By Patricia Roche
During my first few years in London in the early 1970s my social life evolved around Irish pubs and dancehalls and I had various evening barmaid jobs in some of these establishments.
Pubs were heaving and many young Irish emigrants were doing part-time bar work to supplement their incomes, and of course it was a great way to socialise. I love Irish and country and western music but I’m also lucky that I discovered the listening pleasure of heavy rock and heavy metal.
One day I had a chance meeting with with a girl from home called Margaret and we exchanged details of our pub jobs and I learned that she was earning a pound a shift more than me, which was a lot of money. She suggested I turn up at the Fishmonger’s Arms, or “The Fish” as it was known, and ask for a job. All pubs had vacancies so I headed for Wood Green that very evening. After asking to speak to the “Governor” a comical man called Bill Fagan with a Dublin accent was eventually located and, as far as I recall, just asked me when I could start, and naturally I said straight away.
The Fish was a very busy pub teaming with young people, mainly English. There was a juke box and a DJ and a disco in a hall at the back, lasting into the early hours. As we worked in the main bars (known as salon and public) the evening music was provided by a DJ called Count Gerry Gargano. It took me a while to adapt but before long I was thoroughly enjoying it all and quickly became a converted headbanger!
In the semi-darkness of the saloon bar Gerry’s turntable belted out Led Zeppelin, Credence Clearwater Revival, Speppenwolf, Jimmy Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pink Floyd and Thin Lizzy, to name but a few. The atmosphere was alive and electric, customers enjoying, or as they say digging, the scene. Fagan himself tried to play the part of the miser of his namesake in Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ but really wasn’t miserly at all, this just added a bit of humour.
Us barmaids were run off our feet and you had to add the prices of drinks in your head and woe betied if you made a mistake. Anyone trying to fiddle wouldn’t last five minutes. There was a big notice beside every till saying “God helps those who help themselves but God help anyone I catch helping themselves!”
Because Bill had a few pubs he had hired a couple called Brian and Eileen to manage the Fish but was often there to keep an eye on his jewel in the crown. Fighting or trouble of any kind would not be tolerated, drunk or aggressive customers would be thrown out by a big bouncer called John and also get a lifetime ban.
I worked with Margaret and her sister, Mary and a girl called Angie. They were all very pretty. Other barmaids would come and go but somehow didn’t take to it like we did. You need good listening skills, drinkers sometimes get emotional and want to discuss their problems. Customers would buy us drinks and we were sometimes intoxicated behind the bar. I did well because guys would try to date the other girls and would approach me as the go-between. I always just said I would “see what I can do”. I can take credit for having a small hand in one enduring romance, the couple are still married!
Fagan’s wife, Ann, was warm and friendly and enjoyed a drink and a laugh, and they had four sons. Despite his pretend skinflint ways, Fagan looked out for us, paid us well, gave us a Christmas bonus and would even pay for a staff night out every now and then. We got to know and love our DJ Count Gerry Gargano. His mother was Irish and his father Italian, and contrary to his heavy music persona, he was a gentle soul who liked nothing better than sitting down joking and laughing with us all over a staff-drink when the bar closed.
We also made friends with the regulars and would socialise with some of them in the disco afterwards or they would come to an Irish dances with us. It was a happy carefree time spent in good company and wonderful loud blaring tunes. Music crosses all boundaries and breaks down all barriers and for about three years we all had a fun time at the Fish. Then our group began to dissipate; some of us left for various reasons and I moved to another area. We kept in touch spasmodically for a few years and then the contacts gradually faded.
A few months ago I got a message that Count Gargano had passed away and I attended his funeral where many of the old crowd met up again. Bill Fagan was there, looking older and greyer like the rest of us, and saddened by the loss of his beloved wife Ann, the previous year. You could see he still thought of us as the young girls in his employment who needed a guiding hand.
I forgot to ask Gerry’s niece if he was really a Count at all but that didn’t matter, I count him of one of the loveliest people I ever met and thank God that I knew him and all the crowd at the Fish. I still love heavy rock music and, crazy as it may seem, I sometimes like to play A/C DC or Seegar at full blast and dance around the house (but only when I’m alone!).
Bill Fagan’s plan was to leave a pub to each of his sons when he retired but ironically they all pursued other careers. The Fish is now a police station, but I hope the music and feel-good of that era is somehow embedded in the walls and rafters and reaches out and inspires the law-keeping men and women working there today.