Wetherspoons as public forum

A collage of Wetherspoon pubs.

We think about Wetherspoon pubs a lot. You can’t be British and do otherwise, really – they’re an institution, on almost every high street.

Late­ly, we’ve been con­sis­tent­ly dis­ap­point­ed by the expe­ri­ence of drink­ing in them. They seem tat­ty, the qual­i­ty of the offer declin­ing, pre­sum­ably as they strug­gle to retain the all impor­tant bar­gain prices as the cost of prod­ucts go up.

But every now and then we’re remind­ed why they’re so pop­u­lar: as tru­ly pub­lic spaces, ordi­nary pubs and work­ing class cafés dis­ap­pear, Spoons fills the gap.

A week to so ago we found our­selves in a branch in east Lon­don with a few hours to kill, begin­ning at break­fast time.

It was qui­et, you might almost say tran­quil, full of nat­ur­al light and the smell of ground cof­fee.

One man was there before us, and left after, lean­ing on a pos­ing table, steadi­ly down­ing pints of lager, con­duct­ing busi­ness on his phone: “I got a box of them Fred Perry’s com­ing in next week, and anoth­er load of them sum­mer shirts – yeah, yeah, per­fect for out and about in the day, nice fit for an old­er bloke.”

Anoth­er man came in, ordered cof­fee and a bacon roll, and then worked his way around the pub show­ing off a watch in cel­lo­phane, part of a new line. We couldn’t hear his pat­ter, just the respons­es: “Love­ly. How much? How many can you do? Alright, mate, I’ll give you a call Tues­day.”

An elder­ly man ordered his break­fast and a mug of tea using the phone app and when a mem­ber of staff brought it over, adopt­ed a mock-posh accent to say, “I say, what what, jol­ly good, Jeeves! Any mes­sages for me with the porter?” The wait­er-bar­man laughed polite­ly.

A gang of con­struc­tion work­ers arrived, head to toe in orange, and appar­ent­ly exhaust­ed. They ordered full Eng­lish break­fasts, teas and ener­gy drinks, and colonised a cor­ner.

A stu­dent bought a fruit tea and took an hour to drink it as she worked on her lap­top.

A par­ty in suits came in just before lunch, ordered lagers and wines, and rehearsed a sales pitch com­plete with slide deck.

Peo­ple charged their phones, read news­pa­pers and books, used the toi­let, and gen­er­al­ly treat­ed the place as if it were a library or com­mu­ni­ty cen­tre.

The man­ag­er didn’t seem to object to the rel­a­tive­ly small amount of mon­ey going over the counter. In fact, they made a point of remind­ing us that a £1.60 cup of cof­fee was bot­tom­less.

What’s the idea here? To send a mes­sage, we sup­pose: if in doubt, go to Spoons. What­ev­er the occa­sion, what­ev­er you want to eat or drink, what­ev­er the time of day, wher­ev­er in the coun­try you are, go to Spoons. You won’t be has­sled or judged or, indeed, paid much atten­tion at all.

It’s clever, that. Oth­er pubs – prop­er pubs – might learn some­thing from that.

9 thoughts on “Wetherspoons as public forum”

  1. I won­der what the oth­er pun­ters thought of you two, observ­ing any­one and every­one, not­ing down phone con­ver­sa­tions, spin­ning out a bot­tom­less cup of cof­fee from break­fast until lunchtime? Prop­er pubs, as you term them wouldn’t last for long in those cir­cum­stances. Ive always had agreat admi­ra­tion for Spoons, not for the prices but for the social cohe­sion that they can engen­der. The equiv­a­lent of the pub­lic bar per­haps?

    1. Big fan of ‘spoons – gen­er­al­ly the over­all qual­i­ty of pubs has gone down in this coun­try with the var­i­ous pub groups and gen­er­al­ly way over­priced. ’ Spoons with prices are great. Some bad pubs but a lot of good ones. On thing that has always been a mys­tery to me is the amount of peo­ple in’ spoons drink­ing crap lager – I am sur­prised they man­age to shift enough real ale to keep the oper­a­tion viable. Still, they do, and I am grate­ful.

  2. This all remind­ed me of the pub I worked in back in the ear­ly 90’s. At dif­fer­ent times of the day up until 7pm a vari­ety of folk would spend the day com­ing and going with very lit­tle end­ing up in the till. Old men nurs­ing 3 pints all day, hap­py to enjoy com­pa­ny and chat (and 2.30 from Don­cast­er on a shab­by TV, even­tu­al­ly that was nicked) the cloth­ing sales reps or door to door video recorder sales­man would drop by twice a week (occa­sion­al­ly there might be a 6 month hia­tus on this activ­i­ty) we nev­er judged or made com­ment about indi­vid­u­als, they were after all our fam­i­ly for most of the day, week, month etc. It’s iron­ic that in a time of com­mu­ni­ty break­down that some­where (and some­one like Tim (shud­ders) like spoons should offer a meet­ing place for all sorts of folk. Hit­ting all those var­ied tar­get audi­ences at once is admirable in many respects. Despite the won­der­ful build­ings that the com­pa­ny has often brought back to life I still strug­gle to feel warm about spoons (they offer me not much in way of a drink, being coeli­ac) but plen­ty folk love em.

  3. You won’t be has­sled or judged or, indeed, paid much atten­tion at all.”

    This is an impor­tant point – many peo­ple want to go to a pub with­out hav­ing to explain or jus­ti­fy why they are there, which is often the case in microp­ubs and sim­i­lar estab­lish­ments. A lot of main­stream pubs in town and city cen­tres used to ful­fil this func­tion, but have now large­ly dis­ap­peared and either closed or become more spe­cial­ist venues of one kind or anoth­er.

    While there have been numer­ous reports of Spoons becom­ing tat­ty and beer qual­i­ty declin­ing, I have to say that the Old Swan in Uttox­eter which we vis­it­ed last week was notably spick-and-span and the beer in very good nick.

    1. Over the years we think we’ve man­aged to work out the rou­tine: man­agers get a cer­tain amount to spend on a refurb every few years; some­times, they don’t spend it wise­ly; oth­er times, they get ripped off by con­trac­tors – one man­ag­er told us this is what hap­pened after they’d shut for a fort­night only to re-open look­ing exact­ly the same. They tend to look pret­ty smart for the first year or so after grand launch, at any rate.

      In terms of ser­vice, we’ve also noticed some issues around the app. For exam­ple, we saw a total melt­down occur at a branch in Scot­land – dirty plates piled high, tables left uncleared – as the staff strug­gled to deal with a par­ty of 12 each sep­a­rate­ly order­ing food and drink from the app AT THE SAME INSTANT in an already busy pub.

      1. With the dis­ap­pear­ance of cash, that is increas­ing­ly going to become the way par­ties divvy up the bills, so pubs and restau­rants will need to accom­mo­date it.

    2. I don’t find pubs all that wel­com­ing. I encounter a fair amount of intol­er­ance that oth­er peo­ple would not receive. It’s as if they don’t want me there. In fact, if I went away they’d tell me to come back so they could bul­ly me again. They pre­tend. This is how pubs close, through small-mind­ed­ness and not bring accept­ing. I love beer and I want to love pubs but they are bul­lies.

      From now on I’ll drink at home.

  4. I am often con­flict­ed about Spoons when­ev­er I get home. I can’t stand Tim’s pol­i­tics but I actu­al­ly quite enjoy sit­ting in one of his pubs. Idling away sev­er­al hours with a decent­ly kept pint of real ale, which can be a chal­lenge in Scot­land, and as you say using the wifi, charg­ing the phone, read­ing the paper, and not feel­ing impov­er­ished by the expe­ri­ence. The one in Inver­ness is very much a com­mu­ni­ty cen­tre, and you know when pen­sion day is by the num­ber of retired folks catch­ing up with friends. There is also a Spoons right next to the end of the West High­land Way in Fort William that pro­vid­ed wel­come relieve after the 16 miles from Kin­lochleven.

  5. I have nine Wether­spoon pubs with­in 10 miles of where I live. I can’t say I use all of them reg­u­lar­ly but when I do they always seem very busy. On the whole the beer qual­i­ty has been pret­ty good and where else can you buy two pints for £2.98 using CAMRA vouch­ers. My main con­cern is how do small brew­eries make any mon­ey that have to deal with Tim?

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