“Oodjoo support?” There was a pause. I became absorbed by my newspaper – my nose almost touching the print. Perhaps the question hadn’t been directed at me.
“Oodjoo support?” I couldn’t blank the guy anymore. I could feel the smouldering whites of his eyes. I’ve never followed football and the question “who do you support?” in my experience, has never been about the Civil War. I looked up like I’d just noticed him and my mouth spoke before my brain had been briefed.
“I’m a Gooner.” This wasn’t true. A manager at work was a supporter of Arsenal FC which is where I’d come to hear the term. As circumstances would reveal, it might have been the best answer – imagine if I’d said Spurs.
“Good man!” He grinned. He had a shaved head and a few days’ worth of stubble. He was probably in his late thirties. At the time I was in my early thirties. There was a rosiness and glow about him like post-coital bliss. In this case it was simply the effect of alcohol early in the day – just the right amount to force a conversation on a complete stranger. He proceeded to roll his sleeves up to show off Arsenal tattoos on his arms. He then pulled at his collar to show Gunners etchings around his throat. Next he pulled up his tracksuit legs – Arsenal Football Club wound around his calves like sibling snakes. He started to expose his stomach at the same time I started going a pallid green; further tribal loyalty emblazoned on his gut – some of the detail tucked into belly folds and canopied by hair. I started breathing again when I was certain that was far as it went. My mouth offered positive feedback but I didn’t hear the words. I was fortunate he hadn’t buried into my lie.
He went off to sit at a table by the railing that overlooked the escalators and lower floor of the O2 Centre on Finchley Road. He lit up – in those recent but very distant days you could smoke indoors. It marked the end of his interest in me but not the end of my interest in him because a few moments later I heard a young child’s voice: “Happy Birthday grandad.” I looked up through my fringe, still in article submersion mode. A little girl had joined him and leapt up onto his lap. Grandad?! He was only a few years older than me.
This encounter was in about 2006. It has nothing directly to do with Wetherspoons but it happened in one and I like replaying and embellishing my memory of it. When I think of Wetherspoons, I think of that guy (who is possibly a great grandparent by now).That particular branch in the O2 Centre closed a few years ago and the space is now occupied by chain eateries. Although it wasn’t the first time I’d been into a Wetherspoons, it was the first time I was conscious of it being one. I had started getting into cask ale and a pint often cost around £1.60 in there. It had a huge television screen either playing sport or MTV. The venue was a rough crescent around a circular bar and half of it consisted of vast window panes looking down onto Finchley Road. Watching the crawl & trickle of traffic and people from the anonymity of the gods was the part I enjoyed the most. It was therapeutic. It was a lofty venue as Wetherspoons often are and it linked itself into local history: Sigmund Freud was depicted on the walls of the O2 Centre pub. Close by is Maresfield Gardens where the pioneer psychotherapist lived.
|The Crosse Keys EC3|
Around London there aren’t many bar chains that could take on huge venues – it’s a carve-up between All Bar One, The Slug & Lettuce, Nicholsons, Fullers, Wetherspoons and possibly O’Neills. Nationally, Marstons might be the only other candidate able to take on voids of these magnitude. A side-effect of the size might be the loss of any kind of intimacy as a place. Corners of the pub can be cosy but the whole cannot. By no stretch could you associate one with being in a landlord’s/landlady’s home environment. There is no-one to hold court, nobody living upstairs. Tragically, there is no pub dog and they’re not permitted. The running model is more like a restaurant chain.
I never expect to get served in order in a Wetherspoons. I’m on the short side and it’s a lifelong gripe of us hobbits when ogres that arrived at the bar after us get served first. It doesn’t matter though because I’m anticipating it. The tendency for ‘Spoons to have such long bars where multiple queues accumulate and the staff relay up and down them might contribute to that. This service is also where it most sharply deviates from a (good) pub – the workers here are on shifts and rotating from kitchen duties to bar work as shift leaders dictate. Employees, newly started, are often still getting accustomed to the bar. They’re never rude – just trying to keep up. Working in a pub requires skills that are honed. A busy bar requires focus. I’ve only had the experience working as a volunteer and my mind cannot do the money arithmetic without me using my fingers to count. I struggle to keep tabs on order of arrival so I know it’s no easy task. It’s often the case that the person pulling that hand pump back in a ‘Spoons is doing it for the first time. This isn’t a problem with me. A first pint pulled should be an occasion to celebrate. The service I’ve always found polite but flustered.
The beer quality on cask has never been an issue for me and it’s plentiful. An amazing range of local and national breweries are represented. It has good keg and bottled/canned beer at low prices. For the past few years, cans of The Crisp, Sweet Action and Bengal Tiger by Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, USA have cost just £1.99 each. Now there is also 13 Guns by Crafty Dan (Thwaites Brewery’s own experimental micro). It has good lager too and when you’re with a macro brand lager drinker, it’s roughly half the price a regular pub would charge you for say, Staropramen.
Wetherspoons also hosts a unique annual event: an international beer festival whereby brewers from across the globe come to Britain’s breweries to craft beers on native mash tuns. This is an unprecedented phenomenon and to me, is the pro that exonerates all of Wetherspoons’ cons. Not only does it initiate this international collaboration, but the beer ends up being sold to the customer at excellent value. There are also foreign brewers that showcase in Wetherspoons. We’ve already mentioned Sixpoint but increasingly I see Stone Brewing – a Californian brewer with huge renown and their beers are actually casked!
In 2011 we moved to St Albans in Hertfordshire. At the time, it boasted two ‘Spoons. The Watered Barn is still there but the Cross Keys on Chequer Street closed, briefly became a cocktail joint called Bar Baroque before closing again and becoming a branch of the restaurant chain Bills. Back in that winter, we went in during the morning as we didn’t have the internet set up at home so used their Wi-Fi instead. We saw individuals sitting at the windows spotlighted by the low morning rays as they nursed their pints. It’s something that cannot be separated from Wetherspoons – there is a despair in the atmosphere, particularly early in the day. When I’m out, I’m a voyeur whether I’m sat in front of a coffee or a beer. I like to people watch and as I look about, so do they. In Wetherspoons it can be depressing. Everyday alcoholism goes back in Europe further than any written document and it’s a good time to pause and take stock of yourself.
(…..) His nails are yellow, over-familiar with Players Navy Cut. He draws them across his face and drags them through his grey thatch. The movement is friction and abnegation, choreography to a deflating sigh. A chance look at his reflection in the window – glistening eyes staring through the blue tobacco fog of early afternoon. Broken white spines have built up in the ashtray and buried themselves. The place is yawning and empty apart from him and several bowed heads to which none gives acknowledgement to the other. The silence only amplifies the solitude; it improves the odour. The ale’s not yet imparting the fuzzy edges of any warmth. He’s not yet at the stage where the alcohol will become the spirit of the public house like the holy ghost from the father, but each step on the journey there is the bottom of the pint pot anew. In time, he’ll radiate the same rich colours as the beams, settles, bar top and leather sofas and feel as if he belongs – a gay blushing face in a Brueghel canvas revelling with the rest of the burghers. That time will take some hours to come. It will also take some hours to come tomorrow and the day after. In the meantime, he stares at the glass until it goes out of focus.
Thomas Shepherd – Life and Death in Soho 1953
I’m being depressing here, but those were the warts accompanying the proverbial all.
I can tell a Wetherspoons pub from roughly 100 metres away. It isn’t what the building looks like as they come in many guises. It isn’t the outside decor or any obvious logo either. It’s a panel showcasing drink offers either in the window or, more commonly, on a sandwich board outside. The background is black and the typeface is like a digital calculator – a drinks promotion from a 1980s version of the future. On closer inspection, each of the letters is a seven-dash “8” where each segment can be blacked out to make a chosen letter or a number. That kind of applied thrift could only be piloted at ‘Spoons.
I’m impressed by the range of buildings a Wetherspoons can commandeer. It can simply be an old pub where little change is necessary but it could also be an abandoned cinema, an ex-bank, a ballroom, a theatre, a gin palace, a Bingo Hall. Large public buildings – the original purposes for which are often bygone (like the ballroom or Gin Palace) would either have to be demolished, restructured as flats or offices or taken over by another big chain because they’re too big for anything independent.
|The Knights Templar EC3|
Not only does Wetherspoons claim sites of former glory, but actively builds new pubs. In Hatfield, new build pub Harpsfield Hall has recently opened using parts of aeroplane fuselage to construct the bar. Some of the seating rounds are propellor casings from a Boeing 747. The aeronautical theme reflects the fact that Hatfield used to be the home of British Aerospace. One new ‘Spoons is also currently being built from scratch in Welwyn Garden City.
Common architectural and decorative idioms include wooden beams, glass walls, marble pillars, cupolas, illustrated ceilings, chandeliers, “upcycled” materials to reflect local heritage (e.g the aircraft fuselage), vaulted ceilings, arched windows, back-lit bars, winding staircases and heavy iron-framed front doors.
The lavatories are often an event in themselves. Superficially, they are often ornate – majestic even. When you zoom in on the small detail like the screws, joinery or panelling, though, the polish comes off. I’ve also heard sounds from the plumbing system that sound like something’s trying to tread water to stay alive. If everyone flushed at the same time the building might implode. The decadence is skin deep but come on – they’re toilets not the Romanovs’ winter palace! First impressions are still impressive.
I recently found myself staring at what seemed to be an Andy Warhol artwork: the same image multiplied into a tableau; it was an army of metal condiment cradles in The Crosse Keys in London’s financial district. Each ketchup bottle was in the exact same corner of each cradle as was the mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. It became a primary coloured condiment kaleidoscope. I’ve seen this mesmeric display spread out on surfaces in every Wetherspoons.
There is free wi-fi, affordable food (served until 11pm) and loads of comfy seating in your average ‘Spoons. Some of the sofas are so unctuous and glistening you can’t help but worry about the amount of human lipids they might harbour. In terms of DNA, they might actually be more human than sofa.
|The Waterend Barn St Albans|
People watching again, I spied a small party get together. Five people – all in their sixties or seventies. They were genuinely happy to be together as they shared family gossip. One was in a wheelchair. By the look of them, they didn’t have much money coming in. They each had a drink on the table and in time, five platters arrived at the table. The laughter continued as red-faced, they got stuck in. It got me thinking: where could a small group meet up in the warm at a proper table, have a few pints and a meal together in St Albans if you’re just drawing your pension or on minimum wage? Basically, only in a Wetherspoons pub. In this neck of the woods, like in most of London, a pint is £3.60 – £3.80. I don’t eat out often, but a meal in any other pub is as dear as food in a restaurant. Credit is due to ‘Spoons for being the only place not just in St Albans, but in many towns in Britain that can water and feed a group on a budget and I often see older groups doing exactly that.
(……) and so to the comfort of the local Inn. Our four sat at table: Sarah and James now twenty-five years wed sit with their back at the wall. Thomas being a jack of legs, perches in the thoroughfare causing a nuisance to the flow of titubant grog-hounds that frequent The Kings Arms. Peter, the oldest of the party by a score of years claims this privilege by his proximity to the fire. To its ale and Brandy the quatrain applies itself and shares fervently in each others’ news till the eggs in the melon-bed hatch. Peter chased his thoughts up and down at booming pitch. The leaderly glint in his eye was ever present but he was free to own affairs of late had conspired to lessen the weight of his purse. The brewing of ale in London could be a treacherous gift to inherit and he had feared that the whole business might end in the waters of the canal. Sarah and James fair fell back in astonishment at this news but the weight was light – still far from the debtor’s prison was dear Peter.
The lot then fell to Thomas who, determined not to be eclipsed by Peter’s racontage, spoke of his family’s fortune in the East India Company and the present company listened to, dewy and still. Were they four strangers then these surmises might seem as competition but each member was bound by the blood of Aldwych. (………) For an instant they were put to silence by the arrival of four tranches of roast beef and fig pudding. The hawser of the conversation, so to speak, slackened amidst the sounds of mastication, indeed any inveigling soul might’ve sworn the served cattle themselves there chewed the cud! Soon talk returned through airborne gobbets of said beef and running tears of laughter mined from the sincerest of cores. The four Aldwych children in the warmth of the inn’s thermical hearth were once again reunited in their parochial gang!
Hilary Chadwick – The Travails of the Hop Garden 1872
If there’s any conclusion I can come to about Wetherspoons it’s that it’s a British institution that caters for the widest possible audience. I know very little about the trade but as a business it has a curious model – often occupying a site in a town and shutting in order acquire the lease of bigger venues in the same street when they become available. This is more of a local business model – even a brewery model. People that have little money to spend actually have a well maintained venue to be served in.
Some pubs are closing whilst others are going craft. The latter obviously interest me but with the craft beer comes the craft price bracket. As such, I don’t think a lot of the original punters go back. Well-kept cask ale and good (and indifferent) keg ale is in abundance in a Wetherspoons. A lot of the employees will be jobbing whilst studying so it’s probably a place most of the team won’t work for long. It keeps buildings used and functional even if they weren’t pubs to start with and overwhelmingly it’s the local community that patronises them. They don’t seem to play music so you can have a conversation in them but you’re unlikely to banter with the staff themselves. My final thought on the matter takes me back to my local ‘Spoons in St Albans.
|Skyline, Barbara Weeks 2005|
The Watered Barn is a unique structure: originally it was two separate barns, the larger a 17th century building from Wheathampstead, the smaller a 16th century outhouse from Hormead. They were moved and reassembled in the 1930s and 1960s respectively. The artwork (pictured above) is called Skyline by local artist Barbara Weeks. It represents the land around St Albans and as a keen hiker, I can vouch for the fact she has captured the local landscape perfectly. It’s a huge fabric installation hanging on the wall. Each septet wedge represents a glimpse of the architecture, shallow hills and repetitive monoculture seen around Hertfordshire and across East Anglia to the coast. Suggestions of the Norman cathedral especially can be picked out. Pubs often have framed prints of their towns from the past but this artwork is special. It can’t have been cheap and I feel it shows a commitment to the city the pub’s in.