Stratford rejects pub culture

Tim Martin has seen off some formidable opponents in his time, but now he may have met his match.

In building a chain of 200 pubs, many converted from disused banks, supermarkets, and cinemas, Martin encountered the opposition of the big established drinks retailers, notably Whitbread, who challenged his planning applications at every turn.

To his credit, he stood firm and normally emerged victorious. Today, JD Wetherspoon, the company he formed in 1979 is a stock market favourite and Martin’s appetite for growth is undiminished. Daily, he presses ahead with his ambition to cover the country with free houses where the beer is reasonably priced.

As part of that grand and commendable scheme, he has applied for permission to convert the 150-seat Waterside Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon into yet another Wetherspoon pub. The local council opposes the plan and last week saw the opening of a public inquiry into the application. Nothing unusual in any of that as far as Martin is concerned. He’s seen it all before.

When he applied to give the Wetherspoon treatment to the defunct Opera House, Tunbridge Wells, he met some determined local opposition. Now, after a restoration programme costing 1.5 million, The Opera House pub has been awarded a commendation by none other than the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society. Sometimes it’s better that a fine building be preserved and its use changed rather than rot away while the conservationists argue and fret.

However, had Martin hoped that, at some time in the future, the burghers of Stratford would see in him a benefactor deserving of a fitting memorial, those aspirations were dealt a blow by a raging whirlwind that swept in from the east. The planning inquiry was going about its sleepy business when Hurricane Susannah struck, scattering high-blown rhetoric all about the council chamber and causing strong men to tremble and sob.

Susannah York had made the journey from London, where she is appearing in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Hamlet and The Merry Wives of Windsor, with a mission to blow Tim Martin and his assorted henchmen (jackanapes and knaves every one) out of town.

As her CV shows, in the course of a long and distinguished career, which took her from RADA to the pinnacles of theatre, television, and film, Miss York has ingested many thousands of the finest lines ever penned, from Shakespeare to Ibsen, from Shaw to Chekhov, from Arthur Miller to Ernie Wise, and none of it was wasted. All those years of exposure to finely wrought simile and metaphor, to scansion, rhythm and rhyme, to language crafted to electrify the emotions bore fruit terrible and magnificent in that little council chamber.

“As we approach the Millennium,” she proclaimed, “what are we going to bequeath to the children of Stratford and their far-flung contemporaries – a cultural wasteland or another small jewel in this town’s crown?”

This indeed was a stark choice and a heavy burden to place upon the planning inspectorate, many of whom may have thought they were there to decide between a pub and a bankrupt community theatre. The enemies of drink have accused it of many evils but none has gone so far as to suggest that the opening of a pub on the banks of the Avon would reduce the birthplace of Shakespeare to an artistic wilderness. More than four hundred years of literature and history ground to dust beneath the drayman’s wheel.

Not that Miss York is a killjoy. “Actors love their pubs as much as do any in the land,” she projected. “But a city centre pub, on that corner, overlooking the river – does Stratford really need it?”

Turning to the government inspector directly, she delivered a ringing peroration. “Madam inspector, would you rather see your children or young relatives spend their free time in a pub or would you rather they became involved in a youth drama, music, dance or art group?”

That speech reminded me of one I heard in court when I was but a cub reporter in Middlesbrough. A solicitor, who had been watching too much Perry Mason on television, was defending a man in whose house the police had found 144 cans of sardines believed to have parted company with a lorry.

“Your worships,” declared the lawyer, spinning on his heel and rising to a pitch far higher than his normal voice. “Is it a crime for a man to keep a well-stocked larder?” His client was duly sent down.

Miss York, too, overplays her hand. The choice is not between young people going to a pub or taking part in a play any more than it is between them eating a cream tea or being run down by a bus. The alternatives are not as bleak and absolute as her rhetoric implies.

Because a Wetherspoon pub opens in Stratford none of the town’s youth will suffer cultural deprivation. On the contrary. “Madam Inspector, would you rather see the fruit of your loins and their far-flung contemporaries enjoying a drop of Nethergate Old Growler or lolling in some flea-blown theatre while language foul and profane washed over them? I rest my case.”

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