Wiggets, greebling, useless shelves and the texture of pubs

Pubs are anti-minimalist by nature and texture sometimes matters more than function.

In the 1960s, special effects technicians working on spaceships for Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation shows realised that they could make them more realistic by covering their surfaces in small, functionless details taken from plastic model kits. They called them ‘wiggets’.

When a similar approach was taken during the making of Star Wars a decade later, however, the term ‘greebles’ was adopted, and stuck, and the process came to be known as ‘greebling’.

In pub decor there’s a form of greebling, too.

When Ray worked as a teenage waiter at a Brewer’s Fayre pub in Somerset in the early 1990s, he got roped into pre-launch preparations and was on site the day the truck turned up with boxes of books and antiques to go on the walls.

“Where do you want this scythe?”

“Top shelf, out of reach, and make sure you anchor it with a couple of cable ties.”

If you stop and look at the books on the shelves, or investigate the artefacts, you’ll find they rarely stand up to scrutiny.

Collections of Reader’s Digest abridged novels are popular because they were designed to look ‘classy’ – leather-effect, gilt-style yellow metal embossing, and so on. You might also find 1970s doorstop novels with their dust jackets missing, or faux-luxury editions from the Marshall Cavendish Great Writers Library part-work.

It doesn’t matter, though – not really. They absorb light, break up expanses of plaster and, crucially, soak up sound.

And it goes on.

That old carpenter’s plane is just… an old carpenter’s plane. Back of the garage, car boot sale, any-item-one-pound rusty crap. Those ‘vintage’ biscuit tins around the ceiling are 1990s reissues. The Edwardian-style enamel signs on the walls include rust printed on at the factory. The nicotine vignetting has been painted onto the walls.

The ceiling at the Poechenellekelder in Brussels.

In the 1980s, such was the demand for greebling for Irish pubs that the supply ran dry and an entire industry arose to supply brand new Gaelic-themed gubbins by the kilo or by the metre.

Again, it doesn’t matter: as long as these items cast shadows, provide splashes of colour and suggest, in the periphery, depth and detail, they’re doing their job.

What this kind of greebling aspires to, of course, is the genuine, accidental clutter of really old pubs.
The Bridge Inn at Topsham, The Blue Anchor in Helston or Brasserie Verschueren in Brussels can’t help but have texture and their surface details aren’t glued on.

Unless they are, of course. The great thing about contrived greebling is that it only takes a decade or two to look as if it’s been there forever, and for fake greebling to attract the real thing as regulars present offerings as tokens of love.

Perhaps the value of greebling is that it suggests continuity – that a pub has been under the same ownership for more than a year or two, at least.

9 replies on “Wiggets, greebling, useless shelves and the texture of pubs”

Blog post here, on the varieties of pub greeble.

Greebling: from an accumulation of objects with genuine age to the mass-production of a brand-new imitation of the real thing – and from an instant emotional connection to none at all.

Cruft I’ve heard it called in design terms. What would an appealling minimalist pub look like?

Over the years I have,after offering to pay for them and,when payment is refused,making a donation to the charity box,obtained several rare and interesting books from the shelves that line pub walls. You never know what you might find.

“They absorb light, break up expanses of plaster and, crucially, soak up sound.”

The last item on your list is probably the most important, and something that has been forgotten by the large number of new bar and micropub owners. One near me, The Itchy Pig, is quite pleasant as long as there are no more than a dozen people in, but as soon as it reaches 14 to 16 it beomes unbearable, with sound bouncing off the walls and customers speaking louder and louder to make themselves heard, at which point it’s time to go somewhere else.

At the other extreme is the Hallamshire Ale Club, where the owner acquired a mixture of fairly original and sometimes quite humerous items, as well as the greeble you describe. He made the mistake of adding a few personal touches, including something of sentimental value which some toe-rag inevitably stole. But at least the acoustics are reasonably tolerable. (The condensation is another matter…)

This is the main complaint of the Campaign For Real Pub Carpets. Whilst we would like more pubs to maintain/replace carpetting, it’s really about acoustic dampening so we can hear ourselves think!

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