As of yesterday, the Wetherspoons “dog ban” is in full effect. According to Eddie Gershon, a representative for the 1,000-venue strong chain, dogs have proved themselves “unpredictable” and, as a result, the new policy has been “strictly enforced everywhere”, with the exception of service dogs.
If you don’t have a dog, you probably won’t have heard this news. If you do have a dog, you will have received several WhatsApp messages about this and may even have stepped outside to howl balefully at the moon. There’s almost no point in me trying to preserve journalistic integrity on this, because I do have a dog, so, rather unsurprisingly, think it’s a shit plan.
Even so, let me make an attempt at preserving my rapidly thinning professional principles and, first, outline why a Wetherspoons dog ban might be a good idea. Chiefly: Wetherspoons is a huge roaring behemoth of a chain and it only takes a handful of bad dog incidents in a handful of unconnected pubs for a blanket ban to be an easy fix. OK? Fine. I get it. Ban my dog, Wetherspoons. Criminalise her like the Javert you are. Banish her from her favourite places. Hunt this tiny Jean Valjean into submission and watch her thrive and run several profitable factories regardless of your pig-headed justice. But, first, let me tell you why it’s a bad idea.
Dogs are each their own cures for a particular type of loneliness, one that can be momentarily eased with a pint and a mild, non-committal chat about flea season
Rightly or wrongly, pub culture is the only kind of mainstream culture this side of western Europe has. We are not Italy, France or Spain – we can’t eat a bowl of clams on our married lover’s terrace at 10pm and then go to the opera at midnight. We do not have enough Scandinavian community spirit for for after-work choir gatherings. We simply do not have enough chic shisha bars, where we might elegantly sip tea and exhale huge amounts of peach-flavoured smoke until 3am. We don’t have the climate for evening walks. Many of us don’t have a good, solid religion to fill our evenings with. Even more of us do not know who our neighbours are. The list of what we don’t have is long; the list of what we do have is short. We have the pub. To be a good pub in this bereft environment is to be something close to transcendent. It’s a church, a community centre, a crisp dealer, a provider of “real” ales that has no qualifier on what a fake ale might be. The richest people in the UK and Ireland go to the pub, and the poorest people do, too.
Good pubs might serve food, but aren’t restaurants. A good pub has a tiny electric kettle behind the bar and will make you a Nescafé Gold when you ask for a coffee. And a good pub has dogs. A Wire Fox Terrier that sits at the foot of an ageing regular; a square-headed Staffie spread out under a table; a new puppy that kids tentatively ask to play with in the long boring hour after Sunday lunch but before the grown-ups show signs of moving. Dogs are an unwavering part of pub life because they’re a part of our lives.
For me, bringing my dog to the pub is a treat for both of us – we have a long, weekend walk followed by a Guinness for me and a few crisps under the table for her. It’s also a chance for my mates to see my dog if they don’t live close by. It’s a luxury, a treat, one we could both live without. For others, though, they bring their dog to the pub because it is better than going to the pub alone. Because, if you are alone – and, more crucially, if you are lonely – a dog is this key into a world of hellos, smiles and “How old is he?”s. You’re not just propping up the bar alone, several years into a long and isolated retirement – you’re Keith and Max, the Labrador-Staffie-cross; you’re Sheila and Eartha, the ex-racer Greyhound named after Eartha Kitt. If these examples sound specific, it’s because they are. These are the person-dog pairings that populate the pubs of my bit of south London, and the neighbourhood is all the stronger for them. The UK’s pub culture is unique in that people from every echelon of society go there; similarly, the very richest and the very poorest in society have dogs. I don’t think this is an accident. They are each their own cures for a particular type of loneliness, one that can be momentarily eased with a pint and a mild, non-committal chat about flea season.
A Wetherspoons can be many things, but rarely would you call one a “good pub” in the classic sense of the word. The dog ban might be an even better excuse to visit a good pub, instead.