The Plastic Cup

Angry doesn’t quite cut it.

Livid is closer, but add a dash of rejection, a shot of belittlement and mix it with a large glass of feeling right royally cunted off for a pint of Heineken UK shandy.

The conversation I’ve just had with their telesales puts in a nutshell everything I’ve been ranting about: We small operators do not matter. We’re a pain, a hindrance. We’re an irksome drop on the delivery schedule; a tick-in-the-box on a rep’s timesheet. We’re a thin slice of the pie chart, the yellow moor below the red mountains on the flow chart and a high maintenance one at that.

We’re nothing to them

As you can tell I’m fucked off.


Because on the day of England playing in a World cup semi-final, and 4 days before a potential final for our national side, Heineken UK have limited how much I can buy from them to around half of our normal levels for a week like this.


Don’t panic. We won’t run out of beer, at least not all beer, as we run with high stock levels in case of unforeseen circumstances, but they don’t know that and many publicans don’t have the luxury of decent cash flow to tide them over any potential draught-droughts because their margins and trade have been squeezed by competition from the big boys – the same big boys who will probably have no problem placing a big order, the same big boys who don’t normally show the football, the same big boys who don’t give a toss about customer care or personal attention. They don’t care because if one punter decides that having to converse around giant menus offering Britain’s beigest ready-meals to the homogenised and the brainwashed, in a room with all the atmosphere of a bowls club reunion isn’t actually doing it for them then another McDonalds drinker will glibly take their place.

And so the plastic quadrennials will flock to the temporary screens at the Cathedral pubs to wear their plastic hats and drink from their plastic pots singing Vindaloo and slagging off Raheem Sterling because that’s what England fans do; until we score then they’ll throw it away, blow it away because they know they can pay.

But I remember…

I remember when it was fair. I remember when there weren’t drinking warehouses. I remember when it wasn’t fashionable to support England. I actually remember England games when no blokes had their faces painted and none of the women had their nails done in the George Cross. And I remember when people didn’t throw their beer in the air on purpose because they saw people do it in Birmingham on Facebook.

I’m angry now. I’m angry at the way this trade I love is going. I’m angry at how the type of pub that I love is dying. I’m angry at the apathy from above and below about all of this.

Until tonight when I hope to be cheering an England win in a real pub, covered in real beer, spilled accidentally by a real fan from a real glass.


Generation Ex

Now I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager there were three main goals in life: getting laid, getting served in a pub and getting good exam results.

In that order.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with the latter or make you nauseous with the former, but I was 16 when I popped my pub cherry.

It was down to a fine bit of forgery involving my birth certificate, a biro, a bottle of Tipp-ex and a photocopier.

It also involved a landlord of a local pub who was happy to turn a blind eye to the fact that his pub was full of school kids on Saturday nights.

It’s much harder these days of course. Authorities are much more stringent, publicans are more fearful, but, probably most notably, kids just aren’t that bothered.

This is a problem for the pub industry as the pub dynamic mirrors our national demographic: punters are getting older.

I don’t deal in statistics so maybe somebody will prove me wrong, but when Old Barney shuffles off his mortal barstool he is not being replaced with Young Levi puffing out his chest, trying to get you to notice the beard he’s been nurturing for a year and praying that you don’t ask to see his driving licence. Levi’s just not bothered.

Oh I’m sure that he’ll take his older brother’s ID for a walk to a nightclub or to a late music bar, but only after he’s sunk half a bottle of vodka at his mate’s house with the rest of his gang.

It’s called pre-loading and is the bain of the town centre night time economy. Groups of teenagers rowdily pour into town centres at midnight trying to get into pubs and clubs to spend no money because they’re already smashed on Happy Shopper schnapps.

Let’s wind the clock back a quarter of a century or so and return to that unscrupulous landlord of the pub that shall not be named here: yes, he was breaking the law; yes, he was profiting from kids whose parents thought they were elsewhere; yes, some of those kids probably got a bit too drunk and I’m sure his toilets bore the brunt of the formative teachings of today’s middle-aged drinkers, but those kids were a hell of a lot better off than today’s pre-loading generation.

They were in a regulated environment – get too drunk and the party was over. Get too gobby and you were out the door. Smoke a joint and you were rolled along. You couldn’t get pissed on a fiver, the bell rang at 11 and you met different people, not just those invited to whoever’s parents’ had made the mistake of going out and leaving a sixteen year-old to look after the house.

I do think that our drinking laws are too rigid. Personally – and at the risk of dropping myself in the shit here – I would rather serve a seventeen year old who was in with his parents than an eighteen year old with his mates, and I have knowingly done so many times in the past. In my opinion if a parent decides that their child is mature enough to handle a beer or two in a pub then who am I to tell them they’re wrong. They’re actually doing what I condone: teaching their child how to drink; teaching their child how how to enjoy drinking and, by letting their child see its parents do likewise, taking away the cool factor of alcohol. They’re also introducing their child to the sedate joys of the local boozer and it lessens the chances of them going out on their eighteenth birthday for their first ever drink, getting smashed and trying to fight bouncers.

In summary, and in my opinion; we need to get back to looking after these young adults. We need to tolerate their mistakes and teach them how to behave in pubs.

Your average late teen will spend nearly all of their time with their peers at school, college, university and in social situations and one of the only places before they start work where they truly get to interact on a level footing with us boring grown ups are pubs. Proper pubs, and we as publicans of these premises have a responsibility to teach them how to do it right, or at least how to have fun whilst doing it wrong.


The Occasionals

“Evening, Mike. Pint of Smooth?”

We like Smooth Mike.

We also like Fosters Steve, Pinot Annie, Cider Bob and Whisky Bern.

They’re dependable, gloriously predictable and invaluable to your average boozer. You can serve them with a nod and a raise of a branded glass and, for the most part, you can set your watch by them.

They generally just want routine and an easy life. They know who’ll be in at the times that they drink and strong bonds are formed by the most unlikely of pairings merely by regularly being in the same place, at the same time for the same reason. These are the people that get the best value for money out of pubs by garnering comfort, belonging and friendships.

Calling them regulars doesn’t do them justice and yet calling them mates misjudges the relationship. It’s all too easy to take them for granted and, as with many facets of life, it takes a common foe to make us appreciate what we have – The Amateur Drinker.

The Amateur Drinker is a creature who never operates alone. They hide themselves within crowds or large groups and go largely unnoticed by the majority of revellers. Christmas and New Years Eve are the obvious call to arms for these annoying occasionals, but there are plenty of other scenarios that deem it necessary for them to tear themselves away from whatever Netflix series they’re currently urging all their twitter followers to watch: stag/hen nights are often unavoidable, as are birthdays and other family gatherings. On top of this there’s the events that people think that they can’t possibly miss like World Cup matches and that live band that everyone’s been talking about.

Unfortunately for these dullards, these are all situations where the booze runs more freely than usual and the part time drinker is soon flushed out.

At first, within their comfort zone of near sobriety, they can be tricky to spot. You may get an inkling when you see a thirty year old bloke nursing a Baileys or see a girl with her nails painted in The George Cross ask a stressed barmaid if she does cocktails five minutes into England’s opening match in The European Championships, but it’s when the alcohol takes hold that they really catch your eye. That’s when the X-Box Doom merchant suddenly turns into John Travolta and the stay-at-home mum decides she’d make an excellent lap dancer. They shed the shackles of suburban boredom and act as they think that everybody does when they’re smashed, just like they saw on that Channel 5 documentary. In short they become a pain in the fucking arse and we just know that this high maintenance punter is going to wake up in the morning groaning “never again” and we won’t see them until next Christmas when they’ll do exactly the fucking same.

It’s not entirely their fault. They don’t use pubs regularly and so are hard pushed to understand the etiquette and social nuances that shape pub culture. To them it’s just a room, a bar and a vehicle for selfies. It’s not a pub; at least not the pub that we know and it’s not the pub that Smooth Mike knows.

Smooth Mike knows when amateur hour cometh. He’s seen the posters for the band. He knows what time the cup final kicks off and he hates New Year’s Eve.

Smooth Mike will be nowhere near the place when The Occasionals march. And therein lies the quandary: these packed nights fill the pub and the till, but at what cost? Smooth Mike will understand the occasional upheaval of his routine, but if it happens too often then he will find another bar to lean on. So ask yourself this: would you rather be serving Mike or that bloke stood on the table with a straw up each nostril pretending he’s a walrus?

I know which I prefer.


A Twist of the Lips

Don’t be fooled by the smile of the publican. It can be one of several. Here’s but a few:

The most common is the ‘nice to see you smile’. This one is genuine and borne of good relations. It’s for friends, low-maintenance customers and the popular punters that add more than their share to the atmosphere of the pub. It’s for those whom we are pleased to see cross the threshold; for those who genuinely enjoy themselves in your establishment and believe that the pleasure they get is value enough without needing any special attention or special privilege.

These people get a smile not just from our lips, but from our eyes and hearts too.

The ‘that’s not very funny and I’ve heard it a thousand times’ smile is regularly beamed at those who deal in glib humour, amiable slights and repetitive catch phrases…

“Good evening, what can I get you?”

“Oh that’s very kind of you, I thought I was going to have to buy my own”

We landlords generally like this. No, it’s not funny and doesn’t deserve the fake chuckle that we proffer, but at least we know that this person is going to be good-natured, pleasant to serve and means well despite their comedic shortcomings and sigh-inducing predictability.

The more defensive ‘I’m still working you out’ smile is reserved for the over enthusiastic newcomer. The punter who walks in all whistles and bells, demanding attention from the second they’re through the door – a slap on the bar, a confident order and a quip designed to establish that this is not their first time in a pub, that they’re the boss and you’re there to serve them.

These can be tricky and there’s really only a couple of ways to play them: you either take them on by quipping back as best you can thus asserting your authority or you can demure, smile that smile and hope that they either calm down or fuck off.

The ‘fuck off’ smile is flashed intermittently at all of the above and others who deal in the odd dig. It’s a smile without humour; a toothy grin with a bite, a laugh with claws. We smile this smile because it’s all we can do. We can’t berate every customer that misses with a dig aimed at humour. We don’t call out those who will take offence at us being offended. We mustn’t engage in petty quibbles with every deadpan detractor who wishes to drag you down so they can look you in the eye.

So we carry on, with mirthless lips twisted just enough as to convey good humour whilst silently screaming. We serve and we grin, and we show no weakness. They can’t know that they’ve hurt us as that is their intention. Whether the motive is jealousy, revenge for a perceived besting of wits or simply that they just don’t like you whatever the reason, the publican cannot be seen to be injured. We are king of this castle and we cannot bleed.
But sometimes we do. On the face of it, the pub is a kind of commune; the masses rule and the only behavioural parameters are those set by general decency and social acceptability. These vary from pub to pub, but on the whole anything crossing the boundary into the anti-social or taboo is snuffed out by the many. Only occasionally does the gaffer have to pull rank and assert their authority, and rarely does the landlord do this because of a personal affront.

But sometimes there’s a spilling point. One cut too many, a comment too barbed. There is no smile for these rare occasions. No grin to cover our cracks. We are exposed as humans and react as such. We vent the pressure of a thousand jibes and just for a while we are equal. We say what’s been muted by the smiles and let out all that is normally buried.

It rarely ends well and there are usually casualties. Some customers become those of a rival pub and the parting shots are generally far more cutting than the thin veil of humour that disguises the abuse served up by those who wish to remain a regular.

And so the process begins anew. A fresh start; an empty vessel waiting to be filled again by that steady trickle of derision that must be endured in order to survive. The smiles return and the pirouetting dance between landlord and customer starts up to a familiar tune.

So when we serve you and smile, be wary of which smile we wear, and be warier still if we wear no smile at all.


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.


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.



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?