Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to interview Kit Caless, author of a book called Spoon’s Carpets.
When he realised that every single branch of Wetherspoons had its own unique, specially designed carpet, Kit set out to photograph as many as he could and learn the stories behind them. Along the way, he spoke to Wetherspoon’s customers up and down the country. The result is an intimate portrait of pub life, in all its
vibrant quirkiness and everyday mundanity.
'Love the club, hate the board'
We spoke about the ‘Wetherspoons Paradox’, whereby pretty much any element of the chain can be classified as ‘excellent’ or ‘awful’, with very little in between. Kit likened his feelings to being a long-suffering football supporter: “You love the club, but you hate the board.”
Over my career as a beer writer, my musings on Spoons probably reflect this balance: I’ve probably praised and damned them in equal measure. I speak to many CAMRA members who feel they’re not ‘proper pubs’ (although presumably they’re proper enough in which to grit your teeth and spend money-off vouchers). The argument in the trade is that they’re killing small local boozers. But as with any chain concept, it’s difficult, and almost always wrong, to generalise about the whole chain.
My local Wetherspoons, the Rochester Castle, is the oldest surviving branch. Every other pub around me is gentrifying and becoming more expensive. You can’t blame the publicans – they’re chasing the money to stay in business. But this does mean that the Roch is the only place that truly caters for the whole community, the only place where you see the elderly, a real mix of ethnicities, the local teachers, council workers and postmen, all drinking together.
It also offers the cheapest craft beer for miles around – something that’s increasingly relevant to my purchasing behaviour. But I won’t be drinking in the Roch for the foreseeable future.
Big business and liars?
Last week, Tim Martin launched a new wave of Brexit propaganda throughout his pubs. After using posters and beer mats during the EU referendum to campaign for Brexit, now negotiations are under way he’s returned to campaigning mode, this time referring to ‘big business’ (er… and JDW isn’t?) and remainers as liars about
the consequences of hard Brexit, and campaigning for an immediate withdrawal from the EU with no deal.
I have strong feelings about Brexit, pretty much the polar opposite of Tim Martin’s, but this is not the point. I’m aware many in the trade were pro-Brexit and I know that if you have strong views on either side of this issue, argument isn’t going to change your position.
My issue is not with Martin’s politics, but in his using his pub estate to campaign for his point of view.
Quite how he expects Wetherspoon drinkers to help bring about a swift, no-deal Brexit I have no idea. At least in the referendum he had the excuse of trying to influence our voting intentions. But having voted narrowly for Brexit, the public is being given absolutely no voice whatsoever in deciding what kind of Brexit we’re going to get.
By politicising his pubs in this way, Tim Martin has violated the sanctity of the boozer. Polling data suggests that in any given branch, about half the drinkers will agree with him and half won’t. Or rather, taking turnout into account, about a third will agree, a third disagree, and a third won’t give a toss either way.
Provocative beer mats
Putting bright yellow beer mats on every table therefore pretty much guarantees that in any given branch of Wetherspoons right now, bitter political debate will be happening as a result. We go to pubs to get away from the stresses of life, to leave the daily grind on the doorstep. There’s an etiquette – usually unspoken, but sometimes actively enforced – that in the pub you don’t talk race, religion or politics. The publican and the drinker have a contract designed to preserve the unique atmosphere of the pub, ultimately minimising the potential for heated conflict after a few drinks, but also just helping make sure the vibe is mellow.
Tim Martin has broken that contract. This suggests he either doesn’t know about the etiquette that makes pubs work, or he doesn’t care. I suspect the latter. There’s no deal. And that’s why I’m campaigning for Wexit.