Tuesday afternoon. The Caledonia, Liverpool.
The Caledonia is one of the true places in Liverpool. True, in the sense that the commercialised sheen that plagues so many pubs is happily absent here. The tables slightly sticky, the barmaid- ostensibly free from the scrutinising gaze of a manger, gazes passively at her phone, the musicians, whose warming guitars, flutes, and violins emanate from the corner of the room.
The couple, who sit with their newborn three week old son, haggard and pale from disrupted sleep patterns, speak cordially to the curious drunks about their baby, its weight more story than flesh. One of them shouts to no one in particular, “Babies are alright, just don’t go up to 3, pain in the arse.” The couple smile contritely and exchange a knowing look.
The Caledonia is largely the same since its recent decoration, but there are noticeable improvements. Gone are the beer matts that took up one of the walls and the dilapidated decoration, in is the smell of fresh paint and new pieces of artwork for sale: a wholly unoriginal drawing of Marlon Brando as the Godfather on sale for £100, is juxtaposed by an impressive Sydney Pollack imitation and a flattering black and white sketch of Ray Charles.
The musicians appear to be just playing for their own pleasure; according to the pub’s faux hap- dashed monthly schedule, there is no band playing tonight. They launch into a rip-roaring rendition of “Sunny Afternoon” by The Kinks and the pub’s drinkers revel in the song’s tale, told from the point of view of a tax-dodging, wife-abusing scoundrel, something which the owners of many of the aforementioned ‘chain pubs’ would possibly know something about (paying their chosen rate of tax or tormenting their wives, most are presumably guilty of at least one at the top of the corporate world).
When one goes to a Yates or a Weatherspoon’s on a Tuesday afternoon, a far bleaker picture can be seen. The bar staff always seem overworked, very serious and the pubs posses an industrial off-putting atmosphere that I can’t quite put my finger on. You can see the steam escape from dishwashers in backrooms, staff dedicated to collecting glasses and wiping down rows and rows of identical tables, leaving behind an unpleasing smell of cheap sterile disinfectant, smoking areas that seem a reluctant afterthought that entail the company of an overweight bouncer who looks appropriately depressed, holding the door open for you to dispel the monotony of his job of largely just standing there. All of these factors, alongside the once neatly laminated and now battered corporate food and drink menus, serve to put one in a position of unease because of the lack of authenticity, character and as cliche as its sounds, the absence of heart.
In the Caledonia, and the pubs of its ilk, one can expect to be drawn into a conversation, see the regulars ramble boorishly at patient barmaids and overhear conversations that indicate the patrons have more interesting lives and tales to tell of than their fellow drinkers down at the chain pubs. Not that chain pubs do not have their use: one sometimes finds that they need to ‘catch up’ quickly and cheaply with their chosen company for the evening’s expected drunkenness and debauchery, or that you find yourself stranded in town by the long walk home and require cheap frozen food to be reheated by the chain’s self-proclaimed ‘chef’. But aside from this, chain pubs should be ignored at all costs by the drinking public. A chain is not ‘the local’ because the decisions that drive its choice of drinks, events and decor, are made not in the backroom of the pub itself but rather in an office, probably a glass monolithic one, in which the every owned pub across the country adheres to roughly the same standards. The decisions are made based on the numbers, averages and projections rather than the far braver and pluckier independent pub owner’s intuition.