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.