Current Issue #488

Beer and Other Sins:
Pouring one out for The King's Head

Beer and Other Sins by Royce Kurmelovs
Beer and Other Sins by Royce Kurmelovs

When a pub falls victim to COVID-19, what do its regulars do next?

It might be said that there were two Fidelma McCorrys. Nine to five, Monday to Friday, there was Dr McCorry, the serious 47-year-old research manager at Adelaide University. On the weekends, and some weeknights, there was the other Fidelma, the five-foot-six, well-meaning troublemaker just looking for laughs.

“Now?” Fidelma says, referring to the pandemic and restrictions on social movement, “I don’t look forward to the weekends like I did before. Your work week doesn’t end. There’s nothing to look forward to.”

If the days and weeks now bleed together, it doesn’t help either that her place, The King’s Head, was among the first pubs to declare it had closed its doors at the start of the pandemic and wouldn’t be re-opening when it was over.

The pub’s owner, Gareth Lewis, called last drinks on March 13 as mass gatherings were banned by law. In mid-April he called in the liquidators.

Other businesses have been keeping quiet about their financial position as they wait for society to restart. Many will not make it. The $30,000 to $50,000 needed to restock the shelves and rehire staff will simply be too rich for some.

When she read the news about The King’s Head, Fidelma was heartbroken.

“I was gutted,” she says in her heavy Irish accent. “Not joking. You would have thought somebody had died.”

Clubs and bars come and go, but, every so often, some hold sway on both the heart and the imagination. Some might be world-famous institutions. The Matrix, which operated in San Francisco in the mid- 60s. El Floridita in Havana. The Long Bar at Raffles in Singapore. The bar from Cheers.

Not all can reach such heights, but even a humble pub at the end of the world can be significant to those who patronised it. For Fidelma, The King’s Head was that place she wandered into two years ago for a music night run by DJ Mark “Yusef” Wilson and could never bring herself to leave. It was there for her during the early phase of her divorce. It played host to her and her girls: Peta, Liv, Denise and Sasha.

“We call ourselves ‘The Queens’,” she says. “Because you don’t need a king to be a queen.”

Then there were the staff. It’s good etiquette to learn the names of those who pour your drinks, and Fidelma got to know them quickly. There was Jess and Jacob, Lachy the chef, Murphy and Emma.

“Emma was gorgeous,” Fidelma says. “They all were friendly and could pour you off a drink before you even got to the bar. I never saw one of them lose their temper, they were always great under pressure.”

Over the years the faces that passed through have changed, but the connection remained. The question now is whether that bond is strong enough to outlast the pandemic.

At the time of writing, it looks like restrictions will start to ease in June but it could be longer.

Which is no bad thing. Opening everything up, only to shut down again in the face of a second wave would be even worse. Until the all-clear is given, there’s no point rushing when a room that can hold 200 people is limited to 40. The math simply doesn’t work out for businesses.

The real question everyone is asking is whether the people will come back. In that way, The King’s Head makes for a good metaphor. Its staff have been laid off. Mark Wilson will have to start over at another venue. Even if it comes back under new management, will it ever be the same?

If Fidelma is any indication, South Australia doesn’t have a problem. At the start of the pandemic, she had been cautious. She was the one telling friends to cancel their plans and taking shots at club owners tempted to put profit before people.

South Australia, she thinks, got lucky. What happened here has been nowhere near as bad as the USA or the UK, where tens of thousands have died and many more will before the year is out. When it’s all over, she says she’ll “be out like a shot”.

For now though, she is stuck at home so she has had to find other ways to imbibe. Last weekend, Peta came to Fidelma’s Hallett Cove home for something of an Irish wake. They played one of Mark Wilson’s playlists, now being uploaded to Spotify for people to listen to from home, talked and poured one out for the King’s.

“Gin and tonics, vodkas and diet cokes,” Fidelma says. “It was a long night. We played the playlist a couple of times. It was no substitute for being out there talking to people, of course, but it was really fun.

“Because you know, right now, it feels like I’ve been grounded.”

Royce Kurmelovs

Royce Kurmelovs

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden (2016), Rogue Nation (2017) and Boom and Bust (2018).

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