A few weeks ago media were aghast at a queue of some 250 outside the Golden Sheaf Hotel in Double Bay on what was the pub’s traditional Wednesday student night. Punters were jammed up like sardines on the pavement outside in a scene that sent health officials into fits of apoplexy. The irony of punters queuing almost face to face only to social distance when they were allowed inside was not lost on anybody.
The pub subsequently copped a $5500 fine and agreed to employ security so that future queues were socially distanced and numbered no more than 20 at a time. Health issues aside what the incident did demonstrate is how conditioned many people are to the need for social drinking. The consumption of alcohol with a group of friends in a welcoming environment is something ingrained into the psyche of many Australians.
There has been no shortage of takeaway booze during the pandemic but lining up the tinnies at home is not quite the same as meeting your buddies for a jovial session at your local pub, club or small bar. Locked out of their local pub some social drinkers have even tried the Zoom experience, gathering together a half dozen friends for an hour or two in the evening and a session of virtual imbibing. The alcohol is real but the sharing of beer nuts does not translate too well to the cyber environment.
Given that we are now being encouraged to celebrate Dry July maybe it’s an appropriate time to look back at the availability of grog many decades ago, before the current pandemic temporarily changed our drinking habits. Up until it was abolished in 1954, the so called “Six O’Clock Swill” saw pubs closing at 6pm and workers rushing from their jobs at 5pm to down as many schooners as they could in a 60 minute period. Needless to say this hour of binge drinking caused much social mayhem, with many family bread winners arriving home for the evening meal pissed out of their heads.
We may now find it hard to believe but Sunday trading was not introduced in NSW pubs until 1979. Prior to that if you were desperate for a drink on the sabbath you could drive to a country pub and sign in as a bona fide traveller which often meant a trip of 10 to 20 miles. A loophole also existed for many years at the departure lounge at the international airport at Mascot where you could pretend you were farewelling friends on a flight to London or LA – paying exorbitant prices for even a humble middy of beer.
These days you can have alcohol delivered to your home at all kinds of hours but in the days when pubs and bottle shops closed at 10pm, ‘sly grogs’ flourished throughout the metropolitan area. They were particularly popular with teenagers who enjoyed the thrill of the verboten and the clandestine, not to mention the prospect of getting even more inebriated.
One of the most frequented establishments during the 1970s was a Bondi Hotel at the top of Campbell Parade. The protocol was to put in your order at the accommodation reception, pay a small premium for the booze you were buying and then discreetly pick up your booty from a side door. On a Friday or Saturday night there was always a queue after 10pm, no doubt with the blessing or blissful ignorance of the local police.
The Covid cluster emanating from the Crossroads Hotel has demonstrated that pubs and clubs are problematic during a pandemic, regardless of the hygiene precautions that are enforced. Once patrons have a few drinks, inhibitions tend to be shed and social distancing sometimes goes out the window.
The pubs and clubs employ thousands of workers and fulfill an important social role in the community. It’s a fine balancing act for both the Government and health officials to decide what restrictions should be placed upon them during the current period. There’s probably no all encompassing definitive answer here and it’s up to the venues to be as vigilant as possible – likewise their patrons.
In the meantime, the pandemic has thrown up all kinds of ingenuity in the face of adversity. Who knows where we will be heading in the next six to 12 months? Time to set up a covert Tiki Bar in your home and invite no more than ten of your good friends around for a socially distanced good time. Home brewing could take on a new dimension with a hush hush community still that cranks out both bootleg gin and hand sanitizer. Then again, if you really wanted to give your liver a holiday, you could extend Dry July until the end of the year. For many of us however that is just unthinkable!