Kate Bartlett (Zimbabwe and UK)

Warscapes Corona Notebooks

Journalist Kate Bartlett mourns the closing of bars during the pandemic but then finds an unlikely and macabre place to enjoy a cocktail in peace.


              My New Pub the Graveyard: The Ultimate in Social Distancing               I             Kate Bartlett

Oxford - The biggest blow to me since The Plague began has been the closure of bars.

I’ve been a bar fly since before I could legally purchase a drink (not a problem where I grew up in Africa).

I go with one friend, or in groups, or alone, it doesn’t matter. I go to hipster joints, to dive bars, to posh wine bars, to old-school pubs, to ramshackle plastic table and chair places in whichever “shithole” country I’m currently travelling in.

In fact, finding a bar is usually the first thing on my list when I arrive in a new place – whether on holiday or to report a story. It’s the best way to take stock of a place, I always feel, given my knack for talking to strangers.

When I flew into Zimbabwe hours after a military coup, I couldn’t get any info out of officials but I needed to file something so I headed to a bar where I spent the whole night talking politics with punters. Great story, and it helped that the joint was called “Pariah State”. Likewise some of my most illuminating nights in Afghanistan were spent in Kabul’s hidden, heavily guarded dens of hedonism speaking off the record to coalition soldiers.

Always living in new places, and (usually) as a single woman, bars become my home – sad as it may sound (and I really don’t feel it is) -  and the first few months of my 6-month fellowship in Oxford – though about as far from a warzone as you can get - were no different. They were a whirlwind of watering holes.

I revelled in British pub life, frequenting places with quaint names like “The Lamb and Flag” and “The Eagle and Child”. I loved the history behind every pub door, plaques telling you that C.S. Lewis dreamed up Alice in Wonderland over a pint, or that Thomas Hardy drunk here, or that this was where Oscar Wilde skewered his oblivious drinking buddies with witticisms. More recently, a sign at The Turf Tavern tells you, a young Bill Clinton – as an overseas graduate student – famously “didn’t inhale”  marijuana here.

I love the cozy fireplaces – like at The Perch – a gorgeous old stone house that sits on the gentle river known for its punting students, so very Oxford! I love the low ceilings with old wooden beams that you have to be careful not to bang your head on (our ancestors must have been hobbits!) I relish the jars of revolting pickled eggs that sit near the till and the menu items straight out of an Enid Blyton children’s book – Spotted Dick, Toad in the Hole, Bread and Butter Pudding.

So, when Bojo announced the closure of pubs – with still 4 months of my drinking… uh, I mean journalism.. fellowship to go – I actually cried. (The author requests that you don’t write furious letters to the editor accusing her of being shallow and selfish in a time of global crisis- she is well aware she is morally lacking, thank you.)

After my nervous breakdown regarding pub closure, I decided to get that stiff upper-lip the British are known for, or the Blitz Spirit that’s been so widely written about, and use The Plague as a reason to cut down on my drinking. This worked for a few days, but then I had a falling out with an Oxford neuroscientist I’d been seeing, and decided I needed a trip to the pub. The pubs, of course were closed.

I headed out in desperation, for my one walk a day allowed under British quarantine regulations, grabbing a bottle of wine from my fridge on the way out.

Strolling along the city’s almost deserted cobbled streets was eerily beautiful, the gleaming spires of Christchurch and the other ancient colleges and cathedrals, the cherry blossom and magnolia trees in early spring bloom, the canal boats lining the many charming waterways shrouded by willows, some muddy ponies grazing on the meadow still in their furry winter coats.

I needed to choose a place to sit where I wouldn’t come across anyone else – no dog walkers or joggers taking brief respite from “lockdown.” I noticed an old graveyard I had often seen but not explored. The long dead were literally pushing up the daisies, and wild daffodils surrounded the tombstones, nearly all of them from the mid-1800s.

 I plopped down on the grass and took a swig of my wine from the bottle. It was silent and empty – except for a small Robin Redbreast flitting from tombstone to tombstone and looking for snacks in the grass.

The writing on the graves was a reminder of how there were plagues before this one, and of how tenuous life was then. Many of those buried beneath where I sat had lived incredibly short- and apparently sickly – lives. I wondered whether they had succumbed to smallpox or cholera, or for the women (with suitably antiquated names like Fanny) just died in childbirth. Life was cheap then. It still is in most places.  

Halfway into my (small) bottle of wine, I had the impression I was back in the pub, surrounded by all the Fannys and Alfreds. It might even be an improvement on my old social life, I mused – no mansplainers! – just my thoughts, the open air, and a good pinot grigio. And I wasn’t lonely at all.