Time at the Bar

It’s over 33 years since I stood the other side of a bar, serving customers rather than filling up the pub’s coffers.

My first attempt at bartending was when I was 18, at the Welcome to Town in Bridgend. I lasted two nights. I hated the smoke and, as a passionate, lifelong anti-smoking hysteric, could not bear emptying the ashtrays.

My second stint was when I first moved to London and, against fierce competition, landed a job behind the bar at the Palace Theatre in the West End. “I’ve had hundreds of people after this,” the manager told me, “but I’m giving it to you, because I like you.”

I bought a dress from Etam (£17.99) for my new glamorous life. After the curtain went up on Les Miserables, the manager came to the bar to see how I was doing. I was drenched head to toe in mixers, the white collar on my dress a rainbow of orange and lemon. I’d been opening them the wrong way, creating a vacuum in the bottle that resulted in a fountain in my direction with every one I opened.

I lasted just two nights. The manager was very disappointed. He thought I had huge potential. I didn’t. Les Miserables had nothing on the misery etched on my poor little face as I stripped another lemonade from my previously perfectly coiffed Eighties perm.

That was the end of my landlady ambitions. As well as the smoke, I hated the rudeness, the clicking of fingers, the lack of the words “thank you” and “please”; most of all, I hated the exhaustion – physical and emotional.

Being on one’s feet for hours at an end is bad enough; coupled with the psychology of dealing with everyone on an individual basis, according to their drinking and personal needs, made this easily the most difficult job I’ve ever done. I think that to this day and admire anyone who does it – and, yes, as a customer I always say please and thank you.

On Saturday night, almost 33 years to the day since I departed the Palace Theatre, I found myself again serving behind a bar on a brief visit to the UK. My friend Saz, her sister Emma and their mother Heather have bought the Victoria pub in Oldfield Park in Bath, where I once lived. It’s been renamed the Victoria Bath and in addition to regulars is attracting a new clientele, some of whom haven’t been to the pub in years; some have never been there at all.

The weekend featured a local band, The Woods, who specialise in 50s and 60s music, and from the outset they had the place rocking. It was packed. When I arrived, people were standing four deep at the bar. Saz and Heather were serving and, when Heather waved, I enthusiastically waved back like the nonchalant Petunia in the Coastguard TV commercial, when her husband Joe shouts “LOVELY DAY, ISN’T IT?” to a drowning man.

Realising the imminent danger (thirsty people), I started to collect glasses but soon joined my friends behind the bar. I was dressed head to toe in Issey Miyake Pleats Please and wearing five inch heels (you can take the girl out of New York, but . . . ); the till was still too high for me to see it without standing on my toes, and I could barely read the names of the drinks as I had only my cheap supermarket reading glasses on me.

The ale pints were hard to pull and initially I had too much froth (a lovely local told me what I was doing wrong). I also could not remember what they were called and have now re-named them all (Butcombe is now Buttocks; Doombar, Dumbo).

The Fosters lager was a dream to pour (I could have kissed everyone who ordered it), and I didn’t spill a drop of single and half measures on the shorts. Maybe all my years of saying “Could you fill it to the top, please?” paid off.

The other thing that paid off was my maths ‘O’ Level. I grew up in a time when mental arithmetic was de rigeur. I was doing complicated fractions at the age of seven (thank you, Durham Road Junior School, Newport) and can do calculations in my head. Even today, I use a calculator only to work out how much weight I have gained or lost by converting kilograms into pounds with the multiplication x2.20462 (I am nothing if not precise).

Punters were incredibly patient as I learned on the job – as were Saz and Heather, who had to keep showing me what was what on the till. There was so much to learn.

How big is a dash? Is it greater or smaller than a splash? Who wants head on the beer and who doesn’t? Where is the scoop for the ice kept? Actually, that last one was easy: it’s under that Everest of ice I just poured into the bucket without taking the scoop out first.

I begged to ring the bell and call “Time at the bar, ladies and gentlemen, please,” a phrase that one man told me he hadn’t heard for 30 years (yes, that would be about right; old habits die hard).

The next day, I could barely walk. I still can’t. Feet, back, calves – I feel as if I’ve run a marathon.

But here’s the thing: I really, really enjoyed it. I spend my life in front of a TV or computer screen and don’t get to talk to that many people during my working day. It was great to meet so many different folk and to see them having fun on what proved to be a very successful night. I’ve never been called “love” so many times in one day, and I enjoyed that, too (but don’t try it when I’m on the other side of the bar or you’ll get a smack in the gob).

There is something immensely satisfying in serving others, either literally or metaphorically. I loved engaging with new people and my work colleagues; I even liked wiping down the tables when everyone had gone and adored the post-match analysis with Saz and Heather.

I remain adamant that bar work is very, very tough: it looks easy, but it really isn’t. I have the injuries to prove it. When I come out of traction, I might try it again.

But for today at least, I’m calling my time at the bar. Where’s my air ticket?