London social: Skeptics in the Pub

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  • It’s standing room only in the basement bar of The Penderel’s Oak in Holborn. The crowd of 200 are not here for the football or a party. They are ‘Skeptics in the Pub’, a growing movement of rational thinkers who assemble each month to debate everything from conspiracy theories to homeopathy. Meanwhile, across the river, a very different confab is taking place at the Royal Festival Hall. About 50 knitters have met for their weekly ‘Stitch and Bitch’, a chance to share their wool-based passion over a glass of wine.

    London’s pubs, bars and bookshops have become de facto headquarters for every flavour of special-interest group. Whether you’re a pagan, Danish speaker, hypnotist, communist, raw-food aficionado or all of the above, there’s a get-together to suit your tastes. Cheap function rooms are available to hire everywhere you look in London, which makes it one of the few world capitals where such a diverse culture could blossom.

    Skeptics in the Pub is now in its tenth year. The monthly meet has a following of hundreds and attracts plenty of well-known speakers, including Jon Ronson.

    The attractions of a skeptical debate are obvious, but why the ‘pub’ bit?‘It’s much more informal here than if we hired a conference room,’ says host Sid Rodrigues. ‘After a few beverages, people are far more comfortable and likely to ask excellent questions. You also get to interact with other attendees, and build a community.’ Thanks to these qualities, the movement is spreading. ‘We were the only event of our type in the UK and most of the Western world until a year ago; now there are similar events in Oxford, Leicester, Edinburgh and Leeds,’ says Sid. ‘They’re popping up all over the USA and there’s even a Skeptics in the Pub in South Africa. The concept is building all around the globe.’

    Pub debate is nevertheless a very London thing to do, and has been for centuries. The Stock Exchange and Lloyds of London trace their origins to Restoration coffee houses, when men of finance would assemble to discuss business over a stimulating beverage. Charles II tried to ban coffee houses in 1675, seeing them as hotbeds of subversion. And in the twentieth century, communists, socialists and radicals would meet in places such as the Partisan coffee house on Carlisle Street in Soho (the subject of a talk at the Bishopsgate Institute on Thursday June 11).

    Now, thanks to the organising power of the internet, everyone’s at it – and London is the perfect place for groups to spring up. ‘I don’t think we could have grown the way we have anywhere else in the world,’ says Lauren O’Farrell, co-founder of Stitch and Bitch. ‘London accepts that you want to do something slightly eccentric with open arms. You can sit in its cafés or pubs and stitch away, safe in the knowledge that the city is a sum of all of its weird and wonderful parts.’

    Stitch and Bitch London has been casting on for four years now. It’s the biggest knitting group in the UK, with 3,500 members. A typical night attracts 50-80 people of all abilities and backgrounds. ‘Goths, grannies, lawyers, housewives, artists – all sorts,’ says Lauren. Perhaps it’s not so surprising. In a city like London, even the most unusual interests will find their adherents.

    That’s why the psychic dating meeting has not been cancelled due to unforseen circumstances and why the www.meetup.com/palm-reading-london" target="_blank">palm-reading gathering boasts 51 members. Let’s hope they never double-book with the Skeptics in the Pub.

    Check out the 650 London groups at www.meetup.com/palm-reading-london" target="_blank">www.meetup.com.

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