Food & Drink

London’s pub landlords tell us what pub landlord life is like in 2017

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Chris Sayer
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They’ve seen you at your best, and they’ve counseled you through your worst. ShortList meets five landlords from across London’s spectrum of pubs for a pint in their own boozers to see what life behind the bar can teach us about life in front of it…

THE SMALL MUSIC PUB LANDLORD

Simon Nundy, The New Cross Inn, New Cross

Shagger. That was his name - a huge, goatee’d forty-something guy who I met at when I worked behind a bar in Lowestoft. He was the main man in the local biker gang. Not Hell’s Angels, but one of the others. Anyway, he used to drink in my pub with his lieutenants, and we had an amazing mutual understanding: they’d provide me with some casual security in return for me feeding them free slops. I’d pour the drip trays into a bucket under the bar and save it for them for when they came in, and in return these huge bikers would glare at anyone starting up, maybe going as far as standing off their stools if it was getting serious. Shagger and the boys were the best security I ever had. And they never cost a penny.

It’s the ones that never need to throw their customers out of the pub door that make for the best barmen. 

You’re always the good guy when you’re the landlord. So when it comes to an altercation, not only are you a mate to every person in that pub, but who the hell is gonna cause trouble with the guy that provides the beer?

The feeling is always good when I turn my key to open up. Happiness is having something that you want to get your teeth into when you wake up in the morning.

Someone argued with me the other day about how the pub is a public space. Well, it’s not. I don’t just mean legally. I mean this is my space, a space I look after and am very proud of, and a space you’re an invited guest in. The principle’s the same for any pub – whoever’s in charge, it’s their space. Most people respect that. Some people don’t get it.

Barney was an old American guy who you’d often see perched at my bar. He had a gravelly 40-a-day voice, a walking stick, and looked like Willy Nelson, dressed in a bandana, boots and denim. He used to drink a large brandy and Coke. Always told us that the doctor’s had advised him to stop drinking that stuff, so he’d switch his drinks up, only to go back to brandy the next day. He’d been a musician in the States. I couldn’t do his tales any justice, but he’d been everywhere, and seen it all. The lot. All of it. If there was one person I could wish through my pub doors again, it would be him.

There are people you’ll be talking to every day, and deep down you know they haven’t got long. One day, they just don’t come in any more. And that’s it.

There was a hierarchy at the bar back in the day. The older boys wouldn’t let the younger guys play up. Granddad in the corner would be all, “Oi! Don’t you speak to the barmaid like that, son.” That’s lost in London now. There’s no longer that familiarity when you walk through the doors. The village feel of a city pub has died.

One pub I used to go to, you could tell what time of day it was by the drink the landlord had in his hand. By the end of the evening, he could barely talk any more.

This is a no Coldplay zone. Old school rhythm and blues, on the other hand, is a round-the-clock people pleaser.

Isn’t there a rule about not discussing politics or religion in the pub? I tell you what though, you’ll never be more surprised than when you hear something phenomenally perceptive come from a person you least expect it from. When they put their finger right on a subject you’ve heard a politician bleating on about for weeks. You only get a great take on things when you take the time to listen.

Being in the pub should be one big ‘fuck it’. It’s about letting your hair down. It’s the weekend, or the end of the day, you’ve made it through, and it’s a time where your ‘fuck it’ attitude can finally come to the surface. Being a small music venue, drinking a cold one and having live tunes playing in the corner, I think, helps that ‘fuck it’ come out, a little easier.

I wasn’t here when the guy tried to fling a Tupperware box-worth of turds into the crowd during one of our open mic nights. Quite glad about that.

THE TRAIN STATION BOOZER LANDLORD

Sinead Murphy, The Parcel Yard, King’s Cross

Down every bar there’s an invisible line. It splits it, lengthways, into the bartender’s side, and the customer’s side. The pint you’ve just poured always, always needs to be served over that border, into the customer’s half. You’ll see plenty of bar staff making that mistake.

The last thing I want is for you to feel invisible. I’d see that as a failure on our part. I can’t stand walking in somewhere and there being no eye contact.

My favourite seat is upstairs in our loft bar. It’s light up there, you get a great viewing point from which to sit back and just witness life, it’s close enough to the bar and far enough from the toilets. Table 59 is the one.

It’s seeing the little things that restore my faith in humanity. People letting others ahead of them at the bar. Helping people up the stairs with their luggage. Handing in lost items. There are some good people out there.

I’m big on old-fashioned date manners too. I still think a man should open a door for a lady. Is that sexist? I don’t know. But it doesn’t hurt.

A young guy behind a bar once told me, “Oh, you smell great.” That made my day! It was very sweet. You should use that one. 

Please don’t let after-work drinking die a death. I’ve started to notice how people would rather just go home instead of heading out for a couple with their colleagues. I get the feeling it’s on the way out and that’d be really sad. 

I’m not the biggest female, but I can diffuse any overexcited situation. Honesty without aggression is my approach.

Trains ruin my day as well, you know. Yeah, I might not be the one dealing with a cancelled service or a delay, but it I am the one dealing with the fallout – the terrible moods my customers bring in through the door. It’s my job to turn that around.

I’ve been doing this for 16 years now and I still love it. Massively. How many people get to say they don’t dread getting up on a Monday morning? That the good days outweigh the bad? Not many. Not many at all.

THE 21st CENTURY LANDLORD

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Ruairi Gilles, The Bonneville Tavern, Hackney

My best friend is an actor. He’s also the last person I’d want to watch a movie with. He critiques them from start to credits. It’s the same reason why a landlord’s an awful person to go to a pub with.

I just bloody love pubs. I’ve got a day off tomorrow and I can’t wait to go sit one with my kid and my missus all day. I’m thinking about the Cutty Sark in Greenwich for a couple of beers beside the river.

Every single customer that walks through my door gets a greeting, and yet you’d be amazed at how often people don’t even acknowledge it.

Ten years ago, I would’ve said the perfect customer was someone who tipped big. Nowadays, I love having people I can interact with. I love having people who are interested in the product I’m serving them. That’s the most important thing to me now.

When you build something yourself, and put your heart and soul into it, to have someone appreciate it means a hell of a lot. A hell of a lot.

I’m dead proud of my office door. It’s an old prison door from Clerkenwell Prison. I like my cat skeleton on a skull, too [sat above the bar]. I saw one very similar that I really wanted, but it was ten grand. So, I acquired a cat skeleton for two hundred and the skull for eight hundred, and put the two together.

Okay, the gentrification argument. There’s several ways I look at it. On a personal level, if you’ve got issue with us and this place then come and talk to us. See what we’re about. It’s not the fucking Ritz. We’re just a normal pub. London’s a big city. It comes up. It goes down. Things change. Things move. Things happen. You can label that gentrification if you want, but I see it as the cycle.

What gets people’s backs up is that they think rich kids from Cambridge are cashing in. Want to know the truth? I got myself into a serious amount of debt to do this place. I’m London born a bred. My grandma used to work in the hospital down the road from my pub. I’m not your rich kid from Cambridge.

The pub is still the best place in the world to… be.

People seem to like our YouTube channel. One of our videos has just hit a hundred thousand views. People think there’s a lot of mystery in running a pub, and I guess we show that it’s not really that hard. I’ve always liked to keep things simple.

Bring a book. If you’re drinking solo, bring a proper, physical book. Before I got married I would often by found sitting at the bar at Happiness Forgets, with a book, caining cocktails.

Wanna sit at my favourite table in my pub? Ask for B8. It’s right at the end of the bar. I love it for one simple reason: you can see it all from there.

I’ve had a lot of chats with flat earth theorists in my time. And conspiracy theories come up a lot for some reason. Tower Seven [from 9/11] is always a great one. Chem Trails too. 

Being a landlord, well, it keeps life interesting.

When people have spent all their money in someone else’s boozer, then rock up to your pub right at the end of the night, nurse a drink for an hour and then won’t leave after last orders? Then puke up someone else’s booze over your pub? That’ll irritate a landlord, yeah.

Do you know your local landlord and his wife and his dog? Maybe out of London that’s possible, but here in the city, that seems like it’s become something from the olden days. But people know me as the boss here, as the owner, as the landlord, and to me, that’s fucking cool.

THE WORLD-FAMOUS RUGBY PUB LANDLORD

Stuart Green, The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham

You’ll want to try a pint of Billy Williams when you first come to my pub. Billy Williams was the man was tasked with finding a plot of London where for a national rugby stadium to be built back in 1906. He came to the RFU [Rugby Football Union] to say he’d found this land, it’s in Twickenham, and to come and see it. When they visited, they thought he was mad - he’d bought a giant cabbage patch. That’s how Twickenham Stadium got its nickname, The Cabbage Patch, and how my pub came to be called it too. 

I think we’re the only pub named The Cabbage Patch. But I know we’re the most famous rugby pub in the world.

In here, nobody cares what colour shirt you’re wearing. Nobody cares which team you’ve followed your entire life. Rugby fans follow the same oval ball, and that’s what brings us together.

Stupidity, like the stupidity that resulted in my losing my suit of armour in the foyer. I’m pouring away, and I look up to see a suit of armour travelling up the road to the station under some guy’s arm. That one’s lost now.

Twickenham was crawling with Cornish folk when Cornwall played in the counties finals. Apparently, a third of the whole country had travelled up to see their team play, and the police had no idea how to get the supporters out of my pub and into Twickenham. I told them there was no chance I was closing up, but there was a drummer out back, and if they could get him to the front of the crowd they’d follow him up the road. It worked. He started to beat his drum, and it was like rats jumping off a ship. Everyone’s ears pricked up and off they went, hundreds of them, all out the door up the road, to the beat of the drum. You’ll never see anything quite like it.

I’m 19 years in this industry and still going. I get the most incredible buzz when someone says, “Cheers Stuart, had a fantastic night, see you next time.” Nothing gives me a greater feeling.

Look after your locals, because if the chips are down, these are the guys that’ll still be there, day in, day out, supporting you. Never lose sight of loyalty. You give him the particular glass he’s after. You listen to the stories he might have told you twenty times previously. You laugh it off when they test you. They are the centre of your business.

When wives ring me to chase their husbands, to see if their in the pub, you always tell them he’s not. That’s the rule. You have to say, “No, but if I see him I’ll let him know.” Then you tell your guy to get home fast because she’s livid. It’s how it works – you don’t land your punter in it.

Gerry’s always the first man through the door on a weekday. Always drinks a pint of Kronenbourg. He’s like clockwork – if Gerry’s outside and the doors aren’t open, we’re late.

Dotty used to come in every Saturday on her way to the betting shop. She’d only ever bet 20p, but she used to give me her big tips for the horses. I’ll be honest, that lady won me a fair few quid over the years on her tip, Dubai Dolly. I still look for that name now if I’m ever looking at the odds, which is kind of silly, because it must be more than eight years since Dotty passed away now. I was heart-broken when that happened. She was a great girl.

No matter how you feel, you need to be ready to take on whatever the customer is about unload on you, emotionally. It’s the Landlord’s Rule. Whatever the story, whatever the situation, and however bad it is, you need to be prepared to listen.

Just give people the time they deserve. You’ll never ever know how much it could mean to them. And once they’re gone, there’s no going back.

You don’t enter a conversation with a barman or landlord in fear of ridicule. It’s the reason why men are open to spilling their guts over the bar. A landlord is the friend that never judges.

THE ARCHETYPAL LANDLORD

Gerry O’Brien, The Churchill Arms, Kensington

You know when you see a pub sign? Get a feeling, don’t you. I could be anywhere in the country, and if I see a pub sign swinging in the wind, I get the most lovely feeling. It catches your eye and it just means something. It’s a flag flying high, inviting you to come in. It’s a part of this country’s DNA. I can’t pass

one without stopping to look at it.

Drinking in London was fantastic 50 years ago, when I first came to London to work in The Prince Regent on Marylebone High Street. Drinking wasn’t the reason you were in the pub. You were there to slow down, to meet their friends and have a conversation. Now, it’s a little different. The younger generation, it’s all so fast. Conversation is faster. Maybe it’s because you’ve got a lot more to talk about.

It used to be the publican more than the pub that people would go to see. People really appreciated you being behind the bar. They made you feel great. And in return, you wanted to make them feel twice as great. You’d make a real effort to recognise them when they came in, know them by name, make sure they weren’t waiting long for a drink.

I’d love for the older generation to teach the younger guys to appreciate the pub for what it is, for what it means to them, and for what it means to be where they are. And to just slow everything down. There’s no hurry. When you’re in my pub, you don’t have to rush for anything.

But don’t get me wrong – I love that energy the younger people bring to my pub. I love sensing it when it comes through the door.

In fact, I get a lot of people telling me I need to slow down. I hear it quite a bit. And I know I’m getting older. I’m 66, I’ve been working in pubs for almost 50 years, and 32 of them have been in this one alone.

When you walk into my pub, you’re walking into my front room. I have that feeling here when I see people walking in. And goodness me, I want that feeling to carry on forever. I never want to lose that.

I think I’ve had the best life going. I really do. It’s been fantastic. I put it all down to the people.

I’ll say “This one’s on me” every day. Our oldest regular, she was 82 just last week. She gets one large gin and tonic on me every day.

You’ll never be a “next please” in my pub. Oh, I hate that. I hate it. Everywhere you go now, it’s “Next please, next please, next please.” I’ve banned it from my bar. You’re not a “next”. Never be a “next”.

I don’t drink in my own pub, and actually, I hardly drink now as it is. But I do have a favourite seat. It’s the one where I eat my lunch in the afternoon, when it quietens down a bit at around four o’clock. It’s beside our old fireplace opposite the kitchen. Just a small round table that seats two, and that’s my little hideaway.

The hardest conversation you’ll ever have over a bar is with someone who’s lost their life partner. It can be incredibly sad to talk to the person that’s been left behind after so long. I’ve had several occasions of that. The most important thing you can do is talk about your memories of their lost partner. You’ll just see how much that means.

I’ve lost a good forty people since I’ve been here.

I was in the bar when I learned about my mother’s passing. I got the call 18 years ago, at six o’clock one morning. I thought it was a delivery driver I was expecting, but it was to tell me my mother had died in her sleep. We were fierce close. My father died when I was two days old, so we were a very small and tight family.

We all need to carry on. We all need to keep on going. You can’t allow tragedy to stop you.

Never undervalue your health and your strength. When my mother passed away, it really shook me up. And now, every single night since, when I close up, no matter what time it is, I’ll thank God for my health. And I’ve never stopped saying it. Your health and your strength, and your enjoyment from your work and your attitude – those are the components a man needs for a happy life.

(Photos: Will Bremridge)

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Chris Sayer

Chris Sayer is a freelance journalist and editor based in London. Chris has interviewed some of the biggest names in entertainment and travelled the world doing an all manner of adventures for lots of brilliant magazines. He writes for Shortlist about booze but would probably prefer we let him write about fishing instead. Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisSayer00

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