A place where nobody knows your name

As Britain’s dark, smoky, friendly pubs close down, the anti-pub - the JD Wetherspoon - is taking their place.

In the midst of a recession and in an era of anti-drinking, anti-smoking and anti-fun, one chain of pubs, JD Wetherspoon, has thrived. After announcing record sales, the chain has declared that it will open 250 new pubs in the next five years, creating 10,000 jobs in the process. What’s the secret to its success?

JD Wetherspoon has survived because of, not despite, the new era of clean living. In fact, it was way ahead of its killjoy times, introducing a smoking ban in all its pubs before it became law. It has also banned dogs, music and television with sound, as well as games such as darts and pool, and social events like karaoke and bingo evenings. Wetherspoon even discourages drunkenness, marketing itself as a family-friendly chain of restaurants where soft drinks and hot drinks are cheaper than in your average public house. Adults accompanied by children must purchase a meal with their alcoholic beverages and are allowed a maximum of two drinks. At Wetherspoon pubs, kids rule and grown-ups are treated as unruly children.

In the past, the Wetherspoon management has even considered banning swearing and the use of mobile phones and it has spent millions of pounds on CCTV cameras to keep a watchful eye over customers. The chain’s food policy reads like the menu for a British National Party reception: products are ‘locally sourced’, the vegetables are ‘100 per cent British’, as is the pork used in its Lincolnshire sausages and the beef in its Abbot Ale pie.

Wetherspoon is, in fact, not a chain of public houses at all - it is a chain of public control houses. It is the anti-pub, a health department official’s dream local, a place where you go not to get a break from your everyday worries but to be told we’re eating and drinking ourselves to death. Wetherspoon is careful to remind customers that they should eat and drink ‘responsibly’, not overstep the officially-recommended daily units of alcohol and calories, and be sure to consume at least five fruit and veg a day.

A Wetherspoon pub is not a place for drowning your sorrows, whiling away time or spending hard-earned cash on simple pleasures like a game of pool with your mates or choosing silly songs on the jukebox for you and your friends to sing along to. It’s not a place where anybody is likely to know your name, because, here, we are discouraged even from talking to one another.

While Wetherspoon pubs have no social games, some are fitted with fruit machines – the lonely man’s game. There are also single seats for lone diners and the chain discourages drinking at the bar. So no bantering with the barmaids, and no spontaneous chitchatting with strangers at your table.

But the attraction of the great institution of the British pub has always been that it is a place where it doesn’t matter if you show up alone because part of the fun is striking up conversations with other drinkers relaxing after work, making friends and flirting with other regulars and staff, watching a football game on a big screen TV with fellow fans, getting stupidly drunk and singing karaoke (regretting it forever when it ends up on YouTube), starting a fight, etc.

By contrast, Wetherspoon’s idea of a ‘convivial pub’ is a safe, quiet and clean restaurant with bland food, garish carpets and quirky restrooms (Wetherspoon has won the national ‘Loo of The Year’ award three times). Customers are seen as a necessary evil. As the Wetherspoon website explains, the biggest victims of anti-social behaviour caused by heavy drinking – particularly noticeable ‘when people let their hair down for a special occasion’ – are pub managers and staff. The company is ‘keen to work with the authorities on the introduction of further sensible measures’ to reduce problems caused by ‘immature and selfish’ drinkers.

However, despite all its slick marketing, for most people a major attraction of Wetherspoon pubs is that the booze and food is relatively cheap (also, it’s often the closest pub around as Wetherspoons have rapidly colonised British high streets). But the trade-off is that the cheap pint comes with a nasty price tag: drink cheaply and have your behaviour policed. By giving us incentives - in the form of inexpensive food and drink - to submit ourselves to the scrutiny of the Wetherspoon custodians of good manners, the chain really is the New Labour of pubs.

Yes, Wetherspoon’s Thursday curry club menu is good value for money, but is it worth selling the soul of British pub life for the sake of a cheap vindaloo? That the chain is marching on in these credit-crunched times signals not a healthy growth of public houses, but the relentless rise of the anti-pub, which is a suck-up to, and a beneficiary of, our unhealthily killjoy times.

The rise of JD Wetherspoon parallels the slow but steady decline of authentic, grimy, smoky, welcoming, rowdy and unruly real pubs. There’s nothing wrong with family-friendly cheap eateries, but publicans and their customers should be allowed to relax, to sing and talk loudly to friends and strangers, play games, misbehave and drink if they want to.

And, yes, we should be allowed to drink alcohol until we get drunk, even if it can lead to snogging, dancing, vomiting or getting into rows. If you don’t like this kind of ‘irresponsible behaviour’ you can stay at home – or go to a Wetherspoon pub.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Angus Kennedy explained how the Wetherspoon chain of pubs is policing our behaviour. Tim Black did not appreciate the Home Office proposal to replace pint glasses with plastic cups. Anna Travis thought Xmas boozing was becoming a rather flat affair. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth. Bruno Waterfield looked at how the success of the smoking ban encouraged health officials to discuss the idea of ‘passive drinking’. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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