Paying the Pipers

These days it starts on Facebook: a direct message to your page and with a link to theirs. “Hi, hope you’re well. We’d love to do a gig at your pub. We’ve recently returned from a summer tour playing festivals…” This, roughly translated, means: “Hi, I’ve never met you but I’ve just spent ten minutes on the internet and I see you do live music. Me and my mate learned a few Mumford and Sons tunes and decided to play them for our parents who loved them and paid for us to travel to festivals so that we could perform to ageing hippies and people who breathe fire.
We’re now better than The Beatles, but unfortunately have to endure playing in your shithole for a hundred quid on the way up to The Albert Hall”

I love live music.
Correction. I love good live music.
Rare is it that a pub is better than when a band are smashing it to an appreciative crowd. It seems to solve all your problems: People drink faster and they’re happier – there’s seldom trouble when everyone is focussed on having a good time. Spilled drinks are met with apologies and refilled. A bash of shoulders between two strangers heading in opposite directions is laughed off when, in a different situation, it could easily be a flashpoint.
The till fills up quickly and your bar staff usually love it.

So why don’t we do it every night?

There are a couple of main reasons. Firstly, there aren’t that many good bands around. Oh there are plenty of musicians of all kinds, ranging from the X Factor wannabees – who turn up with a laptop, an amp, a speaker, a microphone and too much make-up, and expect to get paid a hundred and fifty quid to scream Celine Dion songs at you with their eyes closed – to the twelve piece soul bands that are still flogging the Commitments pony and will probably cancel the gig a month before they’re due to play because they got offered three times as much to play Gary and Matilda’s fucking wedding.

Secondly, it only really works, for most pubs, at weekends when people will spend big and get drunk. It’s not easy to make money out of a band and trying to get musicians to realise this is one of the problems. Let me explain:
If we pay a band £250 then we have to take around £500 more than we normally do on the night that they play before we hit the break-even mark. Considering that they will only be on for a couple of hours, at a time that you would normally be fairly busy anyway then this becomes a difficult equation to fathom. A landlord must also work out how much trade they cost you as they prop the front door open for 30 mins on a cold January night so that they can haul in their gear then play the same song part way through again and again whilst they tune-up, although I do enjoy it when women who have started their Saturday night drinking session early start dancing to this and moan every time it unravels and someone on the stage says something like “more echo” or “too tinny” or “my bass string’s a bit flappy”.

So the band plays and takes the plaudits and encores, and the sycophantic afterpraise as they go outside to cool off and smoke a rollie, and if it’s been busy will mention to you how well they did and what a good crowd they brought in as you pay them their money, and all the time you’re thinking of how much you’ve pushed this gig, talked it up and, over the years, built up a good reputation and taken the hit when bands have failed. You think of how most of the punters in tonight were in last week for a different band and you resist the urge to tell this accountant – who puts on a leather jacket and a Joy Division T-shirt on Saturday nights so he can fulfil some boyhood dream of being a rock star – just how much you’ve contributed to the success of the night and how little praise you’ve received compared to the cheers and applause that this bloke has just milked for all that it’s worth from a crowd soaked with Jagermeister for murdering Mustang Sally.

But in the end you pay them, give them a drink, massage that rock ‘n’ roll ego and hope that they don’t ask for more money the next time they direct message you on Facebook.

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That’s Entertainment

Pub entertainment: such a varied and curious phenomenon that sees no sign of abating in the current climate of competition and decline.

Gone are the days of a bloke on a piano leading a drunken, ale slopping sing-a-long of a Sunday evening. No more is the club crooner the king of Friday nights. Those days went even before the extractor fan became redundant and the smoke cleared. The entertainment fad emerged as the drinkers began to dwindle.

It started with Karaoke. At some point in the late eighties, someone, somewhere decided that the Japanese were the ones to consult when it came to English pubs and we all needed to endure full time mums singing about working nine to five in a fake deep south drawl and hear fat old men crucify Sinatra six times a night. “You didn’t do it your way mate, you did it the same fucking way as that other pissed bloke twenty minutes ago. Drink up, lads. We’re off!”

A few years later somebody invented Bar-fly Jumping. Remember that? If you don’t just take a minute and think about what could be the most appealing thing that you can do, pissed up, in a pub car park that doesn’t involve the exchange of bodily fluids and a watertight alibi.
If you come up with donning a Velcro-striped jump suit then running at and jumping on a small trampoline before somersaulting and sticking upside-down to an upturned bouncy-castle then give yourself a pat on the back. Or, alternatively, go and smash your head against a wall and never come up with an idea again, as the person who invented this bizarre and, quite frankly, fucking stupid craze should have done.
For about five months in the mid nineties you could barely take a sip of your summer snakebite without some drunken plumber flipping through your field of vision looking like some kind of catapulted Telly Tubby.
It didn’t last. How could it?

Wii nights. They were a riot weren’t they? I mean what more could you ask then to walk into your local and see a couple of bell ends shaking remote controls at a big screen pretending to be ten pin bowling. Just go ten pin bowling you absolute failures. This is not fun for anyone.
It didn’t last. How could it?

There’s always been the pub quiz. A quaint tradition consisting of a bloke with a pipe shouting out twenty questions and the team with the most correct answers winning. Simple. Effective. Surely this would last?

Yes and No.

Now you have to look at a big screen and answer picture rounds, music rounds, logo rounds, anagram rounds… the whole thing lasts approximately seven hours and the team who’s most adept at cheating on their mobiles wins. So now there’s quizzes that you play in the pub on your mobile. They call them ‘interactive’. You heard right; encouraging people to spend more time staring at their phones is called being interactive.
It won’t last. How can it.

So now, someone, somewhere is trying to invent the next pub fad. I shudder to think what it will be, but it will probably involve drones or virtual reality glasses or fucking hover boards. Whatever it is I want no part of it. Just get me a decent beer, a good band and rid me of the fucking idiots that need all this bollocks to have a good time.

Cheers

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Friend Or Faux

It’s nice to know who your friends are.

Such a simple phrase and yet so pertinent for we publicans who, in a packed bar, will know dozens of names and even more faces. We’ll kiss cheeks, share goodwill and mock derision, and laugh at the most glib of jokes.

We’re a mate to all yet friends with few. We enjoy the love from the bulk of the chattering throng, but, as is the case the world over, there’s a modicum of mire that must be tolerated by the landlord on his rounds.

We’ll hug the homophobe, high-five the racist and shake the hand of the wife-beater – we can’t discriminate or take the moral high ground however much we may despise what someone is. We judge people – for the most part – purely on their behaviour in our pub. This may sound mercenary and uncaring, but are we different from a cinema or a supermarket? Do they refuse to serve drug dealers and drink drivers or do they take the money and leave law enforcement to the law enforcers?

So we smile the smile of someone wrestling with their conscience and serve the ne’er-do-wells reluctantly, all the time hoping that they find another local soon and a decent soul takes their place at the bar. We offer them no reciprocal friendship however hard they strive to get in with the gaffer. We choose our friends carefully – holding down friendships with customers is not as easy as it seems.

To the casual observer a pub landlord has a hundred friends, yet the landlord knows he has few, so tenuous is that relationship of customer and publican. Yet who else can a landlord make friends with if we spend so much time at work?

Many a study has proven that running a pub is up there with one of the most misery inducing professions there are. I disagree, but the one thing that I truly believe makes the life of the publican a lonelier one than most would believe is the difficulties inherent in forming and maintaining meaningful friendships.

You’re only ever one argument from a friend boycotting your pub. This in itself highlights the main obstacle… money – your mates are effectively paying your wages and although this obvious truth remains largely unsaid it is known and accepted by both parties, yet there is no way around it. Should we give away free beer to our closest chums? No, of course not! This would be a disaster not only by way of alienating your other customers, but also in regards to the friendship itself – the balance of power is pitched for pitchers and you would then be buying their company.

There is no real answer to this conundrum and one must face the fact that in that sea of smiles and fist-pumps, hidden within the forest of sycophants and sleeve-whisperers there will be but a small band of true friends that will endure beyond your tenure and stay in touch when neither has anything to gain from the relationship. If there are more than you can count on one hand then you are lucky indeed, but then again, who isn’t lucky to have that many true friends?

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The Cutting Crew

Why do women go to the toilet together? I have no idea, but I do know that it would be very strange for men to do likewise: ”I’m just off for a slash, Pete. You coming?” is not a sentence uttered often by your average male punter.
So when I see a group of blokes heading for the gents in convoy, stony faced and blinkered, the landlord alarm labelled ‘coke’ goes off in my head.

It’s a sad and unavoidable fact that the legal highs we serve are not enough for some; that getting tipsy and having a laugh just doesn’t satisfy the escapist nature of those determined to have a better night than us square pegs drinking from round holes. They’ve gotta get higher baby.

We’ve all been young. Many of us have gone beyond the acceptable establishment drugs of alcohol, nicotine and caffeine and had some stonking nights because of it, but I doubt many of us would count being off our tits listening to Postman Keith murder Elvis on the karaoke machine in The Golden Lion as one of them.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not condoning the use of class A drugs in nightclubs either, but I can see the marriage with flashing lights, heavy bass lines, fast beats and dance floors being a much happier one than with Sky Sports News on the telly and the crack of pool balls.

So while the cutting crew are queuing for lines at the cubicle door, waiting to snort their pre-paid pleasure through a grubby tenner from the top of a twenty-year-old cistern lid, you can feel your credibility diminishing.

You’re not the only one who’s seen this and you know it.
Those that turn blind eyes rarely have tight lips and a bad reputation is the hardest to lose.

You must act.

This means leaving the safety net of the witnesses and unpaid minders of the bar. You’re often confronting two or three young males alone and in a confined space after they’ve just shoved a tenners worth of energy up their hooter.

You’re outnumbered and confronting men that you don’t know, but you have to do it. You have to get them out. You must be seen to do something, as most ordinary punters hate having drugs flying around their local.

Accusation, denial, threat, aggression, abuse, incredulity and lies all feature in this mini play on the tiled stage, under fluorescent strip lights and with the odour of your recycled products in the air. And eventually they go, with a parting shot and a “watch your back, mate”, fearful of the having to ditch their stash if the police get involved.

And so we bemoan the dealers. Those who inflict this nuisance on our lives and threaten our livelihoods, yet there are many who would argue that we licensees are but drug dealers ourselves. It’s a difficult accusation to refute, although it’s a very different drug and we purvey our relief in a very different way.

We don’t have to hide what we do. We regulate whom we serve and how much they can have. We refuse those that will do others harm and we see the consequences of our transactions.

If the pub is a house of pleasure, a brothel if you will, and we landlords and ladies are the madams, then the coke dealers are the pimps hawking out street hookers to the kerb crawlers.

Shame on them and shame on those who put our licences at risk by seeking pleasure where most people just have a shit.

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Ode to a Taproom

I love you when you’re happy,
And your laughter fills the till.
Those nights of smiling faces,
And gestures of goodwill
Those nights that you spend dancing,
Are the nights I cherish most.
Those nights that I feel honoured,
That I’m paid to be your host

Those days when your warm belly,
Defeats the cold outside
Those days that you sell sanctuary,
To those that seek a hide
You proffer seats for the weary,
And a ring for the clown.
You offer peace to the troubled,
And a shoulder for the down.

You’re here for the many,
And there for the few,
A room for the all,
And all with a view.
Yet you’re more than a room,
More than four walls,
You’re a theatre for the sick,
And a breaker of falls.

But sometimes you fail me,
Sometimes you make me sad,
When the aggression takes over,
And you forget what we had.
Those nights that you scare me,
When your smiles become stares.
When you shout and you push,
And your violence flares.

Those days when you’re distant,
When you’re empty and still.
Those days I feel alone,
With no empty to fill.
Those days that test the limit,
Of a landlord’s soul and mind
Those days that offer nothing,
But the routine and the grind

Yet ever I forgive you,
For you are my butter and my bread.
You’re where I work, where I live;
You’re where they’ll find me dead.
A landlord I am
And a landlord I’ll be,
Others come and go,
But it’s forever you and me.

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Home Alone

It’s fair to say that this is a watershed era for pubs.

Their heyday lies way back in the shoulder-pad of the eighties when you could be woken by the rattling of bottles on the back of a milk float and sauce bottles were the right way up.

I lived above the pub that my parents ran back then and although my recollections may be gold-filtered by the halcyon memory of my youth, it seemed a much simpler time.

I remember the queues waiting for the bolt to slide on the front door at noon on a Sunday. Back then, on the Sabbath, most pubs were only permitted to open until 2pm and reopen an eternity later at 7. This led to a concerted and methodical mass lunchtime binge and is possibly the root of our much maligned British drinking culture, and also of our once popular pastime of falling asleep in the armchair after Sunday lunch.

These raucous, empty-bellied, early sessions are now stuff of legend, replaced by Sunday afternoons in beer gardens or watching the football.

Lunch first, binge later.

In those days pubs were more numerous, less salubrious and, most importantly, busier.

Staff wages were less as pubs operated for fewer hours (around 58 as opposed to todays norm of 80+) yet pubs still sold similar quantities of beer.

Now there are fewer pubs, but the ones that remain are generally well kept, modern, bright and clean; yet they still struggle to pull in the crowds that used to flock to a scarcely mopped local thirty years ago

So why are things different now?

I have this conversation often with punters and fellow landlords and operators, and usually the first to cop the flack for the decline of the local are the supermarkets.

I disagree.

Not entirely, but it’s so easy to sit back and blame the superstores for their cut-price deals on booze.

It’s a fact that it’s always been cheaper to buy booze from Tesco or Asda or even the local off-licence. Of course it is; their margins are less because their overheads are less. Punters come in buy it and leave. In pubs they come in, get served a pint in a glass that has to be washed, by a glass washing machine that has to be paid for, filled with non-free water and detergent; use the toilets that have to be cleaned and maintained; soak up the increasingly expensive heating (when was the last time you saw a barmaid in a Saisburys style fleece?), and scratch their name into your newly bought table.

Although the market trend appears to back the argument that the supermarket is killing pubs, I believe that shop bought alcohol is merely a symptom of the real problem: people are just more boring these days.

Yes. You!

Back then the average 25 year old would meet up with his mates for a beer. They wouldn’t call each other even though the miracle of the telephone had been around for decades.

They wouldn’t fax each other. Nobody ever did that if truth be told.

No. They would just pop into the pub and see who was in there. It was lovely.

Now you can’t possibly contemplate a Saturday night out without about sixty notifications on Facebook messenger, Snapchat or whatever intrusive and needy phone app is in vogue for your circle of friends. Suggestions, excuses, time changes, apologies and arguments are the general pre cursor to a night out when all you’re doing is meeting up for a beer.

And even that is rare and generally only at weekends.

“Not on a schoolnight”

You don’t go to school. You’re a fucking postman!

And so it is that people can no longer contemplate either going out in a group smaller than a coach trip or having a drink after 9pm on a Tuesday.

On top of this there’s those companies that pray on the dull and the inert.

Netflix, Sky, Amazon and a whole host of internet based gambling companies vie for the pound coin of this new breed of hermit. Jesus! You can now lose a wedge of cash in your bedroom playing a fruit machine on your phone. Think about that for a minute. Picture it then do as I do and whack your head against the nearest wall. It helps.

And when you’ve lost that game of poker to that twelve year old Japanese kid, you go to the fridge and pull out your can of Lidl cider, put on Game of Thrones and go on Facebook to tell everyone how brilliant it is and how fucking happy you are.

But sometimes, somewhere there’s someone that doesn’t see this cry for appeasement of your boring life because they’re too busy getting pissed and having a laugh in a pub with their mates.

Cheers

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Chasing Graveyards

Einstein’s theory of relativity, in layman’s terms, states that time moves faster or slower depending on the observer. He spent ten years trying to prove this.

He could have saved himself an awful lot of time and thought by standing behind the bar of a local boozer on a hot Tuesday afternoon serving Boring George.

Boring George is a metaphor for a particular type of drinker and anyone who’s ever worked the graveyard shift in a pub will know at least one.

 

He trudges far

Searching for space

The empty bar

His favourite place

 

If he looks in the window and sees a crowd he’ll move on. He doesn’t wish to interact with fellow customers. They can walk away, turn around, tell him to shut up.

It’s you he wants: the captive of the counter. He wants you all to himself. He knows you can’t leave; can’t get away. He knows you’re unlikely to tell him to fuck off.

He knows that you’re his. His to bury with anecdotes and well rehearsed tales; his to educate with proffered wisdom; his to correct and criticise, and improve with advice.

 

He spies his prey

And shuffles in

You’re his today

Shall we begin..

 

You groan when you see him. You know what’s coming, but you’re professional enough to smile and thank him when he pays you for his pint.

Over the next hour or two your bar becomes cleaner than it’s been in weeks.

Every glass gets washed. Twice.

Every shelf gets wiped and dried. The back bar is arranged. Then rearranged. Then put back how it was before you rearranged it. But all to the droning soundtrack of The World According To Boring George.

There’s no escaping George. If you happen to nip out mid-anecdote to change a barrel (and believe me, there’s many a phantom barrel change when George is holding court) then he will continue as soon as you’re back in his sights.

He doesn’t want you to reply, merely to listen. He uses you because nobody else will stand him for longer than they possibly have to, and you, stuck behind the jump in an empty bar, have to listen.

 

A story here.

A moan there.

Another beer.

Another stare.

 

And all this time you try and think happy thoughts, think about the good things about your job and try to resist the urge to set off the fire alarm.

You look outside and every person walking by in the July sunshine is, to you, happy, rich, sexually satisfied and returning from a lunch of utopian quality.

And you’ve just spent two hours with George.

Two hours that seemed like eight, yet to him it’s flown by. He’s achieved his goal. He got to say what he wanted to say to someone who didn’t argue with him and, most importantly of all, listened.

And that’s when it hits you: The realisation of how lonely George is. How much he craves the attention. How rare it is for him to interact as he just has and just how much he needs the empty stage and the single audience of the graveyard shift.

And the feelings of relief at his departure vie with feelings of guilt and of pity.

 

At last he goes

With a parting groan

A reminder of woes

And again he’s alone.

 

Cheers

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