Of all the stories I’ve heard about the fallout from Brexit, families divided, work jeopardised, friendships ended, the saddest was someone on Facebook who announced that he would never visit a Wetherspoons because its proprietor, Tim Martin, was involved with the Leave campaign. This seemed to me the very definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face, imagine turning down cheap beer because of the European Union. But it also disrupts one of the fundamentals of a liberal society, that you do business even with those whom you strongly disagree. Voltaire marveled at this concept on his visit to the London Stock Exchange: “Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.”
But it’s not just over Brexit, it’s long been fashionable to sneer at Wetherspoons. Perhaps it’s because they sell such cheap beer. In London a pint in Wetherspoons will cost you less than ⅔ of what you’ll pay in the place with gastro pretensions up the hill. They can offer these prices because they have massive buying power. There are now 1,000 Wetherspoons around the country. It’s a far cry from when Tim Martin bought his first pub in 1979 and named the company after one of his old teachers who couldn’t control the class, which was how Martin felt about trying to run a pub.
It has to be said, those cheap prices do mean that you get some, ahem, colourful characters in a Spoons. The one in Liverpool Street station is particularly intimidating, full of big loud men with shaven heads having a few before getting the train back to Billericay. The pubs are often in converted cinemas, banks and churches and can be rather cavernous. You’re not going to get the quiet burble of conversation, the crackle of an open fire and a shepherd’s pie prepared by the landlord’s wife.
So by the standards of that mythical pub we all have in our minds, Wetherspoons falls short. But then so do 99% of pubs. Most are owned by chains. One of the biggest, Mitchell and Butler, also own Nicholson’s, Harvester and All Bar One. Many pubs that look independent aren’t: our local in Blackheath, the Hare & Billet, is owned by the Metropolitan Pub Company. Being part of a chain doesn’t stop your average Wetherspoons being something of a beer drinker’s paradise. Whereas until recently many pubs considered doing real ale something of chore, Wetherspoons have always prided themselves on their selection. And because they don’t play music or show sport you can enjoy your pint in peace. The food, particularly the curries and the meats pies, isn’t bad either. In a strange town a Spoons can be a refuge.
As with all chains, there are good Spoons and bad. The best have a sense of community lacking in their more upmarket neighbours where the old regulars have been priced out. I experienced the full magic recently at the Brockley Barge in south east London when we popped in one night after a meal. The beer, of course, was good and remarkably cheap but even better was the atmosphere. There were postmen enjoying a post-work drink, students, old men eking out their pensions and chubby girls on a night out drinking pinot grigio by the bucketload. People were smiling and talking to each other. Maybe I’d had too much discount real ale but that night I felt like Voltaire at the London Stock Exchange. However you voted in the Referendum can we at least agree that being able to buy a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord for £2.50 is a wonderful thing?
This article originally appeared in the Spectator