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
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.
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.
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).