Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 16 June 2012

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At midday, what must have been more or less the entire village gathered around the steps of the village hall (1952) to raise a flute of champagne to Her Majesty, give three ragged cheers, and sing the National Anthem. Then we were herded into the adjacent parish church car park for the parish Diamond Jubilee commemorative photograph. An unforgettable scene: nearly 300 villagers of sober and regular habits, mostly; our minds elevated by a sense of historic occasion, and champagne, and the sight of neighbours not seen for years, or presumed dead; all of us jabbering excitedly, and totally ignoring the poor photographer, who was making increasingly epic gestures with both arms, exhorting us to close up in the middle to allow late arrivals to insinuate themselves into the picture from the outer edges.

After about ten minutes it was noticed that he had got his picture and was now dismantling his tripod. Still catching up on births, deaths and marriages, we moved across, en masse, to the Union Jack-draped tables lined in the road, and piled into a mountain of party food. It is one thing to live quietly in a village for years, slowly accumulating acquaintances; it is quite another to sit at street tables with the entire population scoffing home-made quiches and sausages on sticks. I sat among elderly folk and thought I detected a melancholy air, owing to the occasion marking a drawing to a close, in their view, as well as a celebration.

In the evening, festivities continued in a farmer’s field with a pig roast and barbeque, country dancing, a bonfire, the lighting of a beacon, and a disco. A makeshift bar was set up in a barn. There was a long queue for the bar when I arrived, and the volunteer manning it, a teetotal prison officer of great energy and public spirit, who for many years spearheaded a specialist team of officers dedicated to quelling prison riots, was going flat out. Martin is one of those imperturbable characters whose imperturbability probably only deepens in battle. This evening, however, he looked dismayed. He was pouring lager into a plastic glass with one hand and accepting coins with the other, then frantically bobbing and bending for a lemonade bottle under the table. ‘Can I help?’ I said.

He looked up at me from shin height, sideways, like a contortionist interrupted in the middle of his act, and rolled his eyes and head together, as if it were the silliest question he’d heard in his life.

So I took off my fleece and turned up my cuffs and got serving. I’ve worked full-time behind a bar a few times before, and from the moment I tilted a plastic pint glass under the lager tap and began pouring, it was as if I hadn’t been away. For the next three hours I served gassed lager, keg bitter, bottled cider, red and white wine. Everything was three quid, except lemonade and orange juice, which was 50p, and the till was an old ice-cream carton.

For me, the main pleasures of working a bar are threefold. First, I love the sheer number and variety of people one is confronted by in quick succession. (I met more neighbours in three hours than I’d met in 25 years.) Here’s a polite person, three pints of whatever bitter there is, the old glasses are fine, right money, gratitude, friendliness, wants to take up as little of your time as possible, even with courtesies.

Now here’s a walking nightmare of self-importance, a bleeding connoisseur of ales and fine wines, even where the bar is at a shindig in a barn. He asks to see the red-wine box and squints haughtily at the writing on the side. It says, ‘Red wine’. He grumbles about the price, the shape and construction of the glass, the temperature of the wine. My fellow barman’s perpetual motion ceases for a moment, and he regards this man as he might a gentleman burglar, with a kind of respect for the vividness of his imagination. And now here’s that woman again, not bad-looking, knows what she’s about, who smartly thrusts out a ten-pound note in exchange for a full bottle of red wine, the third in the last hour, and now she’s gone again. You have to be on your toes. It takes you out of yourself.

Secondly, when you are working behind a bar you can give free drinks away to selected customers. I became a focus for the under-fives when they realised that a glass of lemonade was supplied without charge from the mad-looking barman with the crooked glasses. And thirdly, I’m sick and tired of my status as everybody’s equal. I’d rather serve. I want to serve. I would take great pleasure, from now on, I think, in devoting my life to service. Like Her Majesty the Queen, I can see how it works. Can I help anybody?