The pub: centre of conviviality, the place to meet old friends and new friends, an open, welcoming, warm, communal space free from the stresses of work and the confines of home, where people gather to relax, mingle, talk, laugh, enjoy companionship, exchange news, views and jokes, revive, support and celebrate.
But what about that fellow on his own there, slowly emptying a pint glass, occasionally flipping a beermat in the air and catching it before it lands on the table, sometimes reading the newspaper he brought with him, sometimes apparently listening in to the conversations of others: he came in on his own, he talks to no one, except briefly to the barman to order his drink and accept his change, and nobody talks to him: should we not go over and drag him out of his solitary state and into our conversations?
If that solo drinker is me – thanks very much for the kind thoughts, but no thanks. I’m entirely happy here in my own head, sitting and thinking, people-watching, enjoying my pint, getting a vicarious buzz from all the social interaction around me, and I will get up after a beer or two and go home having had all the contact with people I need right now.
Of the thousands of hours I have spent in pubs over the past half a century, in a fair proportion I have been on my own, and I’ve enjoyed them all. I love the sociability of pubs, I love the interplay between people, the crack, in groups small and large: I married the woman who is the mother of my child in part because she was the person I most enjoyed going down the pub and chatting with. But I also love being a solo pub goer, sitting, sipping and thinking. It relaxes me, it lets me explore my thoughts, run through and rearrange memories, have conversations with myself about problems I am facing, work out plans: if I have a tricky piece to write, I try out in my head different ways to arrange the narrative, to construct the intro and the opening paragraphs. If I have a meeting or an interview or a journey coming up, I rehearse in my head what might happen. And all the time there is a buzz around me that I can tune into or tune out, if I want, that keeps me feeling connected with the rest of humanity, even if I don’t desire one-on-one contact with another human right then.
My daughter, who is in her last year of university, has an app on her phone that recreates the background noise of a coffee shop. She puts that on when she is writing an essay, and she says it helps her get into “the zone”, where she can concentrate on getting her thoughts out through her fingers and the keyboard and onto the screen in front of her. When I’m in “the zone”, however, I don’t notice any noises around me at all: sometimes I have to be shouted at loudly to drag me back into the real world. No point in having music on while I’m working: once in the zone, I don’t hear it. The background buzz of a pub, however, I find both mentally relaxing and mentally stimulating: sitting on my own in a bar I can think, and muse, and work on problems, and spent an hour or two looking at issues from different angles in a way that I could not while on a sofa at home, even with a beer by my side. And if that gets too much, I can people-watch, a terrific pastime in any pub.
Now, some of you are saying that as an older white male, I’m privileged in a way that others are not: nobody is going to be bothering me if I sup alone, even if they might be feeling (unnecessarily) sorry for me. Women, of course, need to have reached “the age of invisibility” before they can sit at a pub table by themselves and remain unmolested. Which is wrong. A good pub should be a welcoming place for all.
And it’s also true that some solitary drinkers really do want to be bothered, are actually hoping that someone will bring them into a conversation, really have gone down the pub to try to make new friends. How do you tell those people from people like me, who are enjoying the solo drinking experience? I don’t know. But don’t let the fact that people like me exist put you off reaching out in friendship to the genuinely lonely.