Last night, my boyfriend and I went to the pub with a group of friends for a drink. Well, it was quite a few drinks… One couple we know revealed they’d just got engaged so we all cheered, raised a glass and got excited about the wedding (planned for the end of next year). A friend showed off her baby bump, another fed his 2-month-old twins while we all drank. The night was also attended by three cats, a friend who lives in Miami, a mate who’d turned up from his Berlin flat and a huge melon, inexplicably panic-bought by my friend Dan.
Of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic (you've probably heard of it) and social distancing, we weren’t in a REAL pub – we were on a giant group Google Hangout. Or, as we prefer to call it, The Online Arms.
Since Boris Johnson advised Brits to avoid pubs and restaurants last week, everyone you know is suddenly on Google Hangouts, the Houseparty app or FaceTime, virtually making up for all those missed nights out in the pub. WhatsApp groups are good – the one I have with old schoolfriends has been talking me down when I’m feeling panicked, cheering me up with terrible memes and a source of actually useful information for weeks now – but you can’t beat face to face (through a laptop screen) contact. In The Online Arms, you can tell jokes you couldn’t be bothered to type into WhatsApp, exchange insults (thanks to my friend who shouted "What is that?!" when my makeup-free face loomed in front of the screen last night), have a look at people’s cats that definitely wouldn’t have been let into the pub, coo over your mates' babies and take a virtual tour of your friend’s new house. Discussing the impending apocalypse is okay but it’s nice to forget about the news for an hour and talk about literally anything else with people you love.
The good thing about The Online Arms is there’s never a queue at the bar (your fridge), wine doesn’t cost £8 a glass and you don’t feel like you should wear makeup or get out of your pyjamas. And if the conversation turns boring, you can wander off and watch half an episode of Riverdale and make dinner. (I definitely didn’t do this last night, honestly.) It doesn’t even have to be booze-based – this weekend, my eight months pregnant friend is planning to join me on Houseparty for a drink. She’s having a Gaviscon; I’ll probably stick with wine.
I’m not the only one enjoying getting accidentally quite drunk in my Ugg boots and an oversized T-shirt. Instagram Stories is a sea of screengrabs of makeup-free mates waving wine glasses down their iPhone cameras. Twitter is full of hungover idiots realising that measures are bigger than normal in The Online Arms and likely to make you forget that even without the commute, working from home with a hangover is still hard.
Kat, an editor, lives in London with her boyfriend and hung out with three friends on Houseparty this week. "The prospect of not seeing my best mates for months on end filled me with dread, so we decided to keep spirits up by all grabbing a glass of wine at home, getting on the Houseparty app and video calling each other for a gossip," she says. "It instantly boosted my mood and made me feel normal, even if just for a brief moment. Now we’re booking them in a few times a week so we can stay connected no matter what."
Stevie, a comedian who hosts the podcast Nobody Panic, agrees: "It’s so important to social distance without socially isolating! WhatsApp can only do so much, which is why I’ve started getting drunk with my friends via FaceTime. Today was just one pal and a couple of glasses of wine, Friday night I’m hanging out with two pals and maybe a few bottles. To be honest, I might keep doing it after the bars reopen; it’s cheaper, I don’t have to go home afterwards, there are no queues and I don’t have to wear trousers."
Corrie, an agent who’s also in London, says she’s missing weeknight wines and has turned to technology to fill the gap. "It took three otherwise very competent at life professionals a good 25 minutes to figure out how to use Google Hangouts but it was absolutely worth it.
"Being able to see everyone at home is as close as we can get to going over for a glass of wine at the moment and it’s impossible not to laugh when your best mate’s dog reverses arse-first into the conversation."
The Online Arms isn’t perfect: like real life, sometimes everyone is talking at once, and you spend a lot of time at the start of the call asking if everyone can hear you (spoiler alert: you’re shouting and your neighbours can hear you perfectly) but in these bleak, sad times, it’s the best option. Self-isolation can feel a bit like being trapped in your own flat and in your own head. For people who live alone, it can be a lifeline; for people who live with their partner or flatmates, having someone else to 'go to the pub' with can stop about 98% of rows.
Remember, though: when this is all over and we get to go back to real-life pubs – please, please wear trousers.