I’ve written often about the Chemic Tavern in Woodhouse, Leeds, which, because it’s out of the way and seldom sighted, some people take to be a figment of my imagination. If that were so (which it isn’t because my imagination doesn’t run to creating alternative pub universes), then at least it wouldn’t have to pay excessive business rates and its future would be more assured than it is.
The prospect of the pub closing has caused a great deal of alarm, and not just among the regulars. The Chemic is recognised as a community asset and a meeting called by the three people who run it as a sort of workers’ cooperative (it’s owned by Punch Taverns) packed the pub like nothing since the Baroness Thatcher memorial evening and hoedown.
Around Woodhouse and neighbouring areas, the words ‘communal’ and ‘meeting’ will always bring in the crowds, particularly when combined with the word ‘pub’, and the people at the meeting were the sort who know how to organise lobbying and publicity campaigns, investigate legal and financial problems and come up with bright ideas.
These busy people wouldn’t have turned out to rescue any old struggling business; the response was recognition that a good pub has a social value rather different to that of a social or sports club, a church hall, a cafe or a self-consciously modish bar.
Pubs can have a kind of ethos or guiding spirit which, at the Chemic, has to do with tolerance, a liking for good conversation and a mutual willingness to help out (when I moved to Woodhouse about 15 years ago I was immediately conscripted into a volunteer working party cleaning up a mucky piece of spare land opposite the pub; until then, I hadn’t quite grasped the concept of community involvement).
The Chemic is also what other people (not me because I hate the word) call inclusive. It can accommodate just about anybody except noisy drunks, show-offs and bigots; there are trannies, grannies, students, workers, shirkers, many musicians, a sprinkling of magicians, thinkers, un-thinkers, artists, jugglers, plasterers, teachers, car-salesmen, quizzers and - perhaps reflecting their owners - a pack of very friendly dogs, most of them, this being inner-city Leeds, mongrels.
It would be difficult, even though the Chemic crisis is all to do with money, to put a price on the pub beyond its real-estate value. The building is quite small – the amount of very good music it squeezes into its modest concert room is astonishing - but has a huge car park, so it could perhaps be converted into ugly apartments for students or retirees. They would be no replacement for the Chemic.