A Guide to Staying Regular

The pub is a great place to unwind. The beauty of the pub is often not what it is, but what it’s not: It’s not work where your boss pulls your strings, or home where the kids push your buttons. You’re not gripping a steering wheel silently pleading with lights to change colour or on the top deck of a bus trying to remember that you too were once young as the teenagers in front of you swear loudly about that bitch on Love Island. 

The pub is different. The pub is yours and you’re different when you’re there. Think about it. Where else would you tell a joke to a complete stranger? In the supermarket queue? To the person filling their car up next to you at the petrol station? No. You’re different in the pub. You’re different in the pub because you’re allowed to be you; you’re allowed to be the foolish version of you that you don’t allow yourself to be in the street. You’re allowed to be foolish because you know for a fact that everybody else in that pub has made a complete arse of themselves in there before and been forgiven for it.

Obviously there are limits and unwritten rules to acceptable dickishness and many people get it wrong. You can’t simply walk into a pub as a stranger and attempt to start a sing song – I mean, we are Btitish after all! You also can’t expect to be a newcomer and immediately strike up conversations with everyone. Oh no, this is very suspicious. We immediately assume that you’re only here because you’ve been kicked out of the pub round the corner, presumably for annoying the regulars by immediately attempting to strike up conversations with everyone.

Real acceptance into the inner sanctum of the regular pub crowd takes time and patience. Here’s a quick guide: 

  1. Find a pub where most people sit around the bar. 
  2. Pick a barstool on the edge of where you perceive the regulars sit. 
  3. Take a newspaper – you don’t want to seem like you need them to entertain you. Do not take a book. Repeat. Do not take a book. This scares people and will set you back hours in your mission. 
  4. Drink. Read. Do not speak to anyone apart from ordering your drink; If someone strikes up a conversation with you then go with it, but try and gauge the social standing of the person speaking to you. The last thing you want is to be used as Boring George’s latest distraction. This will also set you back hours. 
  5. Repeat this until the regulars start to acknowledge you. A nod is a good start. It’s important to come in at the same times every day/week so as to interact with the same people. This way will also mean you’ll likely be served by the same member of staff. Building up a rapport with them is an essential part of the process. 
  6. Try not to look like a copper.

If you follow these six simple rules then you should be considered a regular within about a dozen visits. 

It’s important at this point not to push it; don’t try to alter the dynamic too much. Ease yourself in and get to know names. Don’t go flapping Facebook friend requests around like confetti or inviting everyone to your barbecue – you’re at least a year away from that. Wait. Play the long game and you will be rewarded with sanctuary, peace, gloriously glib humour and a human shield from the ridiculous behaviour of those in the outside world. 

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Frame At Last

If the recent trend of pub closures, changes of use or simply the demise of a once thriving business through poor management or, sometimes, deliberate neglect by pubcos has taught us anything it’s how integral pubs are to a community. But it’s not just a facility we lose when the local becomes flats or a coffee bar; we also lose its history and legend.
The local is not only a forum for gossip it’s also both source and star of them. Extraordinary events become folklore; characters are embalmed beyond their existence in their own personalities, and former publicans become ghosts still remembered through slurred tales recounted over pint pots from the lips of the punters unable and unwilling to forget their yesterdays.
A pub I pop into occasionally has a photo of an ex landlord on the wall. I didn’t realise it was an ex landlord until, spurred by my curiosity of what this portrait – out of keeping with the rest of the decor and staring thoughtfully at me whilst I drank – was doing there, I asked the current landlady. She informed me that the locals had put it up following his death a couple of decades ago.

I may have imagined the tone of exasperation in her voice, but I wouldn’t have begrudged her it had I not. To take it down would undoubtedly cause a stir, but to keep it up must surely only act as a reminder to those who remembered better days and busier times conjouring selective, halcyon memories of when the pub was busy every night, drunken sing songs were the norm and everybody was best friends – a bit like remembering all your childhood summers being hotter and longer than they are now.

But here’s the thing: pubs are better now in so many ways. Yes, back in the eighties and nineties pubs were thriving, but they had little to compete with entertainment wise – four television channels and a Spectrum 48k were hardly the most seductive mediums to stop us from crossing the threshold and marching purposefully to the smoky local for a game of darts with whoever was in that evening –  and it’s fair to say that complacency reigned. Many publicans sat on their barstools watching the staff take the money, barely attempting to amuse their regulars with paid entertainment or entice them with new products or promotions, and by the time many of us realised that customer numbers were dwindling it was too late.

No wonder then that some pubs fell by the wayside when punters – courted by an increasing number of suitors for their disposable income – started expecting more for their money. The pubs that survived were generally those that adapted, rolled with the punches and came out fighting as now it’s almost imperative for us to woo our footfall with offers, promotions, entertainment, quality and a much wider range of products – one real ale and a few keg products simply doesn’t cut it today. Fads and fashions come at us in waves: cloudy beer,  ice in cider, Jagerbombs, prosecco, gin… bloody bollocking gin! Raspberry gin, Pink gin, strawberry gin, gin with cucumber, gin with mint, gin with a dash of reindeer saliva served with a princess’s fucking eyelash. Okay, but you get my drift; it’s not easy to keep up, but keep up we must as the pub up the road is on Facebook every two hours telling everyone how marvellous last night was for Mandy’s birthday; how marvellous today will be for their sponsored bar skittles tournament, and how fucking marvellous Saturday will be as that crooner who cleared your pub 5 years ago by killing Dean Martin all over again for an hour and a half is on from 9.

All of this adds to the anxiety of the publican who – driven by the genius ideas of young people in suits who say stuff like ‘touch base’, ‘blue-sky thinking’ and ‘low hanging fruit’ whilst sitting around a boardroom table attempting to out-tongue their colleagues in the Bosses Rectum Race, come up with ever increasingly ridiculous ideas to drive trade – is thinking about that landlord on the wall and envying him for how easy he had it, how much people loved him, and how dead he is.

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A Star Is Borne

We’ve all been there: you flop into your comfy chair at the end of a successful night getting happy people drunk, kick off your shoes, sigh that satisfied sigh of another job well done and pull out your phone to read a scathing one star online review. It ruins your night. It ruins the next morning, afternoon and evening too. Every second thought is dedicated to identifying your detractor – you scan your memory of the night and try to remember a crossed word or complaint. You think back to the barrel changes and who may have had the last pint out of the cask. You ask the staff and regular punters. You check the CCTV to try and identify this nay-sayer, and all the time you’re thinking “you absolute fucking turd. How dare you!”. And how dare they indeed? One star is effectively saying you’ve ruined their night. That visiting your premises was, in fact, worse than doing nothing. It wasn’t as good as not going to your pub; your pub that keeps good beer; your pub that collects for charity; your pub that shows the football and puts on bands…. your pub that some couples have enjoyed so much that they’ve popped to the ladies cubicle to have one of those skirt-up-trousers-down quick knee tremblers then casually walked back to the bar to finish their pinots giggling like teenagers. Did they give me any stars? Did they immediately take to the internet, search for my boozer on tripadvisor and pen something akin to “nice beer, great band. So good that I decided to give the wife one in trap two of the ladies’. Will definitely come again”? No they didn’t, but that bloke that came in on his own expecting——– well I don’t know what he was expecting. Maybe for us to rush up and scatter rose petals in front of him on his way to his golden throne where nymphs will flank him and toss grapes into his mouth whilst harp music mingles with the tinkling of water from a distant stream and the gentle, warm breeze carries subtle tones of freshly mown grass and scented candles uplight his best features.
Yes.
This is a rant.

And I proffer no apology, but that’s how these people get to me. It’s like those people – usually a bit older, usually a couple – that walk in, look around then mutter something to each other and walk out again. What do these people expect? We’re a pub. We serve beer, wine, spirits, cider, pork scratchings. There’s tables and chairs, a dartboard and a bloke behind the bar who’s just said hello to you through a big smile. Were you expecting cheap beer, massive plastic menus, hushed conversation and the aroma of baked beans, table polish and disappointment? Are people laughing too much in here for you? Is the music too upbeat? Would you like me to show you to a corner where there’s a bookcase full of never-to-be-read books and some low chairs that, at your age, it will probably take you an hour to get back out of? Or maybe I could just bring your drinks to the nearest hotel foyer for the full J.D Wetherspoons experience?
Because that’s the problem: people now judge us against a company that took the local pub, made it too big, sucked all the personality out of it, put the toilets in the loft, made you queue at the bar, surrounded you with the type of people that think they’re having a nice time by eating microwaved food off a plate that your nan would’ve thrown away. Your local ‘Spoons is a pub for people that don’t like pubs. A pub for people that like to know what they’re getting. The same people that will by a sandwich from Pret a Manger instead of the local, privately owned deli next door. The same people that will walk past their local cafe to make their own coffee at Costa using tiny sachets of sugar stirred with a stick that you dispose of immediately in a cup with your name on it. You know what? Go into your local cafe three times and they’ll remember your fucking name. The same people that will walk into your busy pub on a Saturday night, see a sea of happy drunken faces and a couple coming back from the toilet adjusting their clothing, and go home to write a one star review on fucking tripadfuckingvisor.
“Ah, but,” I hear you say “you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.
No. That’s because some people are twats.

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V Day

As I write this it’s Valentine’s day.

All across the country ribbons are being untied, jewellery boxes flipped open and flower vans are doing their rounds delivering love, duty and relief at him not forgetting again.
Tonight the theatres, cinemas and restaurants will be packed with hand-holding smoochers having a night off from leggings and Eastenders to go out on a schoolnight and parade their forever love to the world and forget about the time Kevin snogged that bird from Tescos.

The pubs will probably be quiet. Oh I’m sure that the more established couple will pop in for one before their linguine, and some pubs will probably dim the lights, put candles on the tables and play Lionel Richie all night long by way of creating a romantic atmosphere, but for the most part our punters tonight will be downbeat singletons avoiding the mush and/or Chelsea or Arsenal fans risking the wrath of their partner in the hope of witnessing Europa League glory against a team whose name is written in hieroglyphics.

I understand that “fancy a couple down The Dog?” isn’t the most auspicious way to woo a mate on the 14th of February, and that inflated expectation negates the local boozer as an option for eye-gazing and footsie, but I think it’s a shame. After all it’s where many people met their other halves and it’s a stock venue for first dates – the casual ambience, diversity of clientele and inhibition-loosening effects of alcohol form a perfect environment for the getting-to-know-you stage of relationships.

As with nearly all aspects of life, modern ways have changed the way we do things. Before Tinder, Grinder, eHarmony and others, the pub was the go-to dating site. It was where you met people, where you got to know someone and where you got to like them before plucking up the Dutch courage to ask them out. Nowadays it’s where people arrange to meet up for the first time after swapping messages about their favourite music, films and what they do for a living; they’ve already shared links to their favourite websites, songs and TV programmes, and swapped pictures of their pets, friends, family and genitals.

So now, when I see Tinderella walk in to meet a nervous Prince Swiperight I hope it works out. I hope that this is the start of something beautiful and that they will forever think fondly of my pub; that they will return one day and tell whoever is behind the bar about their first date and maybe even mention the landlord who served them their first drink.

Of course we see the other side of it too, and the flip-side of romance can actually be more profitable. We’re a refuge for the jilted and peddle solace to the cheated-on and broken hearted. We’re a cure for the loneliness of the halfway-flat for the recently single, and tonight we’ll see those that are marginalised by the annual outpouring of affection, we’ll talk to them, get them drunk and say goodbye to them as they head home to cheer themselves up by sending pictures of their penis to strangers.

But at the end of the day pubs deal in pleasure, and some of my deepest pride in being a publican has come from seeing people get together a bar’s width away. Sometimes it’s people you’ve introduced or employed. I’ve known people who’ve met in my pub. Seen them celebrate their engagement, their wedding and the birth of their children.

In a way relationships define pubs and what we offer: we’re here for the singleton needing an ear, the Plenty of Fisher angling for a hook-up and the old couple’s routine stout and sherry. We’re the oldest dating site around and we’re here for life, but maybe not for Valentine’s.

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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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