It is a truth universally acknowledged that British people become absolutely feral at the slightest hint of sunshine. Comedian Sophie Duker said it best when she observed that British people have a penchant for “lying in the sun like pasty, uncooked gingerbread men, yelling up at the sun, ‘Bake me!!’” This was quite a good laugh when I was back in the US, watching Duker’s performance on Mock the Week from the comfort of my air-conditioned bedroom, and— crucially— when I had zero experience with British heatwaves.
But, last week— on the first proper sunny day we’ve had so far— I made the mistake of venturing out into the garden of a riverside pub for a couple of drinks with my mates. And that’s when I learned that sunshine brings out a radically different aspect of British culture. So, in case the chill of winter has made you forget what it’s like to fight for a table in a pub garden, allow me to provide you with this refresher, courtesy of my own experience.
Step One: Pub Like a Cheetah
Every pub garden has a limit to its outdoor availability and everybody knows it. Everyone also knows that where you sit is crucial; simply being outdoors won’t do. There is, of course, a world of difference between the dock that overlooks the river and the picnic table in the car park. So, if you can’t be on the dock, you don’t want to be in the car park. That means your only remaining choice is to find your very own “medium place” – a la Eleanor Shellstrop.
In my case, that meant the lovely seating area at the entrance of the pub: a big circle of round picnic tables smack in the middle of the sunshine. Unfortunately, however, everyone around me had exactly the same idea. Everyone else had also noticed that some tables are centred slightly more in the shade than others— and it is March, after all! A little bit of shade in this weather is enough to have anybody reaching for their coats. This means that the shady tables are almost entirely abandoned.
So, if you can claim a shady table quickly, you’ll already have one foot in the ring. From there, your job is to inch ever closer until you conquer the sunniest table. But be prepared: achieving this goal requires the intensity and preparation of a cheetah stalking a gazelle.
You cannot leave the table. No matter how badly you need to go to the bathroom, no matter how quickly you finish your drink, your bum cannot move from that seat. If you are holding this table for your mates (who are still en route), then you must approach the pursuit of this table with the attitude of a wild cat slaughtering dinner for his family. Your suffering is temporarily inconsequential; you can think about how much you need to pee when your mates arrive and are so proud of you for securing this table.
Step Two: Size up the Competition
Once you’ve acquired a shady table— and fixed your eyes on a sunnier one— you need to take stock of the people who are preventing you from making that table your own. Do they look like they’re even slightly about to leave? Are they only drinking a specific drink? Can you persuade the bartenders to pretend they’re out of that drink and convince them to move along? Can you sit uncomfortably close, cast pointed glances at their table, and generally send the signal that you’re quite in a hurry for them to leave? For best results, try all 3 at the same time.
Step Three: Assert Dominance
By now, you’ve probably discovered that there is nothing relaxing about sitting in a pub garden on the first warm day of the year. This is a kill-or-be-killed scenario and your only objective is to out-pub those who are pubbing around you. This will never be more apparent than in the moments when someone tries to steal your table— and these moments will be many. Even if you and your mates are all gathered around the table, someone— or even an outrageous gaggle of 2 or 3 someone’s!!— will cheekily ask, “Do you mind if we just perch at the end of your table…?”
Shockingly, they will be serious— even if that means they have to literally sit on the table-top! The most brazen of these interlopers will reply, “I know, but this one is sunnier!” when you point out that there are many shady tables available. In these moments, there is only one acceptable response: you must refuse to let them reap the benefits of your afternoon table-stalking. This is YOUR table; you fought for it!
So, stretch the world’s tightest, most uncomfortable smile across your face, imagine the smell of rotting eggs and say, “…sure… I suppose…” before you and your mates prepare to freeze them out in the most painfully awkward display of social interaction. (In our experience, the average interloper could not survive this for longer than 6 minutes).
Sadly, however, it is quite likely that your entire afternoon of drinking in the sunshine will follow a similar pattern. And, long before it starts to get dark and chilly again, you and your mates will grow weary of behaving like cheetahs in the pub and drift inside for a more relaxed drink where you can queue for the bar without feeling like you’re in The Hunger Games.