20th Century Pub pubs

Wetherspoons as public forum

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 replies on “Wetherspoons as public forum”

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?

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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