RACHEL JOHNSON on why credit – if not a standing ovation – must be paid to Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin
The other day a friend called me from New York so I could give her helpful quotes about how awful it is here so I could help her fill space in a big piece for the Stateside glossy Town & Country.
When it came out in late Feb, her piece was titled ‘Is Brexit Ruining London Dinner Parties?’ – I like to think after she spoke to me. ‘Most sensible households have banned talk of Brexit at mealtimes,’ I had explained to Janine di Giovanni.
‘Adults groan there should be a swear box each time the B-word is mentioned.’ I also told her that the young (ie anyone under 45) were so bored of the subject that they now play Strip Brexit at their dinner parties (whether anyone actually gives dinner parties any more is a subject for another day) where anyone who mentions the subject has to remove an article of clothing. Janine and her editor were delighted with this detail in particular.
I was not surprised to see that FT Weekend paid tribute and did a follow-up last week in the ‘Rich People’s Problems’ slot called ‘Brexit ruined my dinner parties’.
In the first par the writer of the FT column – a chap called James Max whose existence I had been in blissful ignorance of until mid-March 2019 – explained how to be a happening host, despite the fact that he voted Leave and all his friends (and most sentient life-forms) voted Remain.
It was a sticky read. In the course of the article he calls Champagne ‘fizz’ and tells us: ‘Often the wines you pair will represent great investments you’ve made, trips to vineyards, or journeys punctuated by a particular tipple, best enjoyed as a shared experience.’
Max also said that it was impossible for dinner guests to avoid Brexit because usually safe subjects like property or holidays abroad have been contaminated, and all conversational roads lead down the Brexit ‘rabbit hole’.
I think there is scope here for a weekly column written by a varying cast, all Remainsplaining the various ways that Brexit has ‘ruined’ something for them forever, which might be more even relatable than a page called ‘Rich People’s Problems’ in the Pink ‘Un, if you can imagine such a thing.
Whatever I came up with for Janine, I do think (though I can’t speak for all my extended family) that there’s a general effort not to bring up The Topic at clan gatherings (usually convened by my father, who is, now I mention him, doing a My Music lunchtime sesh at the Wigmore Hall this Friday, if any of you are at a loose end?).
However, I think it is safe to bring up The Topic on long walks. As you surge forth in glum-wellied pairs you don’t have to make eye contact with anyone across a table loaded with empty bottles that can be used as missiles if things came to blows over Geoffrey Cox’s interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement vis-à-vis David Pannick QC’s (insert laboured joke about ‘Pannick at the DexEu’ here).
I know I mentioned Sir Simon Jenkins in my last diary but when I bumped into him he said that a policy of ABB had vastly improved his evenings. ‘Anyone but Boris?’ I queried, as ‘ABB’ is the code for the guerrilla war to keep my brother out of the last two in a Conservative leadership contest. ‘Anything But Brexit,’ Simon corrected me.
I didn’t read the John Gapper piece about Tim Martin in the FT in case I stopped disliking him, which was not big of me. Then I forced myself to read it. I discovered that Martin banned music in his pubs. He offers free refills for coffee (made in proper cappuccino machines). His pubs are 30% cheaper than most others, clean, and produce meals within ten minutes of ordering. He called his company ‘Wetherspoons’ after a teacher in one of his schools, and is going deaf – ‘it’s all that Captain Beefheart in the 70s’ – and if there’s a no-deal Brexit he’ll cut his beer prices. Other entrepreneurs are bailing. But Tim is not leaving, and his business paid £729 million in taxes last year.
Just as Real Betis fans can stand to applaud Lionel Messi after the Barca forward’s 51st hatrick, so can I clap many of the better aspects and achievements of Tim Martin, 63. He is mad to say that we can eat and drink from an all-British menu, and the in-house Spoons mag tells his punters – only there for the cheap beer – ‘A deal is just a trap laid by the CBI, the FT and others for keeping us in the EU’. Lol!
But still, credit – if not a standing ovation – must be paid to Mr Martin, in whom, in the end, I found much to admire.