When the 24-year-old Tim Martin opened his first pub in Muswell Hill, London, in 1979, he exercised no imagination and named it Martin’s Free House. That didn’t bode well, but in the first months of the 1980s, he decided to change it to “J D Wetherspoon”, after a teacher from his schooldays in New Zealand whom Martin considered too nice to control a bunch of unruly kids.
“I thought: I can’t control the pub [and] he couldn’t control the class,” Martin said last year, “so I’ll name it after him.”
Standing 6ft 6in tall and once known for sporting a luxurious mullet, Martin turned Wetherspoons into a chain that now runs 917 pubs and employs 35,000 staff. Today, it is regarded either as a company whose branches are a shadow of what the British boozer once was – the apotheosis of a wider culture of retail uniformity that is turning town centres into identikit high streets with no distinguishing features – or as a national institution that inspires surprising levels of loyalty.
The Campaign for Real Ale reported earlier this year that almost four pubs were closing every day, but Wetherspoons continues to thrive. Speak to regulars such as Mags Thomson, who has visited almost every branch, or the writer and former pub manager Kit Caless, and you will hear devotion in their voices. (The late reggae DJ Derek Serpell-Morris liked to plan his tour itineraries around visits to the pubs.) With its steak and curry clubs, Wetherspoons has kept people coming back: in 2015, its operating revenue was over £1.5bn, with a net profit after taxes of £45m.
“Wetherspoons does bland really well,” says Caless. “The British particularly seem to like the comfort of familiarity. There’s no music. The menu, though not fantastic, is consistent. And, crucially, the drinks are cheaper than anywhere else.
“Because each branch doesn’t feel ‘local’, you don’t anticipate aggro as an outsider. What unites its drinkers – students, pensioners, the unemployed – is limited resources. It’s not often a place for binge drinking. It’s a working-class space for people on a budget. It offers a welcoming blandness. And amazing carpets.”
It was the discovery that each branch has a bespoke carpet that led Caless to travel across Britain, documenting the best in his new book, Spoon’s Carpets: an Appreciation. In a blur of burgers, fried breakfasts, gassy lager and random encounters, Caless makes an argument for the carpets as public art, offering insight into both the success of the chain and the wider psyche of the slightly sozzled British in 2016.
Caless points to the many freelance writers he knows who use their local branches as offices, attracted by their decent coffee and reliable wifi connection, or the travelling academic who treasures Wetherspoons as a grounding force, an anchor in each new town he visits.
Every branch is like a “teleporter”, Caless says, a liminal space that has carved a new purpose from old cinemas, churches, banks, post offices and, in the case of the Swim Inn in Sheffield (sold to Hawthorn Leisure this year), a swimming pool. It is a boozy portal in which time and geography slip away. Each one is different, yet somehow the same.
Look down, however, and you will see woven works of art that are comparable to Grayson Perry’s tapestries, and about which Caless enthuses with the sort of zeal that Brian Sewell had for Caravaggio. His favourite carpet is the one in the Queens Hotel in Maltby, South Yorkshire, which depicts the recent history of this former colliery town. Pitheads rise through the orange layers of earth that generations of Maltby men mined, while horses’ heads pay tribute to the ponies that hauled the dusky diamonds to the surface. Beneath it all is a series of linked hexagons, which represent the molecular structure of coal.
“When I realised what it meant and the carpet’s significance to the local community, I found myself overcome with emotion,” says Caless. “A lot of Wetherspoons drinkers wouldn’t necessarily be outwardly considered as V&A-going, design-minded people, but it’s important to highlight those artistic qualities in working-class areas. And, actually, people are interested.”
Travelling across Britain in May 2016 at the time of the local elections and with the EU referendum looming, Caless found a nation of barroom bards and daytime drinkers divided, yet consistently willing to engage in intelligent public discussion.
“One of my old locals in Elephant and Castle [in south London] used to have a sign saying, ‘No politics’ – which I think was quite common in the past,” says Caless. “But it was quite the opposite today. In Wetherspoons, at least, people are willing to undertake pleasant public discussions. I overheard plenty of confidently constructed arguments.”
Part of the chain’s ongoing success lies in its adaptability. Far from having a nullifying effect, a Wetherspoons branch offers a blank canvas on to which the needs of its customers are projected. Each pub creates its own atmosphere, dependent not only on the clientele but also the time of day.
“In the major cities, Wetherspoons have become microcosms, where Polish construction workers, Caribbean old-timers, neo-hipsters and parties of lunching women all rub shoulders,” explains Caless. “Away from the urban centres, it seems more about serving post-industrial communities. Both succeed. If someone from abroad wanted to see a certain slice of British life, I’d send them straight to Wetherspoons.”
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge