Bits we Underlined In… How To Run a Pub, 1969

Cover of book with illustration by Tim Jaques.

This 130-page hardback was written by Tony White of Evening Standard Pub Guide fame and acts as an interesting companion piece to Peggy Mullis’s similar how-to guide.

The style is breezy and fairly witty — think Len Deighton — but is a product of its time: it is addressed entirely to men, women are a problem to be dealt with, and the language around race might shock some modern readers.

The book opens with the now customary attempt to put off wide-eyed idealists by shattering their ‘pipe-dream’. This also provides a helpful glimpse into the Ideal Pub as it was viewed 1969:

You are the genial landlord of a small timbered country inn where the warm August sun is miraculously reflected in the burnished horse-brasses and marmalade pans… There you are, your elbows propped on the scrubbed wood counter, swapping war stories with the quality in the Saloon and gentle bawdry with the locals in the Public, pausing now and again to draw a pint of amber-coloured bitter into a pewter tankard… At your side, your devoted lady wife… serenely dispenses, with a pair of white plastic tongs, plump, smoking, home-made pasties… Somewhere in the not-so-far-off distance can be heard the clonk of leather on willow.

White’s next question is a good one: given the difficulty of running a pub in reality, why does anyone bother? He finds several reasons the most interesting of which is the idea that being a publican is one of few careers you can start later in life — a thought which still finds an echo in the words of Micropub guru Martyn Hillier almost 50 years on.

And what makes a good publican? Here, White quotes Robert (Bobby) Neame of brewery Shepherd Neame: personality. No-one, Neame says, goes to The George because it’s a good pub, they go because ‘the guv’nor’s a bit of a character’. That is surely much less the case today where an excess of character is the stuff of which bad TripAdvisor reviews are made. ‘Many successful publicans are to some extent, performers’, says White, ‘so if you have a bit of an exhibitionistic streak… you can, instead of driving your wife up the wall, put it to good use’.

Things then take a turn for the deep: ‘publicans are frustrated romantics’ he argues:

In fact one or two hardened ones even admitted to me that they had always wanted to be writers or explorers. In some way a pub seems to satisfy or at least relieve such urges… [In] a pub there is always the unexpected.

He gives some consideration to matters of class: an Old Etonian cannot run a pub down by the docks, he argues, but a working class man can run a pub in Belgravia. (He must have been thinking of Dan Farson here.)

The roots of the present day battle between publicans and pub companies over the beer tie are explored: there are hardly any true freehouses, White says, mentioning Becky’s Dive Bar as a rare exception; and the more common tenancy arrangement is ‘subtle’ and full of pitfalls. As for the then novel idea of pub managers, he gives one interesting example we’d like to follow up:

Mr William Ooster of the Bridge House, Canning Town, London… [is] an ex-US airman, married to an English girl [who] began as a part-time barman and is now probably the only American manager of a pub — though there are several American tenants.

An entire chapter is given over to securing a tenancy which leads us to our first really juicy bit of gender politics:

It goes without saying that if you are married, your wife will be expected to accompany you to the interview [at the brewery]. Some publicans, the more cynical ones, reckons that ‘it’s the wife who gets the pub’. Inevitably a married man stands far more chance than a bachelor. For one thing he’s supposed to be steadier — though I dare say some publican’s wives would have something to say on this subject… She is normally expected to supervise the cleaning, decor, and most important, the catering, which in the age of the breathalyser is becoming more and more important.

And here’s the next bit: keep an eye on your wife. Working with your other half day-to-day, White says, will expose tensions in your marriage and customers will try to take advantage of this:

Your wife and (and yourself) will be exposed to constant temptation from [customers]. Some won’t hesitate to use their persuasions on her. This may begin in what seems the friendliest and most innocent ways such as offering her a lift to do the shopping or taking her out when you are obliged to remain on duty… Some pubs even acquire reputations as graveyards of marriages. One Chelsea pub… was so notorious that it was unkindly dubbed The Cuckold’s Arms… Naturally you can’t watch your wife like a sheepdog, but it would unwise to embark on a career as a publican unless you feel that your marriage is a pretty secure one.

And a third, in this bit of advice on how to handle opening day: ‘If you can, enlist a bit of glamour, even if the regulars will afterwards be served by the same old bag who has been there for years.’ The suggestion of this section more generally is that your first day crowd should be bolstered with a few friends and relatives, the service ought to be better then normal (extra staff), and sandwiches must be plentiful. It’s a bit of a con trick, as he acknowledges.

Now, here’s the bit that will most interest beer geeks: a chapter entitled Keeping a Good Pint. Unlike c.1969 publicans with ‘regulation Marks and Spencer sweaters and Terylene trousers’ the pre-WWI landlord, in pork-pie hat and cravat, ‘had to have a very sensitive palate’ as he shopped around for his beer. He was an expert in the use of finings in the cellar and in breaking down spirits with distilled water:

In fact on retired landlord of the old school dismissed his present day counterparts summarily and perhaps a little unkindly as ‘glorified petrol pump attendants’.

This book was published two years before the founding of CAMRA and that shows in White’s assertion that ‘the trend is towards pressurized beer… Problems of sediment will soon, for better or worse, be a thing of the past’.

We always enjoy finding evidence of beer geeks from before CAMRA existed and How to Run a Pub has a lovely depiction of the them-and-us dynamic:

Publicans aren’t expected to be great connoisseurs of beer, though obviously it is better if you know something… Some of your customers may fancy themselves as experts and it has been known for a few a few of the pub’s regulars to test out a new licensee by complaining about his beer… If you think it is a try-on, your best bet is to pass it off with a witty rejoinder, such as: ‘Must be these new Chinese hops they’re using,’ and change the subject.

(That last bit is oddly prescient.)

He goes on to suggest that serious and persistent complaints must be dealt with or customers will walk. But he also cites the example of a publican who found grumbles stopped when he merely made a pretence of changing the cask.

The watering of beer was still a live issue in the 1960s — only a few years before this book came out, says White, fourteen Manchester publicans were fined for doing so after a mysterious man (possibly a spy for a rival brewery) visited twenty pubs and analysed the beer before reporting to Customs and Excise. Another story to look into, there.

A useful run-down of the standard bar snacks of the time is given (‘crisps, peanuts, jars of cockles and mussels, pigs-trotters, etc.’) as a lead into a full chapter on pub meals. It starts with the now familiar claim that

Until quite recently, comparatively few pubs, especially locals, could offer you much in the way of food; in fact it was often a struggle to get a barman to fish you out a dusty bag of crisps from under the counter.

White goes on to describe a ‘revolution in pub food’ that had been underway for some time but was given a boost by the introduction of the breathalyser, AKA Barbara’s bag, to test for drink-driving, in 1967. The invention of pub grub as we know it today is described (Levy & Franks, Chef & Brewer, Ind Coope’s Hot Snack Houses, and so on). With food comes children (‘In spite of howls of protest from the purists’) and wine: ‘If you provide table service, you are more or less bound to offer a small but well-selected wine-list.’

Then there’s the question of earnings. Based on conversations with tenants White reckons some, with the biggest and best pubs, were taking home as much as ‘a top executive or average company director’ (£7,000-£10,000 per year), but only with a significant capital outlay and a lot of hard work. Meanwhile, a ‘small husband-and-wife team… after deducting for the wife’s services… clear only about £15 a week’.

Here’s statement that seemed surprising to us, from the chapter on legal matters: ‘Many pubs feature drag-shows, performances by female impersonators.’ Many pubs? Really? At any rate, these, along with the go-go dancers and strippers he also describes, seem to have disappeared almost entirely from the pub landscape 50 years on.

Interior spread of book with illustration: 'Undesirables'.
A spread from the book with illustration by Tim Jaques.

The section on dealing with trouble is a fun read with tales of fighting, spliffs, syringes and protection rackets. It takes a weird turn at the very end, though, when it gets to the question of racial discrimination:

Let us suppose for a moment you are the licensee of a local in an industrial town somewhere… In walk half-a-dozen West Indians and stand by the counter waiting to be served. The place goes dead quiet. The regulars are watching you like hawks to see which way you’re going to move. One of them even mutters: ‘You’re not going to serve them, are you, guvnor?’

What follows is a frank unpacking of the issues which seems appalling by modern standards. If you serve them, he says, you’ll upset your regulars upon whom your business depends and they might defect to a pub ‘where the licensee serves Europeans only’, in which case (brace yourself) ‘you could acquire the reputation of running a “spade pub”’. On the other hand, if you don’t serve them, you might be fined or lose your licence under the terms of the then still controversial 1965 Race Relations Act. He explains how some publicans deal with this dilemma by

pretending not to hear orders, suddenly getting very interested in the workings of a beer engine, or simply keeping coloured customers waiting until they get fed up and walk out. If they enter the Saloon Bar, there is another weapon: the charge them what is familiarly known in the trade as the ‘beatnik’s pint’, about double the normal price.

He stops just short of recommending these tactics but… weapon? Good grief. Another publican, White says, hired two or three ‘tame’ West Indians to sit in a corner and then barred all other black drinkers: ‘If anyone objected, he simply pointed to the Uncle Toms.’ Other troublesome groups, according to White, are Gypsies, ramblers (and, for balance, presumably) pro-Rhodesian neo-Nazis. Later in the book, similar consideration is given to the risk of your pub ‘becoming a sort of recognised meeting place for queers and lesbians’:

Of course it is true that in some pub they pack in the crowds by providing a kind of ‘spectator-sport’. On the other hand, even if they behave impeccably, some of your customers may… go elsewhere and cause you to lose a lot of trade, if word gets round that you are running a ‘bent’ house.

There’s more darkness in the chapter on managing bar staff:

Others reckon that the best barmen are those over whom you have some kind of hold, who owe you money or who have some reason to fear you. This policy was carried to extremes, the story goes, by a Manchester publican during the war, who used to employ deserters from the Canadian army. One squeak of complaint from any of them about the long hours of miserable wages and he got straight on to the phone to the Redcaps to come and pick him up. They may even be a publican today doing the same thing with truant au pair girls or American draft-dodgers.

That’s not everything, believe it or not — there are lots of other details we could pick out, but 2,000 words is quite enough. We got our copy for a couple of quid but they seem to be going for £40 now on Amazon, so keep your eyes peeled. And if you’re a researcher or writer and want us to look up anything in particular, drop us a line.

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