It's 9PM on a Saturday in East London. I'm stood outside a popular basement rave, here to work. A street alcoholic tries to barge into the restaurant attached to the nightclub and spits in my face when I stop him. They told me at university that an education would help me cross boundaries. That was before the recession. Since then I've crossed all sorts of boundaries, although not the ones I was expecting. I never saw myself as a 30-year-old bouncer wiping phlegm from my face, for example.
It all started in 2007 as a good way to pay for a newspaper internship after my undergrad. Coming from a family of fishermen and having been to sea myself on cargo ships bouncing seemed like just another tough, if slightly less respectable, job on the way to better things. I had periodic success with journalism and academia over that time. I've spent time reporting from Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria, but fancy words from foreign climes and Marxist critiques are the first against the wall in an economic crisis (or at least, ironically, somewhere near the front of the queue).
After two years and 50 failed job applications it's dawned on me that dragging people off dancefloors has turned into my bread and butter. Bouncing is better paid and more interesting than slaving over lattes or finger banging numbers into Excel in a stuffy office. Sometimes I question the thousands I spent on seemingly pointless degrees but it does perhaps make it easier for me to recognise and list the constituent parts required to be the monkey at the disco. Here's what you need if you want to bounce without getting your head caved in:
– Empathy is most important thing and stops 90 percent of problems before they occur.
– Second is the ability to express anger. If you can't do that you're fucked because nobody will do as they're told.
– After that you need restraint; you'll want to hit infuriating drunk people after a while. Satisfying? Yes. Productive? No. The same goes for the romantic advances of that wasted 18-year-old who's throwing herself at you. The industry has enough image issues as it is. Remember Raoul Moat? Levi Bellfield?
– Lastly, you need a sense of humour, or else you'll turn into a walking parody of a bouncer – neck rolls, bald head, puffer jacket, drunk on power you don't possess. Being a big bastard is not as important as you would assume; presence is necessary, but size can be negated by emotional intelligence and will.
Obviously bouncing does have its hazards, though. In the course of my career I've seen an unconscious man have a cigarette stubbed out in his eye, had to convince the police on two separate occasions that the men who had been hospitalised at my hands brought it on themselves (they did) and once had a chat with a colleague about needing a pay-rise as we retreated to a bar top and warded off marauding football hooligans by kicking them in the face.
At first, I was scared of getting a broken bottle in the eye, gradually though I put up a wall. I learned to accept that sometimes I'd be knocked unconscious or a gangster would threaten to knife me. This allows me to work without fear, but it can be tiring, cutting your feelings dead. Combined with the pace and demands of the job you're looking at burnout or brutalisation if you don't look after your mental health. Worse than all that, though, is when people treat me like an idiot or a thug. Or when they do the same to my colleagues. Most bouncers are in fact merely products of the time and circumstance in which they find themselves, and they stop thousands of people in every part of the country from seriously hurting themselves or others every weekend.
It's 10PM now. Along come Sammy and Silvia, my door team and some of the best professional child minders in London. They're static, controlling entrances and exits, and I roam. We need more bouncers but the proprietor doesn't want to spend the money. Sammy is 35 and is studying for a chemistry degree. You'd think he looks young for his age, but when his eyes flash you'll do as you're told. He's been in the UK for seven years and I knew he was the man for me when we warded off a group of kids who were swinging empty bottles, backed up by a pair of drug-pushers who sell from the flat above the club. However, it wasn't Sammy's actions that mattered so much as the comment he made after the situation had been resolved:
"I don't understand how people die in London from stab wounds," he pondered. "In Nigeria they carry machetes. People walk around with big scars," he explained, drawing a line across his face. "But they're still alive. They have baby knives here. Why would I be frightened of those?"
You want to be a good doorman? That's the attitude you need.
Back to the party and we've got 300 people packed in here now, bouncing in time to the £20,000, custom-made sound-system. Crowds are bubbles. This one is beautiful and amorphous and filled to the brim with class As. Thousands of pounds worth of drugs pass through the doors every weekend, hidden in socks, bras and boxers. You have to disrupt it just enough to make sure people get the message that it's not legal. Any more than that and there's not really any point putting the party on. I've thrown out the odd dealer, but I'm pretty certain that most people arrange their own beforehand.
I could quite happily commandeer a couple of hundred pounds worth of cocaine and ecstasy during an evening. A good start is the two grams I just confiscated from that handsome broken-nosed guy and his pixie girlfriend on the dancefloor. They were being too public, so I grabbed the drugs from his hand and shook my head like I was his dad, scolding him for having a tantrum in Toys R Us. He asked if he could have it back and I told him he's lucky I'm letting him stay. The contents of the bag are lumpy, so I'm guessing they're decent.
As I walked off I noticed the club owner was stood by watching. There's a sign in the toilets that declares, "ANYONE FOUND WITH ILLEGAL DRUGS WILL BE EJECTED IMMEDIATELY AND THE POLICE CALLED." I'm not sure how the owner feels about what I'm doing. I don't think he knows himself. It's clear that he doesn't tolerate open drug use on his premises, but every so often he asks me to return a packet of seized drugs to one of his friends. The manager's position is "confiscate but don't throw out".
My position: I'm self-employed through an agency, so they can let me go at any time for any reason. If the police decide to ask awkward questions about the drug policy, I'm the first to take the blame. But if I get hard-ass about stopping drugs I'll get fired. You'll do well to remember this – that the security has no security. But the worst that'll happen is getting sacked, as long as you don't really fuck anyone up or get too involved with drugs.
It's 2AM. In the last couple of hours I've confiscated two more bags of either gak or ketamine, a bag of MDMA and received a £20 bribe from a guy sniffing lines in the toilet. I also saved a woman from falling under a car. She was trying to flag a taxi down outside but began to topple over right in front of the oncoming traffic instead. I rushed out and pulled her away just before she hit the deck. People die regularly like that on London roads, so I made her sit against a wall until I'd flagged a black cab to pour her into.
You'll spend a fair amount of time making sure that girls who are too drunk or high to know what they're doing are OK. You can't throw them out on their own because they're at risk; you have to find their friends, who invariably promise to look after them but don't. You'll then have to find their friends again to make sure they're fine when some creep has latched on and is attempting to lead them off into the night. That sort of thing makes me feel sad and alone.
Boys are a different story. They just get chucked out if they're too gone. If they're civilised I tell them to sober up for 20 minutes. If they've been polite, passive and they don't annoy me by drunkenly trying to make friends when I'm dealing with a million other things at once, I'll let them back in. Three things attract a bouncer's attention to males – behaving in a way that seems unpredictable, being over excited and loud and being aggressive. You would have thought this was obvious to people, but of course people lose a sense of themselves when they're pissed or high.
There's a myth that groups of lads are always turned away from clubs and yet generally speaking they aren't, it's groups of dickheads that are. In the rare event that is has turned into an unsustainable sausagefest, then it's just tough mate, you can't come in and if you stop and think you might realise you probably don't want to anyway.
I send the drunk girl on her way and go back inside for a dance. Dancing is a bouncer's secret weapon; it puts people at ease and you can still observe what's going on. Still, it doesn't make anything too much easier. There's some prick blocking the doorway leading from the toilet corridor into the main room. There's a line of people waiting to get back to the dancefloor and he's pretending he hasn't noticed, apparently purely for his own amusement. He's making them antsy but they're all too pilled up to shove him out of the way.
"People want to get past mate," I tell him.
"Move your arm please and get out the doorway."
I grab his arm: "Move. Now."
He moves but starts to give me that Steve Austin glare and pushes his chest out. This is not the time to back off. At moments like this it's best to get your face right up into his – nasty as you like.
"You think I'm doing this because I'm a fucking pussy?"
He realises his mistake immediately and wimps his way into a snivelling apology. In moments like this one, it's important to be gracious with your response; aggression should be dissipated. "Don't worry about it," I tell him. "Enjoy yourself, it's a great party. Peace and love."
I hear shouting from the ladies' toilets and push the door open to be met by five beautiful Italian girls staring at themselves in the mirror and yabbering incomprehensibly, turning their smiling heads as one and beckoning me inside. It's weird and brilliant, but probably also best to refuse. Better to put your finger to your lips and leave before an outstretched arm can pull you across the threshold. A few weeks ago I tried to tell off a trio of student hipster girls for some minor infraction in this same spot. Instead of being repentant, they surrounded me and took it in turns to French kiss me until I was utterly disarmed.
The club's closing. It's 3.30AM. We're at the cloakroom. I'm ushering people out and making sure everyone is calm. Here's that broken-nosed guy again. He's demanding his coke back. It must be good stuff because he's in a foul mood now. The music is off, the lights are on and people are watching. In this sort of situation you can't lose face. I laugh at him and tell him there's no chance. "I know your face – you're going to have trouble," he says in a thick foreign accent.
I jerk my head and body about three inches in his direction as if I'm about to go for him. He flinches (thank fuck). I sneer, call him a dickhead and tell Pixie to get rid of him. You shouldn't do that really, it's asking for a scrap. But I'm tired and I don't like being threatened. Still, if we were in Hull I'd have punched the cunt in the throat.
Everyone's out and the whole thing is shut down. The staff are having a beer in the restaurant. I've given the manager everything except dickhead's coke. We're supposed to put all of the drugs inside the safe and hand them over to the authorities, but it's a balancing act; you don't want to give the police too much because you make the place look like a drugs den. On the other hand, you can't not hand anything over – the cops aren't stupid. I've known clubs to buy their own drugs to put in the safe because they can't get the bouncers to give back anything they find.
There's a radio station party at a warehouse club that's going on until 8AM. I'm wired from the night and definitely not in the mood for sleep. In the taxi on the way there with the barmaids, I take my Swiss Army knife off my key ring and stick that and the cocaine in my boot. I took the knife from a kid who wanted to come into the club last month.
"You don't bring a knife to a nightclub," I told him. Except now, I do. It's legal as long as I don't threaten anyone with it, useful in my day-to-day life and I like carrying it when I'm on the door. I guess it's symbolic of the ambiguous nature of door work. You have to be prepared to accept that things are not as they seem.
The author on the job.
The bouncers at the warehouse won't let us in. I flash my door supervisor's license – now we're straight through. The building is Victorian, atmospheric and industrial, and everyone looks and sounds amazing. I go to the toilet to powder my nose and give the attendant a fiver to use his deodorant (he won't pay much attention to what I'm up to now). Inside the cubicle I use the tweezers on the knife to extract a lump of coke from the baggie and chop it into a line on the toilet top with the blade.
After a couple of hours I emerge into the daylight, check an inbox littered with job rejections, sleep until dark and do it all again.
Illustrations by Cei Willis.
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