The last time I had a “proper” pint I had been watching a barman fill up a kettle with ale. Walking home that afternoon, I’d heard Prime Minister Boris Johnson make this announcement on the radio: “We are collectively telling cafes, pubs, bars, restaurants to close tonight as soon as they reasonably can, and not to open tomorrow.” The obvious thing to do was to duck into the nearest pub.
That was a year ago. March 20 2020, the day coronavirus would change British culture for the foreseeable future: pubs were to shut indefinitely. This is where we meet and make friends, the place we gather to vent with colleagues after work. This is where soon-to-be newlyweds enjoy their last nights of freedom and the recently-single get back on the market. This is where we mourn lost family members and celebrate newborns. It is where Boomers mix with Zoomers and different classes clink glasses together. The pub is a big deal on these islands.
The Wally Dug is a small, bright, basement pub in Edinburgh’s wealthy New Town. Students with expensive accents mix with an upper-middle class clientele, sipping pints of beer and drams of Scotch. There are board games and a weekly quiz. The decor features Staffordshire dog antiques and a picture of a pet Spaniel. That night, I’d shuffled into the boozer and was greeted by the barman. “What’s going on?” he asked, guessing that a journalist might know. I was hoping he could tell me. There was one other drinker alongside me and the barman. I ordered a pint, sat myself on a stool at the wooden bar and got my laptop out to write up my coverage of the Alex Salmond trial from earlier that day. It was a huge political scandal involving sexual allegations against the former first minister of Scotland, of which he was later cleared. It would have been the biggest story in town, except this thing called coronavirus had caught the media’s attention instead.
An old-fashioned telephone rang from the back and the barman broke from his odd-jobs to answer it. He hunched over with the receiver, occasionally humming in assent. Me and the other punter stopped to pay attention. The barman put down the receiver and turned to face us with his arms raised in the air:
“Ladies and gentleman, henceforth, for one night only, all pints shall be £1.”
“And! And! And – if you bring a container I’ll fill that for £1 too.”
This could not be better. It was a Friday night, lockdown was coming and I’d stumbled into what might have been the cheapest pub in Edinburgh, charging about a quarter of the usual price per pint. Word of Johnson’s announcement and the drinking deal spread on social media, with the pub scrambling to sell their beer before it went off, and new punters piled in, shoulder to shoulder, to get their orders in. Folk were buying 10-pint rounds just for the novelty. Giant plastic milk containers, a porcelain vase and a metal kettle were brought in as vessels for takeaway ale. Everybody offered to buy a round for everyone. Regulars were drafted in to help pour. There was a feeling of: We are all in this together, but we do not know how long it will last.
I picked up tobacco from a nearby shop and bought cheap two-litre water bottles to fill with booze. Smoking goes alongside a good night out for me, and I wanted to enjoy this evening.
“Anyone got a light?”
The barman, out taking a break for fresh air, sparked up my cigarette. He looked dour—a Scottish word for someone who is gloomy in appearance—while he praised the character of the people who lived through the world wars. This would be his last shift for a while; for him this was a loss not of leisure, but of livelihood. Still, the party continued inside. I finished my smoke and got back in there until it shut.
I awoke the next morning with four litres of ale in my fridge and a dry mouth. The novelty of the previous evening had not worn off, despite a full lockdown seeming inevitable. Johnson confirmed that on the following Monday, the 23rd, at 5pm. I didn’t know when I’d next be in a pub. My relationship with alcohol would have to change, but this would also change my relationships.
Tinder Passport opens up a whole new world of potential partners. The dating platform made it possible to change your location to anywhere around the globe due to the pandemic. It was just as good a time to be speaking to someone on the other side of the world, as the other side of the street, since we couldn’t meet up with them anyway. My matches came in from California, Venezuela, and Russia, as well as some from the city I actually live in. I began to believe myself more attractive overseas than at home.
Things got interesting in April, when I matched with a woman in Brazil. Her profile described only her job and her distance from me. Without much to go on, I took a shot with a compliment: “All I know is you are beautiful and work in films. How are you :)” I was not expecting anything in response really. At that point, Tinder was only a way to find out what lockdown was like in other parts of the world, something to make the days go quicker. But she replied, with a compliment about how forward I’d been. We chit-chatted, and then started sending pictures of our homes, sending audio messages—a first for me—then chatting over the phone, often. We had a lot in common: sense of humour, work, music. I sent her a recording of a song. She sent a video of herself to say thank you. It was cute and playful. She danced around, fingering through her blonde-brunette hair to manipulate the “analogic effect” of light beams striking through the window. This was the first time I’d seen her moving. She was incredibly beautiful and charming.
Her short video ended with her ordering me to send one back, so we could get used to seeing each other. I am quite nervous on camera, so I did a few takes before sending my response. This opened the door to something else: why not try a video date?
We arranged to link up over Skype at 9pm UK time, as she was four hours behind me. For a normal date I would shave, iron my shirt and do my hair. Maybe I would speak with my flatmate about the girl I was meeting up with. I did all of these things. The key difference is that I was still fretting over how I looked, except this situation involved camera angles. Everybody knows how bad they look when first switching to a selfie camera, and I needed to avoid this.
I placed my laptop on top of two shoeboxes to give a higher viewpoint, and to make me appear slimmer. There was no way I was going on this date with extra chins. Finally, I set up a lamp so that the main light source wouldn’t be coming from behind me, which would me look shadowy and demented.
I saw she was typing.
This was it, my first virtual date, my first international date. The scene was set, accept the call. I pressed the wrong button and accidentally hung up on her. Call her. Okay, here we go.
She wore a patterned dress, with her lips painted red. Her hair was up and her smile beamed. I thought she looked amazing and I told her. We said cheers then drank and talked about family and work. I told her about the time my mum was held hostage during a bank robbery. She told me all about music, and astrology, which is apparently quite popular in Brazil. I had a beer and she, something called sakerinha. It’s a twist on the classic Brazilian cocktail caipirinha, but using sake instead of cachaça. We smoked cigarettes at the same time, pretending to pass each other rolling papers through the camera. This was just like a great night out for both of us. We both got a bit tipsy—I’d moved on to whisky—and we decided to put on the same Spotify playlist. Then she told me to get up and dance with her, as she’d really missed dancing. I asked her if she could dance, she said, “of course, I’m Latin.”
Normally, I am a shy dancer. But doing it with someone more than 4,000 miles away and with a couple drams of Scotch inside me definitely helped. The call lasted for seven hours. It was the best Tinder date I’ve ever been on.
We met up over video every weekend. I spent my weekdays trying to think of things we could do together: online gigs, quizzes, video strolls, meals and screen-shared films. One time I fell asleep on screen at 5am watching Groundhog Day with her. My drunken snoring could be heard in Brazil. All these dates, we drank together like we were out on the town. I got the nickname Whiskinho from her, on account of my love for Scotch on our nights together. It was brilliant. The highlight of my week. I had fallen in love, despite everything. It is the only thing from lockdown I will forever be grateful for.
The problem with long-distance virtual relationships is they are long-distance and virtual. I could not spend my whole lockdown falling in love on the internet. What I really needed was a real life, physical pissup. Thankfully one of my best friends, Jakey, was of the same way of thinking. His partner came up with a term for it: Male Vagrant Behaviour. Something he and I both have in common is a love for pubs.
Jakey and I started calling our drinking rambles the Male Vagrant Collective. For our first MVC day, we headed to the Shore. There are plenty of cafes and bars down there, where Leith meets the Firth of Forth. It is a lot more bohemian than the New Town. Property is cheaper, the people are friendlier and the scene is more diverse, albeit in parts quite rundown. This part of Edinburgh is often accused of becoming gentrified, but that has been the case for as long as I have lived here.
The two of us queued outside the Malt and Hops by the water at around lunchtime. Jakey had heard there were takeaway pints available here for about an hour on a Saturday. We both wanted to try a crisp Addlestone cider—one of our favourites—as it had been a long while. There was already a long line of people waiting to get their fill when we arrived. A group of male pensioners beside us were talking about having to support local business, with one bloke complaining he was getting too used to drinking inside alone. The queue lasted 20 minutes, then we were both allowed in, one at a time, to order. I think the last time I was that excited about getting a pint was when I had just turned 18. I even asked the barmaid if it would be okay for me to take a picture of the bottle being filled up—if it does not appear on social media, apparently, it did not happen.
We left with a couple litres of cider each in plastic containers, then made our way to some dilapidated bowling greens near Leith Links, which is a big public park where people can play football and cricket. We sat two metres apart on the ground and soaked up the relief of socialising with someone in person. It had been so long since I’d shared a drink with a friend in person.
The summer time in Edinburgh has long days and short nights. You can be outside for hours after work without worrying. It is a city which seems to be made up of little towns, all with their own character. Leith contrasts with Morningside, the Old Town shuffle contrasts with the New Town stride. It is possible to experience lots of different atmospheres within a one-hour walk.
I’d been learning about Brazilian drinks and made up a bunch of caipirinha for me and Jakey. We finished the bottle and were having a great time. I’d thought they were the same alcohol percentage as wine, but they are actually 40% ABV. Now we made our way to the Meadows, which is a green space near the ancient university, usually populated with students. It is also the traditional practice ground of the Royal Company of Archers. Pink cherry blossoms flanked the footpaths, and there were the fantastic views of Edinburgh’s extinct volcano, Arthur’s Seat.
We heard chattering and music from an old pavilion, piquing our interest; a gathering of Spanish people performing for each other. It was the biggest group I’d been near since lockdown, maybe 20 people, and totally against the rules. But we were drunk and high on the energy of others. We listened to their poetry and music. A lady introduced each act, encouraging the crowd to take part. This is all a guess, as I cannot speak Spanish. It was great hearing people sing, and the crowd’s applause. Jakey asked if he could perform a poem, and read some Yeats to massive applause. We started socialising with the group, asking how they came to be in Edinburgh and how they were finding lockdown. One guy moved here the weekend before everything was closed. How tragic. It was then that two police officers came over to break up the party.
“How many households are here?”
A woman in the group steps up to take charge, who had been orchestrating the performances.
“Oh yes. We are three households.”
“Well there shouldn’t be and there are too many of you here.”
“Okay yes. Guys…”
This is the pleasure we find in company with others. It was the closest I have come to meeting someone in a bar and striking up a conversation over nothing since lockdown.
My next time in a pub was very different to that day in March. First of all, there were new hygiene measures in place. Contact details had to be taken. Plastic screens had been installed. It all felt very sterile. Secondly, I was working. My boss had asked me to find a pub with people waiting to go inside at 10am, when restrictions were lifted on July 15. I wandered around the city’s historic Royal Mile and found a line queuing to get in the Scotsman. They were all white male pensioners, none abiding by social distancing but happy to stick to the rules once allowed in.
My job was to find out how they felt being back inside a boozer. Surely they must be excited, the social isolation must have been awful for many of them. It was probably going to be one of the sweetest drinks of their lives.
“Tastes like a pint, it’s alright.”
That famous Scottish enthusiasm at its best. Regardless, the momentousness of the occasion must have gotten to me, as once I finished my filing I decided to go and get myself a drink. This could perhaps be the only truly historic pint I’d ever have, on the day the pubs reopened. I headed down to the Grassmarket, a picturesque plaza in the Old Town, with a beautiful view of the castle. The Beehive, at least, was open, so I headed over with my notepad to do some writing.
When I reached the front door I was met by a staff member in a plastic visor who wanted my contact details. Black and yellow tape was shaped into arrows on the floor for customers to follow. Only one person should be at the bar at any time, I was informed, and the drink would then be brought over to me at my table. My time limit was 90 minutes. When my Guinness arrived, I took a picture and sent it to my friends. The sensation was nothing like what I’d experienced in the Meadows. There was no music, no atmosphere. This was sterile, and soulless, but necessary. It was the antithesis of the unnecessary scenes we had at the Wally Dug in March. I felt like I’d wasted a fiver on a pint.
First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announced on Tuesday March 16 2021 that she hopes the pubs will be able to let people inside in around two months. The date pencilled in is May 17. There is a lot of excitement for this across social media. Most people here have not even been allowed to have anyone inside their homes since December. The vaccination programme has been taking off so there is a real and growing sense of optimism. But for me, I do not want to return to that sanitised and structured environment of pubs with restrictions. It is not what I go to the pub for. I will not be satisfied until I only need to worry about spilling my pint when I bump into someone, not catching Covid-19. I will raise a toast to that day coming soon.