From March until the last day of August 2020, Portsmouth-based writer Morgan Turner was one of the many volunteers who were rounded up to help deliver groceries, collect medicines, and return parcels for the vulnerable, pregnant, and elderly people of Lightwater village in Surrey. Here he relates those experiences and compares them to bartending in Portsmouth.
Besides beating pots and pans together for the NHS or listening to the endless broadcast of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, there wasn’t much else to do in Lightwater. Perhaps this was the reason for my volunteering, to escape the mundanity of Covid-19 and wince-worthy platitudes of the government and middleclass. Or maybe I just liked people? Either way, I eventually began to lose money through refuels and impulsive online purchases, so when pubs reopened in July, I began searching for my first job in hospitality. Coincidently, I found work almost immediately at a quaint public house situated near Bagshot park. It was surrounded by grassy meadows and neighboured an Anglican church which adjoined a gorgeous cemetery of slanted gravestones and blemished statues. The pub was an ideal setting for what I’d hoped would be a summer of simple work and wholesome two-metered interactions.
My first customer was an angry seventy-something-year-old accountant who was dining with his very young wife and younger child. I vividly remember him complaining about the taxi being a minute or so early, ‘I won’t pay extra!’ he sneered as he patted his pursed lips with a napkin. I shifted uncomfortably as I handed him his receipt and recall wondering how someone could be so bothered in a place meant for family, friends, and relaxation, especially after pubs were shut for so long. Due to the hellscape of the infamous ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ campaign that followed, I barely had a second to contemplate this. However, in the serenity of a workless Thursday afternoon, I will explore such observations and retell some curious tales from my work as a bartender in England.
Firstly, I find that English pubs are mostly low-ceilinged Victorian houses filled with a bizarre mix of quintessentially British artefacts. These include the oldest and most racist people that you’ll ever meet, brass candle snubbers, metallic-scented beer pewters, and the occasional framed painting of a Spitfire or Lancaster Bomber. With these relics comes classically British beliefs, such as the notion that back in the old days, you’d simply turn up and be hired on the spot. Despite the questionable accuracy of this saying, it was more or less how I was hired at this particular Windlesham pub. In fact, I hadn’t even turned up for the prospect of work, but for a few cold Heinekens in the haze of a thistle-dotted July afternoon. I was trimming at the head of my third pint when my mate decided that it’d be a good idea to ask the waitress if there was an opening for me. I was embarrassed, it seemed unprofessional. Nevertheless, within five minutes the landlady arrived with a pen and notepad. She seated herself at the end of our table. I was underprepared, without my CV, and slightly tipsy. Nevertheless, my interview began. I had work within the week.
In the beginning, shifts were relaxed and enjoyable. The pay was better than I’d expected, and on most days, I could spend my time bouncing between tables and chatting with guests. Most were kind and we spoke about the weather, I pretended to know about football when talking to some, and one couple compared my resemblance to George Michael’s. Then there were the locals, who had one particular rattan set allocated to them. These men ranged from 50 to 80-years-old and most of them were retired tradesmen of some sort. Dave was born in 1959, referred to girls as ‘totty.’ He owned some sort of dodgy car dealership and drove a different beater every day. Morris was slightly younger and drank Guinness. He was getting it on with the head barmaid, and I often joked with him about how he looked like Paulie Peanuts from the Sopranos. In fact, the whole company seemed to imitate the mob as they sat around smoking and drinking all day every day without fail. Alarmingly, they were so regular that they were allowed to stay and drink (illegally) through the first lockdown. Naturally, these boys gave newbies a hard time at first, but they became bearable. If one tried to impress the group at your expense, you’d simply comment on his insufficient rate of downing ale or inability to pull as an old man, the others would love it and you’d be off the hook instantly. It was easy to get away with these tongue-and-cheek insults in a family run boozer.
However, despite fitting with aforementioned stereotypes, this pub was classier than most. You could expect visits from snooty wine mums who would complain about their half-finished iced spritz being too warm, or old men in wax jackets who’d complain about their peas not being mushed. One time the Countess of Wessex even stopped by, as did Madness’ manager, who sat at a table with Eddie Kidd (responsible for my father jumping from a window as a child). Neville Staple from the Specials was also there, and he actually asked me for a picture. The pub also boasted outdoor heaters, a Koi pond, and gas firepits amongst other more modern attractions. The same couldn’t be said for similar pubs like the workingman’s club a village over, whose walls were lined with ‘best public house’ certificates and photographs with the mayor dated between the late 1980’s and mid 1990’s. I remember being invited there by my mate’s dad one night right before the first lockdown, and although the pints were cheap and the people were cheery, I couldn’t help but imagine that I’d been dragged back in time as I witnessed the dreary fete-like meat raffle take place next to the dartboard above the pocked parquet flooring that surrounded the karaoke stage. Everything looked old and as dusty as the numerous trophy cabinets which lined the walls of the snooker room, whose dim multi-shade lights were still marked with giant ‘no smoking’ signs. It felt as if I was in scene from Lock Stock, and I expected Alan Ford to appear at any moment.
Anyway, when ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ was introduced in August, the Windlesham pub became unbearable. The place took advantage of the new government scheme and overbooked, despite the staff being limited and mostly young and inexperienced like myself. Most of us didn’t know how to apply the 50% discount, which meant that the few supervisors had to stop what they were doing every two minutes to process a bill. Guests would patronise and speak to you as if you were below them. One night I lost count of the free bottles of wine that I’d begrudgingly surrendered to gross customers. One such customer was snidely seething over her main being thirty minutes late, even though she could see the pressure that we were under.
‘I can offer you a free bottle?’ I asked, ‘What would you want?’
She corrected me with a sigh and belittling smirk. ‘You mean, what would I like?‘ She twiddled the stem of a half-filled glass of red.
Again, I couldn’t see how people were sabotaging their evenings with anger after being locked away for so many months. Couldn’t they just enjoy the wait? Enjoy their company and the fact that they’re not dead? I’m not playing the victim here, there were tables that I genuinely sympathised with. A table of 12 once waited four hours in almost complete silence as we brought out puddings with starters, cold mains with appetisers and vice versa. This was due to order-related confusion and a huge backup of tickets. They left without paying. Fair enough, I though. At least they weren’t rude.
Obviously, management wasn’t in order at the time. Looking back, the pub must’ve been desperate for money, as staff were rarely paid on time. One girl I’d spoken to had been waiting for nearly four months, but she seemed fine with it since the pub was a ‘family run’ business. When I asked to be paid before University began, I was offered everything from cash to a cheque. This seemed dodgy, so I waited and eventually did receive payment in
September. Still not sure if I got my tips though. Either way, the place was stunning, and the staff were great. After busy shifts, nothing compared to relaxing under a petrichor scented evening whilst sharing cool pints and banter in the dissipating fog of adrenaline that binds hospitality workers together.
Thinking back to what I said in the intro, perhaps It is more likely that I just enjoy people, or at least search for special bonds that can only be attained in stressful or unique situations. I say this because I found myself in hospitality once again in the second and third year of University, this time at a cocktail bar and restaurant in Gunwharf Quays that boasts some of the top earnings for the company’s chain.
At first, I didn’t think that I’d meet the criteria for bartending in a city. Then I realised my unintentionally stereotypical hoop earring, brunette beard, and tendency to “dabble” with an acoustic guitar. The title of ‘bartender’ here is the same as my last job and the work is also the same – but different. We pour pints, clear glasses, take food orders and occasionally run them to tables. We’re also often packed over the weekends and have to endure the familiar drone of complaints when something hasn’t gone to plan. I’ve noticed that this is especially true during occasions such as Mothers’ Day, Valentine’s Day, or Easter, when guests try to impress family, friends, and lovers by pushing the staff for free drinks, comped bills, and faster service. In terms of differences, the most glaringly obvious difference is cocktails. To pass my three-month probation, I had to learn the exact recipe for around thirty shaken and built cocktails and mocktails. These ranged from simple Collins and Mai Tais to abominations made by packing rag-tag spirits and juices into giant fishbowls and skull-shaped glasses. Learning these was the most challenging aspect of the job, especially since everyone was expected to free pour the ingredients without measurers or jiggers. In fact, every bartender there is required by law to complete and upload a free pour test before the beginning of every shift, which is designed to show if you are under or overpouring ingredients. This style of making drinks would be hard to find in village pubs and is the leading stress factor at my workplace, which has seen its fair share of outbursts and walkouts. In fact, about 14 people have quit the bar in just under a year, and I don’t blame most of them. Furious eleven-hour bottomless brunch shifts followed by sluggish two-hour clean-ups are not for everyone, especially when the same Latin American songs play on repeat over and over again.
Fortunately, the place borders the sea, whose fresh breeze does well in reenergising us during cigarette breaks or after a tough day of shaking tins and washing glasses. Personally, the sight of the emerging Spinnaker tower inspires a sense of endurance and community which helps to push me toward the end of my shift or out of a slump. This is especially true during the purple Saturday nights when the throb of distant rave music reverberates throughout the empty square, and the tower is lit with an array of colours relating to current events. Yellow and blue for solidarity with Ukraine, or the fading and mingling colours of a rainbow to represent LGBTQ+ Pride. The Historic shipyard can also be observed from the adjacent Portsmouth Harbour train station, with the Victorian HMS Warrior being most notable upon arrival, which sits proudly in the shallow waters before its great-great-great grandson, the HMS Prince of Wales, an aircraft carrier which is currently on high alert due to the aforementioned situation in Ukraine.
Although these attractions are delightful, they do often lead to an unfathomable number of customers. The most notable ones are the Navy boys, both British and American, who are either returning or about to be deployed. They drink like, well, sailors, and often ask what cocktails are the strongest – it’s the zombie, and they always order it, which is fitting as it’s packed with several types of rum, including Sailor Jerry’s and Lambs Navy. It always seems to be the tiki cocktails for these well-dressed and excitable boys, who seem to be even younger than me. Is it because these drinks invoke a sense of adventure and travel to tropical white-beach islands and turquoise lagoons? Possibly, but it’s more likely because they want to get blackout whilst they still can. I should add that the Army lads seem to care less about these fruity concoctions, and often grimace at our limited selection of draught beers before ordering a lager. You can tell when you’re dealing with a tradesman too, as they’ve all been to Ibiza more than once and will inevitably ask for a Sex on the Beach, which they don’t mind paying extra for since it’s not on the menu. However, we’re card only, and these guys will likely offer cash first. Once, I served three generations of burly gangsters who donned slicked-back hair, full tracksuits, and diamond-encrusted rings the size of two knuckles. These guys only carried cash. In fact, one by one they each revealed a brick of the stuff when the time came for payment. Before I could even speak, the elderly gentleman had already begun to audibly count twenties upon the bar.
‘Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty. That enough, boss?’
Luckily, they were nice fellows, and I took their cash for payment on my own card. Tourists from all over also make some of our nicer and more enthusiastic guests, and they love having drinks recommended to them. I find that it’s useful to ask for recommendations if you’re unfamiliar with cocktails, otherwise you’ll worry about spending money on something that you won’t like and consequently stick to drinks that are little more than a few counts of vodka and some mixer. In my opinion, these barely incite a buzz and can be made pretty much anywhere, so try something with banana liquor, bitters, salt, or cinnamon. You won’t regret it.
Don’t get me wrong though, drinking cocktails isn’t about getting hammered. It’s about enjoying good company whilst appreciating the subtle flavours of a well-shaken short. We aren’t Wetherspoon’s, and we certainly won’t serve you a warm or flat Magners that you’ll inevitably have to down in time for the club. Nevertheless, the two-for-one deal makes us irresistible to heavy drinkers and students looking for a good pre-game. On weekends, hordes of them turn our bar and restaurant into some sort of proto-club. During these particular nights, it’s usually six bartenders against hundreds of tickets and even more clubbers packed against the bar. Picture Zulu. In these busy hours, each bartender is likely to produce two to four drinks every minute. By the end of the night, my wrist feels like it has arthritis, and my right palm is usually raw from popping tins. Some tipsy patrons get confident and seem to think that we’re being rude with our shortness and communication, but we’re not, we’re simply trying to concentrate. Any mistake – or god forbid a smashed glass – could set us back immensely.
These nights can be enjoyable though, especially if everybody is on form and sharing the good vibe with the customers. They can be funny too. I’ve lost count of the times that drunk girls have hit on every member of the team. Bizarrely, it seems to be mostly women who do this. Once, someone offered my supervisor a good time in the alleyway behind the shop. He declined. She then vomited all over the floor – that wasn’t so funny. Another time, a guy ditched a first date because she kept making suggestive comments to us. By the end of the night, a senior bar member was necking off with her after he’d clocked out and we were left to clean. That was more interesting than funny I suppose.
In this way, bar work can be rewarding. Observing these events and the array of strange customers isn’t boring and leaves you with stories that you can cherish and eternally chuckle about. However, I wouldn’t be able to deal with so many people every single night, which is why I’ve never even naively thought about working in an actual nightclub. Not only are nightclubs always busy, but the prospect of a joke with the customers or staff is completely off the table because of the noise. Also, clubs are the final destination, so everybody is drunker, ruder, and more annoying. This is often especially true for the droves of 18-year-olds who are experiencing nightlife for the first time and can’t handle their drink nor grasp the etiquette of queues or dealing with staff. And I’m speaking from experience here, I was awful. On one of my first nights out in Camberley, I drunkenly flipped a beer mat full of fluid over the bar for a laugh. The barman was not amused, and rightfully so. There’s also not much variation in drinks at nightclubs, which is probably good in the sense that they’d be quick to make, but I’m not sure if I’d be able to bear making seven-billion double-vodka Red Bulls for five hours straight every night.
Of course, I don’t mind attending nightclubs every now and again, but I’d find it depressing to be sober and working within the confines of four black concrete walls dripping with condensation. This also goes for the seemingly uniform décor of fake plants and garish pink neon-signs that always recite something typical like, ‘BE YOU.’ On top of this, I have enough trouble dealing with the engulfed laminate flooring of my own bar, so spending a chunk of my week working inside an entire building lined with this kind of sticky material that omits such foul and entangled odours of mud, vomit, and spirits would turn my stomach. Seriously, at my work, the day’s filth used to seep into even the smallest of nooks in the flooring to fester underneath with whatever else. After a busy night, the resulting faecal-scented aromas of the floor would stick to my uniform like chewed gum. Luckily, we clean our floor daily and have replaced the old one, thank god.
I have more to talk about, but I’ll stop here. I shouldn’t be thinking about work too much whilst I’m at home, so I’ll leave you with this request. You may be seeking serenity in a charming rural pub. You may be stumbling through a coastal bar crawl. Wherever you are, be kind to bartenders and hospitality workers. We’re bored twentysomethings who want a laugh and need money so that we can join you on the other side of the bar. Most importantly though, remember that we’re here to help, so don’t get frustrated. Take the free shot and go outside for a smoke – that usually works for us. And yes, if you want a cigarette, you do have to go outside.
No, I don’t have a lighter.