Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Leave Hunters alone! The many incarnations of a Belfast pub.
Apologies for the following rather parochial post. It won't mean a great deal to people at the vast majority of points in the cluster map at the bottom of this page. Still, today I wish to complain about the constant reincarnations inflicted on a pub on Belfast’s Lisburn Road, which I will never, despite what various owners might contend, know as anything other than Hunters.
I have been visiting Hunters for over ten years on and off. The pub came to my attention initially as the essential pre-match watering hole for Northern Ireland home games. Then for substantial periods Hunters has been my closest bar – the local which I repair to for essential Premiership games, or just to read the paper and have a pint after work. The relationship has not always been smooth. For a spell when Northern Ireland was less popular and following the team was not as fashionable as it has become recently, the pub refused to admit supporters after games. Naturally, given the large quantities of cash it took from fans prior to matches, this caused a great deal of resentment.
It's the excitement of a packed bar before kick-off which led to my affection for the place. On those early visits the pub seemed both huge and dangerously full. We would push our way through a mass of bodies to the bar where two people would join the sweaty scrum waving bank-notes at the staff.
Pints secured the heave resumed, usually leading to the back of the pub and hopefully a little nook or cranny with some spare elbow room. Familiar faces would shout out greetings as they bludgeoned through the crowd and as kick-off approached songs would be struck up. I remember poring over newly developed photos from away trips, concluded a few days before, or dissecting a copy of the fanzine.
That memorable night when Northern Ireland defeated England, I visited the pub both before and after the match. The only standing room available that night was outside on the street and after the game the Lisburn Road looked more like Buenos Aires. A group of us stood at the corner outside the bar with plastic glasses and watched a cavalcade of cars hooting their horns and flying scarves and flags out their windows. It was very different on nights such as the Wednesday Northern Ireland lost 1-0 to Armenia. Initially I was so depressed I went home immediately, to watch Teachers, but my friends coaxed me out and we huddled in Hunters hugely dispirited after that match.
Another occasion which sticks in my memory epitomised the dark pre-Sanchez days, following Northern Ireland. It was in Hunters that we learned a death threat had been made against our captain Neil Lennon and that he would not lead out the team against Cyprus that night. The atmosphere in the pub was bemused, depressed and angry. Who had done such a thing? Other times when Northern Ireland suffered defeats Hunters offered some light relief. After a defeat against Canada a mate split his trousers performing a dance-routine to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.
In truth, the pub could seem empty and dead when there wasn’t a match on. Its size was a problem on those occasions, when a solo drinker might share it with a senescent escapee from Toal's, intently studying a copy of the Sporting Life. If you wished, you could find a darkened corner where you needn't see another soul until it became time to seek out another pint.
In many ways, though, that was also the place’s attraction. It was an unpretentious pub and even in the evening you were likely to find a seat and get a drink at the bar without having to wait. There would even be a degree of peace, unless a graveyard slot DJ from Downtown Radio arrived to compère the weekly quiz.
Yet the quietness of Hunters also contributed to its downfall, because the pub has been through several ownerships and has suffered a number of makeovers since its 'heyday'. The essence of the bar has never been entirely lost, but neither has any refit or re-launch improved it. Something of the original is always diluted or lost.
Throughout these changes, though, the character of the clientèle has remained more or less the same. I can only assume that like me, they continue to return despite the alterations rather than because of them.
When I visited Hunters at first, it was a large city pub extending over two floors and several levels. The décor was basic. It was pub-like. Hunters looked like a pub.
The fittings were wooden and unpretentious, the floor was wooden and unpretentious and the seating was upholstered, green and unpretentious. The place was large enough that drastically different groups could easily happily coexist in not so close proximity. The students sitting in the window alcoves would not bother a set of spides bickering over who owed what to whom in a game of pool upstairs.
Then the owners decided that it was necessary to rip out the stairs, sunder top from bottom and classify the former a nightclub. Hunters subsequently became known as Vaughans at some point during the late 1990s. No-one actually referred to it as Vaughans, but Vaughans its owners insisted on calling it nonetheless. And to this effect they erected a large gold coloured V over the entrance.
The pub closed for a spell last year and, despite rumours that it was to make way for yet another block of apartments, it instead re-opened as plain old Hunters and happily reintroduced the stairs. The bar was an indivisible whole once again (that’s whole with a w!). Prior to the match against Denmark it was just like old times, the pub heaving over both its floors.
On Friday night however, as I contemplated a quick pint, I noticed that the windows were unaccountably blacked out. When I attempted to enter, a bouncer informed me that the pub was not yet open, which was a surprise at 7.30pm. Three quarters of an hour later, walking past the bar again, I noted with some dismay that Hunters was being attacked by a troupe of circus performers, that it had acquired a smart car covered with advertising and that it was re-opening (yet again) under the misapprehension that it is actually called Deez. Yes, that is Deez with a Z!
Putting this down to either hallucination or bad dream, I arranged to watch Liverpool’s tie with Inter Milan at Hunters last night. Horrifyingly the pub is indeed now being styled Deez, boasts a gaudy yellow logo and is urging its customers to ‘Eat, Drink, Dance’. Two of these we all do anyway, if we are to stay alive, and the third is not something any sane person does in Hunters.
Of course the patrons last night were there to watch football. They were the same type of people who might have attended the pub at any point in its existence. They happily watched the game on the pub’s many screens and then left immediately when football gave way to a “fancy dress” night and the sound track switched from Martin Tyler to a collection of cheesy house music. The peak of my disillusionment came when I discovered that the bar now has a toilet attendant to help me dry my hands after I urinate.
As you will see from the link to Hunters’ Bebo site, the pub has decided to implement a few other image changes, a bit like a teenager who has gone to university and decided to present a new persona to the world, . Hunters is now calling itself Deez, styling itself a ‘600 capacity venue’ (as opposed to a pub) and it speaks very poor quality English in the first person.
But like the teenager who pretends he is something he is not, Hunters' past will catch up with it. It is a plain, simple pub and it always will be.
Two bemused old locals were sipping pints of Harp last night and looking slightly alarmed as Scooter began to blare over the speakers. They've survived all the incarnations Hunters can throw at them and have no intention of being replaced by clubbers at ‘Shake’ or student nurses.
Hunters has never prospered as a club or 'entertainment venue' and it never will. My message to the owners is that it should stop trying. Let Hunters do what it does well, serve pints, screen sport and at a stretch prepare snacks for customers.