Agnès and I have decided to embark on a Draught Residency in Wetherspoon pubs: it came to me that they probably were the last cheap pubs -especially in London – where there would be a mix of people from different backgrounds, at opposite ends to the trendy gentrified pubs where everybody looks like each other. Through our Draught Residency, we want to capture with words and photos that bit of Britishness we are so fond of and tell the atmospheres and the stories drinkers share with us.
CHRONICLE 1 : The White Swan, Islington by Agnès Villette / Photos : Elisabeth Blanchet
Entering a pub is always a journey. The transition between the outside and the inside has always fascinated me. A step taken, and everything changes. The daylight, the city buzz, the street walkers, all can be sucked up in one second. The time it takes to step in. I always pay attention the first minutes I enter a pub. Like testing the temperature, like taking in all at once the special aura it reverberates. It is mostly a question of energy. The solitude a place can soak in or the massive rush when it is full of noise and people, the everyday feeling of suspended time when it is half empty. There is an indefinite quantity of possibilities. All of them offer such a wide range of atmospheres. Do I remember any specific occasion? Several pubs seem in my memory to merge into a blurred mega version of one. But a few have still a specific presence in my memory, without being attached to any important event happening in them. I remember one pub in Aberdeen, late in June, a few years ago. I had been sent there for the baccalaureat French Literature oral exams. They were taking place on a Monday, and I had the whole rest of the week to myself. So I walked all day around town. On the long stretch leading from my B&B to the city centre, I spotted one. Its front reminded me of a pub from the film Get Carter. It was still all boarded up. Down in London, the pub windows had been, for most of them, stripped off the opaque layers covering the window planes. They had lost that Victorian guilt which they still bore up North. The image of Michael Cane stepping inside the pub followed by the inquisitive stare of the other drinkers was still in mind. As I stepped in, I noticed that the entrance door was situated on the far left side, unfolding the interior scenery at a strange angle: the long wooden bar stretched on the opposite side, the pale wooden cubicles lining one after the other along the wall, the round shaped overhanging chandeliers which defused a milky glow. The stillness of an afternoon pub.
If I dig back as far as I can, it would have to be the bar café in my childhood village that did it. My parents never spent time in bars. I don’t have many memories of going with them, with the rare exception of a sunday coffee while travelling around. They did not really like bars, and I always felt they did not belong in them. Even today, when sometimes we happen to go together, I can feel their slight unease at being surrounded by people and customs that are so foreign to them. Though, I went several times in that little bar café which was attached to the only grocery shop in the village I spent all my childhood in. Every sunday, after church, my grand father would spend an hour in there surrounded by other church members, mainly men. The women, as did my grandmother, would head back home to prepare the sunday meal. It was the only time during the week when the place would rouse to some activity, as it was mostly empty apart from the fishermen popping in and the hardcore alcoholic which were legendary at that time. The tiny café had a low ceiling, long farm tables and wooden benches, and along the wall adjoining the grocery was a chimney, and opposite, in one corner, a staircase leading to the flat above. One door was connecting the bar and the grocery, each had a bell announcing customers. The bar was stuck in one corner, it was a simple sort of wooden post, behind which a few bottles stood on a unique shelf. It was dark, busy, noisy, with overdressed countryside men who drank little glass of white wine. If I conjure the feeling now, it has a similar quality to an old Flemish painting, a far gone era.
Entering the Wetherspoon along Upper Street in Islington did not imply a journey back in time. Or slightly, as the chain pubs are probably, at least in the capital, the only remaining public houses where various crowds still mingle. At least, that is how it feels more and more in inner London, where several working class patches have been taken over and propelled at full speed into hipsterhood. I had not been in the White Swan before, and had never really paid much attention to it either. The only striking point for me was that it was underneath the Club Union house, occupying a 4 storeys 60’s brutalist building with defining concrete straight features.
Last year, it had become a gathering place for Elisabeth and I on our way back from Serbia. We did several trips to the Danube region to cover the birth of a micro nation named Liberland, which gathered a lot of media attention then. On our returns from Stansted airport, it had become, before each of us headed home, the last debriefing post where around a last pint, we tried to make sense of the madness we had dived and soaked in for a few days. Exhausted and still high from the experience, the pub took a special role. Like an intermediary place between the Balkans and London.
Last Spring, on a Saturday afternoon, we met there. This time it was not on a return flight. We just met as it was conveniently placed between our two North London flats. On a Saturday afternoon, the place had the usual mix of drinkers, anorak loners, bunch of girls with large amount of bags at their feet from their shopping trips, pink princesses dressed up stag hen on the go, and the odd eccentric. Actually, there were a lot of them. Scanning the place with more attention, Elisabeth started spotting the Britishness she captures regularly in her photos. A blessed mix of people, hilarious drunkards and for others, broken by some mysterious events which took them down the bottle, human walks of life. Such a compact knot of stories we could follow. So many places we could dive in around the capital. And so many atmospheres we could size before the whole city became estranged and detached from our earlier memories of London. She had the idea. “We could do a residency in various Wetherspoons in London.” That is how it started. The White Swan, had become the first one.
A French version by Elisabeth Blanchet is soon to come!