By Rob Warm
First pint I ever bought on my own was at the Wilton on Bury New Road. I was probably about 14, maybe 15. Tall enough to be old enough, but with a waxy teenage face that had never seen a razor. And to level with you it wasn’t even a pint.
Walking in to the pub was an unplanned act of bravado. An act of someone else’s bravado. On my part it was more an act of invisibility, the desire to fit in by looking like I had done this many times before. We all knew that this was a first time. We all pretended it wasn’t. First times are often like that.
A lad called Jez who called a lot of the shots round our way casually said let’s go for a beer as we were wandering through the precinct. In a normal world, at least one of us would have said, “What the fuck are you talking about? We’ve never done that before?”
But the world of a teenage boy isn’t a normal world. Rules are suspended. Better to try and fail than look the weak link in a group that was only held together by a glue of reputations hard won and easily lost.
Don’t get me wrong, I had been drinking in pubs for years. Grown up in them as I’ve written about before. But that was a different business. There was no dissembling. Everyone in those pubs knew I was underage – I was ‘Adge’s son’, so every landlord in a 5 mile radius had watched me growing up and knew exactly how old I was. As long as I was with my dad and his mates, and as long as there was a glass of coke on the table, no-one cared that there was an extra pint glass there too.
But the Wilton was a pub where I wasn’t known. A pub where my dad didn’t drink. It wasn’t for him. No real pub man would be seen dead in there. Beer not good enough. Jukebox too loud. Too many kids and fights. It was the sort of place where the brewery could only turn a profit by turning a blind eye.
The four of us walked in looking like the cast of Bugsy Malone. Kids with paper thin swagger and darting eyes. Waiting for the landlord’s head shake which would have made us spin on our heels faster than Dandy Dan’s splurge gun.
It wasn’t dark – early evening on a weeknight. The place was dead, apart from a couple of dead-eyed daytime booze hounds who hadn’t graduated to grown up pubs, despite looking a lot like grown-ups.
The first drink I ever ordered on my own was a half of Chesters. Brewery has gone now. And so have my days of drinking halves. Only other time in my life I have bought myself a half will have been when I was driving. But the barman must have known I was too young to drive. My mates all ordered lager.
I wasn’t being deliberately different (difference was frowned upon) but in world I knew as a kid, bitter was what blokes drank in pubs. My old man was as likely to drink a pint of lager as he was to drink a pint of water. And he always told me he never drank water - because “fish fucked in it”.
(c) Closed Pubs.
I can sort of remember the look the bloke behind the bar gave us, nearly 30 years on. A look that said, “You lot aren’t old enough. But I don’t care”. A bloke at the bar said “Fuck me – has school kicked out”. We pretended not to hear.
I was surprised though. When he just switched on the tap and filled up a half glass. I was also surprised by how cheap it was, probably around 35p which wasn’t much more than your average can of coke at that time. That was my frame of reference. From that point on it was easy. Think we had another, pissed about playing pool.
The next Friday we were back. Prepared. The ice had been broken. The pub was our planned destination – not a random unspoken dare. We turned up looking smarter. Cockier. Notes not coins in our pockets, secure that this was now a place where we had been accepted once and would be again. With each successive visit, it became more of a habit and less of an adventure.
These days we hear a lot about teen drink dangers – alcohol pricing and stringent age checks in pubs. But people forget that there was a time, not that long ago, when there was a general widely held assumption that underage drinking was OK, as long as there was even the possibility that you could be old enough. If you were 99% certain to be underage, then it was that other 1% that the barman looked at. That was the first rule. The second rule was more important. You were allowed to be served underage as long as you didn’t bother the grown-ups by doing it in a proper pub where they went to drink.
The Wilton, like many others, had a particular place in the pecking order, the hierarchy of pubs. People reading this will know where their own Wilton was. Every town had one - a half way house between youth club and pub, the nursery slope of drinking. A place to serve your drinking apprenticeship before you could enter the real pubs as a proper trained drinkers. It was a bit like watching a 4 year old playing at shops or post-offices. Totally real to those doing it, and completely unreal to those watching it. For us it was all about learning the ropes.
And let’s face it there was stuff to learn. Stuff you know instinctively now? Well there was a time that you didn’t know it. It’s easy to forget that you had to learn somewhere. You forget that there was a time that you didn’t know the rules of Killer on a pool table. Know the etiquette of replacing spilled drinks. Or have the skills to get yourself out of a situation which was in danger of spiralling out of control.
You had to work at it. Kids I was at school with. Kids who teachers said couldn’t learn. They could learn this stuff. Know the rules, who sat where, who not to talk to. It wasn’t something you could learn in the park with a bottle of Thunderbird and a few cans. That was just an extension of school. That was children’s drinking. The gang was still the gang. Top dogs were still top dogs. In a pub all bets were off. There were bigger dogs.
Drinking in parks had its place but drinking like that was about volume, oblivion and boredom. A lot of boredom. But we have lost something. Pubs today are much too fussy about who they do and don’t serve. I’ve seen blokes with full beards asked for ID in some pubs. What chance for 14 and 15 year old boys? None. So they go to the field. And learn nothing. By the time they emerge as 18 year old drinkers they aren’t equipped with the pub skills they need. This can be dangerous for them and irritating to the rest of us. Those two statements are often related to each other.
Kids’ training pubs used to serve a social function. There was a pastoral role. You knew the pub for you at a given age. Maybe they still exist. Maybe I am just too old to know the right places because they aren’t for me. I’ll be honest. I hope they do. I hope the kids are drinking somewhere. Because one day they’ll be drinking in the same pub as me. And I hope that they’ve learned the rules before they are.