Photographs: Sarah Lee, David Levene/The Guardian
Impeccable Table Manners

Alice and Tom

As Vanessa Williams famously sang, “sometimes the snow comes down in June” and while we have been spared a blizzard, June has felt chilly and unwelcoming. This is a shame for those going on dates because they tend to go better when the weather is in some kind of extreme phase. Freezing, wintry nights can be just as bonding as sultry, sunny evenings, but June’s wilful nothingness weather is about as romantic as discovering you have one foot considerably smaller than the other just as you are about to buy your dream Louboutins, that are on sale.

Trying each other on for size in early June’s stubborn murkiness are 26-year-old social researcher Alice, and Tom, 25, who is an operations consultant. Why do both those job titles sound like something from a dystopian YA novel? You can read the full, unedited date on the Guardian before I get busy with the secateurs.

Alice on Tom | Tom on Alice

What were you hoping for?
To meet the love of my life. But on a more realistic level, a free meal with someone tall, kind and nice, who could use chopsticks.

OK, so if you have some kind of liqueur or spirit to hand, and very few plans for the rest of the day, or perhaps a toddler and a husband you would very much like to ignore the next few hours, take a shot every time one of them mentions “chopsticks”. Warning, do not answer your phone or text anyone for the rest of the day as you’ll be incoherent.

What were you hoping for?
A fun and memorable evening.

Memorable. I’m in two minds bout whether something should be memorable. Must you have instant recall of everything you’ve done? One of my least favourite twee phrases is “making memories”, the act of doing something or going somewhere just so you can sit smugly and reminisce over and over again. I suppose it will be a nice comfort for you once your children – who do not remember the holiday or rock climbing as fondly as you do – have dumped you in the care home, never to visit again. Never mind making memories, make fun now – Instagram can store your data if absolutely necessary.

First impressions?
Tall, friendly face, maybe a little awkward (possibly just nerves).

“A friendly face” is a nice thing to say but it’s not what you say about a face you would like to lick all over, is it, viewers?

First impressions?
Attractive and much, much cooler than me.

How does one decide if someone is cooler than you? What are the criteria? Is it their clothes? Skincare regime? Taste in music? I always assumed caring about coolness would be an emotion no longer available to me post-40, but, no, I do occasionally still get those pangs of FOMO, or feelings of inadequacy, whenever I see a snake-hipped dude in perfect-fitting jeans gliding effortlessly through life, flashing his gnashers as he smiles joyfully into the soul of the world that he now owns. Not often, mind you, because I then remember – making memories does have its upside after all, you see – that this thrill is temporary and in a few years he will be me, gazing upon some other ravenous starlet. That I will be two tables away and a further generation up is… not something I want to think about right now. But I don’t need to be cool; it’s not a real thing. It is, for the truly cool, an accolade bestowed upon you by others, rarely enjoyed in the moment – unless you ‘re paying a lot of money for this feeling, but I refuse to believe rich people actually have nerve endings or a conscience – and very quickly whipped away from you like a magician’s tablecloth under a wobbling fake china dinner service.

When I say “keep your cool”, I mean it in quite a different way.

What did you talk about?
Blind dates, how competitive we both were, our different levels of hatred of London, and our mutual appreciation that neither of us was vegan.
Trashy TV shows, who should get the last chicken momo, and what not to mention in these answers.

Vegans = There used to be that old (tired) joke that you could easily spot a vegan because they’d tell you they were one within five seconds of meeting you, but we’ve reached the point now where veganism has become a hot topic among those who are not even vegans. I am all for vegan food becoming more readily available – meat can sometimes feel like a copout, a distraction in an otherwise boring dish.
Different levels of hatred of London = this is such a mid-twenties thing to talk about. I love how nothing ever changes.
Blind dates/what not to mention in these answers = ✅ 👀 I see.
Trashy TV shows = I don’t watch a lot of what you might consider trashy TV shows but not because I’m a snob, I simply don’t see the point. I’m not interested in them. But I do feel they get an unfair rep, especially in the press – a lot off these so-called “shock documentaries”, for example, do actually help people and are genuinely enlightening, and I do loathe the act of “ironically” enjoying something, as if it somehow elevates you above those who you feel the programmes are really made for. Honestly, they are made exactly for you; you’re not some kind of wise extraterrestrial gazing down on the rest of popular culture in wonder.

Any awkward moments?
Me stepping on him when getting to my seat. Him flinging his chopsticks on to the floor a second time.
I dropped the chopsticks on the floor… twice. Made much more embarrassing by the fact I showed off with them earlier.

Good table manners?
It quickly descended into chaos. I ate with my hands but he had chopsticks flying everywhere, so I think we were even.
Wonderful.

Best thing about Tom?
His enthusiasm about trying the weirder things on the menu (kid goat momos and rabbit wonton), and his appreciation of Wetherspoons.

Nice to have someone who’s not squeamish about an unusual. As for Wetherspoons, we will come to that.

Best thing about Alice?
She was very comfortable taking the lead, which made up for my inability to make decisions.

Intrigued at how Alice “took the lead”. Were they doing an Argentine tango? Planning a milkshake-throwing demonstration? Oh, I assume he means she chose what they ate. This is not really a reflection on Tom, but isn’t it incredible how we still remark upon a woman taking the initiative to not just hang about and wait for a man to decide something for her? Men are taught to believe they either always have to make the decision or at least give final sign-off and it is exhausting so let’s get rid of that. And if it means forcing down a rabbit wonton with a glassy smile, then so be it.

Describe Tom in three words
Poor chopstick game.

Describe Alice in three words
Intelligent, confident, refreshing.

Intelligent is a good thing to be called. I am into this. Not that I hear it said about myself very often.
Confident – today a kid goat momo, tomorrow the world.
Refreshing – like a can of Lilt on a hot day.

Did you go on somewhere?
We tried to find a ’spoons, but Google Maps snaked us and we ended up in a Greene King.
Yes, an incredibly classy establishment that certainly does not have a reputation for cheap drinks (and rhymes with Breene King).

Speaking of enjoying things ironically: Wetherspoons.

In the mid-nineties, when I was at university, we were made aware a Wetherspoons had opened in the town centre. It was a new concept, we’d heard, with really really cheap drinks. Intrigued, and poor, we took a night off from our usual spot at the student union and went into what we used to call the “towny” part of the city to have a look at this cheap booze paradise. It was incredibly depressing. There was no music at all, and, yes, the beer was cheap, but it was being knocked back by the kind of men you only usually saw in pubs with blacked out windows, or passed out in the corner of family christenings at 1pm. They didn’t serve food back then, I don’t think, so we sat and had our pint of quite cheap (but not a cheap as the SU) beer and wondered what the hell the fuss was all about.

So it has been surprising, especially in recent years, to see what is arguably one of the worst places to to go for a pint somehow elevated to national treasure in the hearts of many people whose judgement I would otherwise have trusted. Look at the cheap booze! And the good value meals! And the fact that anybody can afford to go there! I’ve eaten there many times, usually when hard up or there were no other options available and I can honestly say the food is absolutely terrible and represents zero value for money. Wetherspoons sells you that idea, vision smeared by cataracts of nostalgia, that to get something cheap is a “bargain” and that people on lower incomes should be glad or grateful they can have access to a square meal at such great value. But the food is so crap – it really is, come on – and the surroundings usually so unwelcoming and cynical, that I’m amazed anyone can pretend it’s good for anything other than getting very hammered, very quickly, without breaking the bank. Yes, sometimes they open branches in beautiful old buildings that may otherwise have met a wrecking ball, but they still fill it with the same old rubbish.

To expose this chain Ieaves you branded a snob, that you’re part of some mythical metropolitan elite – sound familiar?! – who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be poor, and only eats at Nobu and likes a posh latte – you can get lattes at Wetherspoons, btw, so maybe drop that angle – and has zero connection to the real world. Sunday Times critic Marina O’Loughlin – 100% one of the best writers of any kind in the UK, and of working-class stock – went to a Wetherspoons around a year or so ago and gave a very honest review, trying very hard to see the positives and giving compliments where she could. She was rounded upon by the emptier vessels of the internet, and dismissed as a snob, out of touch etc. The funny thing was that many of her critics weren’t people who regularly visited Wetherspoons – maybe they’d dipped their toe in as some lol-tasic experiment visiting the Costa del Poor – but were hellbent on defending their right to exist. Think of the beautiful buildings, they said, as if it were any different from choosing your most architecturally pleasing Spud-U-Like (where incidentally, I would rather eat), and the lower-waged people who “get the chance to eat a decent meal” (decent doing a lot of heavy lifting there) and stop being such a middle-class bore! This condescension isn’t unusual on social media these days. It’s much easier for the middle classes to imagine the working class as some kind of vague repressed homogenous mass of downtrodden anger rather than than millions of people with hugely differing ideas and attitudes who may not be entirely open to the idea of being rescued and represented by someone with a SMEG fridge. But my point, and Marina’s at the time, is that what reason they find themselves in Wetherspoons, people on lower incomes deserve way better than this, that the fact it is cheap does not mean it is good quality. Even if the old adage that “you get what you pay for” is true, they are still being ripped off. You could go to a local café and get way better for about the same price – if cafés haven’t been squeezed out by the competition, of course. I can’t help but think those championing Wetherspoons as some kind of Robin Hood hostelry that gives the unfortunate poor a decent night out maybe quite like the way it ghettoises its clientele and prevents them wandering into the real ale, bland gastropubs they love to hog with their precocious children. I am aware that in some towns Wetherspoons is now the only option, as pubs (better and worse) all around them close down (I wonder why), and that many branches do act as a community hub. But I really must go to these “amazing” Wetherspoons that good-looking people off social media seem to be frequenting and having the time of their lives in because I have never ever seen one. Maybe the “Wethies” (as we used to call them, before it was ‘Spoons) in your area are delightful Art Deco cinemas staffed by sexy actors between jobs and serving gourmet vegan food, but the ones in my world are very different and are a hotbed of problems that have an impact way beyond their refurbished four walls.

If you can see past the horrendous owner, the fact staff are so miserable at their working conditions that they planned a strike a few months ago, the poor quality of the food, and the fact it’s pretty much a given that if you in any way look or act a bit different from their core clientele you may be in line for a bit of hassle, then enjoy! I’m not here to say going to Wetherspoons is bad, but reimagining it as some kind of benevolent mothership rescuing its patrons from the jaws of the local soup kitchen is dishonest. I think what I’ve learned is that it’s very hard to criticise or defend Wetherspoons and places like it without sounding judgemental and patronising, so maybe it’s best to let them just be. But that doesn’t mean I am wrong.

A couple of disclaimers: I was brought up working-class but I doubt we we’d ever have eaten in a Wetherspoons (had they existed) more than once because it would have been viewed as terrible value for money. When you don’t have a lot of money, dropping a fiver on something substandard is not a “bargain”, it’s a waste. Every spare penny that doesn’t pay a bill has to lead to satisfaction. Joy, even. It may be the reason I didn’t eat out until I was about eight years old (save for the odd plate of chips in a cafe in the market with my grandma or whatever).  Also, despite everything I say above, I know many working class people who would rather die than go there, and others who quite like going to Wetherspoons thank you very much, and one of my closest relatives went to a Wetherspoons for the first time last year and ate a burger and said it was “quite nice actually”, so what the hell do I know, eh? What I will add, however, is that if you have any doubt for the contempt these chains have had in the past for their customers, familiarise yourself with the zebu scandal of just over a decade ago. My then-boyfriend and I used to nip up to the Wetherspoons near our house if we wanted to go out and were a bit short on cash, and this is what they were serving. Reader, I ate it.

And… did you kiss?
Nuh-uh.
As romantic as tube station lighting can be, we did not.

Oh hi Alice and Tom, forgot you were here tbh. We were just talking about Wetherspoons.

If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be?
We should’ve ordered more cocktails.
I wish I had read up on chopstick etiquette.

Marks out of 10?
Where 1 is being on a date with an actual rock, and 10 is leaving your knickers at a house party: 7.
9.

Almost six months on and we are still invoking the spirit of Joanne and Morgan. Will we ever recover?

Would you meet again?
We’ve been messaging, so who knows.
Absolutely.

It ain’t over ’til its over! Do Wetherspoons cater weddings?

@daytimesnaps

Alice and Tom ate at Fatt Pundit, London W1. Fancy a blind date? Email blind.date@theguardian.com. If you’re looking to meet someone like-minded, visit soulmates.theguardian.com

NOTE: The comments I make are based on the answers given by the participants. The Guardian chooses what to publish and usually edits answers to make the column work better on the page, but get in touch if you want to give me your side of the story; I’ll happily publish whatever you say. Please no feedback on the Wetherspoons stuff – I have heard every argument and I am still unconvinced.

PODCAST: I was a guest on the Show This Thread podcast this week talking about ageing, career envy, never liking a single tweet and why I hate “didn’t happen” Twitter. Listen now!

 

5 Comments

  1. I used to live in East Africa – Malawi – to be precise, and whilst I can’t speak for what Wetherspoons served, I can say that good Zebu beef is, without question, the best meat I’ve ever eaten.

  2. Thank you for these reflections on ageing and the Commoditisation of the Evening Out.

    Ageing is the inexorable trading of wit for wisdom. You still have plenty of both, but do spare a thought for those of us who are even, er, wiser.

    And fingers crossed for Alice and Tom!

Leave a Response

%d bloggers like this: