The Broader Picture: Hands across the barstools

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There is an eerie feel to Friday nights in the Wellington pub opposite Waterloo station. The usual end-of-week cacophony is muted to a backgound throb, and as the crows spills on to the pavement outside, startled passers-by swerve to avoid wildly gesticulating arms. However, these punters are not taking drunken swings at each other but chating in sign language. Deaf people have been gathering on Fridays at the Wellington for over a year now and up to 300 arrive each week from as far afield as Plymouth, Newcastle and Ireland.

'It used to be fortnightly, but now it's every Friday to ease the overcrowding' explains Christof Niklaus, one of the organisers. Twenty-five years old, in jeans and crew-cut with two earrings in one ear, he is studying to become a social worker for the deaf. 'Deaf people don't call the pub the Wellington any more - if you simply say the Deaf pub they know what you're talking about.'

Most of those talking enthusiastically over scarred pub tables and dingy brown carpet are young and fashionably dressed. By 8.30 pm the pub is so packed it's difficult to move, and reaching the bar is a struggle.

Non-verbal orders are welcome: palms held a foot or so above each other signify a pint, six inches for a half and a hand across the throat is a Guinness (Because the head on the pint looks like a vicar's dog collar, according to Christof). An L-shape with index finger and thumb for lager is easy to interpret, but a B-sign can cause confusion. 'A pint of. . .is it bitter, Becks or Boddington?' wails James the barman. It's only his third deaf night. His colleague, Guy, with a year's experience behind him, is very confident, exchanging matey thumbs-ups with the customers.

'In this pub it takes even longer to get to the bar than in a packed hearing pub', says Christof, 'not just because it's crowded but because of meeting friends on the way. It's like a big family. Word got round very quickly about the pub because the deaf world is small, closed community'.

It's true that everyone seems to know everyone else. 'It's brilliant to have a regular meeting place for a good old gossip', says Corinna, 18, who is with her friend Colette and sister Roanna, all three of them shrieking with laughter over an animated exchange of signs.

' The atmosphere is great and I meet lots of new people', scribbles Anne, 34, in my notebook. Tyron, 17, is another regular. 'My whole family is deaf and we communicate a lot by touch. Here you can touch people without other people staring and thinking you're alien. This is deaf culture'.

Christof, who met his girlfriend Lisa at the Wellington, believes that for many, the pub is a vital social contact. 'The problem with deaf clubs in London is that there are too many separate ones. People are isolated in their own area. It's good to come together.'

Hearing people are not excluded. Mark, 30, regularly travels across London on Friday nights to the pub. 'I like going out with deaf people,' he says. 'They have to make more effort to get through - especially when they've got a cigarette in one hand and a pint in the other - so they are more honest. You get a lot less bullshit from them than you do from hearing people.'

(Photograph omitted)