When I was younger, I worked on the bar in a Cheshire golf club. Up to then, the only bar work I’d done had been in nightclubs. This gig was different. There were beer taps, the clientele was older and it was a lot more difficult to get hold of drugs. Generally I worked the Saturday dayshift, which everyone did hungover, bar staff, stewards and golfers alike, and I also did evening functions: weddings, funerals, presentation events, and all this. I was doing postgraduate studies at the time, and working four days in an office on top of my hours at the golf club, scrabbling around for tuition fees. On slow nights I’d read review copies and do uni work.
What impressed me about that time was the persistence of class. As I made my way in the world it seemed like old barriers and allegiances were breaking down. Now we know that the death of deference was a lie, an illusion. The UK is a fantastic seething cauldron of variation and difference. The Cabinet is a golf club from hell.
But at the time it was like the golf club had created this enclave of hierarchy and conceit, where rigid differentiation still mattered. For example. Every year the club elected a president and a captain, who one had to address as ‘Mr Captain,’ or ‘Mr President’. Written instructions to waiting staff went: ‘Female dignitaries should be served first, then male dignitaries, then women, then men.’ The steward was bombarded with trivial complaints about various matters of comportment among the bar staff. Someone complained that the peanut board was too vulgar. I was told at a function: ‘There are members, and there are members.’ I asked for the secret handshake and was met with the blankest of stares.
It took me a while to realise that these titles were not just ceremonial. The Captain and President had control of the finances and were officially in charge of the business. I got the impression that the club’s finances weren’t that great. The steward explained it to me one time: ‘It’s like having an organisation where the managing director changes every year. It’s like Bill Gates saying, hey, it’s been a year, I’ll step down now, someone else can have a go. So we have a small business run by, like, a retired schoolteacher.’
The dignitaries looked down on the stewards, who actually had to run the club. The stewards were a working class couple in their thirties, who had responsibility for the kitchens, bars and function room. They were paid a derisory annual wage plus accommodation in a small cottage to the side, like a butler and housekeeper. I’ll call them ‘Dave’ and ‘Claire’. The dignitaries didn’t like Dave and Claire because they were from North Manchester and also, I think, because they had lived together for fourteen years without getting married.
I didn’t have much in common with Dave and Claire but they were two of the most genuine and humane people I’ve ever met. They worked sixteen, seventeen, eighteen hour days to keep that show on the road. They had tried for a baby for years, and when Claire finally became pregnant she worked more or less until the due date. I remember we were setting up for some function and I saw Claire, well into the third trimester, struggling to carry a large wooden table into the function room while middle-aged golfers stood around idle. That pretty much destroyed any illusions I had about the dignity of labour.
‘You will meet a lot of arseholes in this job,’ Dave told me. And the stereotype about golfers is fairly accurate, they do tend to be reactionary bores. I remember the President coined a collective term: ‘a bore of golfers.’ But they were not just reactionary bores. Many of the guys who played there were decent people and generous with money. One Friday night I got attacked in the local, by some idiot who had a connection to the club. I got in on the Saturday morning and was taken aback by the outrage golfers expressed on my behalf. They leaned on the idiot, who had to come up to the club and apologise to me, for fear of ostracisation. It’s a strange, pleasant thing when you suddenly realise how much you are valued.
A note on tips. Until I worked in bars I never understood tipping etiquette. Now that I do, I tip all bar staff and on every purchase. I’d recommend doing this because you’ll never have to wait for a drink in places where the staff know you. Frankly, if you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to drink in a pub. And these are uncertain times. Next weekend, the face behind the bar might be you.
I am probably the last man in the world you want working in a sports club. Guys would approach me: ‘What’s the latest on the City game?’ ‘Er, I don’t know.’ ‘What about rugby, what’s happening with the Six Nations?’ ‘Sorry, mate, I’ve no idea.’ I never really got the knack for sports, and although I understand and respect the role that football has in people’s lives, I never felt that passion and energy. Golf still strikes me as the stupidest game devised by man. Take a colossal amount of land, rope it off and charge people £600 a year to whack a ball around it, with varying degrees of skill and accuracy. What’s the point? To this day, I have never played a round of golf. If it were up to me, I’d ban the sport outright, and bulldoze the courses for cheap apartment blocks, all-night Asian supermarkets, and vegan hipster bars.
And yet, in a way, these were good times. I’d get there early and set up and sit on the balcony in the morning sun, reading Unacknowledged Legislation against a backdrop of rolling green: as I’ve said, it was that summer I discovered Hitchens, and realised that argument could too be an art. I worked Dave and Claire’s wedding, two of us on the bar against hundreds of guests – I remember we got completely swamped and some guy vaulted the bar and started serving alongside us. People would get wrecked in the local on Friday, stagger up to the course at seven on a Saturday morning. Hangovers would cool and sizzle under the striplights and in the smoke coming off the carvery. And then back to the local when the sun went down. It was a life that had rhythm and pleasure to it, seduced you with the easy banality of it. And it strikes me that for the machine of capitalism and class to continue, for exploitation to happen, you need this illusion, this sense of pride, the feeling of a job well done even if it’s a bullshit job with no prospects. You need to walk out of the building with a roll of notes and coins as darkness falls over the Cheshire hillsides.