The recent news that Wetherspoon’s told a black customer who was anonymously sent a banana through its ordering app that ‘the pub cannot be held responsible for app orders’ is dismaying, but hardly surprising.
It’s neither the first nor the worst incident of discrimination involving the massive pub chain from the past few years. In 2015, Wetherspoon’s was ordered to pay £25,000 in damages to eight men barred from a London branch for no other reason than being Irish Travellers, and since 2018 there have been at least two incidents of disabled women being roughly treated and wrongly accused of being drunk or high by staff. That such scandals have not provoked a public outcry, let alone a consumer boycott, speaks to the decrepit state of civic solidarity in today’s Britain. It also suggests that the reputation of the Spoons archipelago for gruff brainlessness is increasingly taken as given by the British public.
It is a far cry from the days when Wetherspoon’s represented the reconciliation of the traditional English boozer with modern life.
Now that Spoons pubs are so ubiquitous as to define normality, it’s easy to forget how radical they were in banishing smoke, grime and music from their premises back in the 1990s. The airport-lounge sterility which pervades Wetherspoon’s branches up and down the country was, at least until the 2006 pub smoking ban, their unique selling-point.
Wetherspoon’s hit the big time in the years after the 1989 Beer Orders, which, in the spirit of free-market competition, drove a wedge between pubs and large breweries. Ever since, the chain has maintained its role as simultaneous conserver and destroyer of the old-school local. One punter spoke for many in 2017 when she told a fawning Observer writer that ‘It’s the only place that’s like pubs used to be’.
But it isn’t. Rather than buying out old pubs, Spoons franchises usually occupy the premises of music halls, picture palaces and other victims of the 1960s cultural revolution. (Cambridge’s The Regal was in the 1930s an opulent cinema.) The whole point about Wetherspoon’s smokeless melange of curry clubs, child-friendly afternoons and cut-price beer is that until recently you couldn’t find it anywhere else. More insidiously, the rise of Wetherspoon’s has surely been one among several factors contributing to the near-extinction of historic independent pubs nationwide. Its effect on the hearty face-of-the-business landlords memorialised in EastEnders and Coronation Street has, for all its Middle England credentials, been akin to that of Amazon on independent bookshops.
The smoking ban forced Wetherspoon’s to redefine its brand identity.
With the rise of the middle-class gastropub, the slightly elevated pub grub peddled by Spoons no longer cut it. Affordability alone kept the chain growing, especially as New Labour sin taxes put many consumers off pricier pubs.
There’s nothing wrong with good, cheap beer. But Wetherspoon’s price-slashing means it has increasingly tapped into a culture of nihilistic binge-drinking wholly distinct from sociable fun. It is the only chain which opens all its pubs in the early morning, and was in 2014 the first to open a pub at a motorway service station against a backdrop of surging drink-drive deaths. Much like supercasinos in the American Rust Belt, Spoons megapubs at once exploit and inflame a current of post-industrial masculine despair throbbing beneath the surface of British society. It is a short slide indeed to the stranger shores of sadistic and appalling racism.
“It is a short slide indeed to the stranger shores of sadistic and appalling racism.”
It is, of course, cheap drink which has secured the place of ‘Dangerspoons’ in the Cambridge undergrad social scene.
But in light of the most recent outrage, it is questionable to say the least whether a student body which regularly congratulates itself for posturing against conversational ‘micro-aggressions’ and the like can continue in good faith to patronise the chain. The young black man targeted by the banana prank is now boycotting Wetherspoon’s due to its blatant complicity in clear-cut racism. It’s hard to think of reasons not to join him.