“A bar is just a church where they serve beer…”

The tradition red-neon sign at Golding's
A good sign

The “beer community” is frequently celebrated as a special thing and one of the reasons this is a rewarding hobby to have, and a nice industry to work in. And that, broadly speaking,1 is right and true. But since switching back to bartending I’ve been struck more and more by the distinct — although obviously overlapping — nature of bar culture and the nice ways that a good one can have a community all of its own. The title here comes from an excellent Jim White song2 that gets stuck in my head whenever I’m pondering this and marvelling at the myriad ways that people use the bar to share little moments of celebration or of solidarity or anything in between, including weirdly heartwarming mundanity — and: beer.

On top of the usual after-work drinks and occasional birthday gatherings, we’ve recently had farewell send-offs and saw a steady stream of a graduating university students dropping in for a drink and a few photos on their big day — hell, we’ve had a fair few fully-kitted-out wedding parties doing the same, risking their finery in a place full of top-heavy pints and pizza sauce. Unlike a lot of other bars, we don’t usually show sporting matches, but we’ve packed the place out with a similarly-loyal fandom of folks watching old Star Wars movies, and we’ve also seen that just-won-the-championship level of emotional jubilation, such as when we were standing-room-only with people watching Parliament pass marriage equality a few years ago.

It’s equally nice to play host to people sharing in the stress of stuff happening, too. We’re busier-than-usual when there’s just been a cluster of earthquakes,3 and have consoled more than a few shell-shocked ex-pats who’ve watched along with us as a political clusterfuck unfolded at home, seemingly comforted by the fact the other side of the world was a) paying attention and b) likewise unsettled. We’ve got a spare slot on the ‘Beers On Tap’ list that’s usually taken up with some throwaway pithy nonsense, but which also lets us put up a fitting in memoriam when someone notable dies. 2016, obviously, gave us a bit of practice: Bowie in January, Prince in April, George Michael in December, and just the other week Chris Cornell died too. Putting their work on the sound system and a lyric under the beer list was a nice way to get people talking; they shared anecdotes of gigs, favourite tracks, and even got into the wider weirdness of fame and idolisation itself.4 When Carrie Fisher died late last year, we had the original trilogy on loop on the screen behind the bar for a few days and She Drowned In Moonlight went up on big board, per her request. Both die-hard fans and more-casual watchers adored and admired her, and you could see the solace people took in the moment being marked openly and unghoulishly.5

Between both of those extremes, though, it might actually be the beautiful banality of bar life that I like the most. We have a half-dozen folks who regularly park up for a few hours with their laptop to get some work done away from distractions. We often turn into an unofficial post office for busy people to use as a reliable way to hand something over to someone they’re struggling to catch up with. We’re such a trusted neutral middle-ground that we must’ve played host to literally hundreds of Tinder dates by now. Some people come in to pick our brains about something, but others just want to take a moment to themselves (or quietly catch up with whatever on their phone — and more power to them, as Boak & Bailey say), and it’s nice that they know both modes of one-person-pubbing are entirely welcome.

That’s bar life, fully considered: it’s home to the good, the grim, and the delightfully mundane. It is, and should be, host to moments from every damn corner of life. If a bar doesn’t have any of that, if it’s merely a place to sling and to sink booze, then it is (I submit) a crap bar. And they do exist. But so do well-rounded places that house a real community and are, in turn, positive parts of the community that surrounds them. I’m a fairly cynical chap, and prone to bouts of misanthropy, but all the little sparks of humanity I see in the bar pull me back and cheer me up in their own ways.6 All of which is a lot harder to articulate than “I don’t usually have to start work before noon” — which is what I usually cite when talking about why I still enjoy bartending — but it’s also a lot closer to the truth.

  1. We’d do well to more-frequently ponder its flaws, though: like all subcultures, it can degenerate into a snobbish clique on a bad day, and we’re usually still (on the whole) too slow to give our friends and colleagues a metaphorical jab in the ribs when they do something stupid or offensive or both.
  2. Jim 3:16, from his collaboration with the Packway Handle Band, which — in a pleasant coincidence — was released around the time I left the brewery and got back behind a bar.
  3. Note to foreigners: they’re pretty common around here, but we’re in a massive big brick building nearing its 100th birthday, so we’re definitely better-equipped with emotional support than the physical kind — though this does make me think bars would be excellent locations for caches of emergency supplies…
  4. Chris Cornell’s death (the least famous of that set, but the most personally relevant for me, since I was a big fan) even got people talking — to strangers, in public — about the struggle and stigma of mental illness, which is pretty fucking remarkable and kind of wonderful in its own way.
  5. And I know there’s a undercurrent of dismissal of the mere notion of this kind of ‘public grief’, but honestly, if this stuff doesn’t ever trouble your mind — if you have no heroes you’ve never met such that you’re never sad that they’re gone — then I’m more inclined to feel pity for you than envy of you.
  6. I’m in danger of psychoanalysing myself here, or just rationalising what I do — so I’ll constrain myself to a footnote — but I’m also a fairly notoriously interventionist bartender. But I’m not doing it for me, I’m trying to look out for the community of the place and the many ways in which people use the bar; what irks me the most and attracts my ire the fastest is, fundamentally, when people try to take over the place in one way or another. To paraphrase the Jim White song: this bar stool’s my pew, this pretzel’s my communion — but I will damn sure excommunicate your ass if I need to.

8 thoughts on ““A bar is just a church where they serve beer…””

  1. i used to roll through goldings every sunday afternoon just to chill out and read because it was just down the street from my flat. i jokingly called it my lounge-away-from-lounge… always good vibes and the measuring stick i use when trying to chill in bars over on the other side of the world.

    1. Cheers! Lounge-away-from-lounge is an excellent description of this place in a chill mood. “Sean Golding’s All-Ages Kindergarten” is another common nickname these days; there’s even more Star Wars toys and fairylights than ever before. Hope you’ve found a replacement pseudo-lounge.

  2. Back when I was funemployed, I loved coming down on my own in the middle of a weekday afternoon when it was dead quiet to have a Birch Beer (or maybe even an alcoholic beer) and do art stuff in that happy middle zone of not-alone-but-not-distracted-but-sometimes-interrupted-for-a-hug-and-a-hello… thanks for being an interventionist bartender, Phil – I’ve enjoyed its benefits more than once! 🙂

  3. I rather like the idea of a bar’s sub-purpose being to get strangers talking to each other. I think we can all visualise bars where exchanging a few words with someone you’ve never met before feels both right and unforced, and bars where for whatever reason you’re alone in the crowd.

    1. With the proviso, of course, that some people want to be left alone and gently (or un-gently, if need be) redirecting someone away from them is very much the bartender’s job if there’s a mismatch. But yes: in many cases, on surprisingly varied topics, just your shared presence in the same pub is a nice icebreaker.

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