An artisanally crafted blog curated by Cooking Lager for discerning readers of beer bloggery

Saturday, 11 July 2020

NeverSpoons ForeverSpoons

So much happening in the world of cheap grog, but all the better to churn out some of my ill-conceived thoughts on matters Wetherspoons related. Earlier in the COVID crisis, Mr Timbo Martin of the Spoons chain made some ill-conceived remarks about mugging his staff off to go work in Tesco. This has prompted much twitter anger from furious twatterers (that is the correct collective noun yeh?) in regard to boycotting the chain and even a hashtag #NeverSpoons. I expressed some initial thoughts here and more recently the Lad Red Nev wrote an interesting perspective on Timbos rebuttable of some of the criticism. 

It seems to me the loud criticism, beyond the usual mumblings of anti-corporate beer geeks, of Timbos chain began around the time Tim decided to take a strong public stance on Brexit and use his in-house free pub magazine to somewhat propagandize the issue rather than tell us about menu changes, the new microwave being installed and how much the Quiz team in the Jean Claude-Junker Arms had raised for a new mini bus for disabled kids. This made him the go to publican for a comment on the mainstream media and it was becoming obvious for a while he had taken no PR advice, had little media training, had a somewhat older persons perspective on the world and was at some point going to trip up. Like a distant elderly uncle at a family wedding meeting your new Asian girlfriend, some comment he thinks is inoffensive is just not said anymore and it’s going to kick off and you are going to kick it off and no you are not paying for the dry cleaning, he had it coming. Some things are inevitable. The fact that his company is public long had interested me as to why a board representing shareholders would put up with it and not try to reign him in. It’s a business not a soap box. A public company is not the private fiefdom Humpf enjoys with the Samuel Smiths Empire.

It’s worth getting it out of the way early but I have found there is plenty of poorly disguised snobbery centred around Wetherspoons chain of pubs. Low prices can attract a value oriented section of pub clientele other higher priced outlets filter out by means of price. The bottom end of the market. Achieving those low prices can be a result of operational efficiencies that are noticeable to customers as poorer levels of service, cleanliness and a menu of mainly ping food. Some criticism of the offer may well be justified, but I have never liked it when it reveals itself as a cover for snobbery directed at lower income members of society seeking a bargain. It all to often does.

I was raised better and when faced with those less fortunate than myself a phrase my maternal grandmother often repeated when urging kindness comes to mind. There but for the grace of God go I. A paraphrase from Corinthians. I’m not particularly religious. Nor was she. But she had a strong sense of basic decency, some of which I hope has rubbed off on me, and which I think is the origin of why some forms of snobbery rankle. She would not like it and long after her passing I still care what she thinks.

Further I have a fondness for the chain beyond the cheap lager. Rather than the soulless barn many consider them to be, my own experience of the chain is that they attract the widest cross section of society. Not just tramps. Whilst many pubs appear to exist to serve a particular age or class, spoons are an everybody pub. It is something that appeals to me. All ages, ethnicities, sexualities, classes. All sorts are down Spoons. The more of my fellow geeks I meet the more I understand why it does not appeal to all and why some are more comfortable with hospitality more closely selective to their own social class. But there you have my own implicit bias. It is to be favourable to a chain I like.

It is with that preamble I want to comment on the release of a phone app called Neverspoons. Details here.

The campaign to boycott Spoons is one that I think is occurring more on twitter than the real world. Twitter is a strange world. A world where Jeremy Corbyn is a winner and where the behaviour of pub goers ought to be tightly policed to ensure prices are never criticised, barmaids never flirted with and Carry On themed pump clips featuring a saucy depiction of a young Babs Windsor never appear. The real world is just people having a drink and getting on with it. I saw no sign the other week of a spoons boycott in the busy atmospheric and newly cleaned spoons I enjoyed visiting. A boycott by people who never went in anyway.

Not on my pump clip

Ned Poulter and Shane Jones have developed an app they hope will direct punters to independent pubs. I presume this means pubs that are not part of any chain. Not in and of itself an offensive idea. If that floats your boat, go download it. I suspect they have created a rod for their own back. Maintaining a national pub database is a task the erstwhile CAMRA struggle with and they have around 200K members many of whom volunteer on matters such as keeping records updated. Selecting what is independent is a grey line to my mind. Spoons is self-evidently a chain, but a tenanted pub of a local family brewer is sort of independent in that it has a style and operation very much of an individual landlord but no freedom in product selection. Many bars favoured by those that turn there nose up at Spoons are in fact chains. You’d struggle to discern much of an operational difference in the Brewdog bars dotted around all the northern cities I’ve pottered around in recent years. CAMRA micropubs may not be a chain but good God, they are all of a type, aren’t they?

I’d question the branding of the app. Neverspoons is a catchy name. It is of a moment in the zeitgeist. But it is a dig at one particular chain. Such a name reveals it is not just a promotion of something the developers like but a dig at a chain they have taken a dislike to. As such it somewhat time limits the appeal to the moment. Its name reveals what it is against rather than what it is for. CAMRA were wise to name their campaign as being for something rather than against something even if their activities do not always adhere to that principle. Possibly one of many reasons they have endured beyond their purpose.

Reports suggest the app has many downloads but some criticism with other chain pubs appearing on it. I wish them well with it. I suspect they’ll give up when they realise the scale of effort they have taken on is disproportionate to any reward they are receiving. When you are next cleaning your phone it will tell you that you haven’t used that app for six months. Presumably because you don’t really need an app to find a pub that isn’t a Wetherspoons.


Phil said...

Deceptively thought-provoking, as ever.

Martin's all-staff announcement video ("bad news, there's no work, and no work means no money I'm afraid; good news, Tesco always needs shelf-stackers, off you pop") was an appalling misstep. I do wonder what the directors and major shareholders of this publicly listed company thought about it; not a lot, I'd hope. But he did reverse course fairly sharpish when he got wind of the public reaction, not least because of pressure brought by the relevant union (all together now, "theeeere is power in a uuuu-nion!"). So it's a bit weird, if nothing else, that there's so little awareness of the course-change, to the point that lots of people are firmly convinced Martin did cut off his entire workforce without a penny. File under Social Media Drives People Mad. (Not blogs, obviously, they're fine.)

Curmudgeon said...

"A lie is halfway round the world while the truth is still putting on its boots." And it suits people with a certain agenda to believe and propagate it.

brian said...

"CAMRA micropubs may not be a chain but good God, they are all of a type, aren’t they?" CAMRA don't own or run pubs or micropubs, though members might.

Timothea said...

CAMRA supported and approved, not CAMRA owned.

alecandsophie said...

It's ironic that you hear the word 'inclusive' used both wrongly and in a weaponised way when it comes to craft beer, yet the most diverse (proper meaning) and inclusive (actual meaning) pub is usually the Wetherspoons. The students are in there with the street cleaners.

Cooking Lager said...

@Phil the unionisation issue of the never spoons campaign is something I failed to address out of error. It did not enter my mind. For some this is a reason to boycott spoons. I was a trade union member once in my life for 2 months during a university vacation job. It was clear that to join the union was to be accepted and to not join was to be an outsider. For 2 quid a week I chose acceptance. I got no more out of it than that. A nicer experience of the low paid low skilled work folk now like to clap. It would be interesting to know whether Wetherspoons are actively discouraging union membership or political agitators are attempting to bully disinterested students with temporary jobs into paying union subs.

@Mudge Being shamed into decency is no excuse for a lack of it. Other companies waited for government announcements and take a more conciliatory approach to laying off staff. That makes them no more decent but more clever. The abrasive Spoons approach smacks of a board unable to deal with a maverick and resulting in bad PR

@Brian & Tim an adjective does not infer ownership. It is common to use CAMRA pub to mean a certain recognisable style of pub. GTo infer style. For some reason many CAMRA members don’t like the rest of noticing all these independent pubs are all of a similar style and offer. For the record I tend to like CAMRA pubs.

@alec&soph Yup. We could delve a lot deeper into that. There are craft breweries and bars and ahem, magazines, that are arguably the products of inheritance. Financed by inherited wealth. This is arguably the biggest form of privilege in society determining who can live and work where and who gets to own property. To deflect from this many middle-class folks like to adopt causes that infer privilege and injustice lie elsewhere. This enables the appearance of virtue whilst not having to give up their own unearned privilege.

retiredmartin said...

We've missed your writing, Cookie. You don't entertain us by pissing on Midlands stations or nicking olives like some but your thought processes are unmatched.

"my own experience of the chain is that they attract the widest cross section of society. Not just tramps"

I say this a lot on my travels. Try the Spoons in posh Winchester, Sodom and Gomorrah that is. Try the one in not posh Houghton le Spring, civil gentlefolk discussing the 50s.

Then try a Kent/London micro and find half a dozen blokes called Derek, all aged 61, all drinking pale pish.

My Mrs reckons the post-restart Spoons are cleaner and more civil without the barging bar. I've been in 4, and she's spot on.

Boozy P said...

My Spoons experiences have not changed at all. A bit of hand sanitiser and the ability to walk past the "fill in your own details" sheets are the only small differences along with the polythene sheets surrounding the poor directional arrows around the bar and the paper menus which I still don't quite see the point of given these are still strewn carelessly about all, albeit, clean tables just like the plastic ones were.

Both Spoons were busy and the cocktails and shots were flowing as normally as much as the cask beer was variable in quality.

Ian Worden said...

CAMRA didn't own pubs but there was an affiliated company called CAMRA (Real Ale) Investments which did. They had the Eagle in Leeds when I lived there for a couple of years in the late 70s and it was very convenient being halfway between the centre and home. They usually had the whole range of Timothy Taylor beers on which was much better than most of Taylor's own pubs. I think the pub was leased from Samuel Smith who realised it was doing well and, according to what was reported by local CAMRA sources, found a minor infringement in the lease and took it back. I imagine sales fell after that.