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EAT DA RICH
On day jobs, apathy — and the strange, class struggle of trying to save the cultural heritage of people who don’t care to save it themselves.
On the railway sidings as you slide out of Paddington towards Wembley, this graffiti hits you in the eyeballs.
The words are about ten feet high.
These are the words of Rousseau, attributed to him by Chaumette, the leader of the Paris Commune during a Reign of Terror speech in 1793.
Back then, it was a message for the guillotine-bound aristocrats.
“Quand le peuple n'aura plus rien à manger, il mangera le riche.”
(When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.)
Here, it’s a message for the commuter class, slinking homewards from Paddington.
In which I count myself a reluctant member.
I wrote a piece called Enshittification last week about how my local pub is being sold by its private equity owner. I paywalled it but am opening it up now, for a short time, so you can read the backstory.
Because this story is not done.
Here is what I wrote about my local pub being sold by its private equity owner.
What I didn’t write about is that I am part of a committee trying to organise a community bid to buy the pub and keep it running.
The pub is a gorgeous building, built in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. It is listed on Historic England’s National Heritage List as a building “of special interest that warrants every effort to preserve it”.
Several years ago, some of my neighbours — with extraordinary forethought — got the pub listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). This means that, whenever the owner decides to sell it, the community can invoke a 6-month moratorium. During that time, the pub can’t be sold to anyone other than a “community group”.
This has now come to pass.
The private equity owner wants to sell the pub. The moratorium has been triggered. Because the pub is designated as an Asset of Community Value, until 27 December, only the “community” [open debate as to what that means] can make a bid to purchase the pub.
After that, the private equity owner can sell to whomever it wants.
So. I am on the committee trying to organise “the community” to buy the pub. We’ve formed a cooperative, adopted the Model Rules, set up a website, surveyed the residents, registered with the Financial Conduct Authority, even set up a BBQ and pop-up pub event to raise awareness and get people agitated.
The purchasing vehicle is a cooperative one, in which members can buy shares to fund the purchase. One member, one vote, in the true cooperative model: the size of your investment, your purchasing power, is irrelevant. Everyone has an equal say in running the cooperative.
This is not a frolic we have gone off on: it is a tried and tested model. It has been rolled out in hundreds of villages around the country where they have successfully raised money through a community share issue and bought their local pub, saving it from the depredations of the open market (residential development, usually).
Here’s a poster from our event last week, showing just how many such community-owned pubs there are in Oxfordshire alone:
We are now at the stage where we need people in the village to pledge their support for the share issue by promising to, you know, buy shares.
There is no money changing hands yet — a pledge is a non-binding promise to buy shares when the time comes.
The minimum buy-in is £100 — and that money isn’t a gamble on whether we get the pub. No money changes hands if the community bid is unsuccessful and we don’t actually manage to buy the pub. This is a win-win: truly, no one will be any worse off for trying.
There is nothing to lose, except the pub.
But, honestly? The phrase “horse to water” has never been so apt.
So far, considerably less than ten per cent of the village has pledged.
Apathy rides high. Knee-jerk negativity seems to be the default.
The asking price of £495,000 isn’t really that much. It’s 500 people kicking in a grand each. It’s 300 people kicking in a grand, plus a handful of high net-worth individuals kicking in a chunk each. Or it’s 1,000 people kicking in £100, 200 people kicking in a grand each and a couple of HNWs stumping up the rest.
Not to mention, there are grants that will match-fund whatever the community raises.
In brief: it is an achievable goal.
It would be a gift for the ages: a village pub in perpetuity.
But community spirit doesn’t get people to open their purse strings. For most, it has to be an appeal to the wallet.
This will be good for your house value, we remind everyone. It is a gift for one’s own future: a home in a village with a lovely traditional pub — in a village that cares about preserving its cultural heritage — will, indisputably, be worth more in ten years time. A village with a local pub and a strong sense of community will be a more attractive place for home buyers than a village that cares nothing for its shared cultural heritage and its sense of community.
Responses have ranged from blowing-out-of-cheeks and grinning to rib-elbowing skepticism about whether house prices will really be affected.
“Scaremongering” it’s been called.
Is it scaremongering to point out that home buyers presented with a choice between a village with a lovely stone pub and one without, will choose the one with a pub, every time? To point out that a village that can’t be arsed to save its pub doesn’t really present an appealing proposition to a homebuyer?
You need to be convinced not to let your pub rot into a heap and be re-zoned for high yield residential by some private equity dickhead to on-sell at extortionate profit?
Frankly, I despair.
Other responses I had at our BBQ event included “what about people who can’t afford 100 pound minimum” and just want to pay, like, £20.
Really? £20? It’s buying a share in a pub, not topping up a tank of petrol. Why would you feel entitled to a share in an *actual pub* — for twenty quid?
£100 is the fucking bargain of a lifetime.
Still others complain that the business of a pub isn’t viable. They point (triumphantly?) to the constant turn-over of former tenants — until I note this was because of high rents and burdensome supply agreements that the tenants were tied into by the previous private equity owner.
Others prevaricate. Others hesitate.
Someone wants to know if we’ll do bacon sandwiches?
Will there be fish and chips?
And what about hanging flower baskets at the doors?
This is a phenomenon up and down the country, a friend in the village said to me. Outsiders from the city move out to the country and care about preserving key touchstones of cultural heritage that the locals don’t give a fuck about saving.
What can we do? I asked.
We can keep trying.
You might recall I went to a concert in London a couple weeks ago. At All Points East I saw my boss behind me in the crowd. Not my line manager, my big boss. The top dog. He was there with his wife listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
I told Joel.
“Do you want to go say hi?”
“No fucking way! I don’t want to talk to my boss at the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Also, we’ll lose our spot.”
“Isn’t that going to be weird? I mean, if you don’t say hi?”
“No, I don’t think he saw me.”
“God, that’s just so weird. I can’t BELIEVE he’s here.”
We reminisced briefly about the other time we went out to eat at a very obscure — but very excellent — Chinese restaurant in east Oxford and bumped into another one of my colleagues from London.
Joel considered this.
“It’s not that weird. I guess the people you work with are… just like you?”
This… can’t be. I’m a special snowflake, I wanted to cry out. I’m not like all those grey corporates. They’re all lawyers. I’m a secret butterfly.
Back at work, I started to tell my line manager this story about seeing our boss at the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
She cut me off immediately.
“I was there too!”
What. The. Fuck.
We were both amused and I told her Joel’s theory about how maybe we’re all really similar.
And she said, I think maybe we are all kind of the same. Like, we work here but we’re all secretly like, I’m just doing this for the money, I’m not really like this. I’m not going to let it define me and be my everything. We all like the same music and artsy shit and history and reading and museums.
We all like a country pub.
Also, she pointed out, those concert tickets were exorbitantly priced. Who but a City lawyer could afford them.
I see her point.
On a work call later, it’s someone’s turn to speak. There’s an extra beat of silence and I start to think he must be on mute.
“Sorry, I was just caught in a massive yawn.”
It’s not the private equity firm’s fault, I realise.
We are all complicit.
Apathy is insidious, and they know this. They use it to their advantage, to pull the pub out from under our feet.
Apathy is everywhere. I see it in myself: ultimately apathetic about how I spend most of my days.
We have decided it’s better not to fight, not to care, lest we be disappointed.
It’s better to roll over, to accept our fate and swim passively downstream via the easiest route.
It’s embarrassing to be seen trying.1
It’s embarrassing to be seen caring about something.
Because, if you don’t care, you can’t be disappointed.
This weekend my son was invited to a sleepover at a pal’s house in London.
Our train was cancelled, then the next one was over half an hour late. We got on and it was so packed we had to sit on the floor, but never mind.
Twenty minutes later there was unwelcome news that our train was, for reasons undisclosed, terminating in Oxford.
At Oxford, the platform looked like Mumbai2 — or somewhere else equally chaotic, overheated and overcrowded, on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year. [Please spare me your knee-jerk liberal squeamishness at this comparison: I’ve been to Mumbai and I used to live in Yangon (the artist formerly known as Rangoon). You would be hard-pressed to find anyone there who would argue that these cities are in fact calm, cool and thinly-peopled.]
People on the platform were edgy and feral. They gave the impression they would cling to the roof of any train heading for London.
A train to Paddington appeared after many minutes and we all piled on.
Twenty minutes later, the driver announced there’s been an incident on the line ahead. This train will be terminating at Twyford.
At Twyford, everyone duly filed off — and the train departed for Paddington. Without explanation, like an errant teenager out way past curfew. I could practically hear it mutter “what?” really passive aggressively, as it slouched off to its room.
We got on another train — this one a local, not an express. At least it will end up in Paddington, I thought, even if it stops at every Tom-Dick-and-Harry station on the way.
Another twenty minutes and the driver again.
“Not a good day for the rail, I’m afraid.”
And that train terminated in Iver, a place I’d never heard of let alone ever hoped to visit.
After four hours and three terminated trains in record-breaking heat, I’d had enough.
So we shared a forty-minute taxi with some lads to Ealing Broadway and joined the sweaty — but mercifully functioning — Tube.
Returning the next day, the Trainline app basically spat in my face as it told me there were no trains to Oxford.
We took the bus to Oxford instead and then, at the rail station, there were no onward trains to our local stop. A rail replacement bus only.
As I boarded the rail replacement bus, I asked is it going to our stop.
The question was a matter of form; it’s what you do when you board a bus, check it’s stopping at wherever you need it to go. Of course it’s going to our stop! That’s what rail replacements do — they replace the rails. The clue is in the name.
Of course, turns out, the rail replacement bus is not going to our stop.
A friend collected us from the station.
I hope you saved all your receipts, she said, for claiming your compensation.
Well, of course I hadn’t.
The apathy was so strong, you see, I just went with it.
Like a piece of flotsam on the tide, we all just go where we are pulled.
We seldom get righteously angry when we really should.
Talking to people about the pub feels the same.
It’s as if most people are caught in a massive yawn.
They hear our pub might close forever, might become condos for the rich — and they yawn. Almost no one gets righteously angry.
I can’t understand it.
What do you care about, if you don’t care about this?
What do you care about, if you don’t care about saving your ancient pub, one of the last few public gathering spaces in your village?
There is only so much bridling and grooming and clearing the path down to the river that you can do for a horse, I think loftily. If it refuses to drink, it refuses to drink.
But maybe that is itself the problem.
Horses, like people, are stubborn. They don’t want to be told what’s good for them. People don’t want to be “saved”. And they certainly don’t want to be saved by a rural transplant City lawyer,3 brand new to the village and without at least three previous generations in place. They don’t want to be lectured about community and cultural heritage by someone who’s just enamoured with a pretty country pub.
Maybe there’s even more to it than that.
There’s another place in the village where people drink: the traditionally working-class “sports and social club”. It’s a square box of a place, not a cute stone pub.
It’s not twee; not Cotswolds-y; not particularly friendly.
It’s like a squat antidote against gentrification.
So, maybe it’s more than apathy. Maybe it’s an active aversion to keeping the pub that will be appealing for the arrivistes, the outsiders, the urban expats flooding the village and rewriting the story of “cultural heritage”.
Maybe the village old guard would rather burn the old pub to the ground than have it co-opted by outsiders. A sort of Maoist Cultural Revolution of the Cotswolds:
Fuck the pub. Eat da rich.
I’ve been to China. I’ve seen the defacements where the carvings were chipped off the Summer Palace. I’ve read about abominations committed in the name of bringing the rich low, erasing the past and equalising us all, in a void of nameless ugliness. I’ve seen the push in China now to prop up and restore whatever survived or can be salvaged of the past. Once it was gone, they realised there was no getting it back.
The legacy of the past is precious, for its own sake.
It’s a shame it has to go before people realise that.
But I guess that’s it.
The village will either get the pub it deserves — or it will get the rotting shell of a former pub that it chooses.
Unrelated, here’s some more wall art I saw in London:
Please spare me your knee-jerk liberal squeamishness at this comparison: I’ve been to Mumbai and I used to live in Yangon (the artist formerly known as Rangoon). These places really are as chaotic, overcrowded and overheated as stereotypes suggest.
Here’s a Note I wrote about this a few days ago: