I have a sneaking admiration for bartenders. Theirs is no easy job. I know because I tried my hand at it once. And rapidly realised that it was a job that I just couldn’t do.
I found out years back when, overhearing the landlord of the River saying that he couldn’t find any bar staff for the next week, I piped up and offered to stand in for a few nights. The landlord looked rather surprised at this offer from one of his regular customers. But he rapidly accepted the offer. I was to start on the coming Sunday night night. 5 pm. Minimum wage.
And so that Sunday I showed up at the promised hour and took my place behind the bar. The pub was very quiet in those days, and so there was nobody to serve, and so I soon found myself leaning against the bar and reflecting on how different the pub looked from behind the counter than it did from in front of it, and how it was rather like a theatre with the customers seated in the auditorium, and the bar staff the actors on the brightly lit stage, whose curtains swung open at 5 pm every night, and closed at 10:30 pm, after a few encores. Not that the bar staff were quite like actors really…
I was reflecting upon all this when I heard a discreet cough from the far end of the bar. Four of five people had materialised behind it without me noticing. So I went and served them the pints of this and that which they requested, praying that none of them would ask for a whisky and soda or a gin and tonic or anything that required any skill to prepare. Fortunately none did. Although I had to pull another pint of Guinness for one of them after he pointed out that it was completely flat, and that it should have a thick creamy head on top of it, and it didn’t.
And with that I resumed gazing at the fascinating scene inside the bar, with stacks of glasses, and bins full of empties, and pails with nameless fluids drying inside them. In the passage behind the bar there was one place where the ceiling dipped down to below head height, and after smacking my head against it three or four times, I began to think that what was needed was a slight excavation of the floor, and the laying of a new damp-proof course, and a few inches of concrete in a gentle sweep which might possibly be a parabola. Or was it an ellipse?..
I was interrupted by the rattling of keys. “Can we have some service?” somebody called, a bit testily. Somehow or other, another two people had magically appeared at the bar.
And there was my problem with bartending. It requires constant attention. But as soon as I’d served someone, I’d relax and drift off into some reverie or other until woken by a cough or a rattling of keys or (as happened later that night) a loud ringing of the bell above the bar. And I was constitutionally incapable, it seemed, of being attentive. I was all right if I had some pre-defined task to perform, like writing a computer programme, adding new subroutines to it, and fixing their bugs. I could do that for hour after hour. But stand behind a bar just waiting for someone to come in? Could I do that? Nope. It was just too, too difficult.
So now I have a new admiration for bartenders. Bartenders like June, who has been working behind the bar at the River for years, is a perfect ace. Arrive anywhere at the bar, and she’ll have noticed you within 5 seconds, even if she’s serving someone else. And she’ll call down and say, “Be with you in a second!” And she will be. And when she comes, it’ll be with a welcoming smile (another thing I couldn’t manage. How do they do that?). And you know that if you asked her for a piña colada rather than a pint of the usual, she’d whip one up inside a minute. And she knows what your usual is too, of course.
I’ve sometimes watched June with wonderment. She always has one eye on the bar behind her, even when she’d serving you and smiling and engaging in a little banter. She never keeps still. She never sits thoughtfully on a stool, or gazes into space like I would. She maintains 100% full attention, all the time. I don’t know how she does it.
And I that’s why she’s an ace. And why she’d have also made an ace Spitfire pilot. I was once told that wartime fighter pilots were forever darting glances over their shoulders, even when they were off duty and sitting in pubs drinking beer. They were constantly attentive, always on the lookout for bandits at 6 o’clock, just like alert bartenders are on the lookout for customers. You survived if you were a fighter pilot if you could see that ME109 a split second or two before a rookie pilot would.
It’s a tad revisionist, but I reckon it was Britain’s bartenders that saved Britain, as they took to the skies in 1940. Nothing to do with the design of the Spitfire at all. The nation of shopkeepers was simultaneously a nation of natural fighter pilots. Not that the Germans didn’t have bartenders too. But in Germany you serve all your bierkeller customers with one single three-gallon Steinzeugkrug of Hofmeister each at the start of the evening, and a few hours later they’re all sleeping it off under their tables. Easy. Then you can spend the rest of the evening discussing Hegelian dialectics or Nietzschean eternal recurrence or whatever. That’s German efficiency for you. It’s the British, with their little half pint and pint glasses, who keep coming back to the bar for refills 24 times an evening, and so keep the bartenders on their toes the whole time – but train them in key fighter pilot skills. Of course, by the same token, the British obviously aren’t as philosophical as Germans. But then philosophy isn’t much use in a dog-fight over Dungeness, is it?
I’m glad I cleared that up.
Me? What sort of fighter pilot would I have made? Well I think we all know. I’d have been gazing out of the cockpit and wondering if that was Crowborough down there in the Sussex hills, or was it Rotherfield, and trying to make out Luxford lane in the maze of fields. And I’d have just managed to to locate the junction of the lane with Queen’s road when the machine gun bullets would have shattered the cockpit perspex into a thousand shards around me, and lit up the instrument panel with sparkling impacts, and the flames come licking over my useless arm, and the ground come spinning up to meet me.