The Problem of the Vanishing Barmaid

In which The Author investigates a modern-day mystery

At first glance, The Problem of the Vanishing Barmaid might appear to be the title of a long-lost Sherlock Holmes story. Unfortunately for us, it isn’t a work of fiction. Names have been changed to protect the guilty. It seems to have come about as a direct consequence of three coincidental factors:
  • The smoking ban, which was introduced in Wales five years ago and across the rest of the country a few months later.
  • The increasing availability of social media (Facebook etc) on mobile phones.
  • The reliance of pubs on ever-younger staff to fill a role which was traditionally seen as the preserve of older women.
In the two pubs I consider my ‘regular’ watering-holes, it’s not uncommon to find the bar totally unattended for minutes at a time. Sometimes there’s a genuine reason for the disappearance, of course. On my first visit to the Students’ Union bar at Brunel University, in the autumn of 1984, I ordered a pint of lager. Paul, the steward, started to pull the Castlemaine XXXX through, the pump gave a half-hearted gasp, and a large quantity of what appeared to be fire extinguisher foam surged into the glass.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I’m going to have to change the barrel.’
And that has been pretty much the story for the subsequent 27½ years. If the lager is going to run out, it will generally do so when I’m at the bar. If the barmaid has vanished into the cellar for that reason, that’s justifiable. Beer and cider run out as well. Then there’s ice, change, till rolls, soft drinks, and all the other variables which divert a barmaid from her primary purpose.
Similarly, we all have to answer the call of nature from time to time. As long as she’s covered her absence by asking one of the regulars to keep an eye out for new customers, nobody minds if she nips to the ladies’.
But some barmaids don’t only take a piss – they take the piss! When we were working in Dillons, we got a paid twenty minute break every four hours or so. Some of the smokers would get another (unofficial) paid twenty minute break during the day, if you added up all the times they went out into the car park for a sneaky cig. About eighteen months ago, one local authority in England tackled this head-on by requiring staff to clock out if they decided to take a quick break between breaks.
In the one pub it isn’t too bad. The smokers have to congregate on the pavement outside, so that any new customers have to walk past whichever barmaid is working at the time. One of them will always ask the punters if they want another drink before deserting her post. Another just vanishes without prior warning. The third – a non-smoker – stays put throughout her shift, and consequently does more work than her colleagues for the same pay. It’s not fair on her, is it?
The situation is slightly different in the other pub, where the smoking area is in the lane behind. This means that, once they’ve left the bar, the staff are out of sight of everyone inside. To all intents and purposes, a new customer walking in might think that the pub was self service. To make matters worse, when two of them are working together it never seems to occur to them to ‘hot-bar’ (a variation of ‘hot-desking’, with one working while the other has a smoke). Oh no, that would be far too logical! Instead, they go outside at the same time. Now, employing two staff implies that the place is expected to be busy. So, why (at busy times) are both of them allowed to vanish at the same time? It makes no sense at all!
Some barmaids don’t even bother with the whole vanishing act. They stay at the bar in body, but not in spirit. To their minds, updating Facebook and BBM, or chatting with their pals, or eating their lunch, or watching the TV, or putting crap on the jukebox, or playing the fruit machine, or browsing the Argos catalogue, or doing the puzzle in whatever magazine they’ve bought, is far more interesting than putting beer in glasses. Which, need I remind my readers, is their raison d’être. In the bookshop, even if we were engrossed with Teleordering, we always kept half an eye on the counter in case a customer appeared. In the strange new world of Aberdare pubs, it seems that customers are the least of some barmaids’ worries.
One bank holiday weekend a number of years ago, I was out with my friends Alex and Phil. The three of us decided to have a pint in a particular pub. The barmaid was actually the landlady’s daughter, and made it abundantly clear that she’d rather be doing anything but working. When I went to get another round in, she deliberately left the bar and started clearing the ashtrays instead. So I gave her a little burst of a song from Chicago:
Cellophane, Mr Cellophane,
Shoulda bin my name, Mr Cellophane,
‘Cos you can look right through me, walk right by me,
And never know my name.
When she (eventually) gave me my change, I gave her a sly smile and uttered Amos’s great line, ‘I hope I didn’t take up too much o’ your time.’ Alex is a huge fan of musicals, and she thought it was a fantastic way of getting the point across.
I was talking about this yesterday with a middle-aged couple I know. We’re wondering whether to draft a Round Robin letter to the area manager, pointing out the general poor manners exhibited by some of his staff. For one of them, even making eye contact with the punters seems to be an ordeal.
Yesterday was Grand National Day, of course, and she seemed to be more interested in watching the Aintree meeting on TV than in standing behind the bar. She organised a sweepstake before the big race, and was writing people’s names on her checklist. One of the regulars is a retired bus driver who calls in every afternoon without fail. She didn’t even know his name. That sort of thing might go down well in a Wetherspoon pub, but not in a local boozer for local people.
Of course, Wetherspoon’s in Aberdare has taken the phenomenon of the Vanishing Barmaid to its logical absurd conclusion. They’re never short-staffed. At any given time there’ll be at least half a dozen people milling around behind the bar or wandering into the little room at the side. Yet getting a drink in there can take an age.
When Alun the tattooist was moving out to Spain, a gang of us met for a drink to wish him well. It wasn’t even a busy evening; it was something like a Tuesday night. Keistan was late arriving, and must have stood at the bar for the best part of ten minutes trying to catch someone’s eye. Eventually he lost his rag, climbed on the bar, and shouted, ‘Is there any chance of getting a fucking pint in here?’ Needless to say, we were asked to leave.
I called in there a while ago during a heavy downpour, as it’s the nearest place to shelter on the way from the surgery. I was at the bar for about five minutes, during a fairly quiet spell, while one guy faffed about making coffee for two customers and half a dozen other youngsters potched in the background. During my brief sojourn, I Tweeted Wetherspoon’s, Aberdare: In the vanguard of the Slow Food and Drink Movement since … Well, forever, really!
I suspect that the Problem of the Vanishing Barmaid has been solved by Tim Martin’s research team developing holographic bar staff. They appear to be three-dimensional, but they’re not real. If you think this is just science fiction, take a close look next time you’re in there. If the lighting conditions are right, you can look right through them – just the way that they look right through you.
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