I didn't feel just like a barmaid during my time at the pub; I was also a friend, a
therapist and a cog in the machine that kept the place going.
Words and art: Daisy Howarth
Before the pandemic, I spent most Saturday evenings working in a pub, jotting down the verbal musings of the customers that repeatedly came through. Acquiring an extensive collection of tatty notes in my back pocket, these became the primary inspiration for my artwork. With an anthology of unsavoury anecdotes, a generous number of obscenities and some slurred declarations of love, I realised the pub was more than just a place to drink, but a social haven for the locals that inhabited it. The pub, or the boozer, has always been a place for everyone – this is what makes it so historically and sociologically ingrained in British cultural history.
However, it is also true that it holds a markedly special place for the common joe, the working man and the old boy in the corner. It has become a setting where these people reign; they have earned their specific seats, their drink of choice and possess an unspoken loyalty to that particular tavern. For some older folks, the pub is a means of socialisation, a reason to get dressed up and a place to feel at home away from home. This is why the effects of pub closures over the past year hit far deeper than not being able to grab a pint.
I didn't feel just like a barmaid during my time at the pub; I was also a friend, a therapist and a cog in the machine that kept the place going. Saying goodbye to the people I spent most evenings with left an empty spot inside me and my back pocket. I often wondered what these people were doing, how they were doing and whether I would ever see them again. Then the pandemic hit and amplified this thought even more. Reflecting on how the small community of my pub and pubs all over the country were coping without their social crutch inspired me to make something in dedication to them.
'Tom Hark Plays' was the first piece I made after the lockdown announcement back in March last year. Tom Hark by the Piranhas, a song that used to play repeatedly at the pub, became a bittersweet reminder of the customers and their resilience to get on with life no matter what is thrown at them. The lyric 'you have to laugh or else you'll cry' that repeated over and over on the jukebox now echoes through my memories less sweetly, knowing that many customers were undoubtedly struggling. When creating this piece, I consciously made an effort to allow the pub's humour and colour to shine through, regardless of what was happening in the world. It has always been essential for me to create a sensory atmosphere in my work, as much of the creative process stems from pure, unfiltered observation. A layering of sights, sounds, colours is key in my practice to emulate what it would feel like to be sitting in a pub a few bevvies down. An ode to good times and good people, I wanted viewers to look at this work and feel joy for what is to come soon, not what we have lost.
I fondly remember the pub I worked in through low timbre 'Oi's!' and the tumbling coins of a jackpot win - though more importantly, the locals that got me through every shift. I still think about these characters and use them as the basis for my art which I hope to translate as a celebration of the norm, making the seemingly mundane extraordinary. People need the pub as much as the pub needs them – the two coexist to create a microcosm of Joyce-esque drama where the dialogue writes itself. Just as Alan Bennet's said, "Your whole life is on the other side of the glass," and I like to think that, in some ways, this could be the bottom of an empty pint.
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