Aged 16 I got my first job. Every Saturday I spent a few hours helping my Mum in a pub kitchen, and while at the time I thought it was just an easy way to earn money for glittery nail polish, little did I know it was the start of a path that I would follow for the rest of my life.
There was nothing particularly glamorous about this pub – an old city centre boozer frequented mainly by old ale drinkers and patrons of the theatre across the road – but there was something that allured me. Each Saturday as nighttime fell, my mother and I would close down the kitchen and head downstairs to collect our wages, sometimes staying for a quick drink before heading home, and there was always something about the buzz of the place that made me want to stay. The cosy lighting as the sky darkened outside, the gentle background chatter, the bubbling excitement of dressed up revellers about to embark on a night full of promise – there was something about it all that I wanted a part of. Unsurprisingly, as soon as I turned 18 I stepped onto the bar and found a vibrant, crazy world that I completely and utterly fell in love with. And quite simply, I never left.
I left physically, of course. Over the last 20 years I’ve had many a bar job. In Victorian pubs full of history and charm. Grotty late night party venues. Busy city centre eateries. Snooty wine bars and swanky cocktail bars. Gastro pubs, hipster pubs, real ale pubs. Both small independents and multinational breweries, in cities all over the UK. I spent a big chunk of my late teens working in my local Wetherspoons, which was…. interesting! And I’ll never forget the 6 months I spent working in the Yates next door to Millenium Stadium in Cardiff – those mental match days can never be erased! By far my favourites though will always be the locals where everyone really does know your name!
There was plenty to hate about the job. The hours were long. The nights were late and the mornings were early. Sometimes those nights and mornings all blurred into one long, excruciating week. Or month. Or year! I regularly didn’t really know what time or even day it was. I drank too much and ate too little. Some days it seemed I existed on Red Bull and cigarettes alone. And the work was punishing. Bar work isn’t classed as a sport but sometimes I joke it should be – one crazy Christmas in the middle of a massive staff shortage I was physically sick on the way home from the adrenaline surging through my veins! The worst parts though were always the people, be it the colleagues that didn’t pull their weight, the managers that treated you like dirt or the guests that thought nothing of abusing you – I suffered both verbal and physical attacks in my time on the frontline, but thankfully the latter were fairly rare. Undoubtedly, this industry has brought about some of the most intense periods of stress I’ll ever endure and toilet crys were a regular feature (still are, truth be told…)
But there was plenty to love too. I developed an intense passion for food and drink which still persists and grows daily. That sense that you have made someone’s special occasion, or even just a tiny bit of their day, memorable is hard to beat, and I lived for those thank yous, the kind compliments, the good reviews and chats with regulars, even though they sometimes seemed overshadowed by the negative comments. I danced and sang more than I ever have and probably will again. And I laughed. Oh how I laughed. Even in the darkest times. When everyone called in sick and it was six deep at the bar. When the tills went down or there was a power cut or the deliveries didn’t turn up. When we were hungover at 7am in the kitchen prepping for a crazy Sunday lunch, or singing along to the radio at 3am tackling what seems like a never ending run of dirty glasses. When I dropped the till floats down the stairs, still bleary eyed from a late finish the night before. That time the shelves in the Champagne fridge collapsed and we lost a whole case of flutes. That time I turned a corner too fast and ended up flat on my face in front of the whole bar on NYE. That time I ended up covered in an entire vat of dirty, thankfully cold, fryer oil (long story, I’ll tell you over a drink one day!) Because earlier I said that the worst parts were the people, but the best parts were also the people.
I physically left, but pubs are still my life. I moved up through management and into an office based role, but that role is to support my colleagues who are still out there on the front line. It is rare a weekend passes without me frequenting a pub at some point, whether it’s for a quick lunch, a date night or a long over due catch up with friends. The lessons I have learnt from my time in the job still help me every day. And the people – they remain as constant as ever. Because when you work in pubs, you are never really alone. People that, when I first met them, I thought were just regulars or colleagues became my friends and are among those I love the most today. The people I stayed up far too late drinking and talking with after a busy shift. The people that scraped me off the floor after a few too many and an emotional breakdown. The people I strutted down the bar to Beyonce with. The people that dropped in with Lucozade and Ibuprofen in the morning because they knew I’d be feeling fragile. The people that let me sleep on their sofas because I realised at 3am I’d left my keys at home. The people that bolstered me when I felt like things were getting too hard. The people who knew exactly what I was thinking about a guest with just a sideways glance and then had to hide in the fridge to stifle giggles. Even the naughty ones that regularly convinced me to go out after work for ‘one’ even though I had to be in early for the delivery in the morning. Working in pubs taught me what being a part of a team really means and I thank my lucky stars that some of those people are still in my life, even though some of them are in cities, countries and on tropical islands far, far away. We have grown up together, been there through the heartbreaks, the bereavements and the general shit that life has to throw at us. I’ve seen them get married and they will be by my side when it’s my turn. I dote on their children and they dote on mine. I met my partner doing this job, and the light of my life, my little boy, was born last year, all because of a Saturday job I had when I was 16.
So the news yesterday that all bars and restaurants must close indefinitely, hurt. Really, really hurt. Not because I can’t go for a drink or for a spot of lunch anymore, or because it makes my job security suddenly feel uncertain (though of course those things kept me awake last night like they did everyone else) but because the thought of a world without pubs seems inconceivable to me. I’m sure plenty will already be saying it’s not a big deal, that our health is more important than bricks and mortar, which is of course in true – this was action I expected and believed needed to be taken. But pubs are more than that to me. They are the hubs of our communities, the places we go when we need to escape or wind down. They are the places where we’ve cried about the hardships of life, but also where the best moments of our lives happened. Relationships start and end in pubs, friendships blossom and memories are made. Every time you walk past a pub and catch a waft of that familiar, beery smell, life is happening inside. When you work in a pub, it isn’t just a job, it’s your world. A place that feels like a safe haven even when it is that pub itself causing you stress. When you work in a pub you feel like you belong there. It is your family and your home. Last night I couldn’t stop thinking about those of you who had to clear up, lock the doors and walk away from your homes last night, not knowing when you would be back, and the thought of those busy, thriving buildings sitting dark and silent for weeks, months, who knows how long, is completely and utterly heartbreaking.
But back to the people. If there is one thing I know about pub people, it’s that we are a resilient bunch. Over my years in this business I have never known love and passion like it. And we bond like nothing else – get two complete strangers in a room and they will be able to talk for hours about annoying things that customers do once they realise they have pubs in common! So we will be back! We will beat this together and we will be stronger than ever on the other side. So to all my hospitality friends – those still in bars and those that have moved on, those that I work with now and those who I’ve worked with over the years – I raise a glass to you. I toast your dedication to a difficult and often thankless job that not everyone could do. I toast you for the millions of good times you have provided me and most of the rest of the world over the years even if they don’t acknowledge it. And I toast your courage as we face this scary uncertainty. I feel an affinity with you today more than ever before. Thank you for the memories, but this isn’t the end.
And we are going to have one hell of a party once they let us back in!