John Braine’s 1957 ‘angry young man’ novel Room at the Top isn’t as fashionable now as once it was. We took our copy down from the shelf looking for examples of the word ‘ale’ being used in preference to ‘beer’ up north and realised just how much the book relies on pubs and drinking to make (rather heavy-handed) points about social mobility and class.
For example, when the ruthlessly social climbing working class orphan, Joe Lampton, returns to his generically northern home town of Dufton for Christmas, he goes to the pub with Charles, a childhood friend.
The Siege Gun was our local; it stood on top of a little hill overlooking a wilderness of allotments and hen-runs. It was about half an hour’s walk from Oak Crescent; for some reason it was the only respectable pub in Dufton. The others weren’t exactly low, but even in their Best Rooms you were likely to see the overalled and sweaty. The landlord at the Siege Gun, a sour old ex-regular, discouraged anyone entering the Best Room without a collar and tie.
But he’s been spoiled by his time in upmarket Warley: “It was too small, too dingy, too working-class; four months in Warley had given me a fixed taste for either the roadhouse or the authentic country pub.”
Even Charles, who is planning to move to London, is fed-up of the Siege Gun:
Do you know, when I come into this pub, I don’t even have to order? They automatically issue a pint of wallop. And if I come in with someone else I point at them and nod twice if it’s bitter… Lovely, lovely ale… the mainstay of the industrial North, the bulwark of the British Constitution. If the Dufton pubs closed for just one day, there wouldn’t be a virgin or an unbroken window left by ten o’clock.
Graham Lees, one of the four founder members of CAMRA, apparently urged the use of the ‘ale’ in the name because it was a good, solid northern word, unlike the effete, southern ‘beer’.