It tells you almost everything you need to know about Wetherspoons that it was named out of spite – a tribute by its owner, Tim Martin, to the schoolteacher who told him he would never amount to anything. Being successful as an act of revenge is a cold and empty victory. You should always thrive on your own terms; sticking the boot in runs the risk of coming away from it missing a shoe. And lately, Mr Martin has certainly become an expert in hobbling away from a fight missing his loafers.
It’s 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 represents zero value for money. This is not a slight against staff, who I’m sure do the best they can with what’s available to them, and no doubt take pride in their work, but Wetherspoons’ food offering 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 below-par 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 the same problems lurk within.
To complain about this chain Ieaves you branded a snob, or classist, 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 – one of the best writers in the UK, and of working-class stock – went to a Wetherspoons around two years 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, 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-tastic 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. 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 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 who owns a SMEG fridge and runs a puréed fruit stall as a hobby. But my point, and Marina’s at the time, is that whatever reason they find themselves in Wetherspoons, people on lower incomes deserve way better than this; the fact it is cheap does not mean it’s good quality. Buy cheap, buy twice, as pretty much any slightly chiding grandmother might tell you.
Even if the old adage that “you get what you pay for” is true, they’re 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 their chain pub 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 the chain ghettoises its clientele and prevents them wandering into the real ale, bland gastropubs they love to hog with their precocious children. I’m 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 track down these “amazing” Wetherspoons that good-looking people off social media seem to be having the time of their lives in because I’ve 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. The ones in my world are very different – my hometown has two, for example, which stand directly opposite each other, and are basically two boxing rings with catering. Many of them are a hotbed of problems that have an impact way beyond their refurbished four walls. I especially loathe the cutesy moniker “Spoons”, by the way – like naming your cat after an atomic bomb, or referring to Rose West as “Rosie”.
If you can hold your nose at the horrendous owner, the fact staff are so miserable at their working conditions that they planned a strike the other year, the poor quality of the food, and the fact it’s pretty much a given that if you in any way look or act slightly 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, I don’t judge you, but reimagining it as some kind of benevolent mothership rescuing its patrons from the jaws of the local soup kitchen is dishonest. I’ve learned 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’m wrong.
A couple of disclaimers because I know from experience how discussions like this go: I was brought up working-class but I doubt 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; we tend to forget that everyone has a right to enjoy themselves too. It may be the reason I didn’t eat out in a proper restaurant 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. One of my closest relatives went to a Wetherspoons for the first time the other 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.
All this is before you even get to the behaviour of its owner. His stance on Brexit was his choice, of course, and whatever your sensibilities toward the EU, he had a right to express them – however out of whack his methodology and delivery might have been. With his wild hair, rolling 8-ball eyes, beer-garden sunburn and angry, flapping mouth, all flesh, spit, and venom, he made the 5G conspiracists look sane and measured. But there were so many pub bores ranting on about “getting Brexit done” that he almost melted into the background. It was coronavirus, however, that really hammered home that the chain was being run by a Dalek. He was virulently opposed to closing at all before the first lockdown, and then when his hand was forced, he revealed he would not be paying his staff until government assistance came through – a decision he later reversed, once the negative PR became too hard to ignore. The company’s stance on subsequent lockdowns has been as levelheaded as previous outbursts: the windows of its pubs are filled with garish anti-lockdown propaganda. It may look quite imposing on first glance, with its screaming headlines and scaremongering, yet it carries the gravitas of the local apocalypse zealot wandering around ringing a bell screaming ‘Repent’ and wearing a sandwich board depicting an exploding planet. No doubt the company regrets the decision in 2018 to close all its social media accounts. Facebook, especially, has shown to exert huge influence and fuel conspiracy theories – these are their people. With no social channels or Brexit-fellating in-house rag able to reach customers there’s no outlet for the pub chain’s spicy diatribes other than to plaster them across their pubs’ locked doors. It’s unlikely, however, that even the chain’s most tinfoil-hat-sporting devotees will be heading to a boarded-up pub to gaze upon them.
What happens to Wetherspoons once coronavirus becomes an anecdote is anybody’s guess. We’ll either see a huge social shift where people remember how its owner acted during the pandemic, or people will just be so glad to be outside again, they’ll drain the pumps dry. There is no right or wrong answer – as deplorable as the guy is, he employs a lot of people, and nobody wants to see anyone lose their job. If economic forces can’t make these companies headed by self-absorbed dictators pay staff more, treat customers with something other than contempt, and humble their owners into realising their vitriol is bad PR, might it not be an opportunity for people to demand more of these chains and the rich, pop-eyed toddlers who own them? Of course, it’s unlikely any attitudes will change overnight, but if coronavirus has shown us one thing, it’s that the world can change overnight – how we deal with that is up to us.
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In these weird times, consider donating to the Trussell Trust to support food banks.
Main image: Magnus D/Flickr