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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Calmer Police

Pubs are a slice of life. They’re for more or less everyone. There’s no hard and fast rules for repeated admittance other than those that the lawmakers state and the authorities uphold, but even some of these are deliberately overlooked by most publicans.
Imagine if the police were called every time we knew someone was carrying weed, or we patrolled the toilets to such an extent that we caught every punter seeking personality through a rolled-up tenner.
What kind of world would we be living in if a good local pub couldn’t deal with the odd bit of aggro in house and had to call the law every time?

We don’t. Why should we? We try, as conscientious hosts, to keep a lid on things and we deal with offenders by having a word, kicking them out or barring them depending on a few factors.

This is where pub law becomes relative and often selective. There are different punishments depending on who you are and what you’ve done.

If we don’t know you and you come in shouting your mouth off then you won’t last long, but if one of the regulars has had a bad day and acts similarly then our reaction is different.
It’s all about percentages.
The newcomer has been a dick for a much higher proportion of his time spent in your pub.
In short it’s a money spent/being a dick equation that all landlords calculate and all of the drinking classes know whether they realise it or not.

This may seem a little mercenary and I’m sure many people vehemently opposed to drugs, violence, sexism, racism, theft, piracy, drink driving, and anything else that gets extracted from the post mortem of society will be tutting the most English of tuts and shaking their heads, but this is the real world; pubs are a playground for all and we only turn a blind eye in the same way that most people do with their friends, family and colleagues.

Having said that, all of these things are (in a good boozer at least) discouraged, frowned upon and kept to an absolute minimum by not just the management and staff, but also by the clientele. Society polices the country much more effectively than the police ever could and the ‘done thing’ is generally the thing done, but to stop all these things completely; to run a completely clean house; to be whiter than a Britain First march would be not only fiscal suicide, but also fucking boring.

People who love running pubs – people who love drinking in pubs. People like me. People like my customers – love the diversity of pubs. We love that you can see a copper and a shoplifter vying for service on a Saturday night. We love seeing someone we know has an attic full of skunk buying a pint for a solicitor – fucking hell, sometimes it’s the solicitor growing the skunk and the copper is a known wife-beater. That’s life!

Being a publican involves regular, almost constant judgement calls and often the policing makes the crowd
I’ve heard pubs that are well decorated and with nice furniture described as shitholes. Conversely I’ve been in many pubs with threadbare seats and graffiti-smattered toilets that are brilliant.

At the end of the day, it’s the customers that dictate how good a pub is, so if you drink in a great pub then take a bow; give yourself a pat on the back. You’re part of the success, but always remember that it’s us publicans that gave you our licence.

Cheers.

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Nicking Names

How many people have you know in your lifetime? Impossible to answer yet I reckon I’ve met more than most.
Yes, there are professions who interact with more people – a supermarket checkout worker will smile and beep at hundreds of people per shift; a passport control officer will scowl at thousand, and a traffic warden may get called a shit by more people than I meet for the first time every day, but they rarely get to know them for longer than it takes to do their job.

The hospitality industry is different. We not only sell to people, we influence how much people enjoy the product. You only have to check out online reviews on pubs, restaurants and hotels to see just how highly good service is valued.
It differs of course. Hotel employees are expected to be formal and efficient; waiting staff polite and friendly, but it’s the bar staff of a local boozer that really get to know their clientele and I’ve made many a friend over the years by chatting over the bar towels.

A regular at a hotel may only visit once or twice a year; at a restaurant maybe once a week, but in a local it can be anything from once a month up to two or three times a day – a quick one on the dog walk; a couple as they nip to the shop.
However frequent the visit, a regular is a regular and deserves the familiarity that is expected.

A hearty ‘hello!’ as they cross your threshold goes a long way, as does remembering their usual drink, but above all we must learn and remember their name.

What’s in a name?
Well, for some parents, not a lot of thought. Not just because of the absurdity of some christening decisions (a teacher friend of mine had a pupil called Dwyane Pipe. Honest), but because we seem to be very unimaginative when it comes to thinking up life handles. However, the abundance of Mikes, Daves, Sharons and Johns among the drinking classes does give lie to one of the more beautiful and, in my opinion, underrated aspects of pub culture.
The nickname.


Originally ‘an eke name’; ‘eke’ meaning additional. The ‘an’ and ‘eke’ got muddled together over time and became ‘a nick name’

Nick names are never deliberately chosen or given, they just sort of happen. Their origins are often untraceable and sometimes completely unfathomable, but I’ve come across some absolute beauts in my time behind the bar.

In order to save embarrassment, avoid beatings and because many people only read my blog to see if they’re in it, I’ve changed most of the actual christian names, but you’ll get the gist:

A person’s job is often the source: Mick the Fish worked on the fish counter at Sainsburys; Rick the knife had rather sinister connotations, but he actually sharpened knives for a living. Later he was known as Rick the bed when he started selling beds; Mick the rob was a known shoplifter (I’ve also met an Irish bloke known as Rob the Mick).

Sometimes things happen and stick. Literally. One guy I knew got a sink plunger stuck on his head and was known as Plunge for years.

Jo the Blow was a woman who frequented a pub I worked in years back. She was very popular with the blokes and also smoked a lot of pot so It’s a bit of a toss up as to how she collected that particular moniker.

But, lastly, the ones that appeal to me the most are those only spoken behind the person’s back because they’re just far too insulting – the bar room can be a cruelly funny theatre.
For example:
Rapist Clive (just because he apparently looks and acts like he might be)
Boring Bastard Bernie.
Boss-eyed Bill
And the very aptly named, in my opinion, Steve the Cunt.
Cheers.

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Death and Taxis

How many funerals does the average person attend in a lifetime do you think? Twenty? Thirty? I have no idea. I do know that for landlords and landladies it’s considerably more.
I write this the day after attending a rather poignant one for me. Don’t get me wrong, all funerals are sad by nature, but some are sadder than others.
Yesterday we said goodbye to Mick; a legend of a bar room comedian and as respected a customer as I have ever had the privilege to serve.
He had been a punter of ours (and our previous incumbents) for more than thirty years. Our boozer was described as his ‘second home’ at the funeral, causing a ripple of nervous laughter from the mourning throng. My wife and I were even thanked by name during the service. This was not the first time this has happened, but it always makes me feel more guilty than exalted because, to be blunt, we have undoubtedly contributed to – and profited from – his premature death.
I’m always uneasy at these occasions; wary of the accusing stares from teetotal relatives. Mindful that pub culture is not everyone’s idea of a good time. Downright scared of being confronted by a grieving sibling accusing me of benefiting from others’ ill health – a charge I cannot easily refute.
There is the argument that if we don’t serve them their grog then somebody else will happily oblige; that we are delivering solace in a sleever; that ultimately it’s their choice to drink more than they should, but it’s still at the front of your mind when Amazing Grace is playing and the doors close on the coffin before it hits the furnace.
Every time.
In moments such as these one must convince oneself that we deal in pleasure and, as with many of lifes pleasures, the payment is not just in pounds and pence.
We tell ourselves that we merely open the doors of a morning and everyone that crosses our threshold does so of their own volition. We try and forget the damage we have inflicted on them as we help them into a taxi after two or three too many.
I doubt managers of fast food restaurants, tobacconists or illegal drug dealers attend the funerals of their ex customers or feel the same pangs of guilt that I feel. I don’t really know if many other pub landlords do either, but the difference is that we see it happening on a daily basis.
The obese corpse has many contributing factors to it’s lifeless state, but when it’s someone who you know for a fact only drank your beer, at your table, in your pub then it’s difficult not to feel a sense of shame and regret at your choice of profession. But, hey, somebody’s got to do it, haven’t they?
So, to Mick and all the others whom I have helped shuffle off their barstool over the years: Rest in peace. I hope you think that the pleasure was worth the years you sacrificed. The fact that most of them would probably agree that it was is my solace.
In loving memory of Mick Collet. Sleep well, fat bloke x

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Being Webb Ellis

I’ve heard many people describe our boozer as a sports bar or, more specifically, football pub. I disagree, but I can see where they’re coming from. We’re big on football, this is undeniable. We’re big on football because I’m a huge football fan and I believe that my passion for the game if not spills over to the punters, at least attracts like-minded people to the pub. We show other sports too, but it’s rare that we’re busy for anything other than football. The exception to this is England rugby matches. Only England, not other nations and certainly not club rugby.

So the story goes, in 1823 – around 4,300 years after football was first played by those clever Egyptians – a little rich smartarse at Rugby school called William Webb Ellis – who was probably crap at football – decided to pick up the ball and run with it. Now I don’t know about your school, but if someone did that at my school then they would’ve got back from their lunch break looking very different from how they entered it. I’m guessing young William was chased by the rest of the team, tackled to the ground and the ball wrested from his grasp whilst being punched, kicked and stamped on.

Rugby was born.

Now I may be being a little harsh on our second in line for the crown of National Sport here but it’s borne of frustration. I quite like watching rugby and cheer on with the bellies when England are playing. I know the rules (I played it at school when I couldn’t avoid it); I understand when people say “we need to recycle the ball better in the second phase” – alright, I actually don’t know what that means, but a friend of mine taught me it by way of making me sound knowledgeable. It works because very few people around you know what it means either. 

My frustration comes from the football-baiters – those incessantly comparing the two sports. Fans, refereeing and sportsmanship are the favourite drums banged to the beat of this elitist smuggery: “pah! Bloody fairies rolling around like they’ve been shot. Try a real man’s game.”

Sexism and homophobia apart, it’s the simplistic nature of this type of argument that bugs me. I’ve got into many heated discussions over it and it’s the same thing every time:
“look at how they respect the officials.” 
“you don’t see trouble at rugby matches”
And of course that old classic: “rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen; football a game for gentlemen played by hooligans” – if i ever meet in heaven the person who first said that I will poke them in the eye.
It’s a shame that these people have put me off a sport that I used to enjoy watching, but it’s a fact that they have.

The main differences between rugby and football are simple. It’s a class thing and it’s a passion thing.
A game at Twickenham is a sea of barber jackets; everyone, quite inexplicably, drinks Guinness and very few people let the result ruin their evening. Relations are almost always good  natured and trouble is rare.
Football is different. The barbers are replaced by Stone Island; flat caps by Burberrys and Guinness by cans of Stella.
This may sound like a change for the worse, but it’s the tribalism and working class atmosphere that appeals to many; myself included.
I love the edge to match days and, unlike most rugby games, the result nearly always matters. As a Spurs, Torquay and England fan, I reckon I have between five and ten nights a year utterly ruined by my favourite sport. So much so, in fact, that I often question whether it’s worth it. Even if I decided it wasn’t, it wouldn’t matter – I’m in. I’m stuck with my gloriously useless teams and I must endure them at their worst and, all too rarely, their best.

This passion is replicated in almost every nation on earth. Football is the only true global sport and there’s a reason for that – It’s the beautiful game. I doubt rugby could ever be described thus, and if it were, it would only be seen as such by a handful of mainly Commonwealth countries.

To those whose feathers I have ruffled with this, I apologise, but if you had to have this conversation on an almost daily basis then you would understand my ire.

I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote from an American visitor’s observations (mainly from visiting English pubs) on all things English: “In England football is a religion. Religion is a sport.”
He didn’t even mention rugby.

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