“It dates back to the 1770s. That floor is the original. These carpets have only recently come in… probably last hundred years.”
I’m interviewing Dave Hobden, who is very liberal with the word ‘recently’, on his final day before retirement after eight years as landlord of the Greatest Pub in England. Just twenty-six doors down from John Redwood’s constituency office, and a four minute stroll from the local food bank (who gave out 1,571 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis last year), stood the The Metropolitan pub. Wokingham, to allow a little context, is one of the country’s wealthiest boroughs and often pops up in Best Places To Live lists.
I’ve mourned there; I’ve celebrated there. I met my soulmate in that pub
“This was a regular haunt for my grandfather, who only lived six doors away. My mother used to drink in this pub, my father used to drink in it,” Dave told me. “The style of the pub hasn’t changed at all”.
Split into the traditional public and saloon bars, The Metropolitan was adorned with plush blue seating lining the walls; inclusively facing inwards to invite conversation. A weathered darts board hung precariously close to a TV screen which showed football and Steven Seagal films on a seemingly endless loop. The ancient jukebox was nestled within a cosy crevice, opposite the fireplace. The toilets, which were outside, forever reeked of a receding pissy tide. The (generously named) garden was made up of a few paving slabs and a couple of old benches. And I adored it.
Everyone has a favourite pub, with which you retain a ridiculous emotional attachment. For me, The Met was alive with memories; of friends past and present, of many boozy Christmas Eves, of some of the best and funniest nights. I’ve mourned there; I’ve celebrated there. I’ve had arguments (or rather discussions) in a pre and post twitter world with actual human beings (remember them?). I’ve sung Marvin Gaye at the Saturday night karaoke more often and more terribly than is necessary to list or even mention. I met my soulmate in that pub.
A weathered darts board hung precariously close to a TV screen which showed football and Steven Seagal films on a seemingly endless loop
Pubs are, according to CAMRA, closing at a rate of twenty seven per week. Why is that? A lack of support from the breweries? According to Dave, “the rent is astronomical, the prices that they charge you [for alcohol] are astronomical. This is just a basic pub, and you do need the food to go with it these days. Soon you’re not even gonna see these types of pubs around. There’re a lot of rumours floating about that The Met is gonna be a wine bar.”
— CAMRA (@CAMRA_Official) October 18, 2017
A fucking WINE BAR! Look, I have nothing against wine, or bars, or even the two merged together. But surely The Met can just be The Met, right? Seeing as it has successfully been being The Met since the 1770s, my guess would be that it’s pretty good at being The Met. If it’s not broken, why fix it? Perhaps somebody could ask David Davis and Teresa May the same question.
“Most of the pubs and bars don’t let dogs in,” Al, one of the regulars, told me. His delightful pocket-sized jack russell Ruby is trained to deliver a five pound note to the bar staff in return for a pint of amber for her Dad. “It’s coz they serve food,” Al continues.
“Or they’re owned by cunts who fuckin’ hate dogs,” adds another punter, wearing a faded Royal Mail polo shirt. I’m unsure whether either of these allegations contain any truth. The point is – until now, these regulars haven’t had to worry about drinking in other pubs. The Met seems to have attracted a community of the lost and lonely, those who don’t quite fit in elsewhere. And I include myself in that.
“It’s a regular place where you can drink, enjoy yourself, and feel comfortable,” adds Dave. “People think this is an older generations pub, but it’s not.” I nod my head vigorously. I’ve been drinking, enjoying myself, and feeling comfortable in that building for over a decade, and I’m still some way off 30. I’d sit in my usual spot by the window and finish homework (with occasional interjections of ‘help’ from one or two of the regulars). Later, it was uni coursework. And then writing assignments. It was particularly surreal working out last minute dialogue for Veep on the back of a beermat, whilst two men loudly argued over whether Andrew Murray was “a Scottish Prick” or “a Scottish cunt”. I sent the email, which zipped half away around the world to Baltimore, and went back to my pint of Ruddles.
The Met seems to have attracted a community of the lost and lonely, those who don’t quite fit in elsewhere
“You could be 87! Some of my customers are. But then I do, on a Saturday night, get youngsters coming in. My customers are… I wouldn’t say rough and ready, but… I don’t get any problems from them. They’re all good lads and ladies.”
The majority of day-to-day clientele are what a more nuanced writer would avoid labelling ‘the white working class’. The exact demographic who feel increasingly disenchanted and let down by the broken promises of the politics choking them. Despite the smog of wealth in this growing market town, the vast disparity in economic inequality is clear as day.
“The good thing about this pub is that it’s Grade 2 Listed,” Dave told me, “so there’s only certain things that they can do to without getting planning permission.”
A couple of months later, planning permission was granted. The Met’s guts were torn out overnight, history ripped away leaving a characterless husk. The red tape has been snipped. If the new business fails, will the building be converted into luxury flats which local people could never hope to afford? You already know the answer to that.
Most of the town is ‘under construction’, inevitably destined to evolve into one big ubiquitous Pret a Manger
Where will the regulars end up? The no man’s land of Gig House, the local Wetherspoons? Well, in Brexit Britain even that is being quietly shut down by a heavily-sweating red-eyed Tim Martin, who is probably wondering whether it’s too late to invest in Uber Eats. I get it, progression is good. Investment is good. But like this? I know, you’re reading a fucking love letter from a man to a pub. But that place was more than just a warm building and a darts team and a half decent selection of real ale. It was home. Not just for me, but for so many people over the years. I already miss it greatly.
I’m told the wine bar which stands in it’s place is ‘rustic chic’ but any of the fifty six vin ordinaire on offer will set you back a bit. And they won’t allow you to complete your transaction via dog-mouth. Hey – Wokingham is wealthy; I guess the new regulars will pay the price. Most of the town is now ‘under construction’; a tumorous building site inevitably destined to evolve into one big ubiquitous Pret a Manger beneath a never-ending bitter winter sky. Just like everywhere else. Raise your bottle of not-technically-craft beer and say “God Bless the Tory government”. Then smash that bottle over your own head.
“I’d like it to stay as an old fashioned pub,” shrugs Dave, “and then I could come in and have a drink. As I said to you the other night – you’re not customers, you’re my friends.”