The Greater Manchester Police helicopter circling overhead was the only indication that the PoundPub was technically in Manchester; the locals will tell you that it's closer to Wigan. Like so many towns in the area, Atherton is a symphony in post-industrial decline; a working-class town unhelpfully lacking in working-class jobs. It’s not South Central, it doesn’t share Manchester’s gang problems, but you might get your head kicked in for saying the wrong thing or wearing the wrong jeans.
I guess the same goes for pretty much any town in the UK. It might not be the most glamorous place to usher in this brave new way to get pissed, but lest we forget that the first McDonald's was in Woolwich, the first ATM in Enfield and the first KFC in Preston, weirdly.
The sight of abandoned shops on the high street was a familiar reminder of Britain's approximate current position, heading north up Shit Creek. Places like this are what happens when you have an economy based entirely around London – where everything is unbelievably expensive and consumer culture is so advanced and hyper-disposable that shops aren't even in buildings any more.
The coalition's rhetoric and long-term plan for recovery lean heavily on the idea that we're "all in it together". But whatever economic rehabilitation this country is currently "enjoying" has missed large parts of the North and West Midlands. Looking around, it was hard to see many green shoots, unless green shoots start off as burnt out chip shops.
As such, it makes sense that Atherton should be the site of the country's second PoundPub. (The other is in a similarly deprived area: Stockton-On-Tees.) Walking in, my initial impression was that it seemed like the lovechild of a miserable one-night stand between EasyJet (everything was orange) and Poundland (everything was cheap). It’s a pretty basic concept; half a pint for a quid, £1.50 for a whole. Sounds fucking great to me, don't you think? After a sunny week with too much lunchtime drinking, I was pleased to have found PoundPub, and couldn't understand all the hatred it’s received from alcohol awareness groups. I’m aware of alcohol and it’s fantastic.
The sun had left Atherton by the time we arrived, giving way to a downpour. The high levels of drizzle in Lancashire used to be a contributing factor to its prosperity – the damp was perfect for maintaining moisture in fine cotton yarns and the water was used to drive the mills. On my trip there, however, it just added to the town's slightly dreary atmosphere, the same atmosphere that Londoners imagine when they see those ever-present grey clouds on the weather report.
After entering the pub looking like a pair of drowned rats, everyone in it burst out laughing at us. I can honestly say that, right from the start, we were made to feel incredibly welcome. It wasn't that sinister, "I'm-going-to-gut-you-like-a-fish-as-soon-as-you-go-for-a-piss" sort of laughter with which I'm sure you're all familiar. It was warm and we laughed too and now we were all going to drink for fuck all.
We sat down with Dave the manager and shot the shit about the state of the nation. I’m not sure whether or not to feel good about Britain’s drinking culture. On the one hand, it's a badge of pride – something that, as a country, we just seem to be really fucking good at. On the other, if you ever meet a Greek islander, or someone who was actually born near a Balearic tourist resort – or any foreigner other than an Australian, really – it can feel more like something the world would rather we were ashamed of.
Anyway, things were going great. Despite the Daily Mail's fears, we'd not been verbally abused or given a nuggie by a dishonourably discharged navvy yet, and there were no graffiti swastikas in the toilets. In fact, we were making a lot of friends. It’s impossible to ignore the civic value of pubs. Unless you've spent your life drinking in airport bars or in pubs on Oxford Street, the valuable role they perform for local communities should be obvious to you. So what does it say about how much we value community these days when they're disappearing at a rate of 12 per week?
The tyranny of the blue bag has taken over in a lot of places and we're culturally poorer for it. You won't feel so clever about saving a couple of pounds here and there when you have absolutely no choice but to sink cans of Stella either alone in your garden or on a park bench. And believe me, this is definitely what's going to happen. In this war between the boozer and the off-licence, PoundPub's policy of taking over ailing locals and making them attractive options again seems like it could be a pretty effective one.
Speaking of community, this guy was the youngest looking person we could legally take a photo of. PoundPub at 4PM on a Thursday afternoon resembles something like after school care, with parents stopping by on the school run for a few drinks.
That shouldn't surprise too many people; after all, there's a Wetherspoons in every town, and in every Wetherspoons there are at least five regulars who sit there all day, sinking suds, eating "food" and having stilted conversations with the bar staff. These are places that provide a service – in these hard times, think how much Wetherspoons is saving the government and the families of the old, infirm and lonely in care fees. It must run into the millions. It seems odd having kids in pubs now – and it can turn a Saturday recovery session into a Grand Guignol nightmare – but until recently in Britain, it was the norm.
I would never have imagined PoundPub as a family-friendly place (especially considering it doesn’t serve food), but it created an inclusive atmosphere; every generation was welcome.
I talked to Rob here, who, sounding like a Fortean Times writer gone very, very rogue, explained that, “Atherton must be built on ley lines or something… everyone gets pissed up. It’s fucking mental!” He went on to tell us about all the debauched stuff he and his mates get up to, holding court like Atherton's very own Tony Manero. Despite its dreary appearance, everyone we spoke to seemed really proud to be from here.
Out back, in the recently tarted up smoking area, we found Sue. She told us that while PoundPub had only launched two weeks ago, before that its name was the Old Isaacs and it had retained its landlord and all of its regular drinkers. Perhaps it was busier because of the marketing strategy but that hadn't put off old customers, even though some we spoke to were either embarrassed by it or embarrassed to be asked about it by a couple of weird students with a camera.
They still referred to the pub as the Old Isaacs, and laughed at the idea of calling it "PoundPub". It’s still their local, regardless of the budget branding. There were no hordes of binge-drinking tourists pouring from minibuses; no 15-year-olds drinking their way to a future of prison tattoos and colostomy bags. Just the same residents enjoying more for their money.
PoundPub is back to basics. It acknowledges what it is about pubs that makes people most happy; cheap fucking drinks. I, like most other people in the country, I imagine, are sick of handing over a fiver and getting fuck all in return apart from a flat lager that tastes like vinegar with some coins chucked in it. Increasing numbers of people can’t afford it, and this new branding is a reaction to that.
From what Dave was saying, a year ago the Old Isaacs was on its last legs. Here For You Hospitality, who have been the owners for the last 12 years, had a choice to make. Either they could sell the place to a developer (or, as is perhaps more likely in Atherton, let it rot), or they could change tack and try to make something of it. They chose the latter, as they did for their other branch in Stockton.
PoundPub isn’t the next Wetherspoons, or at least won’t be for a long time. Fears that places like it will attract the "wrong sort" seem to be based on the idea that you're an inferior person if you can't afford to drop close to a tenner on a pint of IPA at Craft, or a shitty cocktail at B@1. Anyone who has seen Clapham at 3AM as Friday night bleeds into Saturday morning will know how unfair that is.
Atherton is not an affluent place, and the £1.50 pints have to be looked at in context. It’s not like the customers here are going to be buying 30 pints just because they are £1.50; it’s a service the place provides for an economically deprived town. PoundPub is not an exemplar of Broken Britain – it's a rare and welcome boon for broke Britain.