beats ordering, receiving and then drinking a pint of beer in a pub. 

In my less-than-splendid isolation, I read somewhere that Zoom’s stock is now worth more than all the US airlines combined. I didn’t check and have no idea if someone just made that up. But I can believe it.