MT The Sharp End: Life through a beer mug

A shift at a pub in Carnaby Street, or was it Memory Lane? Rhymer Rigby reports.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When I arrived for my shift at the O'Neill's pub on the corner of London's Carnaby Street, things were hectic. The builders, who were enlarging the eating area at the back, had just left and deliveries were arriving; new furniture was being dropped off, too. The manager was nowhere to be seen. But, having spent most of my twenties hanging aimlessly around pubs, I knew what to do. I hung aimlessly around.

I found the boss, Damien O'Meara, dealing with a delivery. I followed him into the labyrinth beneath the bar, past the tiny kitchen, where two blokes were frying sausages, through the humid beer cellar and into another cellar, a vaulted space you'd expect to see stacked floor-to-ceiling with bottles of expensive wine. This was Damien's office. Magazine articles on 'interesting' office spaces focus on identikit architect-designed spaces but never on really interesting offices like this one.

Damien has been with the firm 11 years and has managed this pub for two years. He told me a bit about the place. Thanks to its central location, customers are a mix of tourists, those up in town for the day, and - with The Sound of Music just round the corner - theatre-goers. Many are un-pubbish: lots of food and coffee, half-pints of beer tentatively sipped; lots of bills split eight ways to challenge the staff, too. He didn't have many regulars, unlike his previous pub on the Euston Road. But with turnover at an impressive £25,000-plus a week, who needs them?

The staff - from Romania, Poland, Brazil and France - were a veritable UN committee, only young and productive. At this end of the service sector, Damien told me, Brits are almost non-existent. His only rule is to mix up nationalities on shifts so that everyone has to speak in English - good for them and good for the punters. I was introduced to Monika, the capable Polish girl whose encumbrance I was to be for the day.

By 12.15, the lunchtime rush had started. It was hard for me to serve pints in a meaningful way as doing so would have involved me in (a) remembering how to pour a pint properly and (b) knowing how to operate the till - which has more processing horsepower than a Space Shuttle computer. Still, at least you don't have to remember the price of obscure drinks.

Under the watchful eye of the bar staff, I managed a couple of credible pints of Caffrey's, known as an easy pint to pour, and Guinness - more challenging. Luckily, my lack of till-skill wasn't an issue: boozers the world over still need people to clear up glasses and empty ashtrays. In fact, pub work has barely changed since my student days, when it was my main source of income.

Soon, I switched to 'bussing' - under Monika's supervision - and clearing tables. People started asking me plenty of things I was clueless about, as, thanks to my shirt, trousers and relatively advanced years, quite a few of them assumed I was the manager. I referred them to Monika. But I impressed myself by taking a food order and successfully delivering it with a pint of something called Guinness Red. I was tipped 45p for my trouble.

As the lunchtime rush peaked, we had to start turning diners away. I felt for one couple who were up to see TSOM and had been refused first by Garfunkels and then by us. Damien's extra 30 tables couldn't arrive quickly enough. But in the meantime there were other more pragmatic matters: someone had tried to flush an entire roll of loo paper down one of the toilets, necessitating a call to a drain company. An outbreak of cruet crime, involving the theft of several salt and pepper pots, made me guiltily recall those far-off days when stealing condiments seemed really, really funny.

The rush started to subside. Within an hour, the pub had settled into an afternoon lull with a smattering of tourists and a pair of builders who were 'working' locally. I took my break and made my choice from the pub menu: a sandwich of smoked salmon and prawns, and a pint of Guinness. And perfectly good it was, too. Then it was another hour or so of cleaning up glasses before my shift ended.

It had been a rather agreeable afternoon, but then, as a student, I'd never really minded bar work. And it struck me that, although some people decry Irish pubs as a blot on the English boozescape, the unpretentious O'Neill's is perhaps closer to what a hostelry should be than more celebrated gastropubs, whose prices can rival the Ivy's.

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