During a week when the news has been so bleak, when we’ve heard about the deaths of colleagues and artists and beloved educators, when much of the world’s population is in lockdown, the closing of a pub might not strike you as a tragedy. And yet the news that my local pub was going out of business finally undid me. After weeks of gritting my teeth as my own work dried up, my husband’s new business shuttered, my son came home from school indefinitely, and my best friend lay with her newborn in a hospital where no visitors were allowed (including her husband), I relented and crumpled when I heard about the pub.
My grief is about more than just a place in my neighbourhood to grab a beer and a parma. It’s true that this particular pub became a touchstone for me and my family when we were adjusting to our move from the United States to Melbourne, its weekly trivia nights a dependable and fun way for us to connect with our new community. Whenever visitors or new friends were around on a Wednesday, trivia night welcomed them into our fold with good beer and banter and a fire roaring in the corner. On weekends, my husband and I played pool in its slightly shabby bar room, chattering to the owner, who became a friend.
So, my sadness is for that friend who is losing his business, but it feels bigger than that, like it encompasses all of the owners and workers out there who are losing their livelihoods. It represents my intense anxiety about what our cities will look like when we come out of this crisis. In recent days I’ve heard stories about inflexible landlords and collapsing business models at every conceivable venue: iconic, world renowned bars; restaurants owned by famous chefs; my beloved neighbourhood pub. The hope that take-away and delivery might save even a fraction of these operations is optimistic. And for a city like Melbourne (or Sydney, or Hobart … you get the idea), the loss of our hospitality industry is almost unthinkable. As a country, we have increasingly built tourism on our strengths as a food and drink destination. Not only does food and drink support hundreds of thousands of workers, it makes our cities the liveable, wonderful, delicious places that we call home.
The economic and health crisis unfolding in Australia and around the world is bound to become a cultural crisis down the line. In an email chat, Anthea Loucas Bosha, the chief executive of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, told me that the crisis “will affect us for years to come and, in turn, change us forever.”
This phenomenon is taking place globally. Last week, Pete Wells wrote about what might be needed for New York City restaurants to survive, and the opinion section ran an op-ed by a group of chefs and restaurant owners headlined, Will We Have an America Without Restaurants? Either of these pieces could have been written about Australia, with a few minor changes.
I started writing about food because I love to eat, yes, but also because I love the industry that makes dining possible. Our corner pub is just a pub, but it’s also the thing that made moving across the world bearable. It’s where I met treasured friends, it’s where I found community. It is one of thousands of such places that are gone and may not come back. What will we look like as a city, as a country, as a culture, if that industry cannot be saved?
I hope we never find out.
By Besha Rodell –