Thursday, 24 March 2011

Wonders of the modern world, number seven . . . Samuel Smith’s pubs

Yes, that’s right, a pub chain.

The other week I was taken for a drink by an American cousin. He told me his favourite beer was Samuel Smith’s. I vaguely remembered that the Swiss Cottage pub was a Sam Smith’s house. I also vaguely remembered being invited along for a drink at a Sam Smith’s by my fellow students on my MSc course — and that it was oddly cheap, which is why they chose it, I guess.

So I found myself in the pub that’s marooned in the middle of the gyratory/urban race oval at the south end of Finchley Rd. And fascinated. So fascinated that I paid a return visit the other Saturday afternoon to meet up with one of my oldest friends.

What’s so fascinating about Sam Smith’s pubs? That everything is Sam Smith’s. Not just the beer and the lager and the stout but the soft drinks and the hard liquor, too. Even the crisps and nuts are Sam Smith’s. A kind of integration, vertical and horizontal, that you just don’t see in that trade anymore — though obviously you do in food outlets like, say, Pret A Manger.

It feels almost Soviet or Stalinistic in its consistency and lack of choice — as I pointed out to the eastern European barman, to his amusement and agreement. My friend asked for a packet of Uncle Joe’s nuts.

Imagine a world where socialism had got its act together — cheap, good beer and chilli nuts for all! That’s a Sam Smith’s pub. Not very exciting and full of cheap-date alcoholics, of course. But you can’t have everything.

There’s a suitable touch of puritanism, too. Mid-1950s era decor — dark, fake wood panelling, that kind of thing. No music or one-arm bandits or TV. In fact, now I think of it, the Sam Smith’s pub remind me of two other things.

One, the old Yates wine lodges. Not so much the London ones — which were full of people like me drinking the excellent cheap champagne. Nor the classic Liverpool ones, full of students on the Blob and stuck into the cheap Aussie white (wine, Jim, but not as you know it — think sherry . . . ish). Rather, the ones that had a counter where you queued up with a tray like in a cafeteria. You’d tell them what you wanted — which might include a cup of tea, Yates having been founded as part of the temperance movement. Then you’d pay for it at a till point. Municipalised socialism with a sloshed smile.

Two, George Orwell’s imaginary pub, the Moon Under Water — a name now taken and used (perhaps abused) by the Wetherspoon chain. Wood panelling, warm beer, no music or dancing, conversation. Municipalised drinking with an ernest frown.

I even thought up a slogan . . . Sam Smith’s: it’s as if modern capitalism never happened!

Then I wikipedia-ed Sam Smith’s and discovered that it’s not at all socialist in intent but tight corporate branding — and they took the music out because they didn’t want to pay the PRS levy. Oh, well.

PS While I was there, a ten-or-so-strong group of mid-late twenties came in, all dressed in bobble hats, big glasses and red-and-white striped tops. Where’s Wally, I asked, of course. You tell me, they said, we’re looking for him. They were on a pub crawl along the Jubilee line — on a Saturday when it’s suspended for rebuilding. How English a weekend hobby outing is that? Another wonder of the modern world, I’d say.

Next up What the fuck? (And what the fuckericans.)

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