Saskia Murphy reserves
herself a seat for beer
gardeners question time

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You’ve got to admire British optimism. The weather, however, not so much. At the time of writing, the heavens are officially, aggressively, relentlessly, biblically open.

In a cruel reminder of the unpredictable temperament of the British climate, of course the first week of May started with lashings of rain and raging wind.

But in a brave show of commitment to the cause of cold pints and overpriced small plates, city centres were packed with people in ponchos huddled around tables and laughing in the rain.

Last week I ventured out into Manchester city centre on Tuesday night, arguably the most hideous example of its infamous weather so far this year. The rain was falling down like spears, the wind was disgusting, but under umbrellas and makeshift shelters the streets were alive again.

In the dark days of lockdown, I forgot just how much I loved the hospitality industry. Before qualifying as a journalist I spent years as a waitress, carrying trays, taking orders and scraping plates of cold mashed potato into industrial bins. Before Covid forced us all indoors bars, cafés and restaurants were my natural habitat – the home of good times, good food and catch-ups with friends.

And now it is back. If anyone deserves to have people queuing up to spend money and getting soaked in the process, it’s the pubs, bars, cafés and restaurants that for the best part of a year have been forced to shut shop and put their staff on furlough.

Last week social media was flooded with images of people stoically sitting outside on pub benches as the rain crashed down around them. Instagram account @eatMCR ran a competition challenging followers to submit photos of themselves and their friends braving the downpour. The entries were admirable, with the first prize going to a photo of two unknown women sitting in an otherwise empty square and eating pizza in the actual eye of the storm.

But while it has been encouraging to see some outdoor seating areas packed to the brim (as much as social distancing measures allow), not all businesses have been so fortunate. Those who have been able to invest in sturdy infrastructure with heated lamps and decent shelter have been swamped with more customers than they can cater for, but last week many smaller establishments decided not to bother opening up at all.

Twitter was full of apologetic announcements from businesses that knew their flimsy pub umbrellas wouldn’t be enough to entice customers out into the cold. It means staff were sent home, hours were cut, wages were lost. Any new employees who started after March this year won’t be eligible to claim under the furlough scheme, and those on zero hour contracts – well, you know the story there.

If everything goes according to plan, next week will bring the next phase of the reopening. Indoor dining will return, cinemas, bingo halls and theatres will reopen, and we’ll be well on our way to normality.

But if the plans change and a spike in infections forces us all outdoors again, perhaps it’s time for us all to invest in decent thermals, dig out the umbrellas and engage the good old-fashioned stiff upper lip.

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