When we’re writing anything substantial we often find it useful to put together a soundtrack. Here’s the one we made for our new book, 20th Century Pub, which is due back from the printers anytime…. now.
It’s a funny old bunch of songs, some chosen because we like them, others because they evoke a mood or period. We could easily have included 50 songs from the 1920s to the 1940s that we listened to endlessly while working on the earlier portions of the book.
The ‘beer community’ is frequently celebrated as a special thing and one of the reasons this is a rewarding hobby to have, and a nice industry to work in. And that, broadly speaking, is right and true. But since switching back to bartending I’ve been struck more and more by the distinct — although obviously overlapping — nature of bar culture and the nice ways that a good one can have a community all of its own. The title here comes from an excellent Jim White song that gets stuck in my head whenever I’m pondering this and marvelling at the myriad ways that people use the bar to share little moments of celebration or of solidarity or anything in between, including weirdly heartwarming mundanity — and: beer.
(As always with Phil’s posts, the substantial footnotes are half the fun — almost material for a blog post each — so don’t skip them.)
In 1996, I was like a boy queuing for the fun house peeking through the canvas to glimpse the attractions within… I’d gone through the yellow pages to ring the Harrow in advance to confirm the opening times. It feels so weird writing this now. Two decades ago pubs didn’t have websites and even if they did, I had no mechanism to view them.
For Craft Beer & Brewing magazine Tom Wilmes has spoken to several US craft brewers about the difficulties that come with sudden adulation and consumer demand. Yes, yes, we know — tiny violins and all that — but this is a topic that interests us with, e.g., Kelham Island or Cloudwater in mind. This bit struck us as especially interesting:
All of Side Project’s beers are extremely limited releases that King himself has brewed, barrel-aged, and blended. Even if he brews larger batches and fills more barrels—which he has—many barrels just don’t perform and are discarded. Most are mixed-fermentation projects that take many months to reach fruition. He could scale up and hire more people to brew and package the beer, but all of Side Project’s beers are a product of King’s singular blending, palate, and perspective. What does he stand to lose if that changes?
The book is a pleasure to read, and the author travels to key places, historic and contemporary, in his quest for knowledge, and consults with a wide range of experts. The fact I’d finished the book on the kindle before the hard copy arrived is testament to how much I enjoyed reading it. If you haven’t yet got yourself a copy I can certainly recommend you do… And now I’ve got the praise out of the way I can start on the anal retentive OCB Wiki style commentary on where I think he went wrong, or more information is needed.
One Stoke Newington pub that has stubbornly refused to [change] is The Yucatan. When I first moved to the area it was my local in the literal sense, and it was with joy when I first walked through the doors to see Celtic memorabilia adorning every available space, including a window sticker of a young Celtic-supporting boy urinating on the jersey of our erstwhile rivals. It transpired that the pub’s manager was a Dubliner and, like me, a Celtic fan. I henceforth became a regular, with 12 pm kick-off times ensuring an extended stay. It was, and is, regarded as dodgy by some, but while it always had an ‘edge’ I always found it welcoming. It also remains the pub with the most ethnically diverse patronage I’ve ever drank in, a phenomenon more common to London’s working class pubs than its more salubrious venues.
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Glen Humphries’ ‘Five things about…’ is a great format for beer reviews. Here he tastes Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA and uses it as an opportunity to reflect on bottled-on and best-before dates.
And, finally, here’s a Tweet with which we strongly agree: these glasses are crap and an absolute danger sign as far as we’re concerned — we only ever seem to encounter them in pubs that think they all that when they ain’t.
A plea to pubs and bars everywhere – please cease and desist from using these glasses for beer, they are horrid! pic.twitter.com/CEg6A0XDJj
Throughout history certain districts have favoured their own types of beer. There are definite differences between those beers brewed in the North, in the Midlands, and the South. Recently the strong preferences of certain districts have begun to weaken, not because of a change in the customer’s palate but rather because brewery amalgamations are bringing about the closure of many local breweries, which has meant the discontinuation of many local beers… In the case of bottled beers the situation was usually accepted without undue trouble, but often customer reaction to the introduction of new draught beers was strong. So strong has it been in several instances that the substituted beers have had to be changed to a type more in line with local requirements…
Unfortunately, he doesn’t break this down much further except to observe that sweeter beers were particularly popular in places like London, Birmingham and Coventry with high concentrations of manual workers, especially during and after World War II when sugar was rationed. He observes that:
All the successful beers launched on a national scale in the ten years following the last war, whether pale in colour or dark, were sweeter rather than drier. Now, some twenty years later, the situation is changing again, and full-drinking bitter beers, both in bottle and in cask, are returning to prominence. It is interesting that some premises in the Midlands are now selling increasing quantities of draught bitter beers where only mild ales have been sold for a quarter of a century.
Dry, bitter beers, he suggests, are simply better suited to our climate than ‘soft sweet beer’ — an argument we don’t quite follow, if we’re honest.
But, anyway, that’s stage one of homogenisation, driven by national consolidation and distribution, and countrywide marketing: everyone drinking the same style whether town or country, north or south, toff or scruff.
Then in the last paragraphs of the book he forecasts (or, rather, fails to forecast) stage two: in the midst of a great push that saw lager’s share of the UK market creep up from less than 2 per cent to 7 per cent by the end of the decade he suggests a certain scepticism about its suitability for the English weather. He was wrong, and lager now makes up something like 70 per cent of the market in the UK, and the vast majority of the global market.
On a related note, Alec Latham has an interesting post on lager in the UK at Mostly About Beer in which he observes that ‘Lambic has leap-frogged Lager’. (It’ll make sense when you read it.) If not exactly a return to local tastes as described by Monckton the failure of new breweries to engage with the market for lager does at least suggest — in some small way, in odd ways — some sort of shift.
And, while we’re pointing outwards, here’s a thought on a declaration by Carlsberg’s chief executive Julian Momen that the Danish giant is considering acquiring a UK craft brewery. Rather than join the (admittedly fun) game of guessing at specific breweries that might be in the frame we’ll just observer that previous UK acquisitions by global players have tended to be conservative. Camden, Meantime and Sharp’s all had strong brands popular in mainstream outlets; flagship beers at accessible strength (under 5% ABV); in classic styles (lager, bitter, pale ale); and straightforward, easy-drinking takes on those styles at that. (We’re being polite to Doom Bar, there.) In other words, breweries that already act ‘global’ seem more likely candidates than those that go out of their way to express any particular local or otherwise distinct character.
Knuckle Sandwich: Growing Up in the Working-class City is a study of the lives of Ordinary People and so of course features a pub or two.
It was written by David Robins and Philip Cohen and published by Penguin in 1978. The fantastic period cover design is by Red Saunders. The back blurb includes a quotation from ‘What’s My Name’ by The Clash and there’s plenty inside to interest students of youth culture, London life, and the polarised politics of the 1970s. As usual in this kind of book all the names are changed, including those of the estate itself, and the pubs. It’s possible some dates and other details were also adjusted to make it harder to pin down.
The overarching narrative concerns a particular pub which the authors call The Black Horse:
Monmouth estate is a ‘new’ GLC estate: it was first occupied in 1960 and is still (1977) incomplete… In the middle of the estate, as if stranded by the tide of ‘progress’, stood the old public-house, the Black Horse. A solid-looking building, with a large ground floor for business, a huge cellar, and two upper floors which had served as living quarters. The pub was scheduled for demolition, like so much else in the neighbourhood, and there were vague GLC promises of a community centre being built there in a few years’ time.
What happened next was that local youths, with the guidance of radical youth workers, decided to take over The Black Horse and make it an unofficial community centre instead. With the backing of a local tenants’ association, the Open Space Committee, squatters moved in upstairs ‘quietly and efficiently’, acting as caretakers. Before this it was used to stash stolen goods and as a hideout for teenage gangs, so people generally found this an improvement.
The estate’s other pub, called here The Cross Keys, was across the road from The Black Horse. Here’s how Robins and Cohen describe it:
The Cross Keys was the recognized headquarters of the local villains, the fraternity of scrap men, fences, shotgun merchants — another reason why the [Open Space] Committee would not go into it. (It offended their code of moral respectability — not one that was forged out of any deference to middle-class decency, however; it was more that they had a position to keep up.) He fact that the Cross Keys was often the quietest pub in the neighbourhood, and the brewers had withdrawn their franchise on the place, made some tenants suspect that the landlord must be involved in some close working relationship with his customers. Ironically, the local villains had an interest in the Black Horse… It was well-known they were after the lead and timbers contained in the old building. This was one of the main reasons why the committee had backed the squat, to prevent the roof mysteriously disappearing one night.
Near The Cross Keys was a dosshouse for old men and Irish labourers, the so-called ‘Gallagher lads’ who frequented the public bar of the Cross Keys:
By all accounts, Gallagher ran a tight racket and exploited his clients for whatever he could get out of them. He had made a considerable fortune in this rough trade. The area surrounding the Black Horse was considered dangerous largely because of his these lads’ presence. Before it closed the Black Horse had been their main drinking place. Unlike the Cross Keys it had been rough inside. A few weeks before closure, the public bar had been the scene of a stand-up fight between the Irish lads and some black workers living in the vicinity. The reputation of the Black Horse as a dangerous and undesirable place to go remained with it to some degree after it closed for business and opened for the community.
Over the course of the book we learn that the downstairs of The Black Horse was converted into a disco but then, with rumours of sex and drug use among the teenagers, tensions arose and the estate elders withdrew their support. The pub was then systematically wrecked and then burned down in what the authors describe as a ‘professional job’:
Three men had been seen entering the place — with a key — shortly before the wrecking was discovered. They, if it was they, had worked quietly, professionally, unemotionally. Who were they? One is tempted to say simply the self-appointed executioners of the sentence of this community on the ‘notorious’ old pub…
This all seems very interesting in the context of the 2010s and the rise of social-enterprise community pubs. These days such an attempt at revitalisation would never involve squatters and teenagers and the pub would probably remain a pub even if it did gain peripheral functions as well.
One question to which we can’t easily find an answer is where The Black Horse really was, or what it was really called. Based on the map in the book we reckon the Monmouth Estate is actually the Bemerton Estate, off the Caledonian Road. Assuming the pubs are placed somewhat accurately that means The Black Horse was probably really The Pembroke Castle which people seem to recall as being demolished c.1972-3 — perhaps actually when it was boarded up? Or maybe Robins and Cohen obfuscated the dates a bit, too. And the Cross Keys must surely have been — this is a weird name — The Cobbled Fighter.
Or maybe not. If you know for sure one way or another — perhaps you grew up round there, or have access to local newspapers from the period — do drop us a line or comment below.
UPDATE 11:30 24/04/2017: Ewan of Pubology fame has looked at some maps and reckons The Cross Keys must have been The Independent on its original site. The Cobbled Fighter is a bit of a mystery, picked up via Pubs Galore, but might have been a short-lived name for the same premises.
UPDATE 15:20 24/04/2017: Cobbled Fighter link changed from defunct pubology.co.uk page to pubsgalore.co.uk
On Sunday we ran through the beer-focused parts of James H. Coombs 1965 instructional manual Bar Service; today, we’re looking at the bits concerning people.
That means we’re skipping the sections on cider, spirits, wine, cigarettes and snacks — they’re pretty dry, to be honest, but if there’s anything particular you’re curious about ask below and we’ll dig around.
Mr Coombs’s first assertion in ‘Part IV: General Bar Practice’ is that ‘the Licensed Trade is a domestic business and is not like any other trade’. What he means by this is, first, that in his opinion unionisation won’t wash, just as it wouldn’t in the family home; and, secondly, that a lot of the work is just like looking after your own house — wind the clock, unblock the sink, don’t let the fire go out, and so on.
After a long section on cleaning — which goops and types of cloth to use on which surfaces — there comes a bit of timeless advice:
Never keep a customer waiting — it is most annoying. It will not escape you that a man quite resigned to wait ten minutes in the Post-office for a stamp will shout the place down if he is kept waiting more than five seconds for a drink. In fact many seem to think there should be one bartender to each customer! … However, should you be engaged in some job more important than taking his money (if there is anything more important!) always acknowledge him and say you won’t keep him a moment.
Fifty-odd years on, this is still just about all we ask for from bar staff.
The Public Bar
Perhaps our favourite bit in the book is this frank account of the dynamic between new staff members and the customers in the least pretentious room in the pub:
Some staff enjoy serving in the Public Bar better than the Saloon or Lounge. They appreciate the ‘earthy’ touch of the ‘honest-to-goodness’ working man, the quick and snappy conversation, the everlasting ‘mickey taking’… Should it be part of your duty to serve in the Public Bar you may have to suffer a certain amount of ribald comment from the regulars… ‘’Ow long you gonna stay? ’Ad eight noo barmen ’ere in six weeks!’ … Probably untrue anyway. The ‘Public’ as they are called are very fond of ‘having a go’ at anyone new but you should just laught it off and not get bad-tempered. When they fail to get a rise out of you they’ll go back to their dominoes.
In other words, don’t feed the trolls. Apparently speaking from bitter experience Coombs goes on to say that they’ll continue to watch the newbie waiting for a moment of vulnerability:
Wrong change rates three roars all round the bar… pulling up Mild instead of Bitter rates two roars… Short measure is good for five minutes hollering and hooting.
Londoners in particular, he observes, liked to lay the slang on thick as a kind of power move: ‘Pint o’ Diesel, an apple fritter and a Tom Thumb.’ This leads to a nice little list of colloquialisms:
Ale — Mild, Ale, Double, XX, Diesel, Splosh, Hogwash
Bitter — apple fritter
Scotch whisky — pimple [and blotch], Hooch
Gin — needle [and pin], Vera [Lynn], Mother’s Ruin
Rum — Tom Thumb, Nelson’s Blood, Black Jack
Brandy — Coconut Candy
This chapter, entitled ‘The Crooks — and Some Tricks to Catch You’, runs over familiar ground but with a few new bits of business. It begins with a general warning (slightly edited by us for weird punctuation):
If two strangers are found in the bar at the same time and have taken up separate positions, be very much on your guard, more especially if one of them engages you in close conversation — the other one may be up to a little ‘mullarky’. Anything portable is fair game to public-house crooks, the Blind collecting box, the lighter fuel box, the Christmas stocking, the Spastics Beacon, even chairs and tables — anything they can lay their thieving hands on.
Among the specific tricks described, after the short change con and a version of the serial number wheezed described in Lilliput, there’s a move with a touch of the Derren Brown about it:
A man standing at the bar waiting for service has a five-pound note spread out on the counter in front of him. He passes some remark about it to the man standing next to him — a complete stranger, probably… The stranger agrees and the man has made certain he has drawn ample attention to the five-pound note… As he is being served, however, he switches the fiver for a folded one-pound note. A little later he will insist to the barman he received change of £1. He calls on the stranger as a witness and he, of course, affirms that he saw a five-pound note handed over — which, of course, he didn’t! Heigh, ho! Another four quid up in the air!
Next, there’s a con in which the perp claims to have bumped into the landlord in the street who has authorised the cashing of a cheque. Not all that subtle this one, although the convincer is that he doesn’t need the full amount — just £15 for now and he’ll collect the rest that evening when he sees his old pal, the guv’nor.
There are stock cons, too, where a customer buys a bottle of whisky to take away, returning moments later to say, sorry, my husband wants a different brand, but the returned bottle is actually a dummy filled with water. Or, alternatively, a customer claims to have won a case of whisky in a raffle and sells it to the licensee at a pound a bottle, only that’s all water too. In this case, the licensee, having broken the law, can’t go to the police. (You can’t con an honest man and all that.)
Finally, there’s something that sounds quite implausible, outside of an Ealing comedy:
Watch for the gentleman, perhaps not too well dressed, who walks about with an umbrella or walking-stick. Sometimes these have a handy spike on the end and can be used for spearing cigarettes off a shelf behind the bar… Sometimes paper money is kept in a glass beside the till on an adjacent shelf. Make sure it is not in a mug with a handle because the same umbrella or walking stick can be used to hook it up.
A Final Round of Golden Rules
This part of the book, which comes after a lot of dated and dusty matter about wages and licencing law, is a kind of miscellany of stuff that didn’t fit elsewhere, and is great fun:
Before you go behind the bar make certain you enquire about the dog (if any) and where it is kept… If someone from the kitchen is kind enough to give you a cup of tea in the bar have the decency to wash up the cup and saucer… Buy an alarm clock… Turn out the dartboard light when play is finished… Keep a sharp eye on tramps, dirty-looking people, hawkers, or anyone with an obvious disease… It is illegal to take snuff behind the bar… Avoid those customers you know will want to engage you in conversation for the rest of the session… Pick up any loose crown corks on the floor — don’t kick ’em about!
(Some small edits for ease of quoting in that chunk of text, by the way.)
This book, unlike some others, gives relatively little time to matters of gender relations but does have this of-its-time advice:
It is one of the time-honoured features of the English public-house for the ‘regulars’ to have a bit of fun with the bar staff — especially with pretty barmaids. You will be expected to take this in good part — and even to join in. The purchase of a Brown Ale, however, does not entitle anyone to take liberties and you should see that the conversation never degenerates below the level of propriety.
If someone is constantly harassing you, Coombs says, don’t fall out with them but do tell the boss.
There’s lots on etiquette including some reminders that the pub was not quite a respectable place: don’t address customers in any way that might tip strangers off that they are regulars, for example, and avoid saying things like, ‘You back again?’ when a customer who was in at lunchtime returns in the evening with company.
Then, much as with Mrs Mullis, Mr Coombs seems to get more unhinged the closer he gets to the end of the book, finally letting his annoying customers have both barrels a few pages from the end:
The drinking public from every sphere, you will soon discover, are the most obstinate, ill-informed and perverse section of the community it is possible to find. Even if they have a question they will often refuse to accept the answer — right though it may be. Afford them an indulgent smile and let them wallow in their ignorance…
Our copy of this book cost £9.30 delivered — it’s rarer than some similar volumes, and less entertaining — but we can certainly see ourselves referring to it from time to time which makes it a worthwhile addition to the Arthur Millard Memorial Library. (That is, our back room).