Some English pubs are nestled in the heart of small village communities where everyone knows each other and warmed by log fires, a few turn out impossibly posh meals which cost a fortune and draw people from miles around, but many more of them are like the one that I am sitting in. A large, brown, sticky space in the middle of a city centre dimly lit and livened only by the flashing lights of slot machines and the flickering images of television screens. There is a mixture of high stools around tall tables close to the bar, small square tables surrounded by hard chairs, and comfortable sofas. More screens and tables are dimly visible around the balcony of the second floor. It is an almost empty space made for crowds. Wherever you sit you have only to lift your head to see news from all over the world, banality and tragedy reduced to a background hum and sanitised by smart presenters who tirelessly repeat the same stories over and over again to match the strap line along the bottom of the screen. Nobody really cares. Idle glances are thrown up at the screens as lasting horror, momentary outrage and passing fads are relayed blindly to people who are thinking about something else. Food comes in and out of a sliding door carried by black shirted waiting staff and lunchtime pints of bitter are served from a long bar with posters advertising drinks that nobody is going to buy. You can get a pint of bitter and a burger with a few chips here for £4.09 and that is what people have come for. It wouldn’t be most people’s first choice but it is just about everybody’s second or third option when cash is short and the chain who owns this place has recognised that market- it is growing fast. This is what we would have called a spit and sawdust pub back in the 1970’s, with a bit of added bling, and Leeds bitter still makes a good shandy.
An older man sits in a shaft of sunlight. The light finds the contours of his skull as he looks around him, resting impassively. His carrier bag is clutched in his hand and his pint sits beside him, almost untouched. He is in no hurry.
A couple are eating the Yorkshire way, heads down and silent. The man finds every last crumb on his plate and wipes his mouth. Now he will talk. When they leave his wife will tell him that she couldn’t have cooked a meal like that at home for that price.
A young guy sits on his own, eyes fixed on a screen.
EU budget…….. Hit man sentenced……….. Chinese getaway……….
A smart black guy in a sharp business suit eats his meal quickly. He has things to do. He could be anywhere.
A young guy in a hoodie, scarf and what look to me like comedy trainers chats up one of the bar staff. A slightly older bald guy props up the corner of the bar alone and watches him. He has seen it all before and he has strong opinions which he doesn’t feel like sharing with anybody. You wouldn’t want to bother him. His face gives nothing away. He could be anyone- he probably is.
Horse meat scandal……….. value burgers……… Findus lasagne……………
My burger arrives. The man on the screen stands in front of a deserted factory and talks on and on for a very long time. The presenter sits behind his desk looking concerned. I make a conscious decision not to worry about what is in mine. I have eaten horse before, served up in a casserole, sitting round a table in a French farmhouse, and I liked it.
At almost any table of people there is always one person who is doing all the talking. A young guy is gesticulating, explaining something with his hands to his two friends. One of them stares into space, showing just enough interest not to cause comment, and the other tucks into a burger with chips, salad and onion rings. He finishes his own burger without needing to pause once in the middle of a sentence. Quite a feat.
Two young women wrinkle their noses at each other across the table and apply hand cream.
People are buying things on the other side of the world, preparing for snow. Here we are shown just more rain and wind. Not the kind of wind that makes headlines. Just wind.
A young guy in a grey hoodie with very short hair has two mobiles, one in each hand. He appears to be taking great delight in texting himself. It requires a lot of concentration.
A mother has brought in her two children. They are excited and don’t know what they want.
Three elderly ladies in pastel coloured anoraks make their way to a table. They are enjoying themselves quietly. They sit down and choose their food slowly and carefully without taking off their coats.
U.S. Manhunt. Somewhere in California black uniformed police officers are searching for the killer of a pretty girl whose face shines out from the corner of the screens.
A black shirted member of the waiting staff, slim, short and good looking, allows himself to wonder for a few seconds what I am writing about as he passes my table, but he doesn’t break his stride. I could probably sit here for another couple of hours and watch the place empty without being challenged.
Two young men sit at a darkened table, mirroring each others gestures. When one of them leaves the table the other taps his heel anxiously on the floor and his body shakes.
A blonde young girl with a pony tail and a striped wool jacket hurries across the room. He is waiting at the bar for her in his best pink shirt and he is pleased to see her. She is full of apologies. Everything is all right now.
An advert flashes onto the screen for a website………… http://www.underdog. That would be just about all of us sitting in here then.
As I leave I look at the photograph of the famous Yorkshire and England slow left arm bowler from the 1930’s who the pub is named after. He is demonstrating with suitable Yorkshire understatement exactly how he held a cricket ball. I wonder what he would think of this place. This is not his England.