I once asked Martin Amis how an interview had gone with a particular journalist and he thought for a moment before shrug-sneering, “Well, y’know, he was a Tim.” When I was a kid we used to stop on the school run to pick up the son of the then MP for King’s Lynn, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (not so much a wet as utterly saturated, he was the only Tory to defect to the SDP in 1981). Brocklebank-Fowler junior was called Tim, and my sadistic brother and I would tease him: “Timmy-Timmy-Timmy,” while he futilely protested that he was a Timothy.
It’s my contention that the likes of, say, Tim Henman, the tennis player, or Tim Parks, the writer, would have had enjoyed a great deal more success if they’d simply changed their names. There’s a prejudice against people called Tim; true, it’s not on a par with racism, sexism or homophobia but there’s little doubt that your life chances will be constrained should your otherwise risk-averse parents have had the temerity to Tim you. All of which is by way of introducing Tim Martin: the 6’6”, mullet-sporting originator of J D Wetherspoon, an invasion-of-the-body-snatchers-style pub chain that operates 833 outlets throughout the British Isles, together with 17 hotels.
Martin, who retains a 25 per cent share of the publicly listed company, rejoices in the sobriquet “the giant of the British pub industry”. But it doesn’t matter how much wonga the man trousers (pre-tax profits were £66m in the crash year of 2009), he can never escape the fact of his Timness, any more than he can elude its miserable correlate: his pubs are shit, brown dollops of establishments smeared incontinently across our cities. Actually, “shit” is a little strong for Wetherspoon’s – a bit too gamey; they’re more shit-lite.
The clever thing is that he doesn’t style most of them “Wetherspoon’s” but retains their original names – the Dog & Duck, the Duke of York, whatever – so that it isn’t until you’ve sidled up to the bar, clocked the plethora of guest beers – Diamond Geezer, Comfortably Numb etc – written up on blackboards in faux chalk-strokes, and registered the corporate vibe that you realise you are in fact in another soulless bloody Wetherspoon’s. As to why Martin should’ve dubbed his pub chain thus, the answer lies in his back story: a troubled youth who was an inmate of no fewer than 11 institutions (a sort of chain education, if you will), Martin did some school-time in New Zealand, where one ineffectual disciplinarian of a teacher was dumb enough to tell the young mulleteer that he would never succeed in business. What was this pitiful pedagogue’s name? Why, Wetherspoon of course.
I see a sort of nominative determinism at work here: Tim’s pubs are shit not only because he’s called Tim but also because they’re named after an object of resentment. And you know what they say about resentment: it’s like drinking a cup of poison and expecting the other person to die. Sadly, it isn’t Wetherspoon who’s dying (he probably expired years ago) – but us. It doesn’t matter that Martin was quick off the mark when it came to introducing no-smoking areas, nor that he’s been a staunch supporter of micro-breweries – nothing can counteract the excremental quality of these establishments.
The boy and I checked out the one nearest to us, which happens to be in Victoria Station. It also happens to rejoice in the actual Wetherspoon’s name, but while you might’ve expected it to live up to its flagship status, we found a poky joint crammed with tables. The standard chain-pub fare was on offer: burgers, sub-curries, toasties, pasta and pies. His bacon cheeseburger wasn’t tasty enough to be horse: the cheese hadn’t even melted and the bacon had been fried rather than grilled, so the whole comestible – when at last it arrived – was both frigid and congealed. My battered cod was at the nadir for this dish: the casing hard, the interior mush. At least it was hot – unlike the chips, which were like cardboard but not as tasty.
I suppose some might say: well, what do you expect? This is a busy location. To which I would rejoin: I don’t care, there’s a grim cynicism involved in flogging such drek; it demeans the customer and the worker. Looking around me at the other oblong platters on the tables, I saw that many of them had been barely touched. I did eat my food and so left with an unpleasant film inside my mouth. Still, tomorrow morning my palate will be cleansed – but he’ll always be a Tim.