hg: The Barman

In Bristol for a weekend of mooching and I decide to call in on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Not the employers of our gun-toting secret agents, but a delightful little cocktail bar that has a similar approach to secrecy.

It’s hidden away down a side-road, squeezed between a train station and glitzy shopping centre. From the outside you wouldn’t know it was a bar at all. Smart hedges stand either side of a tall front door, black with gold trim and ‘HMSS’ in place of the number. Dark blinds obscure any view through the window and the sound insulation is clearly top notch. It appears to be a well-kept, modest townhouse.

I pause outside for a few seconds, reassuring myself that I’m in the correct place, and then hesitantly push the door open. A wall of warm air hits me, carrying the smell of cocktails and the sounds of laughter, chatter and good music.

As soon as I cross the threshold a snappy barman wearing a yellow apron greets me and shows me to a table. He proceeds to explain how cocktail bars work, whilst pouring me a glass of cucumber water. If he insists. I’m then left to peruse the menu.

None of the drinks ring a bell. Names like Loch Ness Mobster, Cliffside Royale, and Angel of Mercy claim to take the drinker on an alcohol-fuelled tour of the British Isles from the comfort of this cosy watering hole. I opt for a drink called ‘Not-So-Busy B’. Mostly because it describes my existence in the hive of Manchester rather well, and because the ingredients sound pleasant. Happy with my choice, I sit back to observe the place.

It’s small, room for thirty or so people, and the dim lighting seems to cram the tables even closer together. Brown leather, dark wood and exposed brick combine to uphold the image of private, covert, dangerous. The gun closet next to the bar is perhaps a step too far.

My attention is soon grabbed by the barman mixing cocktails. Such quick and precise movements, all done with total confidence, the notion of a glass spilling or crashing to the floor simply not entertained. How many hours of practise must that take?

As I sit and watch him it begins to feel like a performance. One full of elaborations and flourishes. A flick of the wrist, spin of the bottle, elegant but firm shake of the mixer. All culminating in that delicate liquid being poured over ice.

I enjoy simple tasks being done with such skill, so as to transform them from mundane chore into an artform. Not many human activities are delightful in their own right - it’s the unique spin and joy a person injects into their chosen craft that enhances the humdrum and makes it beautiful.

Clearly this chap gets a kick out of mixing cocktails, which makes it a pleasure to watch. He seems to have found something that excites him, something into which he can delve deep and learn all there is to know. I’m sure if I asked him for a Burnt Fuselage, he’d whip one up in no time and with no less grace.

My guess is that almost any enterprise can be elevated into an artform. Painters, poets, photographers, all the way to bicycle couriers, bricklayers and bakers. It’s just a question of finding something that lights a fire, preferably of one’s own free will, and then approaching the work in a playful and curious manner. The result can be captivating.

It also creates a tiny story, a channel of communication between the creator and the audience. As I watch this skillful barman, I imagine the months of practise he must have endured, the slips and spills along the way. I wonder what led him here and what makes him stay. I try to understand why he puts so much energy into this modest profession.

These stories, conceived by a person’s art, give us something to notice and appreciate during our day. No matter how big or small, they help us understand what it means to be human.