Monday, 4 May 2015

A Night at the Office Again. And a Very Nasty Complaint Letter

It’s November 2001. I’m out on the megalash in Morpeth for a college friend’s birthday. There was meant to be a million people coming out but it’s just me, the birthday girl and two others. We’ve been drinking at a bar called The Bank. It sells two bottles of wine for a fiver and one of my comrades started the night off by taking advantage of this offer, sitting on the floor and, beanie hat pulled down over his eyes, straight up inhaling two bottles of cheap red.

The night ends with my trainers covered with the stomach contents of a newly-minted 18 year old and the oldest member of the team (mid 30s, should know better, etc) trying to get in a fist fight with a moving pickup truck.

Morpeth used to be WILD.

I’m pretty sure every bar we drank in, or were refused access to that night, is either gone completely or is now a restaurant or something.

With these beer-soaked memories in mind, walking down Morpeth’s main drag towards The Office on a banky Sunday in May of 2015 is an exercise in ghost town exploration. It is VERY QUIET. As I walk past the shuttered and closed-for-years-now Queen's Head Hotel I hear a moan from a window and I’m pretty sure it’s the restless spirit of a million Nurses’ Night hangovers, perhaps trapped in a function room up there and desperate for a spoonful of Resolve.

Crossing the threshold of The Office (and instantly having to remove my glasses because the heat has made them comically steam up) removes all thoughts of Morpeth’s dangerous serenity. The Office is, unsurprisingly, buzzing with life.

Its beer festival is in full swing. Landlady and lord team Andrea and Paul are slinging six beers from their pumps, including Wylam’s excellent pale Lord Collingwood, and as the night goes on it’s actually quite exciting to see their names wiped from the tariff board as me and the Office’s clientele set about drinking the place dry. There’s also a load of ciders on the go, including the brutal Black Dragon from Gwynt Y Ddraig (a 6.5% mind-wiper that makes me wake up screaming if I drink it). There’s tons of drink on offer for such a tiny pub and the atmosphere is so good they should bottle it and sell it to Mitchells and Butlers.

During the night I run into friends I made the last time I was here, drink with two doctors of musicology, and get my lungs utterly ruined by an adorable dog that comes in just before time is called that I am massively allergic to. Paul and Andrea just became grandparents and they're unsurprisingly frazzled by the whole thing but they keep up a steady and friendly service, and once again the beer is top class. I luckily managed to get the last pint of Cullercoats Brewery's Shuggyboat Blonde before it was taken off, and it was truly a standout beer of the night.

This shot from the bar, like almost every photo, doesn't really get the size and shape of the place across. Better just go there!

This was a perfect night out. Very little beer was left at the end of it. There wasno trouble, no hassle, and minimum noise.

The Office is still in the process of appealing the refusal of its planning permission, and last week I had a chance to look at the complaints made against the pub.

I’m not going to discuss the ones from the general public.  But I’m going to talk at length and hopefully not bore you about the complaint made by the headteacher of the nearby Morpeth First School because it’s crossed a line and needs to be brought into the light.

Here’s the letter. In full. The redactions were made by the Council, who made it open for public access on their planning portal.

What you have here is a school making some very negative assumptions about pubgoers. What you’re looking at is prejudice from people who should know better.

The basic theme of the complaint is that the pub and the area around it would be dangerous terrain. The letter lays out clearly assumptions and presumptions (and I’m pretty sure schools are meant to teach people to not do this) about the pub industry and pubgoers.

First, the assumption that the pub will be open for lunches.

The Office is only 51 square metres in area. Last night I had to stand in the fireplace because there was so little room. If The Office indeed had a kitchen it would likely be a George Foreman Grill or a toasty maker maybe perched precariously on top of the ice machine.  Maybe they could keep a hair dryer in the back room and use it to heat up leftover pizza (the greatest life hack ever, by the way). The planning application, incidentally, made no mention of there being food service.

Draft for my Blue Plaque application: "Ruari O''Toole stood awkwardly here and tripped on the dog bowl 3/5/15"

And for the record, just to be clear, The Office doesn’t serve food.

Secondly, “We will also assume the customers will want to smoke”.

Again, this is a prejudicial statement, a punch aimed down at people wishing to enjoy this delightful boozer. People who drink are doing awful things to their bodies, so of course they’ll be smoking too, yeah?

Schools are meant to teach tolerance and generally not being a dick to people, but it appears that the headteacher and/or the governors could do with a refresher.

Even if The Office was frequented by a legion of cigarette enthusiasts who relentlessly stood outside the pub smoking, to the detriment of their liquid refreshment and the depletion of the pub’s beer sale income, this would be irrelevant to the school’s business because it’s not open during school hours.

Even if people from a Bizarro World, parallel universe Office which did open during school hours and somehow had the world’s tiniest commercial kitchen did stand outside blackening their lungs it’s a very low blow to assume they’d keep puffing away as a crowd of children, shepherded by whoever coordinates school “walking buses”, stood next to them waiting for the lights to change.

People who smoke aren’t bastards. People who drink at pubs don’t necessarily smoke. People who leave the house with a ten pack of Lamberts in their jeans pocket aren’t carrying them as a weapon to ruin the lives of others.

Both of my parents were teachers and I know that In Loco Parentis is pretty serious business, but there’s a difference between guarding the safety of children in your care and using your position of authority to spew out prejudice.

Oh, and just for the record, the smoking ban which has driven smokers out into the streets to attack kids with their murder-breath has actually seen improvements in the health of children with asthma. The smoking ban (and bear in mind that people worried that it would force a rise in at-home smoking) has seen a 15% reduction in the number of children in Scotland admitted to hospital with asthma.

And in the North East, the levels of smoking have crashed since the smoking ban in 2007. Us Northern cavemen with our disregard for the children in our vicinity have been better at quitting smoking than the rest of the country, from 29% of us in 2005 to 21% of us in 2011.

Distilled into its purest form, this complaint seems to suggest that pubgoers will harm children. It makes no assumptions that a pubgoer, smoking outside The Office, would stub out their cigarette as a gaggle of children stood next to them. The only assumptions made by Morpeth First School’s complaint letter are negative and toxic ones. It certainly doesn’t make the head and the school governors, on whose behalf she made the complaint, look very good in the “live and let live” stakes.

If you heard a popping and shlooping noise as you read that letter I believe it was the headteacher clutching her pearls so tight that they became tiny black holes, sucking her through to another dimension, which would explain why she failed to comment on any of this when I contacted her last week.

And let me tell you, sending an interrogative email to a headteacher whose school’s website is liberally draped in Comic Sans felt like clubbing a baby seal, but I fought through it.

The suggestion that The Office will be a threat to the safety of children has created a toxic environment around the planning application, the complaints against the pub and the ongoing appeals process.

I’m still waiting for a response from the headteacher, and would be more than happy to discuss this further with her. For now I, like many other dangerous pubgoers, await the Council’s decision on The Office’s appeal, and hope that the planning officers place more emphasis on quantifiable data than they do to a fanciful conviction that any given pub is a den of black-lunged bogeymen.

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