How Brexiteer Tim Martin turned Wetherspoon into a national institution—that even Remainers loveby Dan Hancox / December 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
At 5pm on a dark Wednesday evening in November, the after-work rush at the Shakespeare’s Head in central London, one of JD Wetherspoon’s 875 pubs across the country, is quickly turning from a trickle into a flood. There are American students having pints of Coca-Cola and nachos, two large booths of stolid older men in dark suits nursing their ales, a Polish metaller with a mullet and a cocktail, three south Asian guys with office jumpers and smart haircuts, two middle-aged couples double-dating with a bottle of white wine and pizzas, hipsters in shin-length trousers tucking into burgers, a Spanish couple anxiously steering their wheelie suitcases through the noise, a newspaper distributor who’s come in to use the toilet, office jesters in tasteless Christmas jumpers, a cocky student hockey team in matching stripy ties, punky teens with berry-coloured hair and cider, and posh lads manspreading in smart jeans and shoes. Near the front door, two weathered men in paint-splattered work clothes roll cigarettes to go with their lager; a young woman wearing a pristine white beret does the same.
There are three slot machines, a slightly faded red carpet adorned with swirls and ferns, oak booths with grand windows, and hearty laughter from all around. Every table is occupied. In the thick of it, both standing and standing out at the bar at 6’6” and with a mane of silver hair, is Tim Martin. Wearing a polo shirt and jeans, he’s joshing with a slightly nervous young member of staff, who needs reassuring that she should be charging the company’s instantly-recognisable founder and chairman for his coffee. “Do you not even get a staff discount?” she asks. “No,” he says drily, “there’s no justice is there?”
Wetherspoon has been a familiar presence on the British high street for some time, but it is only in the last few years that it has become something more: equal parts renowned and controversial. This is both for its cheap drinks and for Martin himself, a kind of physical quintessence of the pub-man, a bolshy, one-man Brexiteer army, and one of the most famous businessmen in Britain. Somehow, his chain has become a last bastion of working-class sociality in an age of relentless pub…