TOM UTLEY: Call me a suicidal, homicidal maniac but I’ve just taken Mrs U to the pub (it may be the last time for a while)
God knows I have no wish to die just yet. Still less do I want to be responsible for anyone else’s death. Yet I know many readers will condemn me as a suicidal, homicidal maniac when I admit that, on Tuesday, I took Mrs U out for an idyllic pub lunch — perhaps our last for a very long time.
Before I’m dragged from my self-isolation at home and lynched, I’d like to say a few words in my defence — though I cannot stress too strongly from the outset that I’m not urging anyone to follow my example.
Indeed, things have moved on frighteningly fast this week, and with a heavy heart I’ve concluded that we should all do our best to follow the Government’s advice to the letter from now on.
I know many readers will condemn me as a suicidal, homicidal maniac when I admit that, on Tuesday, I took Mrs U out for an idyllic pub lunch – perhaps our last for a long time (file photo)
But back to Tuesday. With precious little else to do, and Mrs U at home for a week’s break from work (which may turn out to be a lot longer), we had driven to Richmond Park to take the dog for a very long walk.
How wise David Hockney was when he said this week, as he unveiled his ravishing new painting Daffodils: ‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring!’
It was as glorious a morning as anyone could dream of, with signs of new life bursting out everywhere after the gloom of our rain-soaked winter.
Never have I known that vast park looking more lovely, its beauty enhanced a hundredfold by the eerie silence, with hardly an aircraft roaring overhead on the normally crowded flight-path to Heathrow.
In this most abnormal of weeks, the only sounds to be heard were the crunch of our boots through the woods and the twittering of birds in the budding trees.
It was as we were driving home that the thought occurred to me: why not round off this perfect morning in the most perfect way I know, with a visit to a good old British pub?
Never have I known that vast park looking more lovely, its beauty enhanced a hundredfold by the eerie silence (pictured: file photo of cyclists at Richmond Park)
Yes, I know Boris Johnson had just advised everyone to steer clear of all avoidable contact with other people, including ‘gatherings and crowded places such as pubs, clubs and theatres’.
But, let’s face it, his guidance was more than a little ambiguous. I mean, wasn’t it strange to say that pubs could stay open, while at the same time strongly implying that anyone who had the audacity actually to visit a pub would be guilty of putting innocent lives in peril?
Indeed, I have a great deal of sympathy with Charles Bowman, landlord of The Inn at Whitewell, near Clitheroe in Lancashire, when he exclaimed in exasperation this week: ‘Either pubs are bloody open or they’re not!’
Mind you, I can quite understand why my old friend and former colleague Boris adopted this confusing position. At heart, he’s a passionate libertarian — and it must cause him anguish to find himself presiding, by force of circumstance, over the most authoritarian administration since the war.
But still it seemed cruelly unfair to tell publicans they should feel free to open, while telling everyone else they shouldn’t feel free to keep them in business by giving them their custom. Clearly, his father Stanley thought so when he declared: ‘Of course I’ll go to a pub if I need to go to a pub.’
I had other reasons, too, for thinking it would be all right to drop into a favourite watering hole for lunch.
Yes, I know Boris Johnson had just advised everyone to steer clear of all avoidable contact with other people including ‘crowded places such as pubs, clubs and theatres’ (file photo)
When we pulled up at that fine old (dogfriendly) inn, The Windmill on Clapham Common, I could see at once that by no stretch of the imagination could it be described that afternoon as a ‘crowded public place’.
Inside it was completely deserted apart from a friendly young man behind the bar, who waited with admirable patience while Mrs U took her customary eternity to make up her mind about what she wanted to eat and drink.
Outside, only two tables were occupied — one at the far end of the forecourt, by a group of six young eastern Europeans, the other by a thirtysomething with a dachshund puppy. The latter took an unseemly interest in our Minnie, on heat for the first time (social distancing and the #MeToo movement are alien concepts in the canine world).
If by any chance my wife and I were infected with the coronavirus — and neither of us has any symptoms yet, touch wood — I reckoned we were putting nobody at risk of catching it, apart from the barman and the waitress who brought me my club sandwich, and Mrs U her poached eggs with chorizo.
Since both were in their 20s — an age-group with a mortality rate from Covid-19 of 0.03 per cent, says Imperial College London — they would have a 99.97 per cent chance of surviving if they caught the bug. I can’t feel guilty about that.
As for the pair of us, both in our 60s and with no serious underlying health problems, our survival rate is down to a more modest 97.8 per cent. That’s a risk we’re prepared to take — though we’ve been very careful indeed since the outbreak to avoid any close contact with the over-70s, the group that has most to fear.
There rests my case, and with a promise that this was my last pub lunch for God knows how long, I throw myself upon the mercy of the jury.
We’ve been very careful indeed since the outbreak to avoid any close contact with the over-70s, the group that has most to fear (file photo)
Whatever the verdict, as I shared my club sandwich with Minnie on that lovely spring afternoon, I fell to musing on the astonishing freedoms we’ve taken for granted for so long, which we’ll now lose until the threat has passed.
It struck me that none has meant more to me than the freedom to visit the greatest of all British institutions, the local pub; that socially levelling hub of our communities, font of bar-room wisdom, refuge from life’s troubles and scene of some of the happiest hours of my life.
Like so many other Englishmen, I can chart my entire CV, boozer by boozer.
In my childhood, the pub that loomed largest was the sleazy, smoke-filled King and Keys in Fleet Street, haunt of journalists and their guests, where my mother would drive us en famille to pick up my blind father from his work at the Daily Telegraph.
He held court at his table on the right by the door, where he entertained politicians, lawyers, academics and people with stories to tell. It was there that I met the likes of Christine Keeler, star and casualty of the Profumo scandal which toppled a Tory government.
At Cambridge, my local was the Eagle, just over the road from my college — the pub where Watson and Crick hit upon the secret of the structure of DNA. Night after night I would drink there with my friends, waiting for a similar Earth-shattering brainwave, and waiting in vain.
Then it was off to Devon for my training as a cub reporter — a time of my life indelibly linked to the Dolphin at Newton Ferrers, frequented by farmers, tourists and boat owners.
An empty pub in Central London pictured yesterday, following Boris Johnson urging UK citizens to avoid unnecessary social contact and to stay away from pubs (file photo)
Back in London I found the pubs around Westminster — the Red Lion in Parliament Street, the Marquis of Granby in Smith Square — rich hunting grounds for me and my fellow lobby correspondents, stuffed with MPs, research assistants and spin doctors, tirelessly plotting away.
At home in Paddington in the evening, I was a regular at the Warwick Castle — the pub where I sealed my fate, these past 40 years, by addressing these requests to the pretty new barmaid on her first night: ‘A pint of bitter, a packet of cheese and onion crisps and your hand in marriage, please.’ She said yes to all three.
These days, my life revolves around the Great North Wood, at the bottom of our suburban road, and the Elephant and Castle, round the corner from the Mail’s Kensington HQ. Or at least it did, until this wretched virus confined us regulars to quarters and put the future of the entire sector in jeopardy.
Today, my most fervent wish and belief is that the time-honoured hostelries of Britain will survive and bounce back from this, the worst crisis of my lifetime.
I pray with all my heart that one day, not too far away, we’ll be able to go down to the local once again, raise a brimming pint and drink the toast: ‘Thank God that’s all over.’
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