The silence was palpable. It was noon in the vast, dark space that was the ballroom of the Kings Head, a large post war built pub opposite the Bus depot and the chemical works situated in the sprawl of buildings on the west side of Luton. As an impoverished young employee of Her Majesty’s Ordnance Survey, I needed as much part time work as I could get and worked all the hours available as a bar man. All morning I had worked, clearing away from last night, moving empty cases out into the yard, looking out for the wasps that were always at the Britvic juice and Babycham bottles. The stale aroma from the empty beer bottles joined the fetid, smoggy atmosphere that was Luton personified. Only rarely was a glimpse seen of the Chiltern Hills to the South.
The bar was ready for action again, last night was and tonight would be extremely jolly and busy, there was a band last night and tonight there was a singer and a comedian to entertain the patrons. Now, however, there unfolded an utterly different occasion. Into the bar came the first customer. Dressed in a black suit, whose trouser legs were just a little short, came an Irishman. His white shirt gleamed in the gloom, his black tie was neat, his black working boots were polished to an incredible sheen, he was all clean from head to foot, his pale ginger hair plastered onto his skull. He asked for a Guinness (not easy to pour swiftly but less of a problem than a Worthington’s pale ale), was given the same and he retreated to a table in the corner to sip his beer quietly. It was not long before many more, identically garbed Irishmen, were also sipping their Guinness at tables throughout the ballroom, all in total silence. Each would consume some four beers before closing time at 14 hours when all would depart for their digs to have their Sunday lunch. They had all been to church and now had communed with their inner selves and sins and placated their doubts and home sickness by the application of that liquid solace, Guinness. By closing time I was exhausted; pouring out some 800 bottles of beer in two hours was no joking matter. I, too then went home to have my lunch. The landlady, one Mrs. Capp, a widow who always looked as if she would not be much longer for this world, served me up the meat and two veg and then departed to see her daughter for her weekly afternoon tea. Her routine was unfailing as was her response to my cheery enquiry after her health every morning: “Oh, not too good, thank you”.
A quick kip and then it was back to the pub to prepare for the heavy evening behind the bar. First, do a stock check, then check the float that you were issued with, very carefully. Landlords like to make quick bucks too and are not averse to make them from unwary staff. There were several golden rules to obey when behind the bar, not least always having a supply of good tea cloths to dry glasses and plenty of hot water to wash them and cold water to rinse them. Beer in a hot glass is just not on. To keep the till money always more than it should be you accept the offer of money for a drink but do not have it, the money ensuring that there is always a small surplus in the till to guard against the inevitable odd mistake with change in the customer’s favour. You would soon be told if it was the other way round. The evening progressed, the patrons who had supped in silence at lunch time were now convivial and many were well oiled by last orders. Then the clean up, the stock check, the cash check and back to the digs by midnight to get some rest before another day of surveying rows of houses, back yards, snotty householders and the odd large tree. To the inevitable query, “What’s it all in aid of?” you stifle the urge to expound on airports. Only rarely, when driven to extremis by some nosey old cow who, rather than enquire, summoned the police, observing all from behind her lace curtains; was disappointed by their departure without arresting me so that she had to emerge and ask me herself; did I inform her that the wood behind her posh house was being planned to accommodate a council estate. “Just imagine, Madam” said I, in grave, sympathetic tones,” the children and the DOGS”.
A different life, a different continent, Kalulushi and the golf club where I had taken Johnny Bruce, newly transferred from Mufulira, for a welcome drink after work. He was a whisky drinker and there was some Black and White in the Optic behind the bar and he was served some by Bryson, the long serving barman. I had a beer and we settled down to watch the golfers coming in from their 9 holes of golf. Johnny, somewhat embarrassed, told me that the whisky he was drinking was not expensive, imported Black and White but Duncans, the cheap substitute, made up of neutral spirit and whisky flavouring. I apologised and went to the bar to inform Bryson of his error and to bring out a fresh bottle of Black and White to correct the mistake. It then transpired that Bryson was in the habit of putting local spirits in all the imported spirit bottles, be they gin, whisky, brandy etc and charging the price for imported spirits. He had no stocks of imported spirits at all! He was doing this under the direct orders from the bar and entertainments committee member, none other than the irascible Maurice Keegan, who had resorted to these underhand methods to try and show a profit on the bar. It was but a matter of minutes before said Maurice and I had a bit of a heated discussion, the upshot of which was that I became the bar and entertainment committee member!
The problems were numerous, the answers simple but time consuming. The principal problem was the supply of beer. At this time Zambia Breweries were having a major problem with, I suspect, the bottle cleaning system. The business of opening a beer was one long laborious process. First, the unopened bottle was held up to the light to check for “floaters”, ranging from grasshoppers to small flecks of yeast or some such. Next the unopened bottle would be given a gentle shake to see if it showed a bit of head. If that was successful then the bottle could be opened and smelt. A powerful odour of “rotten eggs” could come out. The top of the bottle was checked to ensure that it was intact so that there would be no glass chip in the bottom of the bottle ready to come out. The beer was then poured and, with a little bit of luck, you could imbibe some of the finest beer in the world, brewed in Ndola. It was a shame that Bryson was neglecting these checks and many was the beer opened to find that it was undrinkable so that it had to be replaced, free of charge. To counter much of the problem every beer had to be checked on its arrival and rejected at once which meant that all deliveries had to be met and supervised by myself. One immediate consequence was that the deliverers were not keen on coming to the Golf Club because they knew that the checking process would be lengthy and thorough and they could no longer off load the junk that had been rejected elsewhere! Bryson was soon brought to heel. He had a comfortable lifestyle that seemed to exceed his modest salary. For all I know he might have been running a string of race horses or girls but it became obvious to him that the daily stock check along with the cash receipts reconciliation did not allow for any of the freedom of yesteryear. By such basic means the loss made by the bar returned to a 30% profit. There remained some problems. One was the occasional shortage of beer. Jimmy Tweedy, who had taken over the running of the Mine Club from Lou the Jew, never seemed to run out of beer. I found out when I found him at the beer depot in Kitwe where he seemed to be very free with his cash. I had to point out to him that backhanders were only bad news for, before long, no one would get beer without the provision of a sizeable ”bung” and the trouble with bungs were that they were subject to inflation. A bit of effort was required to rectify the situation that included tap dancing on ZB desks in Ndola.
Another problem was that I had to attend golf club committee meetings. These tended to go on about things that I knew very little of. The Captain, my next door neighbor, was Harry Hambley, an old hand in the Purchasing Department. He had, and, believe you me, protected, a handicap of 14. It was his policy that he would play golf with every committee member and I used to be dragged out for 9 holes up against the very best the club could provide. Harry confided in me “Don’t you worry, every now and again you will hit a good shot that will win a hole and that is all I need”. There was, then, the odd time that this happened and I went home with money in my pocket. On all the others though, Harry would start muttering about ironing on the way over to the 9th tee. What was he talking about? In fact it was the word press that he needed to hear from the opponents to which he agreed (it was double or quits.) We never lost the last hole and Harry and I would walk off the course with me being assured that it needed “an old dog to travel a long road!”
At one committee meeting the matter of “Greens Mowers” came up. Our existing mowers were on their last legs; the friends at the mine garage could no longer repair them, new ones were required. What to do? All eyes turned on the sucker at the end of the table and I was informed to think of something. What was needed? K2000. That was an enormous amount of money, why, you could buy a brand new Fiat 127 motor car for that. So, let’s get one and raffle it off. How boring. How can we jazz it up a bit? It was then that I remembered that amongst us merry miners there was a fairly good jazz band; the leader of which was a keen golfer and boiler maker, the large and amiable Barry the Bear who was a pretty good trombone player. A plan came together, 600 tickets had to be sold at K10 each which would allow you entrance to the jazz evening at which the draw would take place. Here, though, came the twist, the first number out of the hat would get a bottle of champagne, the last number out of the hat would get the car. All tickets were sold, most of the ticket holders pitched up and a rip roaring evening was had by all. The jazz band played their socks off, lubricated by copious quantities of beer. Matters were halted briefly when there were only 10 tickets left and,‘if anyone wanted to auction their ticket off, they could, with 20 % commission charged. Down to the last two tickets, one held by none other than the toupee clad pilot, Noel Elliot-Wilson. He promised his companion a new set of clubs if he won and then demanded that the losing number be pulled out of the hat. “We need a lovely, lucky lady to do that,” he yelled, and spotting the young, portly and not too attractive Mrs. Rixom, grabbed her and said ”Come, my beauty, do the honours”, at which she pulled out the wrong number and was castigated by the thwarted man for being a stupid cow and was promptly thumped by the lady for his presumption. The dust up was settled by the application of more champagne and a posse was dispatched to the house of the winner, a brand new impoverished arrival from the UK, young Alan Armitage, who could not believe his luck. His wife managed to write the car off some time later but Alan’s luck held. She was unharmed and he eventually rose to the giddy heights of Engineering Superintendent who never forgot the golf club and made sure our brand new greens mowers stayed in pristine condition for years after.