Long Live the arty party pub


Writer Sophie Haydock has written a piece for Arts Council England’s website on what she found after a road trip around the country’s watering holes. Among other venues she also found our Desi Pubs and wrote a lovely piece which you can read here.


A brilliant example of an initiative that’s reinvigorated the struggling pub trade across the West Midlands can be found in the area’s 50 “desi” pubs.

Desi is a slang term to describe something from the Indian subcontinent. In short, desi pubs are classic English pubs in the Black Country that serve Punjabi food alongside salted peanuts, Stella and sports on the big screen.

Desi pubs have redefined pub culture in Smethwick, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton and Walsall for more than 40 years. Racism was rife in the Midlands, especially during the 1960s. Back then, immigrants, including those from India, weren’t welcome to drink in most pubs. Desi pubs began popping up in the 1970s, initially frequented by Asian men working in the foundries – backbreaking work in factories that produced metal castings.

These days, it’s a different story. These pubs are the heart of the community. And following an 18-month landmark collaboration between artists and landlords, the world’s first Punjabi pub signs now hang at seven Desi pubs across the Black Country. At one of the oldest, The Sportsman in West Bromwich, a sign depicts a cricket scene on a village green in the shires, complete with a Sikh spin bowler.

Smethwick-born visual artist Hardeep Pandhal created the images in collaboration with Creative Black Country and Nottingham’s New Art Exchange; they were brought to life by specialist pub sign painter Andrew Grundon.

Another element of the same project is a series of stained-glass windows at The Red Lion in Smethwick, West Bromwich, commissioned from the artist Steven Cartwright. They chart the history of migrants to the Black Country and feature the Punjabi Workers Association and Malcolm X, the American black rights activist, who visited the area in the 1960s, just days before his assassination.

The beautifully created panels bring an altogether different crowd into the pub, says Satnam, son of the pub’s landlord, Surjit Purewal: “They bring a touch of culture and have become a talking point. Art is a discussion, after all.”

Art as a talking point is in stark contrast to the early days of The Red Lion. Satnam says that when his Dad took over in 1997, it was a “lad’s pub” where fascist groups would meet. His dad once had to chase troublesome punters down the road with a hockey stick.

The crowd has changed a lot since. Now families crowd in, and the Sunday roasts have been swapped for spicy, smack-in-the-face dishes such as lamb madras, chicken tikka and prawn jalfrezi. I’d make a journey back just for the butter paneer alone.