It’s 11 a.m. on a Monday morning, and Kit Caless and I are sitting in the Wetherspoon’s pub in Baker Street. Fortifying himself before a flight to Mumbai later in the day, he takes coffee and a full English breakfast, while I’m on elderflower cordial and Mini Cheddars. Dotted around beneath the high ceilings and golden Corinthian columns of the unexpectedly grand interior sit our fellow customers: a workman in a hi-vis jacket; an open-top bus driver on a break; a family of bemused- looking Japanese tourists who have strayed in en route to Madame Tussauds. The besuited man next to us is, we hazard, killing time before a meeting.
Killing time is exactly what Kit Caless was doing last summer when he bagged his first Wetherspoon’s carpet. “I was visiting my Mum in Canterbury and I missed my train back to London, so I went to the local Wetherspoon’s, had a pint and read The Way Inn by Will Wiles. It’s a brilliant novel in which the main protagonist stays at the same mid-range hotel chain every time he goes to a conference. One day he meets a woman who points out that all of the corporate art outside the lifts, when matched up, make one big canvas which unlocks the secrets of the hotel chain. When I finished the book, I looked down at the carpet. It was honestly the first time I’d noticed a Wetherspoon’s carpet, and I’ve drunk at Wetherspoon’s on and off since I was 15. I had this idle thought: what if all the carpets added up to make one big tapestry across the country?”
Caless, for whom the Jonathan Meades quote “the banal is a thing of joy, everything is fantastical if you stare at it long enough” is an inspiration, took a photo of the carpet on his phone. A couple of days later, he visited his local Wetherspoon’s in Hackney, stared at the carpet, and lo, it was completely different. “So my hypothesis turned on its head. Rather than the carpets forming one big tapestry, I then started to wonder whether they were all different. So I set up a Tumblr blog, inviting people to send me pictures of their local Spoon’s carpet.”
The blog soon went viral and was covered in The Guardian, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, as well as featuring on Comedy Central and Buzzfeed. Caless had unwittingly uncovered a delicious secret that even the Wetherspoon’s PR department had seemingly never thought to shout about. The chain has more than 900 branches in the UK, and almost every single one is decked out in a bespoke Wilton-manufactured carpet, individually designed and often with direct reference to the history and location of the pub in question, a carefully thought-out collaboration between architects, designers and carpet-makers. “I’m fascinated by corporate culture anyway,” Caless says. “And I find it particularly fascinating that this chain of pubs, which serves the same beers and the same menu at the same prices, wherever you go, has such a diverse selection of carpet designs in what are essentially working-class, ordinary spaces. You’d expect that sort of attention to carpet detail in the V&A…but actually you’re getting it in a Wetherspoon’s.”
Caless’ blog has now inspired a book, Spoon’s Carpets: An Appreciation, which features photos of more than 70 splendid pub-floor coverings, accompanied by eccentric, entertaining commentaries which weave local fact and fiction together until you can’t quite see the joins. Caless wrote the book in five weeks, meeting up with some of his online carpet-baggers, and criss-crossing the country via its Wetherspoon’s: from The Rose Salterne in Bideford (“near the sea, near the kebab shop, near the mini-cab office—perfect”) and The Golden Lion in Newmarket (“this design is from Russia, with a lot of love”), to The Last Post in Paisley (“here be a place of comradeship and family, where your friends are your stamp of approval”).
“The book has a completely different function from the blog, for which people send me pictures,” Caless says. “The digital world, for me, is a collaborative one in which you get to share and talk and communicate. A book is more didactic. I chose my favourite carpets from the blog and then visited each pub myself which enabled me to write about each carpet in context. I think if I’d have pitched the book from scratch without having the blog, I’d have been laughed out of every publisher’s office.”
Measure for measure
As well as extensive experience working as a bar manager—Caless says it has given him an appreciation of pubs as public spaces and the ways in which they encapsulate British culture—he brings an interesting trade background to this singular project. He is the co-founder of small indie publisher Influx Press; its mission is to publish “innovative and challenging fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction from across the UK and beyond”. In the wake of the Brexit vote, Influx published a rallying statement on its website: “Regardless of how you think our political parties should progress, we are sure we can all agree that the most pressing issue we face as writers, publishers and cultural producers is protecting and fighting for the cosmopolitan, heterogeneous and inclusive future of the UK.”
At first glance, the carpet book Caless jokingly calls “the most hyper-commercial of my lifetime” appears to have little to do with these lofty aims. But by telling hitherto obscure but often remarkable local stories from British history, Caless is being true to the reasons he and business partner Gary Budden (the two met at school) set up Influx in the first place. “From an early age, maybe 14 or 15 years old, we realised there were other narratives going on that we weren’t being taught, that weren’t part of the official line about British history. We wanted to publish more of those alternative narratives, and storytelling which relies on creativity and imagination”.
There are many such narratives in Spoon’s Carpets, from the carpet seemingly alive with squiggly worms at The Bishop’s Mill in Durham (a design, Caless tells me, that references the local legend of the Lampton Worm), to the pattern of circles and lines which graces the floor of the Wetherspoon’s in Camden, north London. “I was staring at it for ages, thinking, ‘What has this mad pattern got to do with Camden?’ Then I remembered the pub is called The Ice Wharf and in the back of my head, I thought, ‘Is this the molecular structure of ice?’ I googled it, and that’s exactly what the pattern was.”
Sadly the carpet design in the Wetherspoon’s at Baker Street (housed in a former London Transport recruiting office) is not one of the chain’s more exciting numbers, being a workaday heraldic design. So which are Caless’ favourite Spoon’s carpets, and why? “There are different reasons. Some are favourites because they are really beautiful, some because they are completely bonkers. With others, it’s because of their feeling for the local area. The carpet at The Queen’s Hotel [pictured above] in Maltby, near Rotherham, depicts pit ponies and mine-shaft heads and layers of rock, and the molecular structure of coal. It’s really detailed. When I looked up the history of Maltby, I was quite emotionally affected by its design. The town suffered a terrible mining disaster in 1923: 27 men were killed, but only one body was recovered. I think that to make the carpet design about the mines shows a deep sensitivity to the area—that’s why it’s probably my favourite.”
I wouldn’t bet against the frequently very funny Spoon’s Carpets being a leftfield Christmas humour hit—particularly if Waterstones gets behind it. Far-fetched though the book’s premise may seem, it’s not far-fetched to say that its essential loopiness is interwoven with enough seriousness to help it stand out from the warp and weft of other blog-inspired humour titles to be published this autumn.
Editor: Rosemary Davidson, Square Peg
Agent: Sarah Such, Sarah Such Literary Agency
This article was originally published in The Bookseller magazine of 15th July 2016.