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A historian walks into a bar… by Dr Nathan Smith

• Wetherspoons news

A historian walks into a bar…
Dr Nathan Smith, FLS

A historian walks into a bar…

Dr Nathan Smith, FLS, is a Cardiff-based curator and historian. His history research focuses on amateur science movements and how science works outside of universities and industry, with a particular focus on those who study and describe new fungal species. His recently published research article, ‘History in the pub: The historiography of J D Wetherspoon’, published in the history of science journal Endeavour, discusses how J D Wetherspoon uses history in its pubs and what this means for historians. 

Where do you get your history from? It’s an important question. 

The history we have informs how we see the world around us. It can shape our politics, the purchases we make and the way we view our lives. It’s also difficult to tell a completely objective history – a fact which has long since been recognised: the phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ is among the most famous witticisms wrongly ascribed to Winston Churchill. 

Explicitly, it suggests that ‘might makes right’ and that those in power use history as a way of communicating their politics. But this isn’t the whole story. History, after all, is written by the historians – whose politics, viewpoints and biases rarely completely align with victorious powers. 

This was something which Churchill definitely recognised – one of the quotes known to have come from Churchill is his belief that history would be kind to him because he intended to write it. But what happens when no one reads histories?

This is a question which plagues historians. It’s relatively well known that academic histories struggle to break through to the general public and that large amounts of interesting and exciting work are often read by only a handful people – a state of affairs not helped by an increasingly formalised and restrictive writing style and the fact that a lot of research is hidden behind paywalls. 

In the sector I work in, museums, we are faced with declining attendance numbers and the constant quest to make ourselves relevant, in an attempt to bring people back in. 

It’s a Quixotic quest, yet also one with existential ramifications – austerity and substantial local budget cuts have left many museums in vulnerable positions and threatened with closure. Indeed, many museums across the UK have already permanently shut their doors, with the primary impact felt, as always, by the local communities which they served. 

This is all to say that where people get their history from is an important question to me and one which I think about perhaps a little more than I should. And one time I was thinking about it in a Wetherspoon…

In this particular pub visit, I was drawn to the posters surrounding the walls – posters I had seen and read many times before in previous visits. Covering biographies of prominent historical individuals, historical events and all manner of things, I was struck by how unusual it was and, perhaps, that Wetherspoon was telling its own distinct version of history. I even went as far as to imagine it might be functioning as some form of museum itself. 

Digging further, it became something bigger. While I could find no one talking about the posters, several researchers had highlighted the unique carpets possessed by each pub, the distinct architecture of the buildings and, perhaps most interestingly, the name used by more than one pub: The Moon Under Water (an obscure George Orwell essay on the ideal pub). The Wetherspoon website even has a pub history section: www.jdwetherspoon.com/pub-histories 

Throughout, a key theme became apparent: a focus on the local. While some connections were stretched (and some even erroneous), as my research deepened, it became apparent that effort had been taken for each pub to showcase the most local histories, often down to the scale of the building itself. 

The interplay between this emphasis on the immediate and the political positions adopted by the chain are obvious, but what caught me more was the difference between this historical perspective and the historical perspectives I frequently came across in academic settings.

This is not to tar all historians with the same brush, but many are inherently cosmopolitan creatures. Job insecurity leads many to travel from city to city and from country to country – and their histories reflect this, with their work often searching for universality or broader themes at the expense of being connected to place. 

Even national societies (which have long been a bastion of local research) increasingly have an international focus. Resultingly, local history is increasingly disconnected from other academic history disciplines – practised by different people, in different places, and told to different audiences.

This is where my research led me. J D Wetherspoon is among the largest pub operators in the UK, possessing over 800 pubs across the UK and Ireland. Each of these attracts an audience on a Friday and Saturday night which puts most academic conferences to shame. 

It is among the popular sources of history in the UK and yet there is little interaction with the chain from historians. My article sought to highlight this and to encourage engagement with different historical narratives; to ask historians: where do you get your history from? And where does your audience get its?

To read George Orwell’s essay and compare how your local Wetherspoon pub compares, follow this link: www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/the-moon-under-water/ 

To read my research article on Wetherspoon pubs and the histories which they tell, follow this link: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160932723000467