Serendipity

Monday, May 07, 2018

Billy Holmes RIP

I’ve just had the almost perfect Janner Bank Holiday Monday. Took Mrs W out to Lopwell Dam, had a pint in Milton Combe’s Who’d’ve’thought It and then back home for a mini-pubcrawl heading towards fish and chips on The Barbican and a pint in The Dolphin to cap it all off.

Only to arrive and see this:



At which point the memories came flooding back. My first paid job was working behind the bar at the George Hotel at Roborough which was, back then, on the very northern-most edge, perhaps a little beyond, of the city of Plymouth. I have a story or two to tell about that but they are for another day. 1983 was a long time ago now but I started at The George on my 18th birthday. I think I got paid about £20 for 3 nights. Getting there was a nuisance, Dad used to drive me, and it wasn’t long before he found me another job, £30 for 3 nights, at The Dolphin on Plymouth’s Barbican which was, crucially, within walking distance.

The difference between the two pubs could not have been starker. The George was the sort of pub where The Hunt used to meet and I was only allowed to work in the Lounge; The Dolphin was at the heart of Plymouth’s fishing community and only had the one bar. One had a grand piano in the corner the other had a stand-up piano…

At The George I had to wear a uniform of black trousers and a white shirt behind the bar so for my first night at The Dolphin I wore the same. My first customer was my Dad. “A bottle of Guinness, off the shelf, please” quoth he. At which point I made a legendary start.

At The George there was cap remover with a trap below. You inserted the cap of the bottle cracked it forwards, the cap would fall into a catcher, you poured the beer. Job done. Crucially you cracked the bottle towards you. At The Dolphin there was a similar arrangement but different. You cracked the bottle away from you. I did not know this. So there I am trying to get the bottle into the opener. It doesn’t go as I expect it to. All the time I am shaking it up a bit more. Bottled Guinness (can you even still buy proper bottled Guinness?) isn’t like other drinks…. Eventually I got the bottle into the cap remover kind of like the only way it would go (so far as I knew) and cracked the cap off at which point I got a faceful of bottled Guinness as it exploded out of the bottle and drenched me. My white shirt was white no more.

Seconds into my first ever shift I had made a complete half-arse of myself. A fella, coincidentally, named Roger, who was in the pub at the time ran a Barbican T-Shirt Shop and he kitted me out for the rest of evening in a black T-shirt… That behind me I worked there for about 4 years, off and on. I was a student, mostly, at the time and so worked there when I came back and their usual staff, also students went away. But what times…

The Barbican then wasn’t what it now. All the things that are there now were still there then but it was the centre of the fishing community. This has all changed and Southside Street got much less smellier since the Fish Market moved across the harbour to Coxside. But the things that went on in The Dolphin: the fish trading; proper big bastard crabs running around the bar… spoofing, Criminal underlife that seemed to live there: Mike Ede, Hong Kong John, Gambo, Jack Laing (I think they are all dead now – bloody hope so (no offence intended)). Unbelievable. And over it all reigned first Betty, long since gone, and then Billy Holmes.

Billy was a true gent. As Cork Irish as they come and all but incomprehensible for much of the time. I remember him swearing at me as a callow youth who didn’t share his weight of a 22 gallon barrel as we lifted it onto the stillage at the back of the bar. I remember him being as chuffed as anybody ever was at meeting Noel Redding, the bass player in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, on one of his trips back to Ireland. I remember a bloke not of my city who gave far more to it than most people ever will. Billy Holmes was a legend amongst legends and an absolute gent with it. I’ll miss him dearly.

The Barbican will never be the same again.

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