Hitchhiker’s Guides to the Beerosphere

Inn guides, whether sponsored or not, have long been a feature of the British way of life — part of the fabric you might almost say. But they have tended to concentrate more on the places which find themselves on calendars and Christmas cards and not at all on the pubs which are the warp and woof of the brewers’ investment.

Derek Cooper, The Beverage Report, 1970.

The very first edition of CAMRA’s newsletter, What’s Brewing, from June 1972, contained an important statement of intent: work had begun on a guide to pubs which would focus solely on ‘the merit of their ale’ without regard to ‘Historic value, trendiness, outside surroundings or other such criteria’. It was to be called ‘the List’ and, as we would say these days, was to be ‘crowd-sourced’ — that is, collated from the recommendations of members all over the country.

In addition to their focus on food, music, go-go dancers and architecture, rather than beer, previous pub guides also had other flaws.

  • Geographical coverage. Egon Ronay’s pub guides, from 1963 (as far as we can tell), tended to focus on London; as, of course, did Green and White’s guides to London Pubs from 1965. Even when Ronay went national, London got far more than its fair share.
  • Method. Derek Cooper mocks the ‘specially trained team’ who surveyed c.1,000 pubs on Ronay’s behalf: what made them qualified to judge? This review of the 1983 edition questions how they chose which pubs to consider and whether they had enough data to work from, having visited too few.

CAMRA’s List emerged as the Good Beer Guide — a stapled, 18 page leaflet — and, eventually, in 1974, became a 96-page printed and bound book, with the help of the printing arm of board-game manufacturer Waddington’s. (Beric Watson, the firm’s Managing Director, was a ‘traditional draught’ drinker himself and had, in fact, published the unfortunately titled Hand-Pulled Beer and Buxom Barmaids, a guide to pubs in Leeds, c.1971.)

The first  run of 30,000 copies of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG) sold out within six months of its publication in April 1974, despite (or because of, Brewdog-style…?) some headline-grabbing controversy over its suggestion that Watney’s should be avoided ‘like the plague’, censored by the printers at the last minute, and amended to read ‘at all costs’.

It seems, pretty instantly, to have become an institution — the perfect Christmas present for a beer-loving relative, a nice fit for the glove box of the car. By the time the second edition went to print, however, the realisation had dawned that pubs could come out of the Guide as well as go in, and some landlords sulked, just as they do today.

The 1976 edition of Ronay, while it still makes plenty of mention of food, looks to us like a blatant attempt to imitate the look and tone of the GBG. The simply-titled Pub Guide includes an entire page on ‘Real ale versus keg’, somehow managing to explain the whole ‘controversy’ and the success of ‘persistent comsumer pressure’ in preserving cask ale, without mentioning CAMRA. The term ‘real ale’ is scattered throughout, marked against those pubs offering it, though without quite going as far as to use it as a benchmark for quality.

These days, Des de Moor’s CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars and Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London iOS app represent something of a return to Ronay’s approach — geographically specific, and ‘curated’, with no real pretence of democracy — but retain the GBG’s relentless focus on beer above all else. Meanwhile, ‘user-generated’ pub review websites offer the opposite: access to the unedited reactions of thousands of pub-goers, each offering a rating based on their mood, the state of the toilets, whether their dog got a bowl of water, and, just occasionally, the quality of the beer, averaged out to a more-or-less meaningful number.

Forty editions later, the GBG, slap-bang in the middle between those two approaches, keeps coming out, and keeps selling.

Drinking on London Underground

Sloane Square tube station by Oxyman.
Sloane Square. We think that snack shop in the middle is where The Hole in the Wall ‘pub’ used to be.

Despite Boak being a Londoner, despite having lived and worked there for years, and despite our compulsive acquisition of books about the capital, we’d somehow never come across this nugget before:

Not everyone realises there are some excellent drinking places on the London Tube known as buffet bars, which have all the advantages of a small well-run pub. Most of them are kept single-handed by capable and friendly middle-aged manageresses, who may have been there anything up to some twenty or more years… These buffet bars are ideal spots to sit back and enjoy a quiet drink in pleasant company and surroundings, and let the commuter hoard rush by.

That’s from The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs (1973 edn.) by Martin Green and Tony White, which has a special appendix listing all of London Underground’s licensed establishments.

Most seem to have been near the ticket barriers, where these days you would find newsagents, sandwich shops and sushi bars, but a handful were actually on platforms, like the ‘Hole in the Wall’ on the westbound platform at Sloane Square: ‘If you’re not in transit, it can be reached by the purchase of a 2p platform ticket, unless you can some to some arrangement with the ticket-collector.’

According to a 1949 article in The Times, ‘the Hole’ was an original feature installed when the station was built in 1868, and seems to have closed in 1985. How did these die out? Was there a concerted effort by Transport for London to do so? Or did they go with Truman’s who seem to have owned most of them?

Image by Oxyman, licensed under Creative Commons.

UPDATE: There’s now a quite comprehensive piece on these pubs by Ian Mansfield at Ian Visits.

Drinking About Architecture

Detail from the cover of Nairn's London.

We’d never heard of Ian Nairn until a couple of weeks ago, but he’s unavoidable if you spend any time at all reading newspapers from the 1950s and 60s. He made his name with Outrage (1955), a treatise on the architectural (and therefore cultural) homogenisation of British culture, lavishly illustrated with photographs from towns around the country which demonstrate the increasing difficulty of telling the suburbs of Southampton from those of Carlisle. Thereafter, he wrote hundreds of weekly columns and books, and hosted several TV shows up until the 1970s.

He worked with, and was a disciple of, Nikolaus Pevsner, but his own books were much more accessible. Perhaps disproving the point we made here, his architectural guide to the capital, Nairn’s London (1966), includes almost thirty pubs and, in many cases, mentions the quality of the beer. (Nairn liked a drink. No, actually, Nairn liked lots of drinks.)

He writes about pubs with flourish and wit.

  • The Barley Mow, Marylebone: has ‘cubicles… for romantic indiscretion or flogging atomic secrets’.
  • The Beehive, a Fuller’s pub in Brentford: ‘a song’, but causes him to lament that ‘there don’t seem to be the same number of real people around any more, especially among the designers of pubs’.
  • The Black Friar, Blackfriars: ‘tainted with a particularly musty imagination which has clouded the space like a bad pint of bitter’.
  • The Black Lion, Plaistow: ‘has gone back to the fountain-head of human pubbiness’.
  • Crown and Greyhound, Dulwich: ‘an act of love, it bursts out all over — and has the same reverberating effect as a an untouched nineteenth-century pub, because it is set off by a similar gusto’.
  • The Grenadier, Wilton Row: ‘untouched by half timber, leaded light, chromium plate, or Festival of Britain lettering… the old servants’ pub that has short-circuited to become a local for rich mews-dwellers’.
  • The Swan and Mitre, Bromley: ‘teeters all the time on the brink of preciousness, but never quite falls in… the tension is invigorating… The notice requesting you not to take draught beer into the lounge… is in fact topographically just: this really is the place where you drink with your little finger crooked’.

Our 1967 paperback, on the brink of disintegration, wasn’t cheap: if you see a copy, snap it up.

European Beer, 1634

Oscar A. Mendelsohn’s Drinking With Pepys (1963) is a compendium of everything Pepys wrote about alcoholic drinks, including beer and ale. As a bonus feature, Mendelsohn also includes a long letter by a contemporary of Pepys, James Howell, to Lord Cliff. Here are our favourite bits.

In this Island the old drink was Ale, noble Ale, than which, as I heard a great Forreign Doctor affirm, that there is no Liquor that more encreaseth the radical Moysture, and preserves the natural Heat, which are the two Pillars that support the Life of Man, but since Beer hath hop’d in amongst us, Ale is thought to be much adulterated, and nothing so good as Sir John Old-Castle, and Smugg the Smith was us’d to drink…

In the Seventeen Provinces hard by, and all by low Germany, Beer is the common natural Drink, and nothing else, so it is in Westfalia, and all the lower Circuit of Saxony, in Denmark, Swethland and Norway; The Prusse has a Beer as yellow as Gold made of wheat, and it inebriates as soon as Sack. In some parts of Germany they use to spice their Beer, which will keep many years; so that at some Weddings there will be a But of Beer drunk out, as old as the Bride.

His source is a 1624 edition of The Familar Letters of James Howells, e-texts of which are available online, though we’re struggling to find this particular letter.

Drunken Uncles

Detail from the cover of The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart.

Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957) was once a very fashionable book but, like Room at the Top, is little read these days. It is a review of working class culture in Britain which sits neatly alongside the ‘angry young man’ fiction of the time. Its thesis is that working class life, with its many complexities and regional variations, is being eroded by industrialised ‘mass culture’, especially that imported from the United States.

Of course, no study of British life would be complete without a look at drinking.

On the one hand, drinking is accepted as part of the normal life, or at least of the normal man’s life, like smoking. ‘A man needs ‘is pint’; it helps to make life worth while; if one can’t have a bit of pleasure like that, then what is there to live for? It is ‘natural’ for a man to like his beer. Women seem to be drinking more easily now then they did a generation ago; even as late as my adolescence [in the 1930s] the ‘gin-and-It’ woman was regarded as a near-tart.

He goes on to explain that men in different situations are ‘allowed’ to drink more or less depending on their particular circumstances. Widowers can drink as much as they like as they have nothing to go home to; men without children can’t be said to be ‘taking the bread from their children’s mouths’ if they spend a lot on beer; but a man with wife and children should always ‘provide’ first.

On the whole, the emphasis is a double one: on the rightness of drinking in itself, and on the realization that, if it once ‘gets hold’, complete collapse — a near-literal home-breaking as the furniture is sold — may well follow.

Is it any wonder, Hoggart observes, that the Temperance Movement had such success from the 19th century until the 1930s? ‘I had a drunken uncle, the last of a line which stretched well back to the seventies,’ he recalls. Publicans must miss those drunken uncles.

We’re reading Hoggart, along with Ian Nairn, as we get to grips with the post-war fear of cultural homegenisation which we think was important in the emergence of CAMRA and ‘real ale’ culture.