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.