Working in the same pub my dad had stayed at years before, I found a greater appreciation of the role pubs play in our communities—and the harm that will be done by their closingby Alexandra Haddow / February 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
For the first time in my freelance life I sobered up on New Year’s Day to find myself with very little work in the diary. I messaged a friend who runs a pub in a leafy (loaded) area of London and asked if he needed a barmaid for the next few weeks. My luck was in, and I ended up working there almost every day in January, mostly in the afternoons.
This pub is the type that you’d take American friends to if they were in town. It’s the size of two big living rooms, and furnished with a horseshoe bar, wood-panelled walls, two roaring fires, and flowers. Crucially, it serves drinks that won’t cost you the best part of a tenner. It has locals who know each other from the pub and gather there spontaneously. There’s Dave, an 84-year-old who brings the bar staff his old cameras to satisfy our fleeting notions of becoming photographers. The hairdresser across the road comes in for a lunchtime pint. The guy who has a double vodka soda every day at one in the afternoon and then comes back at 5pm for three more. A troubled young man who had a great stroke of luck: his sister married a millionaire and bought him a neighbouring flat that costs more than twenty times my average salary. The mysterious bloke who has a half an ale and stares into the distance for three hours; the two older women who come in every day at 5pm, have a gin, a wine, and two bags of crisps, and then go home to their families. These are my regulars.
People are creatures of habit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a pub. The pub is there for them when they need it, and will always be there at the end (or the middle) of a long day, just as it is there for me when I don’t have any other money coming in. Pubs patch up the class divide. We debate the issues of the day, from whether one should say the “B” word (don’t) to Trump; the NHS, and what someone should do after they’ve been sacked. We helped a couple name their baby (it had been a month and they couldn’t decide). The pub is where everyone can come to air their problems, find someone to talk to, and be surprised by who thinks what. People cannot be defined as just right or left wing. Everyone is three dimensional. The sense of community almost rivals church, but with more red wine.
I’ve worked in various pubs and restaurants on and off my adult life. At first, to make some cash, then to fund internships, then to make extra money on the side to pay for holidays. The weirdest thing about my most recent stretch of mini-employment, though, was that my dad had worked in the exact same pub in the summer of 1980 while on strike from the steel works.
Each time I climbed down the perilously steep stairs to the cellar I thought about him, forty years ago, sleeping on the floor of the flat above the pub with his mate, also on strike. Scotsmen living in a Midlands steel town, temporarily crashing on the floor of a London pub. Men in the throes of Thatcher’s attempted decimation of the working class. Walking around, I felt a quiet kinship between him and I, one that bridged generations.
“Does it still have the horseshoe bar?” My dad asked. It does.
I grew up much more privileged than my dad. I went to university, had supportive parents, worked hard, and now work in media and as a stand-up comedian. These are all things that would have gotten my dad laughed at had he said he was going to do them. One of the first times I felt Britain’s class divide was when I was visiting a university friend at his incredible family home in Edinburgh. When he told his mother about my dreams of becoming a fashion journalist, she said with complete sincerity, “that’s brilliant.” With such belief and no mention of any hurdles I should be wary of, I realised she didn’t see them. For them, there were none. If you wanted to be something, there’s a high chance you’d actually become it.
Middle-class people are less likely to ever have to take a job in a bar to make ends meet, but behind the bar nobody cares who you are or where you’re from. They’re interested, but they don’t care. I’ve rarely felt such a lack of judgement in any working environment. This isn’t to say that working behind the bar is a last resort—I love it, as do a lot of people—but it’s also an easy way to make some cash when life has thrown you off course.
In the first half of last year, an average of 235 pubs in the UK closed down each month. It saddens me to think that these hubs of societal cross-sections are decreasing at such an alarming rate. At a time when it feels like we’re increasingly divided by class, politics, belief systems and generations, the trusty local can be a great leveller, and despite what it might sometimes seem like, a place of safety. There’s a brief flash of hope. This January, UK pub numbers rose for the first time in a decade, perhaps because we’re all realising we’re better in a warm pub with each other than being glued to the endless bad news cycle. Everyone should work behind the bar at least once—it might teach you more than the media can.