Pubs & Pandemics

How would the Inklings have conducted their meetings during a pandemic? Would they have continued secret rendezvous at the Eagle and Child?

Of course not. They were a law-abiding group of thinkers, and would never have thought to visit a pub if the Queen or Prime Minister told them to remain at home. After all, even the University of Oxford is following government directives: “All non-essential staff members must work from home. . . . Students have been asked to leave the University unless they have a compelling reason to stay.”

My guess is that C.S. Lewis would have relished the opportunity to settle in at home to work on his correspondence and perhaps a new essay. He would, of course, still want to enjoy a good walk during the day—although Lewis would doubtless wear a mask and maintain safe distances.

Pubs are on my mind due to a recent article entitled “How the Black Death Gave Rise to British Pub Culture: For centuries-old bars, a pandemic is nothing new.”

The piece featured two ancient public houses that lay “claim to the contentious title of Britain’s oldest pub and [are] no stranger[s] to pandemics.” While we lived in the U.K., I don’t recall ever visiting Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in Saint Albans.* However, we did enjoy visiting Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham.

In times of tribulation, such as war, pubs provide a warm respite for many. An alcoholic can drink happily in solitude at home.⁑ But one express purpose of a pub is to foster a casual and comfortable social environment.

C.S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings enjoyed pubs in Oxford. When Lewis moved to the environs of Cambridge, he naturally sought out a similar setting in which to relax and entertain. In 1954, he wrote the following to a friend.

There are excellent pubs at Cambridge; and I speak from first-hand knowledge, having just returned from a week of spying out the land there. I’m afraid one must admit that, architecturally, Cambridge beats Oxford; there is so much more variety in Cambridge.

Here in the United States, only “essential” functions have remained accessible during the various restrictions imposed by “stay-at-home orders.” It’s sobering to ponder what our culture values most important, weigh those deemed necessary (e.g. marijuana dispensaries) against those deemed nonessential (e.g. churches).

Gradually now they intend to transition toward a restoration of some of our Constitutional rights. The New York Times is updating the state-by-state status on a regular basis.

It will be interesting to see if this progresses forward gradually, or if unanticipated events cause any locales to reverse their course.

Hopefully, life will return to “normalcy” sooner rather than later. The scars will last though, whatever happens. Lives lost. Businesses closed, with hopes shattered and dreams dispelled. In the aftermath of this global tragedy, it may well be that cordial, familiar gathering places, will once again play a role in reestablishing balance.

The previously cited article about the Black Plague says, “For Brits, a pub has always been more than just a place that sells beer . . .” That sentiment is true in many other cultures, as well. We humans are, by our very nature, social beings. Being deprived of these social settings has caused some people to experience a sort of shell shock. It may well take some time—and perhaps even a pint or two—to begin the healing.   

* Our family did visit the spectacular Roman ruins of Verulamium. One of the Romans’ largest cities, it was destroyed by Boudicca during the rebellion she led. It was later renamed in honor of Alban, one of the first British martyrs.

⁑ Some alcoholics do prefer to get plastered in bars. Examples include Ernest Hemingway and Dylan Thomas. The latter had his final drink at New York City’s White Horse Tavern. “After downing 18 shots, Thomas collapsed outside the tavern and later died at St. Vincent’s Hospital.”

The Church Militant (Or Not)

I was surfing wordpress sites the other day and came across one that linked to a fascinating collection of distinctive church buildings. I’ll include the link at the end of this column (so you don’t get too distracted, and fail to finish reading my impressions).

Many of the edifices are intriguing. Most are unique. A handful are truly inspiring.

One of the “unique” designs is found in the architecture of Saint Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church in Chicago. For some viewers, the structure suggests minarets. Others see it as a contemporary version of Moscow’s Cathedral of Saint Basil. For me, it evokes a rather more martial memory.

In the early 1990s I was stationed at RAF Greenham Common where we were part of the nuclear deterrence mission. We supported the GLCM (ground launched cruise). We actually accomplished our national goal, in persuading the Soviet Union to mutually disarm through the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. That was a significant accomplishment.

As part of the process, NATO and the Soviets dispatched Verification Teams to ensure that each was following through with the reduction and ultimate elimination of the missiles. After all of ours had been removed, I was privileged to serve as a Soviet Escort Officer during one such visit. It was interesting to watch how the highlight for the Soviets was their visit to our base exchange. (They were shocked by the diverse offerings of everyday capitalism and suspected that we depleted other stores to stock this one in a manner that would impress them.)

While they were visiting, they conducted pro forma inspections of all the locations where a missile could be hidden, including under regular manhole covers, as I recall.

Perhaps by now you understand why the Saint Joseph building reminds me of that tour of duty?

I am probably the only person whose first thought upon viewing this building is: what an amazing disguise for missile silos! Of course, one factor for my reaction is the clearly Russian/Ukrainian shape of the entire structure. A peculiar response to the picture, right? And yet . . . without inspecting the tubes, who can say with certainty whether or not my first reaction may have been accurate?

Here’s the link to the 50 Most Extraordinary Churches.