By Agnès Villette / Photos: Elisabeth Blanchet
It came abruptly, as we were staying in one of the Weatherspoon venues at Highbury Corner. Elisabeth and I had chosen that place for meeting out of practicality. It was near the Overground for her, and a quick walk to a direct bus for me. I had never really been in any Weatherspoon before, but I knew a few hard facts about the pub chain. The beers were cheap, and if one was into ales, which is not my case, they stocked a good choice. The people there were a funny mix of regulars, after work drinkers, bands of friends, old guys, and it still had a strong working class tinge. To cut it short, it has a long history of hardcore drinking. A very strange mix of punters, a walk of life that had become more and more complex to come across in London, as entire areas were wiped out by gentrification and refurbished pubs. I had been researching the lost pubs of London for a feature to be published in a French magazine, and was therefore into finding places and researching the historical connection between British culture and the public houses.
To Elisabeth, it seems a sort of homage to a city she was about to leave in 2 months in order to settle in Marseilles. After 15 years in London, she wanted to hang around places which encapsulated a lot of her interests, British eccentricity, anorak men, working class customs. And true, the Weatherspoon still had a lot of it. “Let’s do a reportage in different Weatherspoons in London. We can photograph the people sitting and drinking around.” It seems an obvious pretext to drink, meet people and enjoy her company for the time she was still hanging around in London, so I said yes. We decided that the first shoot would take place at the Coronet, on Holloway Road, in North London.
Out of all the Weatherspoons, this one is the closest to subjects and places I have been writing and photographing for a long time. The building is a strong landmark on this long and noisy road heading straight up north out of the capital. Until 1983, it was a grand and majestic cinema. Built in 1940, the then Savoy was one of the few cinemas which had been completed as the war broke. It has a distinctive art deco interior design, which is still unchanged to this day. Decades ago, I had written a piece for the Independent about the disused cinemas of the capital, which had all closed in the 80s, replaced by multiplex cinemas. A lot of them were destroyed, even though their striking architecture and interior design were a unique remnant of 20s and 30s vernacular architecture. Spread all over London, each one was different with singular thematic design, such as the Carlton cinema, in Angel, with its Egyptian temple columns, later converted to a bingo hall. In Walthamstow, the Granada bears an exuberant Spanish baroque style. The Coronet, before being refurbished by Weatherspoon in 1996, had been a snooker hall, then left abandonned for a decade. Obviously, being turned into a pub had saved it from demolition.
Walking along Holloway, it is hard to miss the vast brick building, adorned with the distinctive art deco lettering. While entering the pub, I had a strange feeling of leaving the normal world to penetrate in another dimension. After a brief transition from light to darkness, the bar unravels its massive proportions. It is quite church like, with the massive ceilings, large high bay windows and in the middle, an adorned rotunda. The centre place offers some tables on an elevated floor, offering a great panoramic view of the whole place. The first meeting was set on a Saturday in May, late afternoon. The place was busy, but paradoxically very quiet, just the smooth level of conversations. This is also what distinguishs Weatherspoons from a lot of pubs, they do not play music. It might be a reason why those pubs feel different, punters do speak to each others, groups gather and party there. And I could notice that each table had its inner activity and dynamic going on.
For the second shoot, we had decided to meet again at the Coronet, early evening, on a Monday. Having already taken solid habbits, we went directly under the rotunda to the table we had taken the first time. On a Monday night, the atmosphere was quite different, heavier, harder. We spotted some familiar faces from our first visit, but there was a lot of solitary drinking. Middle age men, sitting still, eyes lost, a half pint before them. I could not stop feeling a pinge of dread at so much loneliness. At least they were drinking in company. A few tables away, an old couple sitting next to each other, gaze straight ahead, silent, were emptying pints with at a mechanical rhythm. A few meters away, an old lady who Elisabeth thought looked like Margaret Thatcher sat eating near a younger and fatter version of her, obviously her daughter. There was something voyeuristic at watching them eating, silent and stern, that made me feel uncomfortable.
As I don’t drink ales, I set my choice between some German Weisse beer and another Belgian white beer, called Blue Moon. For food, the choice is limited to pub food, mainly steaks and burgers and the obvious fish and chips. Nothing I really wanted to eat, so I set to the bar to order a bowl of chips. The waiters working behind the massive bar are dressed in white shirt, black tie and black suit vest , giving them a sort of official look, sligthly overdressed, they belong to the place around them with its grandiose style reminiscent of a past era. A tall muscular shaved head waiter looked straight in my eyes while I ordered, asking me the table number for the order. As I went back to check the number, I smiled to myself while discovering it was 69. For a moment, I thougth about giving the next table number. I knew the information would not pass unoticed. And it did not. “My favorite number”, he smiled at me, again with a heavy direct stare.
On our first visit, we had met two drinkers, who happened to be there again, exactly at the same spot, still doing cross words. As if they had never moved. Having photographed them the previous time, they seemed happy to meet us again. After a few hours, Saul, a middle age man, with messy long blond hair, and some black glasses giving him a sort of intellectual look left after saluting us. Immediately after his departure, Michael, an Irish man from Donegal, asked politely if he could join us. And so he did. He underlined that Saul and himself were not really friends, against all appearances. Earlier on, I had touched on their dual company while talking to Saul, “Well” he had replied, “You see, we read the same newspaper.” Having asked which one, “ The E”. He informed me. Quickly after our arrival, he had moved to our table on the pretext that he needed to check how to dial a number abroad. “To Spain, I have to get in touch with a dentist”. The conversation went on for a while about having one’s teeth done abroad. I had heard a lot about the Eastern Block, places such as Budapest or Poland. He seemed to have a lot of pleasure prononcing the name Budapech, as it is done there, “I worked in Hungary teaching English to a group of Gypsies…” I was quite intrigued. But it made sense with the business card he had given me the first time, which stated under his name various degrees and “Native speaker English teacher” whereas the back of the card bear a blurred Union Jack, more atuned to Ukip voters.
Michael told us he used to be a printer, though it was quite difficul to understand if he was still working. At some point, the conversation fuelled by alcoholic confessions veered on counterfeit bank notes. “ We did print quite a lot of them at some point. You see, this is how the IRA used to pay the pensions for its members.” He added, “Of course, I had nothing to do with it”, whereas his shinny eyes seem to state the opposite. “When in 2002, the Euro was introduced in Ireland, for a certain period, some bank notes had on one side the Irish pounds design and on the other one, the Euro. And as people were not used to the new currency, a lot of counterfeit notes were flogged. It was really easy money then.”
On our way out, we bumped into Michael again. I could hardly recognise him, with a bike helmet and bike design glasses. He had parked his bike inside, in the pub lobby, attached to some railings. We stepped out, the night traffic was still heavy. He pointed to an old woman heading in our direction. “ She comes every night at about the same time. She always cross away from the zebra crossing.’ Surely, she was strolling in the middle of the 4 lanes road. “ She comes in, has 2 gins and tonic and takes a cab back home. All for a tenner…”