Contortionism & Diplomacy

I move we celebrate a public holiday in honour of our bar staff whereby they get to keep all the day’s takings regardless of pub owner. All punters would need to present the exact change each time, anything over stays in the till. Each customer, even the regulars to show support, would also be required to sport a trademark prop to be immediately recognisable like a Mexican sombrero or a red carnation. Each empty glass would be returned to the bar along with a packaged food offering or bottle of fine wine or beer for the staff’s consumption and the following day would – of course – be a day off for them.

But how did I come to this conclusion?

I just volunteered at the 21st St Albans Beer and Cider Festival. I staffed one of the main bars during the busy times – Friday and Saturday evening. Though I’m proud to offer up my time, the hours didn’t so much feel like shifts as tours of duty.

From my temples, Diamante beads of sweat dropped silently onto the rubber matting which became more and more adhesive from the spillage of pints on mass migration. I played stillage twister with my colleagues. At one point I think I successfully dislocated my pelvis and shoulders just to crab walk through someone’s legs to get a half of imperial stout from the casks on the bottom row.

With live music causing my atoms to vibrate, I was confronted with a face I had to try and lip read from. I pressed my head sideways on the bar to hear what it was saying using a cupped hand to deepen my lughole’s parabola. The order just perceptible, I then scurried away, found the label, poured the beer and started my return shuttle. I forgot what the face looked like and couldn’t pick it out. A quick profile from memory: male, thirties, bearded, blonde. I headed towards that fit like it were a stadium version of Guess Who? The man looked perplexed as I handed him a beer he hadn’t ordered. His own glass was still in his hand. I looked back along the living Brueghel canvas and the guy I’d actually taken the order from was waving. The thirsty soul looked quite hurt. I lost count how many times I did this to attendees.

Working at a beer festival is obviously different to working in a busy pub: There are no hand pulls but a sheer wall of casks. For the first time this year, there was also no handling of money either as we moved onto a token system. There isn’t the pub intimacy and each customer approaches the bar with their own glass.


But with regards to the workers that keep the nation’s pubs alive, consider the following:

Whilst in constant motion they need to clock every new face at the bar, the place it gets in serving order and the fact that it might pop up somewhere else than where they first marked it.

As they do that, they need to be able to add up prices in multiples, get asked to change some of that order half way through and even have several punters in the same group trying to pay at once and want the change to be split three ways.

Whilst these calculations are going on in their brains, they need to develop a sense of psychokinesis with their co-workers behind the bar and always sense where they are so their bodies arch around each other – the art of contortion is essential.

In the midst of that advanced Yoga, their skills of diplomacy will carry them through as casks run dry one after the other – something the customer starts to believe was set up especially to torment them.

With those apologies, unsure of who was there first, customers start to inflate and stand on their toes to avoid being overlooked bearing expressions of both dejection and anger. They’ll need to be reassured with a mouthed “you’re next” – an incantation as soothing as a dummy/teat hoving into view is for a baby.

I haven’t developed these talents. I’ll probably only ever be the barman once a year. I give it my best shot but I’m very conscious of my weaknesses. I also recall the times I’ve been the customer perched in a corner and witnessed a phalanx of young men or women irrupt into a quiet pub – glad I’m not the one that has to serve them. I’m sure I don’t even need to bring up the always potential face to face confrontation of the drunk and lairy – something the many patrolling stewards and bouncers in a festival offset.

After the toil was over and the crowds were herded out through the arena doors by security, it was the perfect time to reflect on the service that thousands of good publicans and bar staff provide across this country. Working behind a bar is far more than the simple dispensing of beer.

Dear publicans and bar staff – never in the field of human society was so much owed by so many to so few.


  1. Working at a beer festival is obviously different to working in a busy pub: There are no hand pulls

    I think you mean “southern beer festival”- most serious festivals oop north have at least some if not all beers on handpull (with sparklers, obvs).

    With live music causing my atoms to vibrate

    Having been to several festivals recently, I think this is the area which festival organisers most show their inexperience at hospitality. It doesn’t help that festivals tend to be in sportshalls etc which have terrible acoustics, but organisers need to remember that their aim is to sell beer above all else, and that punters main aims are to a)chat to their mates b) drink beer c)learn about the beers on sale …… and z) “enjoy” some local band who think they’re Led Zeppelin. Having music at a volume where a) is impossible in most of the hall means that the punters are having a less good time than they could at your festival, which means they are less likely to do b) and less likely to come back next year.

    Normal conversation should be possible in at least half the hall, and ideally the whole of that bar should be in that quiet zone. It makes it easier for staff if they don’t have to lip-read, and it makes it possible for punters to achieve aim c). Also if the bar area is comfortable for people to hang out, then it’s easier for them to buy more beer.

    Sometimes you get bands who think it’s all about them rather than about selling beer – they may bring their own PA and turn it up to 11. The festival needs to be strict on this – one warning and then they’re playing unplugged. It’s fair enough to turn things up a bit for a band, but any recorded music should be turned down.

    • Thanks for all the feedback. Yes I should’ve pointed out that at this particular festival it’s just gravity dispense – the GBBF for example – is all handpull. I happened to be stationed behind the band which draws a crowd. There are four main bar areas at this festival though so people are free to wander. Personally I’m not a fan of live music and a bit of a grouch plus I do employ a lot of artistic licence in my ramblings too. Thanks for commenting.

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