Stepping into the average British high street on a Friday night is like walking into an elaborate theatrical production. You might not think about it like this when you're doing your keys-phone-wallet-fags check, but the friendly barmaids, the coppers in fluorescent jackets, the deferential waiters, the chatty taxi drivers and the stern bouncers are all playing roles in a show put on to help you forget about the toils of the working week. Most people drop the act once the entertainment's over, but for others it sticks and becomes a mask they can't remove.
That's exactly what happened to me, mutating from budding journalist to shady doorman over the course of a few years. The thing is, bouncing was only supposed to get me through a couple of media internships and temporary journalism jobs. I'm passable enough at writing to have had things published, and I grew up in a violent inner-city area where I learnt the value of being considered hard. Although disparate, both aspects made up the bedrock of my self-esteem. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of believing that falling back on one of those identities would give me breathing space to develop the other.
It worked alright at first. I interned at a local paper in Hull while moonlighting as a bouncer at a now demolished R&B disco-barn. The door staff used to call it The Long Branch Saloon, thanks to the fact it was frequented by all the local gangsters, boxers and rugby league players. We were made to wear white shirts, even though they often ended up covered in blood. It was scary at first, but it didn't take long to learn the ropes – that is, smashing violent wankers out the door. Working there was the most fun I ever had as a bouncer.
Back then I didn't think there was anything particularly psychological about the job. It seemed pretty clear cut; if you started on someone then you got chucked out. Given the clientele, that usually meant a struggle – a bit of nightclub rugby. But apart from the occasional bandage, none of that interrupted my work on the paper; in fact, it helped me land a couple of exclusives. The change was gradual.
One night a gang of about 40 attacked the two bouncers at a pub down the road. Six of us ran across to help. We caught them side on and belted everyone within striking distance. Two of my colleagues, Matt and Carl – both big gnarly bastards – ran in there like Jonah Lomu on a charge. Anyone in their way was floored. The gang backed off and regrouped into a snarling mass while we formed a line across the entrance to the pub. There was a face off, but they all legged it as soon as they heard the sound of approaching sirens.
There was a long queue back at the club, and a number of the mob had managed to sneak past us, which we hadn't realised until one of them began threatening a group of girls and throwing glasses across the dance floor. Carl and I went to drag him out, unaware that the rest of them had us surrounded. The glass thrower attacked me, while the others set themselves on Carl. I was angry and frightened; a volatile mix in close quarters. I only stopped laying into him when he stopped trying to fight me, his face a bloody mess by this point.
A couple of days later I got a call telling me to go down to the station. It was the first time I questioned why I was bouncing; I'd hurt someone and there was a good chance I'd be charged. I was supposed be writing the news, not appearing in it. Thankfully, after a round of questioning, the copper told me that the group were known thugs and that the case wouldn't be taken any further.
I turned up for work the next week as if nothing had happened. The truth was I was concerned. Not only because I'd realised that, in the course of doing my job, I could potentially end up with a criminal record, but also because we were regularly dealing with violent criminals who were wrapped up in gang rivalries – not something you really want to be in the middle of every time you clock in.
Criminologist Simon Winlow had similar experiences while working a year in some of Sunderland's worst dives as research for his book BadFellas.
"A lot of the time you're just trying to save yourself from being punched in the face. Initially it's all quite exciting, but that dies out quickly," he told me. "We had to turf out gangsters, and they'd say, 'I'm going to come back with a gun.' It worried me and I'm sure it worried a lot of my colleagues – although few of them would ever admit to it."
While defending yourself isn't acting, learning to put on an inscrutable face is – but it was some time before that ability engulfed my work as a journalist.
The fork in the road didn't come until I'd landed a job as a researcher/writer for a media project on the pharmaceutical industry. My bosses on the pharma project ended up owing me a couple thousand quid. They were good for the cash, but as the funding was being split between an incredibly wealthy philanthropist and a government department, I knew payment would be a long time coming. I could have found a normal job to plug the gap, but instead I went back to bouncing.
I was offered a one-man gig (except on Saturdays, when there were two of us) on the door of a strip club called Allure, which dragged me further into that high street stage show. Bouncers and strippers are the anti-heroes in this production; they both project exaggerated one-dimensional identities based upon the use of their bodies. At the most basic level strippers symbolise sex and bouncers symbolise violence. The performance is more obvious in stripping, but as present and just as important in door work.
Allure was a magnet for pretenders, and working there exacerbated my own tendency to take on a role. Despite being a less violent gig, it was more of a head-trip than the other places I'd worked. I was on my own, so I honed my bark to avoid getting physical. At the same time I kept the whole thing secret from my pharma project colleagues because it didn't seem civilised. I felt conflicted and alienated. Yet, when the money came through I stayed.
Nearly everybody at Allure – the customers, the owner, the manager, the staff – seemed to have ulterior motives. A desire for money and the promise of flesh were the obvious incentives, but I could see it went deeper than that. Some of the customers went there to be titillated. Others hid behind the titillation; to them, paying a woman to fawn and strip was empowering. The girls had their own reasons for being there, too. Candy was the most senior dancer while I was there and still works in the industry. I called her to ask about her motivations and processes.
"You never met the real me," she said. "I have an alter-ego at work. You have to build yourself up to do it. I've seen loads of people transform themselves, literally in a weekend. Stripping is a taboo. I like the power it brings. When I walk past someone I'll give them eye contact. It's the best thing in the world, because you've got their power then and they'll be looking for you. But I'm still a bit of a clown – I like the entertainment side of it."
Before stripping, Candy told me, she was a hairdresser who lacked confidence and was submissive to men. Her new job gave her the chance to break out of the quotidian. "I can be whatever I want to be at work, but at home you're grounded," she said. "A lot of people have their own image of what I should be like. They think it's either to pay for uni, or drugs, or you got abused – they seem to be the top three reasons why you'd do it.
"But then I talk to them about the confidence and the power. Some girls just do it purely for money, and they're the ones that usually have problems. But I think I improved my personality. I don't think I'd be where I am today if it wasn't through that job."
Candy's experiences aren't far off what sociologist-turned-stripper Carol Rambo found when she began stripping to research the industry, noting that she became "something other than what my 'self' normally is".
"My idea of who I think I am shatters in the face of what I become in the bar," she wrote. "Sabrina, the dancer, does not fit Carol, the student, the wife. I am forced to re-evaluate myself and consequently everything around me."
At the strip club I found that George, the bouncer, did not fit George, the researcher of pharmaceutical corporations. Nor did I recognise the world in which pharmaceutical corporations existed. During the day I was interviewing world class scientists, at night I was the protection for a load of naked women. The distance was cosmic and GlaxoSmithKline was at the wrong end of the universe.
I could feel early on that working there was having an adverse effect on me. I developed a phobia of speaking to people in a professional context. It took me hours to pluck up the courage to pick up the phone and call the people I needed to speak to for my other job. Niggling doubt ate at me whenever I thought of it. I felt like a fraud. It was as if I'd snuck into somewhere I didn't belong.
But why? Like Candy, what I was doing gave me a sense of empowerment. I knew it was unsubstantial, but it fed a part of my ego that had been with me since I was a kid. At a normal bar or nightclub things might have been different. Allure, however, was the perfect venue for the primitive displays of power I was susceptible to, and it changed who I was.
I experienced the consequences of what sociologists call "emotional labour", which is what you experience if you adopt a persona to influence people. If you work in a service industry – and, since the decline of manufacturing, a hell of a lot of people do – you probably undertake some form of emotional labour. Like method actors who get lost in their characters, those who do it too often are at risk of "identity realignment"; they stop acting and start believing.
Those most susceptible are people whose background values correlate with the values of the job at hand, and those who enjoy the validation that performing the role provides. Speaking to Simon Winlow, it became clear that I displayed those risk factors.
"Those men who carry the cultural capital of the traditional working class are the kind of people who make it into bouncing, as I experienced it. It's centred around gendered performance," he explained. "People look up to bouncers. It's about masculinities. It's about stoicism and physicality. Door work is also consuming – it takes up a big part of your life and forces you to concentrate, and forces you to be part of that world."
By the time I'd finished working at Allure I was a fully fledged bouncer. My demeanour was tough and working class, and I knew people like that didn't work in the media. I knew my place, and even though I felt like a failure, my position had some regard. The pharma project fizzled out and I headed to where everyone with an ego in Britain heads: London. I went on the pretence of using door work to break into journalism. Aside from cursory job applications I did none of the internships, freelancing or networking needed to get ahead in that field.
Instead, I embraced security work for two more years. I enjoyed its bullshit – it suited my personality and I was good at it. Some jobs were very interesting. I provided close protection for a saleswoman carrying two million pounds worth of gems to potential buyers' residences, supervised the burlesque room at the Brit awards and went to loads of great events and gigs.
Door work's potential for insidious identity issues became more obvious while I was working at a popular West London nightclub during the 2012 Olympics. However, I noticed it in others rather than myself. The club was offering free cocktails to gold medal winners and was open every night of the 17-day event. It was an unrelenting parade of inebriety. Drunk Olympians, celebrities, hangers on, over-moneyed revellers and paparazzi hounded the club and its staff for nearly three weeks.
The train of parties were no big surprise. More remarkable to me was the en-masse behaviour of the 20 or so bouncers. There had been some upheaval at the club just before the Olympics started, after the head doorman, Alex, had left. Alex's sheer size demanded compliance from those around him, but his real skill lay in a nuanced leadership style that was inclusive and friendly. The team were ethnically diverse with roughly equal numbers of black and white staff. It was a truly global contingent.
After Alex left there was a level of uncertainty within the team, which added to the pressure brought on by the Olympics. Leadership struggles emerged between the remaining top dogs and people began to switch positions and form alliances. Then, at the start of my shift one night, I noticed a disturbing new development: the bouncers downstairs were all black or Asian, and the bouncers upstairs were all white.
When I mentioned this to one of my white colleagues on the front door he said: "What do you expect? They're a different species."
His views disgusted me, and I'm sure they would have disgusted 99 percent of the people I worked with. I'm also sure that the splitting of the team along racial identities was not a conscious decision for the most part. When I spoke to other security members about it they seemed bemused. Nor can I say for certain that the split existed continually over the period; perhaps some of my ex-workmates would question whether it existed at all.
However, my account did not surprise University of Hull psychologist Iain Brennan.
He said: "It's a phenomenon in social psychology that's pretty well established. In times of uncertainty and conflict people will form homogenous groups. Generally people are not conscious of the choice to put themselves in one particular group. There's a long history of unconscious factors influencing those decisions."
My response to what I saw was to go to work the next evening, ignore my colleagues and join the party. My actions led to a situation that proved my bouncer mask was still firmly in place.
The author after a recent night out
I turned up after kick-off, so the new head doorman was too busy to assign me a place upstairs. Then I neglected to pick up a radio, so I couldn't be called back up. It was so busy that I managed to escape detection and danced all night. I still did a bit of work – picking up glasses and asking people not to do stupid shit like performing handstands on tables covered in drinks. There was no need to do any stern stuff because the buzz from the Games was overwhelming. It was a great party.
The head doorman spotted me near the end of the night. He shouted and swore at me. I tried to collar him after the club closed but he kept walking off. In retrospect, he had a stressful job to do and I had no regard for his authority – it must have been frustrating. But my blood was up, and for a bouncer it's important to save face, because without it you're nothing.
I caught him when all the other security staff were handing him their radios and ear pieces to be checked back into the store. I informed him he was out of order, to which he replied: "Fuck off."
I responded in the same terms and started pointing my finger and getting aggressive. I can look after myself, but this guy was an ex-Russian soldier who'd clearly been through it. The man had gone to war in the service of a brutal regime, there was no need for him to employ acting skills to come across as hard – he just was.
Another bouncer eventually got in between me and the head doorman, pushing me away and telling me to give it a rest. I'm grateful he did; without his intervention there was a good chance I'd have ended up injured and humiliated. Instead, I was left to take my course to its natural conclusion.
A year later I'd risen up the ranks to head doorman. The rave I was managing was small, but it provided opportunities.
I got home at around 5.30AM recently and took out all the drugs I'd sharked over six months on the job. I reckon I had about grand's worth, on top of the amount I'd stuck up my nose, and there were more available. Lots more. For a while I'd been wondering what I was going to do with them. 'It would be nice to have some extra cash,' I thought.
The best individual score I got was a bag of 30 pills and two baggies crammed tight with coke. One night I confiscated one pill shaped like a diamond and another like the face of a horned devil. I was informed they were 2-CB from the guy I took them off. He offered to buy them back but I ate them on my next night off. They were divine. I ended up with so many drugs that when I spilt a glass of prosecco over a couple of wraps of gak one night I just laughed it off. I was like a really, really terrible Tony Montana.
"The macho status so often granted to, or earned by, bouncers seems to allow people engaged in the occupation a multitude of options for transgression into criminality," writes Simon Winlow in BadFellas. My option was to relieve people of class As and sell them on.
This isn't a redemption story and I'm not trying to justify myself. I made the choice to travel to the boundaries of who I am and what I stand for; as far as I'm concerned, the morality of drug taking and dealing does not enter into it. Drugs are an issue for the legislators – an issue they are completely failing to deal with.
But looking at the pile of wrapped lottery tickets and baggies on my bedroom table, I realised that selling drugs meant moving into the shadows. That wasn't going to work; whether through writing or bouncing, my self-esteem craved public demonstration. I gathered the pile from the table, took it into the bathroom and emptied the drugs down the toilet. Later that day I quit the club and left bouncing behind.
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