A Glassful of Sky

On 6th August 1995 English drinking culture changed. Restrictions on pub opening hours were amended and pubs were now allowed to open on Sunday afternoons.  Out went the tables and chairs; and the pool tables, and pinball machines. In came the poser tables and big screen projectors. One week later, around 5:15pm, a Vinny Samways goal earned Everton a Charity Shield victory over Blackburn Rovers witnessed by forty thousand supporters at Wembley, many armchair fans and, for the first time, millions of punters in boozers. The novelty factor of having a pint in a pub on a Sunday afternoon alone would’ve been sufficient enough a pull for the hordes and, despite the inauspicious nature of the game, bars were packed. It was a game changer.

The afore mentioned all day opening (coming just three years after Sky won the exclusive rights to live screenings for the shiny new Premier League), England’s relative success in the ’96 European Championships and the best supported team in the country entering a period of domestic dominance meant that football in general, and especially in pubs, was booming.

Football and alcohol have always been the most faithful of bedfellows and landlords jumped on Sky’s rebranding of our beautiful game.

Vertical drinking was encouraged, and indeed is often the only way one can watch a match in the boozer. The reasons are obvious, of course; people drink more when they are stood up and you can squeeze more people in.

Sky was relatively cheap for publicans then and landlords could fill their pub with football fans at a time when traditionally they were closed. This desire to cram as many people as possible into the bar had a knock-on effect – Vacuous pubs combined with another relaxing of licensing laws allowing more premises to be converted into bars meant more competition, and the easiest way for many landlords to turn a penny was to stack it high and sell it cheap. Happy hours, 2 for 1 offers and-all-you-can-drink-for-a-tenner promotions became common and contributed greatly to the poor reputation endured by pubs and clubs in recent times.

Nowadays Sky and BT Sport is very expensive for pubs, averaging around £1200 per month combined. Once the standard bearer for Sky, we become the bandit and are punished as such. Rupert doesn’t want people watching in the pub – people are less likely to subscribe to a domestic sports package if they regularly pop to their local for games and you can’t hear the adverts over the hubbub of half time plastic punditry and muttered circumspection, which is probably why commercials during live matches have become ultra-visual, and also why when you close your eyes on a Sunday night all you can see is the gargantuan head of Ray Winstone.

Let’s have a look at that £14.5k per year and see exactly what we get for our money: 154 live premier league games, say 13 per month, £90 per game. Working (very roughly) on a 50% margin including overheads, a pub would have to take £180 more than they normally do to break even. Yes we can easily achieve that with a 4pm Sunday game from Old Trafford – much harder on a cold Monday night at Stoke. On top of this there’s the cost of HD TVs and projectors. Not to mention the knowledge and mental dexterity required to screen three matches at the same time.

Admittedly there are other sports available within their packages, but it’s rare I put on extra staff for Bath v Saracens or Somerset v Northants . Football is the music that the till sings to.

It’s easy to see why stories of publicans being prosecuted for showing games illegally are so prevalent. Many landlords are torn between making a loss on Sky or losing custom; a custom built on the foundations of a product that has become too precious. Many different systems are available on which to watch live football at a fraction of the cost of a Sky/BT package and it’s easy to be tempted by the savings on offer, but, speaking from experience, it’s never long before you get a letter from Media Prosecution Services – the suited henchmen of a broadcasting despot.

There has been the occasional victory, notably Karen Murphy, landlady of a small pub in Portsmouth who took on Sky and MPS and won – a victory for the minnow over the shark, but ultimately a rare and futile one. As ever the big boys prevail with a mixture of intimidation and litigation resulting in less places showing the match.

Happily, many pubs are deciding to go down a different route; cash previously spent on satellite TV is now spent on other forms of entertainment. Pubs are becoming more diverse and focusing on other aspects of the trade. Live music is thriving in many areas as an upshot of this diversification of investment and pubs that continue to fork out for Sky are generally busy and atmospheric for games.

At the end of the day it’s galling that we have to dance to Murdoch’s flute, but he knows what we all know: if you can’t be at the game then the pub is the next best thing.

Cheers

Standard

Inn Justice

The relationships and social demographics within the rolling school of pub regulars has always fascinated me; cliques within gangs within a crowd. A thousand stories with connecting threads spinning a web of interaction, the plots of which could fill many hours of prime time TV. It’s no coincidence that the pub is the focal point of nearly every successful British soap opera. Where else do you have a solicitor lose an argument to a road sweeper? Where else can a postman berate a banker for dropping the country in the shit before swiftly moving on to the subject Kylie Minogue’s arse? It’s the perfect set for drama, romance and subterfuge. Nobody is off limits in the pub, whoever you are or whatever you do.

It’s this irreverence I like. Once through the door uniforms become meaningless, occasionally counter productive. A man in a suit will walk confidently past a building site on his way to the office but put him in a pub full of workmen and he will feel less at ease. The suit doesn’t work! He has no authority here and he knows it. He’s just another punter enjoying a beer* and right now he wishes he was wearing a high-vis jacket.

*Believe me, he will order a beer. Wine is not an option.

 

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a food chain in the social structure defined by many varying factors, the greatest being humour. The funny guy or bubbly girl will always have friends. They will rarely sit alone and seldom get chance to complete a conversation through interruption from others wishing to be entertained – the parallels with celebrity life are plain to see. These wags court a kind of micro-fame and they are very good for business – laughter is the best background music there is.

The pub bore is the antithesis of this and is avoided by those who value their drinking time. He will receive greetings and nods from a safe distance – a pub bore has a zone of interaction the radius of approximately two spaces at the bar. The regulars know not to trespass and give him a wide berth, but god help the naive newbie – anyone who steps on that invisible mine will struggle to get away. Unfortunately for the bar staff they are obliged to enter this concentrated realm of tedium and must listen, nod, laugh and not stab them in the eye with a cocktail stick. It’s their job. I don’t know when it became acceptable to tell whomever is serving you your beer your most intimate problems, but oh my, the things I’ve heard. And sometimes from complete strangers too! I once consoled a man I’d met ten minutes previous about his twelve-toed child. I sometimes think it’s sad that these people have nobody else to talk to. Then I talk to them and realise why.

Between the dullard and the darling is everyone else. A good pub; a really good pub is eclectic. A pub is defined not by its décor, staff or management; but by its customers, and, as with many things in life a good balance is key. Looking after those punters that help the till ring is an obvious tactic and is often done subconsciously. Trickier is the weeding out of those that are costing you money. These can cut many different profiles, from the downright aggressive to the annoying table-surfer (one who talks to and irritates as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time). My general equation is that, eventually, for every dickhead you bar from your pub you get two decent punters. A good gaffer will spot these character traits quickly and get shot before they get comfy.

The landlord and/or landlady sit at the centre of this web, teasing the threads, weaving friendships and romances. Watching over as the pub animal goes about its business in the habitual way of all creatures. Seasoned bar-props will generally drink at the same time, on the same day, in roughly the same place and with the same people. This sounds a bit sad, but in reality it’s not. It’s comfort that the regular seeks, but isn’t that true of us all? He doesn’t wish for the excitement of meeting someone new or going somewhere different. He knows what he wants: his favourite drink in his favourite pub with his friends around him. He doesn’t want to shake hands and kiss cheeks; wishes to be spared the annoyance of having to learn a new name and really can’t be arsed to tell you what he does for a living. In short, if you’re not in his clique then it’s unlikely you’re going to get to know him well. This takes time.

I’ve used a few animal analogies thus far and shall add to that. The regular crowd are a pack when threatened. If a person, or especially a group of people, attempt to upset the status-quo they react, not with physical or even verbal reprimand, but with the tried and tested formula of deliberate ignorance and surliness. A tut here, a nudge there; backs turned and muttered profanities; they pull up the drawbridge and close ranks. It’s impossible not to feel such social annexing and the problem usually becomes that of another pub. If it doesn’t and a landlord has to intervene then the tension becomes palpable. Backs become impassive faces, pints are rested and conversations peter out. This is the time that the landlord is the most grateful to his customers.

To the uninitiated a landlord confronting an unruly and unwelcome group may seem alone and vastly outnumbered, yet invariably the opposite is true. An attack on a landlord, and even more so a landlady, is considered a heinous crime amongst the drinking classes and the pack raise their heckles at the prospect. The odds are weighed and the weaker adversary generally concedes by way of leaving. The pack has prevailed; they have defended their territory and seen off the unwelcome interlopers. They have their pub back and have earned the gratitude and respect of their host.

To all my customers down the years who have had my back; Cheers.

Standard

Life Behind Bars

The Good

Making people happy is a great feeling.

The satisfaction of looking out from behind your bar and seeing a mass of mirth is quite intoxicating.

Those days and nights filled with laughter and boisterous tomfoolery. The kisses in the doorway and the slaps on the back from shiny happy people on the way out after dancing to a band or seeing their team win. The publican is ever the ringmaster of this circus and takes the proverbial applause and encores – “go on, just a quick one while I wait for my taxi”.
Those nights when you lock the doors, have a drink with your fellow labourers and sigh the satisfied sigh of a job well done.
You’re tired, but it didn’t feel like work; every conversation was polite, good humoured and often complimentary. Your staff enjoyed the shift and even the toilets have survived. Those nights are why you’re a landlord. Why you’re still a landlord! You feel responsible for dozens of people’s (albeit temporary) happiness and, not least, your till is full of their appreciation.
It’s difficult not to feel a sense of pride at times like these and a landlord should for they are rare moments in the context of a publican’s working week.
Of course, the better the pub, the more nights like these there are.

There are very few good local boozers that don’t have good landlord and/or landlady, but what makes one? There are so many variables to the pub trade and a good host must be one of many people. Depending on the situation, one must be the shrink for the troubled, friend for the lonely, stooge for the barstool comedian and a shoulder for the bereaved. In short, the landlord must have many social facets and be able to adapt accordingly.
They must also care. Any publican worth their salt will have knocked on the door of many an old boy who hasn’t checked in – an empty barstool can often be a distress flare, organised a whip round for regulars in need, and gone to many funerals.
Above all a good guvnor is a pillar of the community. They have the respect of their customers in much the same way a policeman has the respect of the festival goer – they’re having a good time and don’t want to get chucked out.

This respect extends into the wider community and it’s nice to get many hellos and waves as you walk to the shops or pop in to check out the competition in a nearby pub, where, usually, the landlord will stand you a beer – landlords are pretty amiable towards one and other in general.
“How’s trade?”
“Not bad”
It’s always ‘not bad’ whether you’ve just had the best weekend of the year or been scratching your arse and talking to Boring George all week. We both know how busy the other has been anyway so the question and answer are merely small talk.

We get on but we love it when we’re busy and they’re not and inwardly seethe when the roles are reversed. But, at the end of the day we alone know what it takes to run a boozer and there’s a mutual respect that overrides the rivalry. We know that the good times have a shelf life and sooner or later somebody will burst your bubble.

The Bad

Anyone who knows anything about the pub game knows it’s hard; long, anti-social hours for little financial reward; a seven day working week; dealing with the general public at their worst etc. Whilst most of us will nod our heads in agreement at this description of the job, it’s not acknowledged by your average punter.
Time and again we are accused of not working hard by, and get this, the people we are serving.
It’s understandable for a hard-handed bloke in a hi-vis jacket to order his first teatimer and mistake effort for pleasure as I smile at him from behind the jump and make him happier than he’s been all day by pouring him his favourite drink. I know he looks down on me, or maybe even envies me for earning living pulling pints and laughing with people in a place he pays to patronise.

A good pub is a warm, welcoming place and therefore a pleasant environment to work in, of that there is no doubt, and the work is enjoyable, often fun – most people look back fondly on their younger years when they worked a bar somewhere – but it’s the hours that get to you. When the day is done for most, the landlord is half way through. Your average local is open for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Add to that 3 hours a day for cleaning, cellar work, banking, accounting, maintenance, deliveries… I could go on. This amounts to a business that needs to be staffed and running for 105 hours a week. How many privately owned businesses can you think of that keep these hours?

Yet:
“nice to see you here for a change”
“don’t work too hard”
“been on holiday again?”
I smile at them. It’s my ‘fuck off’ smile.
I use that smile often as abuse or – to use an uglier word – banter is perfectly acceptable in the pub theatre. Slagging the landlord off is a sport and reciprocation is expected. The put-down is the publicans sidearm and they must be quick on the draw.
Days off are generally midweek when there is little to do and everybody you know is still recovering from you getting them drunk at the weekend, and you still do a couple of hours in the morning before your day off can start.

And, of course there’s the financial worry. Beer isn’t cheap. You wouldn’t want to fill your tank with it.
It is, however, cheaper for some than others. This is where it gets complicated. Bear with me.
There are several types of model for the pub business:
A managed house is generally owned by  pubcos of varying sizes. These companies have buying power and, in the case of the really big companies, are charged a fraction of the price that a solo operator has to pay. They employ managers who will either draw a wage and have staffing levels relative to the size and profitability of the pub or, in the case of some of the smaller operators, be paid a percentage of the take. The latter can be particularly unfair as the manager is then the responsible for his or her own staff. These managers are having to work longer and longer days as their weekly take decreases.

A ‘tied lease’ refers to a pub generally run by a sole operator. These are where you find your real landlords and landladies. Generally because they have to be there an awful lot as making a profit from a tied lease is no mean feat. The ‘tie’ means that they are obliged to buy all their beers and ciders from a particular company at a set price. This price, you won’t be surprised to hear, is considerably higher than they could negotiate in the open market. The tenant also pays a rent.
An annual wage of around 15k is not uncommon for a landlord of a tied house. They do have the bonus of living accommodation, but a flat above a pub isn’t the most relaxing abode.
So prevalent is this type of deal that ‘free house’ is a common term. Pubs would advertise the fact that their pub wasn’t tied to a brewery therefore they could offer more variety and cheaper prices.

The free of tie lease is just that. A rent only lease. Individual operators of these can play the market and buy from whomever they choose. A shrewd negotiator can get some good deals and make decent margins. The rent tends to be higher, of course.
All of these pubs are competing in an ever decreasing market and it’s getting a little Darwinian. Pubs are closing all the time, yet the big companies are thriving. Wetherspoon for example are targeting smaller and smaller towns in their bid for a bigger share of the market. An average Wetherspoon will take five times that of a good small pub. It is inevitable that smaller pubs will close because of it and it’s happening.

On top of this looming competition there are many other factors at play in this perfect storm for the local boozer. In the last ten years barkeeps have had to cope with the smoking ban, increased utility costs, hikes in minimum wage, VAT and satellite TV, and all to the soundtrack of the Daily Mail style vilification of the pub.
They must also compete with how much money people spend at home these days. Not so long ago if there was nothing on the telly then you would nip to the pub. Now there’s always something on TV and there’s no pub to go to. Netflix, Sky and the seemingly incurable lure of the internet all lead to an ever more reclusive lifestyle and take the beer tokens out of punters pockets.

The Ugly

The landlord or landlady is judge, juror and executioner, and those two words, “you’re barred” is their guillotine.
This phrase is never said lightly. You’re often costing yourself money if it’s a regular, and they can take a few people with them.
This calculation often has to be made on the spot and in the heat of the moment. I’ve often thought that the fastest thinking man in the world is the landlord holding someone in a headlock.
Because of this social autonomy, even those who resent or simply dislike you will treat you with the false reverence reserved for those in positions of power.
The transition from doyenne to devil can happen in an instant. One wrong word or action can lead someone who you considered a friend to tell you to shove your pub up your arse.
Personally, I’ve always struggled with this friendship equation;  living above the shop and working long weekends can lead to a very narrow lifestyle, and you often end up becoming friends with your customers. This friendship can be an uneasy one as, basically, you are earning a wage from your mates which can make relations tenuous.
Running a local has been proven to be one of the most misery inducing professions around, and I firmly believe that obstacles in the way of solid friendships play a major part in this, yet we can’t complain, not publicly at least as a grumpy gaffer is a poor gaffer in more ways than one.
Although violence is rare in pubs, abuse is not. There are very few people willing to stick one on a landlord, but there are plenty willing to deal in nasty parting shots after being asked to leave. In these situations all one can really do is take it on the chin and remember the face. Every experience of this nature adds another layer of epidermis to the already thick skin of the publican.

The pub-brawl survives more in the realms of folklore and exaggeration than reality. A full-on 20 man brawl is a story much told (I’ve never worked out why it’s always 20 – I guess this is the minimum accepted number to elevate a barney to a brawl), but it’s usually a handful of people scrapping and the rest of the able bodied in the bar trying to break it up.
The first in and last out of this rare mêlée is generally the landlord or landlady. It’s a fact that we go single-handed into situations that would make a lone copper call for backup.
We do this because it’s our bloody furniture getting broken and there’s no worse advert for a pub than sirens and blue flashing lights.
We hate having to deal with these situations and, because of this, many landlords claim to have developed a sixth sense for trouble and the good ones will take preventative measures before it kicks off. On a personal note, I’ve been running pubs for twenty years and have never punched or been punched. Kicked, yes (didn’t hurt, ha!), head-butted (glancing blow), had a pool cue swung at my head (missed, ha!) and had a fair few tussles, but nothing that’s ever scared me unduly. By the way, I’m five feet ten and weigh eleven stone. I’m not exactly Grant Mitchell.
Situations like these add to the stress of the job which, in turn, adds to the stress of the relationship between the landlord and landlady.
Marital (or other) relationships can be strained at times. I’m sure those readers in long term relationships love their partners very much, but how many would want to work with them?
Working, sleeping and socialising with the same person 24/7 will always have its drawbacks. Alcohol plays a part of course – teetotal publicans are as numerous as vegetarian butchers. A spat in the morning can smoulder through the day as you laugh with the punters, put on the happy routine as you take to your stage and play to your audience, listening to their woes unable to report yours, or sharing in their joy at a boast that at that precise moment in time you really don’t give a toss about.

Yes, these are the pitfalls, and you may have noted that the ‘Good’ section of this article is a deal shorter than the two negative parts, but I think this encapsulates the pub game. You plod through the mire to experience the heights of work satisfaction.
The next time you’ve had a great night in the pub, remember; so has the landlord, and he got paid to do it.
Cheers.

 

Standard