Advice for Pub Staff, 1965, Pt.2 — Pub Life

On Sunday we ran through the beer-focused parts of James H. Coombs 1965 instructional manual Bar Service; today, we’re looking at the bits concerning people.

That means we’re skip­ping the sec­tions on cider, spir­its, wine, cig­a­rettes and snacks – they’re pret­ty dry, to be hon­est, but if there’s any­thing par­tic­u­lar you’re curi­ous about ask below and we’ll dig around.

Mr Coombs’s first asser­tion in ‘Part IV: Gen­er­al Bar Prac­tice’ is that ‘the Licensed Trade is a domes­tic busi­ness and is not like any oth­er trade’. What he means by this is, first, that in his opin­ion union­i­sa­tion won’t wash, just as it wouldn’t in the fam­i­ly home; and, sec­ond­ly, that a lot of the work is just like look­ing after your own house – wind the clock, unblock the sink, don’t let the fire go out, and so on.

After a long sec­tion on clean­ing – which goops and types of cloth to use on which sur­faces – there comes a bit of time­less advice:

Nev­er keep a cus­tomer wait­ing – it is most annoy­ing. It will not escape you that a man quite resigned to wait ten min­utes in the Post-office for a stamp will shout the place down if he is kept wait­ing more than five sec­onds for a drink. In fact many seem to think there should be one bar­tender to each cus­tomer! … How­ev­er, should you be engaged in some job more impor­tant than tak­ing his mon­ey (if there is any­thing more impor­tant!) always acknowl­edge him and say you won’t keep him a moment.

Fifty-odd years on, this is still just about all we ask for from bar staff.

The Public Bar

Per­haps our favourite bit in the book is this frank account of the dynam­ic between new staff mem­bers and the cus­tomers in the least pre­ten­tious room in the pub:

Some staff enjoy serv­ing in the Pub­lic Bar bet­ter than the Saloon or Lounge. They appre­ci­ate the ‘earthy’ touch of the ‘hon­est-to-good­ness’ work­ing man, the quick and snap­py con­ver­sa­tion, the ever­last­ing ‘mick­ey tak­ing’… Should it be part of your duty to serve in the Pub­lic Bar you may have to suf­fer a cer­tain amount of rib­ald com­ment from the reg­u­lars… ‘’Ow long you gonna stay? ’Ad eight noo bar­men ’ere in six weeks!’ … Prob­a­bly untrue any­way. The ‘Pub­lic’ as they are called are very fond of ‘hav­ing a go’ at any­one new but you should just laught it off and not get bad-tem­pered. When they fail to get a rise out of you they’ll go back to their domi­noes.

In oth­er words, don’t feed the trolls. Appar­ent­ly speak­ing from bit­ter expe­ri­ence Coombs goes on to say that they’ll con­tin­ue to watch the new­bie wait­ing for a moment of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty:

Wrong change rates three roars all round the bar… pulling up Mild instead of Bit­ter rates two roars… Short mea­sure is good for five min­utes hol­ler­ing and hoot­ing.

Lon­don­ers in par­tic­u­lar, he observes, liked to lay the slang on thick as a kind of pow­er move: ‘Pint o’ Diesel, an apple frit­ter and a Tom Thumb.’ This leads to a nice lit­tle list of col­lo­qui­alisms:

  • Ale – Mild, Ale, Dou­ble, XX, Diesel, Splosh, Hog­wash
  • Bit­ter – apple frit­ter
  • Scotch whisky – pim­ple [and blotch], Hooch
  • Gin – nee­dle [and pin], Vera [Lynn], Mother’s Ruin
  • Rum – Tom Thumb, Nelson’s Blood, Black Jack
  • Brandy  – Coconut Can­dy
Con Tricks

This chap­ter, enti­tled ‘The Crooks – and Some Tricks to Catch You’, runs over famil­iar ground but with a few new bits of busi­ness. It begins with a gen­er­al warn­ing (slight­ly edit­ed by us for weird punc­tu­a­tion):

If two strangers are found in the bar at the same time and have tak­en up sep­a­rate posi­tions, be very much on your guard, more espe­cial­ly if one of them engages you in close con­ver­sa­tion – the oth­er one may be up to a lit­tle ‘mullarky’. Any­thing portable is fair game to pub­lic-house crooks, the Blind col­lect­ing box, the lighter fuel box, the Christ­mas stock­ing, the Spas­tics Bea­con, even chairs and tables – any­thing they can lay their thiev­ing hands on.

Sandra Gough pushing over a pile of pennies, 1965.
San­dra Gough (Irma Ogden in Coro­na­tion Street) push­ing over a pile of pen­nies col­lect­ed for char­i­ty (i.e. ‘the Spas­tics Bea­con’) at The Bowl­ing Green, Stock­port. This was a big thing in the 1960s.

Among the spe­cif­ic tricks described, after the short change con and a ver­sion of the ser­i­al num­ber wheezed described in Lil­liput, there’s a move with a touch of the Der­ren Brown about it:

A man stand­ing at the bar wait­ing for ser­vice has a five-pound note spread out on the counter in front of him. He pass­es some remark about it to the man stand­ing next to him – a com­plete stranger, prob­a­bly… The stranger agrees and the man has made cer­tain he has drawn ample atten­tion to the five-pound note… As he is being served, how­ev­er, he switch­es the fiv­er for a fold­ed one-pound note. A lit­tle lat­er he will insist to the bar­man he received change of £1. He calls on the stranger as a wit­ness and he, of course, affirms that he saw a five-pound note hand­ed over – which, of course, he didn’t! Heigh, ho! Anoth­er four quid up in the air!

Next, there’s a con in which the perp claims to have bumped into the land­lord in the street who has autho­rised the cash­ing of a cheque. Not all that sub­tle this one, although the con­vin­cer is that he doesn’t need the full amount – just £15 for now and he’ll col­lect the rest that evening when he sees his old pal, the guv’nor.

There are stock cons, too, where a cus­tomer buys a bot­tle of whisky to take away, return­ing moments lat­er to say, sor­ry, my hus­band wants a dif­fer­ent brand, but the returned bot­tle is actu­al­ly a dum­my filled with water. Or, alter­na­tive­ly, a cus­tomer claims to have won a case of whisky in a raf­fle and sells it to the licensee at a pound a bot­tle, only that’s all water too. In this case, the licensee, hav­ing bro­ken the law, can’t go to the police. (You can’t con an hon­est man and all that.)

Final­ly, there’s some­thing that sounds quite implau­si­ble, out­side of an Eal­ing com­e­dy:

Watch for the gen­tle­man, per­haps not too well dressed, who walks about with an umbrel­la or walk­ing-stick. Some­times these have a handy spike on the end and can be used for spear­ing cig­a­rettes off a shelf behind the bar… Some­times paper mon­ey is kept in a glass beside the till on an adja­cent shelf. Make sure it is not in a mug with a han­dle because the same umbrel­la or walk­ing stick can be used to hook it up.

Close-up of a chapter heading in the book.
A Final Round of Golden Rules

This part of the book, which comes after a lot of dat­ed and dusty mat­ter about wages and licenc­ing law, is a kind of mis­cel­lany of stuff that didn’t fit else­where, and is great fun:

Before you go behind the bar make cer­tain you enquire about the dog (if any) and where it is kept… If some­one from the kitchen is kind enough to give you a cup of tea in the bar have the decen­cy to wash up the cup and saucer… Buy an alarm clock… Turn out the dart­board light when play is fin­ished… Keep a sharp eye on tramps, dirty-look­ing peo­ple, hawk­ers, or any­one with an obvi­ous dis­ease… It is ille­gal to take snuff behind the bar… Avoid those cus­tomers you know will want to engage you in con­ver­sa­tion for the rest of the ses­sion… Pick up any loose crown corks on the floor – don’t kick ’em about!

(Some small edits for ease of quot­ing in that chunk of text, by the way.)

This book, unlike some oth­ers, gives rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle time to mat­ters of gen­der rela­tions but does have this of-its-time advice:

It is one of the time-hon­oured fea­tures of the Eng­lish pub­lic-house for the ‘reg­u­lars’ to have a bit of fun with the bar staff – espe­cial­ly with pret­ty bar­maids. You will be expect­ed to take this in good part – and even to join in. The pur­chase of a Brown Ale, how­ev­er, does not enti­tle any­one to take lib­er­ties and you should see that the con­ver­sa­tion nev­er degen­er­ates below the lev­el of pro­pri­ety.

If some­one is con­stant­ly harass­ing you, Coombs says, don’t fall out with them but do tell the boss.

There’s lots on eti­quette includ­ing some reminders that the pub was not quite a respectable place: don’t address cus­tomers in any way that might tip strangers off that they are reg­u­lars, for exam­ple, and avoid say­ing things like, ‘You back again?’ when a cus­tomer who was in at lunchtime returns in the evening with com­pa­ny.

Then, much as with Mrs Mullis, Mr Coombs seems to get more unhinged the clos­er he gets to the end of the book, final­ly let­ting his annoy­ing cus­tomers have both bar­rels a few pages from the end:

The drink­ing pub­lic from every sphere, you will soon dis­cov­er, are the most obsti­nate, ill-informed and per­verse sec­tion of the com­mu­ni­ty it is pos­si­ble to find. Even if they have a ques­tion they will often refuse to accept the answer – right though it may be. Afford them an indul­gent smile and let them wal­low in their igno­rance…

Our copy of this book cost £9.30 deliv­ered – it’s rar­er than some sim­i­lar vol­umes, and less enter­tain­ing – but we can cer­tain­ly see our­selves refer­ring to it from time to time which makes it a worth­while addi­tion to the Arthur Mil­lard Memo­r­i­al Library. (That is, our back room).

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