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  • Mark Whitworth

Bar Work for Beginners

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

The battle to earn the money to afford to drink - 1976-79

Mark Whitworth at 19
The barman c.1977.

When I visited Leeds in late June 2023, I struggled to remember the name and location of the pub where I worked in my final year of university (1978-79). It proved rather frustrating, but having returned to Mexico and cleared my mind, I took another look. I went through an article about pubs in Leeds that had closed, but with no luck, and then I came across a fantastic resource, Pub Stops of Leeds, designed like a map of the London Underground. I realised I had been looking nearby, but a little too far west along the Headrow. It turns out that the pub, The White Swan, is still going, although, after a long and eventful history, it now has the ignominy of being referred to as a gastro-pub.

This episode led me to put together a short list of the pubs I worked in my student days so that I would not forget any more valuable facts. I have managed to secure a photo of each, although the photographs do not always reflect what the places looked like when I was employed there. I have also added some notes about each.

The Covered Wagon - a modern photo.

We'll start with The Covered Wagon in Moseley, Birmingham. I did a few stints there, all between 1976-79. I worked alongside my mate, Andrew Smith, and my sister, Bridget Weaving, although at different times.

During one of my residencies, I managed to brush broken glass into my eye and was taken to the Eye Hospital by the boss, a guy called Reg. I learned many years later that my dad, who was never a pubgoer, was at the opening of the Covered Wagon, as a friend of his was its first manager.

I'll always have a soft spot for The Wagon, now an acclaimed Desi Pub. The interior is entirely different today. Back when I worked there, it had a two-star lounge and a slightly more upmarket three-star lounge. The Wagon was local for my school; our last day at school ended up here, with plenty of mad japes and extreme alcohol consumption.

Angler's Hotel, Oakham, Rutland
The Anglers today - formerly Reynard's Hotel.

In 1978, I worked at Reynard's Hotel (now The Anglers) in Oakham, Rutland. I was completing my dissertation on Rutland's history and staying with my sister, Dinah Faulds.

I worked in the cellar bar, and although the hotel was quite lovely, the bar was not! The draymen used to have to roll the barrels down a big ramp while we crouched at the bottom to catch them; it was a health and safety nightmare. Behind the bar was a whole foot lower than where the customers stood, so I looked like a dwarf. One night the cellar flooded, and I ended up serving in six inches of water while the customers remained dry. It took until two in the morning to clear up the mess, whilst the landlord's son watched us and did bugger all himself.

There was a great jukebox; I particularly remember Rocky Mountain Way by Joe Walsh, and as I had the key for free plays, it got a lot of airtime. There were also three young regulars; Julie, Jackie and Jenny - I seem to recall. They conned me into serving them extreme snowballs, which included almost everything known to man (or woman) and selling them for 40 pence, because a sign on the back wall of the bar stated, "Snowballs - only 40 pence". I never said I wasn't stupid!

White Swan, Leeds
The White Swan in Leeds - this photo is closer to then than now!

The White Swan in Leeds is the only city centre pub I have ever worked in. Back then, it was hardly top ranking, but it did seem to get a lot of actors in from the theatre. At the time, it seemed to be in quite an obscure back street, but I now realise this was true for only half of the pub.

As to my not remembering its name, well, that's because The White Swan at Five Ways became my working local in 1979, and clearly, its name usurped the other in my brain. I remember the WS in Leeds was a well-run pub with a good gaffer, but I recall little else.

I was desperate for money, being in my final year, having the added responsibility of a full-time girlfriend, and the increased costs of living in private rather than student accommodation. I recall having to give a presentation at a seminar, having worked at the pub all evening and then overnight in a food processing factory. It seemed to go doen reasonably well; in an early foretaste of what was to come, the subject was Chinese Political History in the C20th.

The Dee View Inn, Heswall - a modern photo.

The Dee View Inn in Heswall, on the Wirral, was technically a step up for me; it was properly posh, the poshest pub I had ever worked in. It was also the only pub I worked in where I was expected to serve food; I quickly realised that was something outside my skill set!

The Dee View did come equipped with a stunningly beautiful barmaid, but the licensee was a complete shit. I reckon I had only worked six weeks before he fired me, supposedly for having my hand in the till. After all this time, if it were true, I would admit it, but it was completely fabricated.; the bastard just wanted rid of me.

I reckon I was chopped because I got on well with the barmaid, who would have nothing to do with the landlord despite his constant lechery! The day I was fired, I saw an advert for a job in another local pub and walked the two miles to meet the gaffer.

Pensby Hotel, Pensby, Wirral
The Pensby Hotel, Pensby - this is a photo from the time I worked there.

The manager at the Pensby Hotel was the best manager I have ever worked for in my entire life. He hired me after I had told him I had just been sacked for stealing. He was kind, generous, strict and ran his pub superbly. It was a rough old pub. He was an Evertonian, and most of his clientele were Liverpool supporters.

I had always been a good barman but had never considered myself tough; I just went with the managerial flow. One night, I leapt over the bar to break up a fight between two teenagers. As I did, I heard two of the locals commenting on me. The line, "He's hard, he is! He's from Birmingham!" I will never forget. To have two Liverpudlians describe me as hard was unbelievable. I was not, and I never have been!

One of the funniest things about the Pensby Hotel is that it was not, and never had been a hotel. However, it certainly looked imposing enough to have a few bedrooms. I reckon we used to get someone at the bar every couple of nights wanting a room, some who were desperate as well. It wasn't easy!

Mark Whitworth, 1978
Old barmen do not fade away - they eventually go to Mexico. I was already practicing in 1978!

That was the end. I have never worked in a pub since, only frequenting them as a customer. Those experiences as a youngster mean that I am generally very sympathetic towards bar staff, although if I think they're slacking, I can be pretty critical. Today, I am amazed that bar staff cannot work out the change in their heads and seem unable to multi-task, although I believe the systems in place make these things more difficult.

I guess it has been forty-five years since I last pulled a pint in a professional capacity, but I like to think I could go back tomorrow, be good at my job, be able to run the cellar to a high standard as well, and to keep the customers happy and safe.

As for making a cocktail! Well, Andrea used to do bar work also; she could do the cocktails. I'm a sad Brummie git who never has and never will; beer, wine and spirits with a single mixer are my limit, and I'm proud of it!

If you enjoyed the account of my early experiments with employment, you might just enjoy delving into “Hang the Teacher Out to Dry”, which are my memoirs from my days teaching in England, Tanzania, China, Qatar, Bangladesh, and Malawi.

As you might expect, the book examines many of the humorous incidents that cropped up in my thirty-year career. However, there more serious matters raised in this account, which attempts to be an honest examination of the highs and lows of teaching both at home and abroad.

The book, available from Amazon, in hardback, paperback, and Kindle editions, has been given 5 stars by 79% of its reviewers.

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The books may be available from other Amazon outlets.

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