There are many terrible things going on in south-east London right now. The rise in the number of people forced to use food banks. People young and old are being forced out of our area because of a lack of affordable housing. Stupidly-priced, ugly speculative housing developments appearing everywhere to line the profits of a select few. The politicians who’ll happily sacrifice communities’ health and well-being to drive new roads though our neighbourhoods, instead of delivering the public transport we sorely need.
But according to The Guardian, the worst thing going on in south-east London right now is the name of a pub.
The Job Centre opened at the beginning of June. I popped in on its first night – in its first half-hour, as it happened. The staff were still figuring out how to work the tills, a spark was sorting out a final bit of work with the electrics and some brick dust still sat on the tables.
I only planned to pop in for one, but I soon gained good company and stayed for a bit longer. By the time we left, the place was doing a healthy trade – hey, some dancing had even broken out. It had the kind of mixed crowd you’d expect from somewhere in Deptford, with a dog curled up on one of the chairs. It felt like the place had been open for years. This’ll be a hit, I thought.
My only worry was the place had barely been decorated. And from the upstairs gents’ toilets, people in the flats opposite had a view right into the cubicle. Awkward.
I tweeted a few thoughts about the pub, and somebody asked me if I thought the name was offensive. At first, I had my doubts about the name. The place was a job centre until 2010, and was then was squatted on and off – it looked like it was having a riotous party the day of the royal wedding in 2011. Pub firm Antic agreed to take on the site in January 2013, under the name “The Job Centre”.
Antic had clearly based the pub’s logo on the 70s/80s Job Centre design… but nobody did anything naff like making cocktails named after benefits. There’s a little pin board up where people could advertise local vacancies – but essentially, it’s just a boozer.
Maybe I’d have called it the Mercury (after the newspaper once based upstairs), but Antic names its new pubs after the buildings they used to be. (Coming soon: The Woolwich Equitable.) It’s common for new pubs to be called after their buildings’ former uses, and a job centre is part of the urban landscape. And anyway, if they’d called it something else, plenty of locals would have just called it “the old job centre” anyway. If you were looking to piss people off, you’d call it the Moustache and Ukelele.
(Indeed, if there’s an Antic pub I’ve found a teensy bit dodgy, it’s the Effra Social in Brixton – a former Conservative club which is a fine place for a drink, but still has pictures of the old club’s members on the walls. If that was my Tory grandad’s picture left up for the amusement of guffawing drinkers, I’d want to have a few words with the owners.)
Scroll forward five weeks, and the Guardian’s Comment is Free ran this on Wednesday morning from Jane Elliott, “senior lecturer in contemporary literature and culture at King’s College London and a resident of Deptford”.
Gentrification? Irony? Behave, it’s a bloody pub, and one whose name has been known for 18 months. Brockley Central has dealt with this piece’s failings better than I could, although it’s worth emphasising this line from Elliott:
“Many of those moving into neighbourhoods such as Deptford – myself included – would prefer not to see themselves as part of the wave of displacement…”
Yeah, right. Some well-paid incomers are more worthy than others, eh?
Anyway, there was some sound and fury on social media, largely generated by people who’d never visted the place, branding the Job Centre some kind of hipster hell. Which it certainly wasn’t the night I visited. Nowhere on Deptford High Street is like that.
Someone at the Guardian didn’t want this to blow over, though. On Wednesday evening, a news story appeared.
So, five weeks after the pub opened to a packed crowd of locals, it faced a backlash over a name that’d been known for 18 months. Eh? Something smelt fishy about this (and it wasn’t the whiff from the other end of the high street).
Strangely, the story didn’t refer back to the Guardian piece that kicked it all off. Instead, it referred to an “open letter” written by one… Jane Elliott.
So Jane Elliott is actually from Lewisham People Before Profit, the political party which tried to take over the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign earlier this year.
Funny, though, because back when the Job Centre pub opened, Ray was wishing them luck:
Thanks to tweeter @Chimpman for the screengrab.
So if the whole thing was a publicity stunt from People Before Profit, what about the local outrage? Well, the report didn’t come from a Guardian news reporter, but carried the byline of culture reporter Hannah Ellis-Petersen. I asked her on Twitter if she’d visited the pub, and she didn’t respond.
I wonder, though if she approached the story with an open mind…
It also carried the byline of Helena Horton, the editor of a student newspaper in York. She did answer my questions, saying she interviewed locals “around the area outside the pub”. Like this one:
How many job centres look like this?
While the Job Centre row is a decent publicity coup for Lewisham People Before Profit, pointing fingers at a pub’s name isn’t going to find people homes they can afford to live in, or jobs that pay a decent wage. Indeed, Woolford appeared to be hoping the pub would close – adding to the dole queue.
The sad thing is that there is a debate to be had about gentrification – from the absurdity of places like Peckham’s “Bellenden Village” enclave to the local politicians who appear to resist nice things in their wards out of fear of attracting middle-class incomers. It’s a debate with many grey areas and one bound to reveal your own personal prejudices.
Maybe we can have a chat about it some day – at the Guardian’s own hipster coffee bar…
6pm update: “It’s great to have a new local…” Crosswhatfields’ take on the Job Centre, including the curious case of the Lewisham Council-subsidised supper club…