In case you’ve not noticed, going out – the comeback – has started. I have been out, and I’m not sure I like it. The new world has lots of rules and they’re largely opaque. And the dining out options are lousy. I began with a trip to a newly reopened fish and chip shop in Chingford, while resembling an extra from prison camp drama Tenko, hair-styling, mascara and bra-wearing having fallen off my agenda several months ago. Nowadays, only Rita Ora and women on TikTok wear actual makeup. The rest of us have grown too accustomed to not caring. Pre-lockdown, I wore more makeup than your average rodeo clown; right now, bothering even to tweezer a division in my monobrow feels fancy.
No one will see me in the chip shop, anyway. The rules – because there are chip shop rules these days – say queuing in a confined space is forbidden. “Two people only permitted inside the shop,” the sign said. Everyone found this confusing. Did that mean two people from one household? Or two strangers? Did it mean that, if two people were inside the shop, I could stand outside and shout my order? Everyone’s confusion about the new rules made the woman serving us livid. Although I’m not sure if she was mad about us breaking the rules or mad that the rules meant she had to wear a mask.
Alas, those chips, which I’d dreamed about and plotted over for more than 60 days, were lukewarm and soggy by the time I’d driven them home. The rules strictly forbid leaning against the ledge eating them hot and fresh in the chip shop while helping yourself to extra salt and vinegar, which, now that I think about it, was one of life’s sweetest, simplest pleasures. Yes, eating in a layby is, technically, permitted, but let’s face it, I’d look like a carb-loading dogger. I’m trying hard to love life in the new world, but my feelings are presently tepid.
Along with chip shops and takeaway coffee, we seem to have been given back the right to have picnics. This is great news for fans of eating Sainsbury’s coleslaw somewhere that has no working toilet, throwing a scotch egg into a bush to re-route hornets, drinking too much warm rosé with friends of friends you have never really liked, and inevitably stinging your va-jay-jay on nettles while weeing. It’s a no from me, but many people are devotees. The rule seems to be that you can eat mini-quiches outdoors, but mind who you do it with. And do not, whatever you do, attempt to use a picnic bench in the park for your picnic, because they’re all still taped up like crime scenes.
It could be time for us to question many of these things, and what we possibly need right now are more rule-breakers. The most useful thing Dominic Cummings could do for his country right now is to flout lockdown again, only this time do it in a pub beer garden. He needs to take one for the team. There are few sadder sights across the land than these much-loved but now abandoned sun traps, their tatty wooden benches baking indolently in the sun. All these unseasonably glorious May days have been going to waste, and for a man so fiercely Brexit, that is about as anti-British as it gets. I drove past a dozen pubs on my way home with my lukewarm chips, and my heart was colder still.
Cummings’ last jaunt made us question our pilfered right to wander in forests and even take a pleasant day trip to Barnard Castle, but we need him for a much bigger job. He should start this Saturday morning with a swift drink on the lovely sun terrace outside the The Albion in Islington, before sinking four or so more – possibly with his top off – over lunchtime.
Yes, the fallout would be incendiary, but once the quacking had stopped, something magical might happen. Perhaps we could prise these spaces open again. Although we’re grateful for car showrooms and golf clubs, these things mean nothing to the majority. And, obviously, there would need to be some rules – most of us have proved we’re good at following those – but there would also be cloudy cider with friends, giant Jenga, hot chips in a plastic basket, cheap ketchup in sachets, bad jokes and lots of sunburned forearms. Things will move on, but I know I will never take my right to loiter and languish, to laugh with friends or to drink lager from a pint glass for granted ever again.