A man of indeterminate age, somewhere between 30 and 50, strides up to the bar: ‘Shit, man, have I had a rough day.’
The baby-faced, slightly sleepy barman blinks and smiles.
‘Yeah? Sorry to hear that, man. What can I get you?’
The customer mounts a high stool and starts to unload his tobacco pouch, ancient mobile phone and various other nick-nacks, constructing a nest.
‘Half a San Mig.’
The barman pours the lager and places it on the bar.
‘Tell you what, I’ve had such a shit day… Sod it — give me a sambuca, too.’
The barman turns to look at the spirits shelf. The customer drinks half of his half of lager. The young man turns back. His eyes dart to the half empty glass.
‘Er… Black or white?’
The barman pours the sambuca into a thimble-like shot glass.
‘What it is, my wife — are you married yourself? — my wife, she was meant to meet me this morning but her train got delayed…’
He suddenly drinks most of the sambuca, chasing it with another gulp of lager.
‘…so I’ve been hanging around Temple Meads…’
‘Er, sorry, man, but, er, I’m going to need you to pay for those drinks.’
‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, of course, man, no problem, yeah, yeah, yeah.’
He finishes the sambuca.
‘My wife will be here in like two minutes and she’s got the cash.’
The barman begins to vibrate anxiously.
‘I really need you to pay for those drinks–’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, no worries, man, no worries — I’ll just give her a call.’
The customer very obviously pretends to make a call on what, at second glance, might actually be a toy mobile phone. And are his shoes… Are they held together with Sellotape?
He stands up, pockets his tobacco almost as if by sleight of hand, and retreats to a corner, and then further into the corner, and then clear through the corner, out of a side door that we hadn’t noticed.
The barman deflates as he puts what is left of the glass of lager on the back shelf.
‘I’m so stupid,’ he says partly to himself, partly to us, but mostly to his own sneakers.
He makes sure to take the money before handing over our pints.
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).
The December 1944 edition of Lilliput, a ‘gentleman’s magazine’, includes an article about — or maybe an exposé of — bar staff in London pubs.
It’s credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ and is entitled Gulliver Peeps Behind the Bar implying a connection to the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift; with that in mind, it’s perhaps not the stuff footnotes are made of, unless carefully worded. Which is to say the author might well have just made it all up, or at least used plenty of creative licence in writing up material from various sources, although there is the ring of truth about many of the details. Here’s how it opens:
‘You’ll get thirty-five bob a week,’ said the barmaid ducking through a hatch in the mahogany counter, ‘a bit more if you’re lucky.’ Her peroxide head popped up again in the frame of the ornamental bottles and frosted glass at the back of the bar. ‘You live in,’ she said, ‘and you exist for one half-day out a week, from eleven in the morning til eleven at night.’
She went on to detail the various ways barmaids in London pubs compensate themselves for their miserable lot, namely ‘fiddling’.
‘Go on with you,’ said the barmaid. ‘You know what fiddling is, making a bit on the side.’ She gave a mascara wink.
First, there was the barmaid who took additional compensation in the form of drink, ‘a bottle of gin before breakfast’, the empty being refilled with ‘bulk gin and pale sherry’ to cover her tracks. The customers, starved for booze by wartime rationing, didn’t notice or care.
Then there was a barman who was in the habit of slipping coins into his waistcoat but was found out because his pocket was wet: ‘Don’t you know that money taken over the bar is always wet with the the spilt beer?’ Because of the prevalence of this kind of thing, according to Gulliver’s informant, most pubs banned bar staff from having any money in their pockets at all.
There were various methods for fiddling the till. First, there’s the simple wheeze of taking orders for multiple rounds but only ringing up the price of one — easy, but risky. Alternatively, they might work with a friend posing as a customer on the other side of the bar: ‘Every time the accomplice buys a drink he gets change for a quid.’ A third more elaborate approach sounds positively ingenious:
Why at one place I was at they bored a hole in the floor of the bar… The people in the bar used to drop the money on the floor, shuffle it down the hole and the cellarman used to catch it in a beer filter.
She explained that such dishonest bar staff worked in gangs, moving around to avoid the police, and alternating so that some worked while others laid low. They found new jobs using forged references, ‘sixpence each’.
The article concludes with details of a clever customer-side con trick that’s new to us:
The most famous trick is called ‘Ringing the Changes’. It’s worked by two men. One comes into the saloon bar, orders a drink and offers a pound note. Immediately after, the accomplice goes into the public bar, orders a drink too, and pays for it out of a ten-bob note. When he gets his change he says that it wasn’t a ten-bob note he had, it was a pound. And, to prove it, he gives the number. When they go to the till, they find the pound note because it’s the one the accomplice had just handed in. Well, when that happens, the landlord has to pay up.
Can anyone who works in a pub or bar tell us whether that still happens today, or have CCTV and the death of the multi-bar layout out done for this (ahem) fine old tradition?
On our travels round the country over the last few months we’ve been seeking out small press local history publications like Mike Axworthy’s A Garston Working Life (2012), which we found at Liverpool Central Library.
As well as being a keen frequenter of pubs Mr Axworthy also worked as a drayman (beer deliveries) when he was a teenager in the mid-1960s, and gives us this glimpse behind the scenes:
I soon learned why our wages were so poorly paid, because the company knew we made them up on the fiddle. I am ashamed to say that no one was safe, the company were robbed in many ingenious ways, like putting extra crates on when the checker wasn’t looking. These we would sell cheap to barmen at a low cost cash price. Then often we would walk out of the bar with some of their stock in empty boxes, or with bottles of spirits up our shirt. We justified this thieving by our low wages, but really it was just greed…
I was definitely not guilty when a big robbery took place in the warehouse. Inside ‘Kings of the Bottlers’ warehouse there was a strong room that contained the spirits… [It] had a steel door and a 2ft thick brick wall. One morning we came in and a hole had been knocked through the wall and most of the spirits spirited away. No one was ever caught for the theft but we all had an idea who it was but grassing was definitely out in our culture.
Presumably this kind of thing doesn’t happen today, or is very rare, what with electronic stock control and CCTV and so on… or maybe we’re being naive?
We’re posting this in response to something on the same topic that appeared on, and then disappeared from, Ron Pattinson’s blog. When it turns up again we’ll add a direct link. UPDATE 29/5/2016: And here it is.
Derek Cooper’s The Beverage Report (1970) has an entire chapter dedicated to detailing the various ways those working behind the bar can rip-off their employers and customers; how landlords can rip-off the brewery and customers; how draymen can rip-off landlords and the brewery; and even how customers, given half a chance, can rip-off the bar staff, the landlord and the brewery.
Here’s one example:
A barman of some experience told me: “Say you’ve only got one bar and one cash register. Right! You take an order for a round of drinks, it may come to 8s 6d. The customer gives you a pound. Now two simple fiddles are workable here. Either you decided to cheat the till of cheat the customer. If you’re going to cheat the till you have to be careful. You mustn’t let the customer see you ringing up less than 8s 6d. So you may ring up 6d, almost instantaneously correct yourself openly — you say something like ‘Oh, I’m going mad — that was 8s 6d wasn’t it’ and then you ring up 3s 6d. See what I’m driving at? He’s rung up only 3s 6d so he can pocket 5s 0d. The customer gets the right change, the till gets the right change and he gets the difference.”
The bar staff interviewed reported that they especially prized the kind of customers who didn’t count their change, thus marking themselves out as well-off and careless. You won’t be surprised to hear, though, that they also claimed to reserve their nastiest tricks for the rudest and most annoying characters.
Of course, it goes both ways. Cooper has several stories of pubs being cleaned out by light-fingered customers, and we once saw with our own eyes a three man team pull a perfect short change con with distractions in the Pembury Tavern about five years ago.
The moral? No-one on either side of the bar should trust anyone or relax, even for a moment. Er, wait, that can’t be right…
Fantastic period iIllustration by Andrew Young scanned from our copy of The Beverage Report.