THE bar was bouncing, karaoke night at the local was going down a storm with the punters. Eventually one woman would get her turn. Clutching the microphone she launched into her personal rendition of a well-loved classic.
It should have ended with a rousing round of applause from the enthusiastic clientele, assuming they could put down their pints long enough to applaud. Instead it came to an abrupt and unfortunate climax as singer, Big Agnes, slumped to the bar floor, stone dead.
Former pub landlady Linda Tweedie recalls the night she got the news in a distraught phone call from a fellow publican – devastated not so much by the public death of a well-loved regular in mid-chorus, but at having to suddenly shut the busy pub and lose a night’s takings.
“And of course, the song she was singing?,” recalls Linda, eyes twinkling, “I Will Survive!”
The story is so outrageous that surely no-one would have the audacity to make it up. And yet, when Linda reflects on nearly 30 years running pubs, with sometimes feckless, thieving or boozed-up bar staff and listening to the drunken ramblings of barfly philosophers, philanderers and unfortunates, poor Agnes’s demise to the strains of Gloria Gaynor could almost be dismissed as “all in a day’s work”.
Set alongside a string of bizarre bar-room antics – from unwanted regulars in the shape of ghostly apparitions to nine-months pregnant go-go dancers, “missing in action” chefs that supped more than the punters and forgetful drunks who staggered home leaving behind everything from dentures to false legs – no wonder Linda and fellow Lothian landlady Kate McGregor have often questioned who was worse – the well-oiled customers or them for trying to make a living from them.
Now the formidable pair – both could crush Rovers Return legend Bet Lynch and Queen Vic’s Peggy Mitchell beneath their spikey high heel shoes, if not smother them with their fur collars and blind them with their diamond rings – have put their combined three decades of graft running some of the busiest pubs around into print, writing a no-holds-barred, raucous romp, recalling life from the other side of the bar.
Such as the time one confused, worse for wear customer complained about the surly barman who seemed to be staring at him but not serving – only to be gently told that he was actually looking at his own reflection in the bar mirror . . .
The inebriated teatime drunk who, when asked to leave, couldn’t find his way out of the pub and stumbled instead to the lounge bar and then back to the main bar. Brain fuddled with booze, he could only scratch his head and blurt: “For f***s sake, how many pubs you got in this toon?”, before passing out . . . or the heaving lump discovered slumped, sound asleep behind the men’s toilet cubicle door which had to be unscrewed to retrieve him, only for him to then stagger sleepily around the bar searching for his lost pint.
And much more sinister, the times when the laughs turned sour, fights broke out and both women found themselves on separate occasions staring down the barrel of a gun . . .
“Honestly, if you knew beforehand what you were getting into, no-one would ever run a pub,” laughs Linda, who announced her arrival at one bar in her home town of Musselburgh in the 90s, by barring all the regulars and advertising in situations vacant for new ones.
“You have to be completely off your head to do it. It’s hard work for not much pay. But at the same time, you do get a laugh.”
Their book, Life Behind Bars, Confessions of a Pub Landlady, draws on their real-life experiences in the licensed trade. Although in Linda’s case, the writing may have been on the wall with her first ever foray into pubs, when she and husband David tried to buy a bar in Paisley.
“I was desperate to sign but the solicitor was holding things up,” she recalls. “I was quite annoyed. I was sure we were going to lose the pub.
“We got home from holiday and first thing I took a drive past the pub. It looked different. I drove about 50 yards further on and screeched to a halt. There was no roof. It turned out the guy that was selling it didn’t tell the drug barons and they’d decided to set fire to it.”
It wasn’t the best start in the pub trade. But as dozens of anecdotes reveal, there would rarely be a dull moment for either landlady – such as the day a hearse arrived in the car park of one pub containing a dead body brought by his pals for one last booze-up, to the squiffy barmaid who regularly fell through the cellar trapdoor and the other who put the night’s takings in the microwave, where they were accidentally cooked next day.
Less fun were occasions when trouble erupted. Such as the time Linda found herself confronted by a gun-wielding thug who suggested she might consider paying for his “protection” only to find she posed more of a threat to him . . .
“The pub had been busy but it was empty when these three guys came in,” recalls Linda. “One said I needed protection and I laughed. Then he seemed to have his finger pointing in his pocket – it took a minute to realise what was happening. He said something about wrecking the place.”
Linda clocked the gun and saw red. “I told him that everything in the bar I had paid for. I took my hand and swept everything off the bar and did it again with the other side.
“There were broken bottles and glass everywhere. He just looked at me and said ‘Mrs, you’re a bigger nutter than me’, and left.”
Linda, 61, of Inchkeith Grove, Tranent, ran various pubs around East Lothian with husband David, including the hugely successful Longniddry Inn, the Aberlady Inn, Musselburgh’s The Burgh and even ventured into Edinburgh, running Tipplers in Bread Street. Lifelong friend, Kate, meanwhile, spent eight years running Sam’s in Dalkeith, taking it from a run-down bar into the town’s first proper night venue.
But as pubs came under pressure from the smoking ban, rising prices and huge cut-price chains, both decided it was time to quit.
“We got the good times,” recalls Linda, who now runs Something Different, a clothes shop in Haddington. “Now my big frustration is that proper pubs are closing down at a ridiculous rate – 30 a week.
“People were taught to drink properly in old-style pubs. Young people now don’t know the etiquette of a pub, they don’t know how to behave. Yes, it’s about going out and enjoying yourself but not at the expense of other people’s enjoyment. A good landlady or landlord will be watching customers all the time, making sure everything is all rright and stopping trouble before it can start. That doesn’t happen in these huge mausoleum pubs.”
Kate, 52, who still lives in Dalkeith but who left the trade after two large pub chains moved to the town draining her of customers, agrees that the demise of the local pub is to be mourned. “It’s a shame,” she says. “We worked hard and had some great laughs, but most of all, people were looked after.”
n Life Behind Bars Confessions of a Pub Landlady by Kate McGregor and Linda Tweedie is published by Fledgling Press price £6.99.