I suppose it’s ironic given my drinking habits, that I worked in pubs when I moved to England. Although the Antipodean in England naturally drifts into working in bars, somehow I managed to work in a series of local, rough and particularly grim environments with nary a fellow Australasian in sight.
Drinking in New Zealand for me involved a lot of fill-your-own flagons with cheap port or apple wine. Pubs were generally for live music or a preliminary meet in anticipation of a more serious session in another, cheaper location.
The New Zealand country pubs were ostensibly wilder with sawdust on the floor, pint jugs on every table and the ever present building tension of ‘something’ about to happen.
My first job in Brixton started within days of my arriving in the UK. It was in a local Jamaican pub, recently reopened after the last landlord had been busted for manufacturing and selling ecstasy.
I saw the side of Brixton the prostitutes walked in, the place where the old Jamaicans who’d come over in the 1950’s and 1960’s played dominos, where the drugs were sold and where hard drinking and hard living was done.
Unlike New Zealand, pubs in England were where people came every night to drink, even for just an hour. They would meet friends, and unwind before heading home to wives and dinner (yes, these places were male dominated, punctuated with brief visits from women, but the mainstay were always men).
Weekends were for longer drinking sessions and the invariable lock in.
The locals were tenacious, stubborn and controlling. Landlords would change and the regulars would twist pull and challenge them until they had asserted their rights and their ways, over the new manager.
Later I would work in Irish pubs, music pubs, builders and labourers pubs. All run down (as one manager said, a workman drinks at least ten pints plus shots and has muddy boots so doesn’t mind holes in the floor boards and peeling stained wall paper…renovate the pub and give it carpet and you lose the workmen and gain a clientele that instead drink a few glasses of wine…do the maths)
I saw women and children come and bawl out a father, husband or partner for not coming home and for drinking away his wages; I attended wakes; I saw bare knuckle fighters with wads of cash and had bosses who stole the takings and did the proverbial midnight run.
I would meet people who were caricatures.
The older woman propped at the bar; tiny and immaculate, drinking baby champ all night. The tough brassy woman who cleaned the pub and was trapped in a series of abusive relationships, who would viscously fight with other women over her man but was also immensely vulnerable. The Glaswegian reading the paper and talking left wing politics, the sweet big guy just looking for love, the landlord with huge gold rings, the hyperactive wheeler dealer junkie, and the refugee intellectual…
It’s been twenty years since I stopped working behind a bar and I suspect, like everything else, the environment of the British pub has changed. Smoking bans, gastro pubs, cappuccinos and different values leads me to wonder, do all these people now drink alone?