I first met Ray Binding when I went into his pub, The George on Holyport Green . He was a small man with a cherubic face whom his daughter likened to Kenneth Moore, the actor.
Knowing I had worked in a restaurant and bar in the next village he asked if I would be interested in helping him out a couple of nights a week around my full time day job. I accepted and started the following weekend.
This was back in the days when pubs would only open for a lunchtime session and an evening session. My first session was on a frosty cold Saturday morning and although the pub had to open at ten thirty Ray said that I needn’t arrive until about eleven when he would show me around.
I arrived as arranged and the fire in the saloon bar was going at full blaze. Keeping the fire going during service was one of my designated duties. The sun shone through the bay window looking over the green. It reflected off of the shiny copper topped table set in the alcove and lit up the ceiling. The place smelt fresh, warm and welcoming.
My guided tour included the kitchen where I met Ray’s wife Jean. Then the beer cellar. The cellar was a danger zone as the door to the cellar had the public bar dartboard hung on the bar side. Ray’s advice was that after changing a barrel always wait for three gentle thuds as the darts hit the board before opening the door. He grinned at me and said that sometimes the customers would throw four darts just for fun every so often but that I would be fine as his wife was an ex nurse.
The cellar was also where Ray retreated with his trumpet and riffed away any bad moods.
And so my work at The George began.
Ray had somehow worked the place and the customers in such a way that every one of the fourteen sessions during the week were like a big party. Saturday nights were a huge party while Sunday lunchtimes always had their own unique sparkle of concentrated bon homie. Even the weekday lunchtime sessions that I did work had a vibrant and party like atmosphere. Ray very rarely came behind the bar but circulated with the customers flitting like a butterfly from one group to another keeping things moving and making sure they sent their money.
At the end of each session there was always a drink for the staff who wanted to stay on for a few minutes to unwind before going home. One Saturday afternoon I was the only one who stayed behind. Ray then explained to me about the little signals to look for when customers came in to the pub and how to look after them accordingly. He had mastered this reading skill working as a chief purser on the White Star ships cruising between Britain and the Far East up until the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Ray’s observations seemed a revelation at the time. When someone comes into the bar and sits at the bar they are looking for company. When a customer comes in with a newspaper and sits at the bar wait until you see whether or not they actually read the paper. The paper may have been brought in as defence against loneliness if no one strikes up a conversation with them. When they come in and sit by themselves away from the bar they want to be alone and keep conversation to a minimum. It all seems common sense but Ray had it down to a fine art.
His other great skill was circulating. Hardly ever on the serving side of the bar Ray would flit like a butterfly from one group to another standing in the bar area. Only staying enough time to keep them engaged in conversation and feel they had been personally welcomed by ‘mein host’ and then moving on to the next group.
The village of Holyport was growing quickly with new housing going up constantly so there were always new faces coming into the pub. Ray would notice them with a predatory eye, work out their body language and if they were looking for company he would wander a cross to them and introduce himself.
‘Hello there, I am Ray the landlord. Have you just
moved into the area?’ Or similar words.
Within minutes Ray would be in conversation with the ‘stranger’ and if he found they had a common interest with another group of customers at the bar such as golf he would use that interest as a way of making introductions.
‘Hello Bill, could I introduce you to Michael….he has just moved into the area and I believe he plays off a handicap of twelve. Perhaps you could take him to Temple as a guest next time you are playing there?’
Ray would make sure the conversation had started to flow and then move on to play the genial host somewhere else in the bar. In the meantime, the stranger who had perhaps only come in for a quick drink and explore of the local pub would be involved in a round of drinks with new found friends.
Even if there was no common interest Ray would work out a way of getting people introduced seamlessly and effortlessly.
I became a trusted member of the team and even before I was twenty one was entrusted to look after the pub in the evenings when he and Jean went away for breaks. Unfortunately this backfired with my day job.
At the time I had a very distinctive dark blue MG Midget which everyone at work knew was mine. I would leave the office at five and drive to The George parking my car on the forecourt where it would stay overnight until I went back to the day job. One morning at work while I was also running the pub I had a phone call from the Company Secretary who called me up to his office. There I was asked if I had a drinking problem as for the last three nights and mornings while he was driving to and from work he would see my car parked outside.
Point taken, I then started to use Ray’s garage.
I had the keys to the pub for one entire weekend while Ray and Jean went away for a break. They came back towards the end of Sunday lunchtime and because the car park was full and every available space on the edge of the green had been taken up with parked cars Ray had to park his beloved Jaguar on the far side of the green. They both struggled to get into the bar through the crowd of Sunday drinkers. Ray did not seem that happy but with his reserve of good manners said that I could go as soon as the pub was closed, he would get the place ready for Sunday evening and I could pop in on Monday morning to settle things up.
The next morning Jean was in the kitchen and told me that Ray wanted to see me upstairs in his office as he was not too pleased. As I walked up the narrow staircase I wondered what had gone wrong. Cash was alright, stock was alright, no customers had complained to me and all the staff seemed happy.
Ray sat at his desk and looked up at me over his half frame glasses.
‘Could you sit down for a minute Alan?’
He then stood up to his full five foot three, took off his glasses and looked down at me sweating buckets on the sofa.
‘I am not very happy this morning. Firstly I couldn’t get my own car into my garage yesterday. Secondly we couldn’t get back into our own pub and thirdly….’
In this dramatic pause I ran through my checklist of what possibly could have gone wrong.
‘And thirdly, I have had some complaints from the customers…..’
Who would have complained I asked my self?
‘They complained…and this hurts as I really trusted you’ Ray continued and I could see the faint glimmer of a twinkle in his eyes.
‘They complained that I am not as good as you at running this place’.
Meanwhile jean had come up the stairs and was corpsing in the doorway. Ray gave a me an envelope with my money and Jean gave me a big hug.
‘Well done lovie’ Ray is really pleased with you’.
Sadly Ray passed away and was sadly missed by his family, friends and customers. His wife took his death really badly and the pub never regained the magic that Ray had imbued the place with but I still have lots of happy memories of the place and especially of Ray.