The Cheshire Cheese and the Boot

Some things ignite rage in the soul. The sight of that fucking oaf Johnson at a podium outside number 10. Secretly filmed footage of care home staff abusing residents. Easy Listening covers of proper rock tunes. Farage.

But the world’s not all Jose Mourinho; there’s joy aplenty if you’re willing to peek from behind the sofa. The sight of someone you don’t know doubled over laughing – how bizarrely infectious is that? A good film in a quiet cinema while the world outside goes all to bloody hell. Dogs. Snow. Dogs in snow.

And some things can be a bit of each, like Ben Stokes briefly papering over not so much cracks as canyons in England’s batting order. It’s 2019 though. Everything must be one or the other, good or bad, no grey areas. Ambiguity has been killed by the internet and if you’re on the fence about something you’re Neville Chamberlain reincarnated. You there: decide.

So what the fuck am I supposed to do about table service at Wetherspoons?

If you’ve not come across it yet, because you picture an average Wetherspoon punter as the human equivalent of bin juice, let me shed light. There’s a simple-to-use phone app that allows you to get drink, and food, but really drink, delivered to your table. Prices are the same as at the bar. If the pub’s busy, you get served quicker and no-one can complain you’ve elbowed in unfairly.

There’s no describing the pleasure of that first delivery. I’m in a pub. I’m four fifths into a Guinness and the bar’s heaving. That grim-faced harridan by the cutlery has been eyeing up my table for 20 minutes. But I can press this little screen a few times and someone will bring me a pint, or perhaps two pints, and not even demand a tip. What?

Of course, you have to be in a Wetherspoons in the first place. Is there a more divisive company in Britain? Their reputation as the public house equivalent of a shopping centre in Rochdale is not without foundation. It’s run by a man named Tim who named it after his school teacher, and who has become a totem for up-yours-Europe xenophobia. There’s gammon on the menu, unsurprisingly.

But if you can overlook that bastard, what is a Wetherspoons? A unique pub with a unique name, often ornately designed using the fittings of the library or bank or whatever the building used to be. A place for a quiet pint where you’ll be left alone, or at least where you’re no more likely to be glassed by a thick-necked fuckwit than in any other non-gastro British boozer. You wouldn’t choose one as your local, but if you avoid them on any principle other than Brexit you’re just a snob.

It’s no surprise the Ryanair of hostelries has masterminded table service. ‘Spoons are a conveyor belt of drunkenness, maximising sales by whatever means they can and as a fervent believer in the healing powers of fizzy brown liquids I’m all for it.

But the origins of my uncertainty are in the Cheshire Cheese and the Boot. When a nearby Wetherspoons allows the demonstrably indolent to order a refill, or two refills, without leaving their seat, how we’ll miss the naked hostility of a tattooed Ukrainian who declares that a two-inch head on a Guinness is ‘how they do in Ireland’. I don’t think I want the rotund, puffing landlord of the Edgar Wallace bringing my pint, or two pints, over to my table because I’ll feel awful if he doesn’t make it back, not to mention thirsty in a few minutes.

And what of that great British tradition, the bar scrum? The initial chaotic jostle, the unspoken move into formation behind someone being served, the polite but deathly rivalry with anyone who arrived at the same time as you, the keen awareness of two people together about to open up a double slot, the studious calculation of which way they’ll turn and the choreography of slotting in behind them as they depart grinning with their spoils. Imagine closing down the London Philharmonic and erasing its back catalogue: that’s the level of artistry that’ll be lost if our generations-old technique is lost to a bloody phone app.

Where else will we earn the warm glow of being at the front of a busy bar and letting the man next to you be served first? Bar staff are busy, and though a vital part of their job is knowing who’s next, sadly some are new or useless and it falls on us, the gasping public, to maintain order. Without the raised palm indicating to the side, and the nodded ‘Cheers mate’ of the lucky recipient, we’d have gone the way of the way of Danton and Robespierre by now, I promise you that.

Yet even these dubious pleasures can’t diminish the undoubted positives of being waited on by the minimum wage. I neither have to mutter in embarrassment while asking the same person for the same thing for the third time since the hour last chimed, nor do I have to stand up, which is after all what we come to pubs to avoid. You stay over there by the forks and ketchup you dreadful auld hag, I’m bedding in for the afternoon.

But without our history, what are we? And so I remain horribly torn. Traditions are what make pubs, but drinking lots at pace is what makes me. The fact is I will never not be in pubs, even if it must be by haunting. And there are rules against every pub being a Wetherspoons, so maybe history wins out.

Though when they make an app that takes a leak for me, history my arse.

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