So, I’ve recently acquired a job in one of my town’s finest drinking establishments. Aside from my sheer amazement that someone thinks I’m a responsible adult who can serve drinks and not scare customers, I’m rather enjoying it so far. The other staff are great crack, I’ve been shown the secret corners of the pub, like the Cupboard of Dreams (i.e. the wine and spirit store), and I can even use one of those fancy coffee machines now – though if you order one when there’s already a huge queue at the bar I will not be, to put it mildly, cock-a-hoop. (And likewise, if you’re ever at the bar, please don’t give me a rambling and changing order. I thought I knew what indecisiveness was until I encountered five drunk lads ordering cocktails last Saturday night.)
Essentially, I’m getting paid to be somewhere I would normally spend some time anyway. Plus working late evenings means I get to have guilt-free lie-ins, so it’s win all round for me. From a young age I’ve always enjoyed serving drinks at home and I like the convivial atmosphere you get at a good pub – I actually have three locals: one for a traditional music session, one for school friends, and one for a quiz. Greedy, I know. Turns out, though, that my family has a bit of history with bar work, and not just sitting in pubs, in which we could have got a degree.
Firstly, my mam worked behind the “French Bar” at a Chamber of Trade fundraiser back in the 1960s It was probably highly illegal, considering she was only 14 at the time, and probably offensive to the French considering that the team was wearing stripy tops and berets, with onions strewn around the place.
My great-grandfather, on the other hand, ran the working men’s club (pronounced “clurb” in the local vernacular) at Redheugh, near Newcastle-Gateshead, in the 1930s. He will hereafter be referred to as Grandfather Wilson, because that’s what I’ve always heard him called, and my family likes to create confusion with names.
Anyway, his management style was very much of its time. One day, a local chap had had a few beers too many in the club and said something offensive about Mrs Wilson, who worked behind the bar. Grandfather W instantly grabbed him by the collar and pulled him out back, where he punched him hard in the stomach, and then held him above a bin while he noisily threw up. They both straightened up after a pause.
“Do you feel any better?”
“Yes. Sorry, Mr Wilson.” The now-more-sober bloke shamefacedly walked back in, where Grandfather Wilson bought him a pint, with no hard feelings.
These days we give people tap water to sober them up.
Mrs Wilson seems to have been the business brains; she saw the way things were going during the depression and got Grandfather W to sell his bond just in time. Six months later, under new management, the club went bankrupt and closed. Pubs and clubs obviously struggled in the 1930s because men couldn’t afford to drink as much as they once did. In fact, barely anyone bought pints so many bars only stocked half-pint glasses. A family friend once told me he’d been talking to an old-timer in a North-East pub who remembered the time a man ordered a full pint at his local.
“Certainly,” said the bar man, “I’ll just be a second out back.” With that, he dashed out of the pub, up the street and into another pub where he quickly borrowed two pint glasses and ran back to serve his customer.
Back to the Grandfather Wilson story: it seems believable to me, but the tale does come from my Granddad (via me dad) so I might suggest taking it with a wee pinch of salt. Alfred Wilson, me dad’s dad, always liked embellishing tall tales – oh, that’s where I get it from. I’m sure I’ll write up some of them at another time, but here’s a brief one that shows Grandfather Wilson was still not a dude to mess with when he was in his old age.
Grandfather W had gone deaf, and was sat playing cards with Alfred and his brother. He fluffed a move and Alfred, safe in knowing his dad couldn’t hear him, muttered “silly old sod” to brother Jimmy. Straightaway he felt a painful thwack from Grandfather W.
“I might be deaf, son, but I can still bloody lip read!”