I’m sitting in the Central Bar of the W12 Centre on Shepherds Bush Green, enjoying myself more than I ever expected. It’s a Wetherspoons pub and I have never knowingly been to one before. But here I am surrounded by people of all ages and from every corner of the country— or even the world.
I am seated very comfortably next to a bookcase full of proper books, some of them even in German: Goethe, Heine, Shakespeare in the Schlegel-Tieck translation. That’s another first for me. My pint of beer cost the princely sum of £1.99 (normal price in London: at least twice as much). I have a whole marble topped table to myself so that I can spread out my Kierkegaard biography and my iPad to get on with my column.
Two nice old gents invited me to sit at their tables, one of whom made way for me. There is no intrusive Muzak, just conversation. The lighting is soft and welcoming. Nobody bothers me. I might as well be at home — except that my wife is teaching so there I would have to sit in the kitchen or bedroom. So I shall leave only when she has finished.
Somehow I got the impression that Wetherspoons was a cheap and nasty chain. It’s not: it’s cheap and inclusive. There are vegan options on the menu. Children are very well catered for. So (famously) are oldies. But most of my neighbours are young. They seem very happy here, surrounded by bookcases that they might not have at home. I shall come back here and donate some more books, as they clearly don’t mind if people borrow them. It’s like an informal library and I see students working here. But also jolly older people who may have no company at home.
I have never met Tim Martin, but I am not surprised to learn that he has just been voted Britain’s top employer. This pub is a genuine community, despite being in a place where most customers are in transit to somewhere else. That’s a work of genius.
Pubs, like marriages, need to be infinitely adaptable: for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. You don’t abandon a pub lightly, just because some customers are rude or the decor is naff. As long as the staff offer hospitality in an inhospitable world, and as an ensemble the place offers comfort to the discomfited, then I for one would never complain.
It is quite possible for an energetic couple, to turn practically any pub into such a haven of good cheer — provided that they have the freedom to do so. That is why most of the best London pubs, such as the Old Suffolk Punch in Fulham Palace Road, are free houses.
Pub chains, on the other hand, often struggle to achieve such an atmosphere. It is easy to see why. Not only do they by definition lack individuality: their staff also often lack motivation. Breweries are as a rule largely indifferent to customer satisfaction; still more so the venture capitalists who often own pub chains now. Small isn’t always beautiful, but when it comes to the public house, the cliché tends to be true.
Not so in the case of Wetherspoons. One of my sons, who has worked in a pub, tells me that while some “Spoons” are better than my Shepherds Bush local, others are much worse. That may be so.
One of my daughters thinks Tim Martin’s politics might play a part in my partiality for his pub. Perhaps. But I have only just tried it and was expecting the worst. I was genuinely surprised and delighted. No expensive gastropub or glitzy gin palace, no historic coaching inn or riverside boozer with views could have met my needs better than this humble hostelry for unpretentious people.
The shopping centre above which Central Bar perches is a hideous modern box; it is reported to be due for demolition. Hammersmith and Fulham Council probably doesn’t care about the ordinary, thrifty people who shop here at Lidl and drink in Wetherspoons. On the other side of the Green is Westfield, with its hordes of well-heeled customers, to which the local authority pays undue obeisance.
Next time you are in an unfamiliar place, count your Spoons. There is obviously a reason why there are some 900 of them in the country. You won’t bump into Giles Coren or Fay Maschler there, but you should get good grub and better beer, at a very decent price. Even more important: you will find an authenticity that might be lacking elsewhere.