The occasion of a house move having left us temporarily without any stuff or beds, I and two children have hightailed it to Ramsgate in Thanet, AKA the Kentish Riviera. I have been coming here for 40-odd years; the town is known for its glorious stretches of chilly autumn beach, and Van Gogh’s brief association with it, but most of all, it is known for its Spoons. Converted from a derelict yet majestic casino, the Royal Victoria Pavilion is the largest pub in Europe, a Ramsgater told me. In fact, that title probably belongs to the Drie Gezusters in Groningen, the Netherlands, and even that is self-awarded and regularly contested. This is just the largest Wetherspoon pub in the UK, and I smile at the sheer audacity of the exaggeration every time I walk in, which is every day that I’m here. I love this place. I still hate Tim Martin as much as I hate Brexit, but I love the Ramsgate Spoons. Everybody who has been in it – who is not boycotting or allergic to pub carpet – feels this way.
All that preamble was to underline that what is about to sound like a major coincidence was not quite the jaw-dropper it would be in, say, the Watford Moon Under Water. Even if you only know one other family in the whole of Thanet, and it is a Wednesday, and you walk into the Spoons and they are there, that is just the universe working in its regular way. So we walked in and I saw some friends, said hello, all normal. Then the kids, because they are also friends with the other kids and also because kids are stupid, sat down with them. Which, even though I was still standing up, made seven of us.
A guy scuttled up pretty sharpish to reprimand us, and the three of us sprang about, shambling, explaining that we were on our way to a separate table entirely. This bit could have been better handled. I said I didn’t want to eat with the others anyway, as they were vegetarians. I was trying to lighten the mood. It sounded like … well, you know how it is: if you get the mood wrong, you can sound like a much bigger jerk than you were actually being. Then I offered to sit in an entirely different wing of the pub and on a different floor. I congratulated the guy on the sheer massiveness of his mighty pub. No discernible lightness was brought to the mood.
It might have been more helpful if the two differently householded 13-year-olds had not asked, quite audibly, whether they could pretend they were the siblings, get rid of the younger two, and stay at the same table. On the one hand, this is shameless non-compliance with rules that were introduced to protect all of us. On the other, they are 13, their entire lives are an endless list of instructions they don’t see the point of, and trying to figure out whether or not there is some loophole they can use takes up pretty much all their executive function. So there’s that.
Anyway, what happened next … OK, this might not astonish you. I was gobsmacked. They kicked all seven of us out. It took me a minute to even compute that is what he meant by: “You have to leave.” I haven’t been kicked out of a pub since 1989 and I have never been kicked out of a Spoons. I thought it was something more like: “You have to leave off your chat and go and sit down somewhere else.” But we had been ejected, in the slightly-raised-but-still-managerial voice of someone telling you not to make any more trouble, which everybody on the premises, even if it is the size of a ballroom, can hear, and we had to walk down this magnificent central staircase hanging our heads, like a bunch of thieving valets who have just been fired from a stately home.
You know when you yell at a dog because it has its head in the bin and it comes out, but still has its mouth full of rubbish, so you yell at it again, and then it gets confused, and can’t work out whether it is supposed to be in the bin or out of the bin, because life is coming at it too fast? We were all a bit like that, apart from the 11-year-old, whose intense chill suggests to me that she gets into trouble much more often than she lets on. We tried to exit through the entrance, got told off again, bumped into one other, committed social distancing infractions by forgetting not to hold doors open, finally made our way to the correct exit, on to the beach. By the time we reached the sand, we were actually running.
It wasn’t late, but it was as dark as a coal mine and the infinite sea looked like an oil spill. “Do you think,” said my friend N, who in a disaster movie would be the character who says the terrible thing everyone is thinking but one person in the audience might not have got, “we’ve just been kicked out? Or have we been banned for life?”
Is this just 2020 – or am I now the kind of person who gets barred from pubs?