The Friend Zone

I think that most publicans are avid people watchers; habitual voyeurs. We see the little things that people do. We see the tics, the nuances and idiosyncrasies. We hear the repeated words and phrases that people utter unwittingly. We know who needs an ego massage and who can handle the piss-taking. We eek chatter from the meek nursing their mild and demure to the taproom thespian quoting pseudo Shakespeare at you to order a drink: “Why, yes, my good fellow. A pint of frothing ale would be a splendid thing on this fine morrow” (at this point it’s generally considered good business not to stab them in the throat with the lemon knife in spite of extreme temptation and any inner feelings of duty toward the order of natural selection).

In some ways we know our locals better than they know themselves. We know where they will sit, when they’ll be in (and when they won’t). We know when they’re about to reach their drinking limit and the best way to deal with them when they do. We know what topics to bring up and, more importantly, which subjects to avoid. This is all part of our job and we should be good at observing and reacting appropriately, but what has always interested me is how the punters also do this and look after each other accordingly.

Rarely does a publican have to calm down an irate regular as there’s a fistful of friends willing to help; those who’ve had too many are ushered into taxis or shouldered home; the sick are cared for and their well being asked after by people with no common interest other than their choice of pub, and the regular pub-goer always has a decent throng at their funeral.

Regular interaction breeds goodwill and affection, and nowhere is this more pertinent than the local pub. The one word that crops up consistently when people lament the loss of a traditional local is ‘community’. The pub is not just beneficial for a community, it is a community and I was delighted to read that pubs were considered a healthy addition to a town when a recent study by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) ranked Britain’s healthiest high streets.

The RSPH reasoned that pubs are “centres for social interaction”. While I cringe a little at this clinical and rather bleached description of pubs, I also want to run naked into the street, screaming “At last! You’re finally fucking getting it!”.
After decades of vilification and mechanical judgement from the middle-England tutters and head-shakers, and miles of newspaper column highlighting the dangers to health and the antisocial facets of drinking, a health organisation has actually acknowledged what landlords and punters alike have known for decades: pubs can be good for you.

Oh, I know that there’s been very few sober fights in the queue of a kebab shop and that people are more prone to an argument with a drink in them, but they’re also much more prone to laughter, hugs, and singing and dancing than confrontation.
Where else can you go in a stranger and come out a friend? Where else is always open when you need it? Somewhere you don’t need a plan for; a place that you don’t need to book or put in your diary?

And who has ever said to their partner “there’s nothing on the box tonight so I’m just nipping to Starbucks to see who’s in”.
Nobody.
Ever.

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The Division Bell

Never discuss politics in pubs.

This is a general rule of thumb for the barstool chinwaggers, and with good reason as these are the subjects that are the worst mixers for a boozy environment; everybody has an opinion and the alcohol often amplifies one’s rhetoric, but how can we possibly keep away from these in today’s climate of such divisive issues?

 

The Brexit referendum split the country more or less down the middle. Families, workplaces and schools were all divided into two almost equal parts, and the local boozer was no exception. Suddenly everyone was an expert in economics, tariffs and quotas. Blokes who would normally pass the time of day by casually assessing the merits of Rachel Riley’s arse were, all of a sudden, keenly interested in trade deals and the single market. Out went Eastenders and The Bake Off and in came Article 50. It was a tricky time for publicans as rarely has opinion been so vehemently divided amongst people so seemingly similar, and as much as we should probably sit on the fence, it was impossible for us not to have an opinion.

 

Pubs are, by way of being a luxury, one of the first businesses to suffer in times of financial insecurity and many publicans have their livelihoods on the line at every dip in the economy so of course we’re going to want to have our say, but we are also the clergy for those seeking sanctuary from what they consider to be a politically correct straightjacket of a society. As landlords and landladies we are not here to judge, at least not publicly as it’s not our job to define society – it’s our job to make society more bearable and get it drunk at weekends, which is why I was so disappointed to hear Tim Martin be so outspokenly in favour of leaving the EU.

 

Now Mr Martin is as entitled as anybody to his views and I’m sure that the publicity his company gained and the increase in revenue of his bargain drink showrooms had nothing to do with him pandering to the brexiteers. And, heaven forbid, I’m not suggesting that his company would benefit from people having less money and looking to drink in cheaper venues even though his company was already showing an increase in trade by March 2009 after the financial crash of 2008 led to the doom of many local pubs, but operators of small businesses that have been affected by the big companies should always be wary of exactly who they are really campaigning for. In my experience it’s rarely us.

 

But just as everything remarkable eventually becomes the norm, British drinkers are now getting back to the good old ways: all politicians are egotistical, crooked bastards; the weather is crap; the local council can’t even manage to keep public toilets open and Ian Beale is up to his old tricks again.

 

You can’t keep the local boozer politically charged for long because nobody goes to the pub to talk about politics and most drinkers are annoyed that they were forced into talking about it for so long. They’re pissed off with falling out with their friends and family when all they want to do is have a beer and forget the important stuff for an hour or two.

 

So the pubs settle down and tick to the usual rhythm of alcoholic geniality. The conversation gradually recedes to its gloriously banal best. Laughter and piss taking replace the arguments and the only question that really matters is ‘Messi or Ronaldo?’

 

There were times when I feared for the drinking classes and what the Brexit vote would do to us, but in the end we were forced to test out that rule about talking politics in pubs and it turns out we were right all along.

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Goals On Sunday

It seems strange for us to comprehend now, but football in pubs has not always been a thing.

Pre 1996, a sports bar in England was as rare as ice in cider or a choice of more than two gins – so little live football was broadcast at times when pubs were allowed to open that the scope to increase revenue by broadcasting games was negligible. There were no big screens or surround sound commentary; no fixture lists on posters; no external banners collecting grime above doorways.

This all changed when Everton played Middlesbrough in the Charity Shield on 13th August 1995. Not exactly a glamour tie, but nearly every football pub in England can trace its roots back to that fixture as it was the first game shown legally in pubs on a Sunday afternoon.

Most punters were probably too pissed to remember Vinny Samways scoring the winner as being able to carry on drinking past 2:30 was still very much a novelty.

Sunday drinking culture was, traditionally, for many, a concerted effort to cram as many pints as possible into a two-hour lunchtime session before heading home for a Sunday roast. Then, all of a sudden, the pubs forgot to close and there was football on the TV.

This came as a bit of a shock to the system for the Great British Creature of Habit and it had to adapt accordingly.

Gone were the queues at the front door at five to twelve on a Sunday morning as the concentrated binges of the Sabbath abated. The four o’clock roast to soak up the booze became the two o’clock roast to line the stomach. The lunchtime drinking sprint became the afternoon marathon and the pubs adapted to this shift in trend as Sky and BSB became the honeypots for a new age in British publore.

23 years on and things have evolved. A monthly Sky and BT subscription for small pubs costs the equivalent of 10 karaoke nights or 4 good live bands. This has priced many publicans out of the football market and made many more consider its value. This isn’t helped by big games being seemingly deliberately screened at times when people wouldn’t normally be drinking – Man Utd v Spurs would mean a full house for many pubs on a Sunday afternoon or a Saturday evening, but when it’s on at 8pm on a Monday then the raucous five-pint crowd becomes a smattering of people nursing Cokes and warm lager because it’s a frigging school night!

A busy match also depends on the relative success and failure of well-supported clubs. The search goes on for the Man Utd fans that dominated Sunday afternoons for the majority of the early part of the century whilst most Man City supporters are still too young to drink; Leicester fans were everywhere for about four months before remembering that they didn’t really like football anyway, so for the last year or so pubs have been relying on the rebirth of the Liverpool following, which is great for business as they fall into one of two premium drinking categories; a) Those who adopted them as their club when they were winning leagues and cups in the 70s and 80s who are now middle-aged with grown-up kids and a small mortgage or b) Those who adopted them as their club when they won the European cup thirteen years ago who have no kids and a disposable income.

Of course England’s recent World Cup run made everyone in the country love football again. Pubs and Fan Fests were rammed with people displaying their lifelong love for our national game. You could tell that they were real fans because they were wearing brand new England shirts and threw their beer in the air when Harry Kane scored.

Maybe if they realised how much they loved watching football in pubs more than once every four years then that Sky bill wouldn’t seem so scary.

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Snow Day

I guess my morning routine isn’t much different to most other landlords and landladies: Breakfast, tea, news, prep the pub, open the doors.

It’s all too easy to despair from beneath the avalanche of bad press pubs receive. Whether it’s the health experts bemoaning British drinking culture, tabloids highlighting the Saturday night brawlers or the constant references to pub closures and declining on trade sales, the mainstream press like to stick the boot in. We’re an easy target and one can imagine the suburban armchair warriors reading their Sunday paper, tutting loudly and proclaiming their bemusement as to why pubs exist at all.

Even amongst regular pub users there is a danger of taking the British local for granted; something highlighted by the popularity of chain bars – Wetherspoons, Yates et al. The traditional local with the landlord and/or landlady living above shop and providing relief and comfort for the community is seen as out of date by sections of the general public and the big boys of the pub industry. Village locals are valued by their real estate value; chimney-pot pubs are dogged by complaints and ducked by their neighbours.

I inwardly scream every time I see a sign asking me, a 43 year old adult, to leave the premises quietly, presumably because the neighbours want to go to bed at 10pm. Well you know what? Don’t live next to a fucking pub then! I reserve the right, as an Englishman and a drinker, to leave a pub, drunk, at 11:30pm and sing loudly with my arm around my mates shoulder. I’ll tell him I fucking love him and I will shout farewells over the rooftops as we part company. This is Britain. This is what we’ve always done and I’m fucked if I’m going to be quiet on the way home just to appease the boring Strictly brigade who’s idea of a good night is television and a glass of supermarket wine.

And just as the local boozer seemed on the ropes, something simple and yet out of the ordinary happened and made us all realise just what the pub brings to our lives and how much we would miss it if it went.

It snowed.

Not just a bit of snow. A shitload. And fast.

It hit everyone and caught us all with our pants down.

And as the workforce skidded home, and the mothers cleared the supermarket shelves; as the mail stopped being delivered and the busses shed their loads; as the cars were being abandoned and the trains were stranded. As the cinemas and the theatres and the shops and the garages and the offices and the schools closed, the pub stayed open.

Their lights like a beacon in the carnage. Their open fires dried the jeans and the skirts. Their beers eased the worries and their spirits lifted the spirits.

The uniquely British attitude of ‘let’s just go to the pub until this all blows over’ kicked in and anyone who was lucky enough to trudge through the drifts to a pub on the first day of spring this year will realise just what pubs can do and what a necessity they are.

Many took the opportunity of a couple of snow days to give them an extra drinking day. Nobody was going anywhere the next day, that much was clear so they did what so many true Brits do in this situation: they got pissed with their mates down the local. It was beautiful. Families flocked in shedding hats and gloves, and parked their brand new sleds. Cheers filled the room every time a regular crossed the whited out threshold. There were snowball fights, snow angels were carved and snowmen built

It was messy. It was laughter in the face of adversity and it was one of the most quintessentially British things I have ever experienced.

And the next day, when nobody could go to work and everything was closed, the landlords and landladies went downstairs and do what they do 7 days a week, 365 days a year. They opened their doors.

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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.

Why?

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.

Half!

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.

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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.

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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.

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