BOOKS: ‘We Ran a Cornish Pub’, 1967

Tim Wilkinson, c.1967. (Author portrait.)

Tim Wilkinson’s short memoir of a year in the life of a new publican is full of details that will interest pub and beer obsessives but there are good reasons why, unlike similar books, it’s never inspired a cosy Sunday night TV programme along the lines of Heartbeat or All Creatures Great and Small.

We Ran A Cornish Pub, cover design.Wilkinson, as far as we can work out from details in We Ran a Cornish Pub, served in the Army in India during World War II. He is best known for a similarly lightweight 1965 book, Hold on a Minute, which records his life working as a cargo carrier on the English canals after his demob. This book picks up the story in 1949 with both he and his wife recovering from injuries received on the waterways and looking for a new, less strenuous way to make a living.

The first quarter of the book covers their rather grim search for a suitable pub somewhere in the West Country and includes portraits of tweedy old brewery men, some rude, others kindly; of decrepit pubs and hotels in hopeless situations; and of veteran publicans, all thoroughly miserable:

Listen, sweetie, and you too, Jim, because what I’m going to tell you is the real gen, on the up and up, see… If you have your own pub all this ceases to be fun. It’s work now, just a damned long grind, day in, day out, seven days a week, well or ill. And those people, your flippin’ customers, if you have any, they owns you, dear boy, and they owns your boozer; leastwise they think so…. Crack the same jokes, all corn… But you got to be pleasant, smilin’. You’re Mine Host. Cor, they make me crap!

(Note, by the way, ‘Jim’ for Tim — everyone and everything is presented in just-barely-fictionalised form, presumably for legal reasons, as in James Herriot’s vet books. For example, a Cornish brewery called ‘St Gerrans’ bears a resemblance to St Austell, while its rival, ‘The Carne Brewery’, suggests Devenish of Redruth, in the shadow of Carn Brea.)

One of the most intriguing characters, worthy of a bleak 19th century novel, is Mr Finch, the outgoing landlord of the Cornish coastal pub the young couple eventually agree to take on in ‘Port Nairn’. He sits brooding in his filthy bar, hates his wife who hates him back, and does everything he can to sabotage the handover. When ‘Jim’ attempts to thank him and wish him well, Finch cracks and gives a speech that a professional hangdog actor like Timothy Spall could really chew on:

[You’re] welcome to it. See how you like it when you take ninepence during a winter’s day. When the bloody seas crash through the upstairs windows and pour down the staircase. When the whole bastard cellar is flooded… Those stupid oafs out there — think they’re customers? Scroungers, that’s all. Turned out for a free drink. Hard a customer among ’em! Good luck to you. You’re a damned fool.

Disgusted by Finch’s mean-spirited bitterness, our protagonist vows never to go the same way, and with hard work and determination, he and his wife do indeed make a modest success of the pub. Eventually, though, they succumb to brooding on the worst of the customers — those who vomit; steal or break ornaments, ashtrays and glasses; grind cigars and pie crusts into the rugs; bang coins on the counter for attention; call him ‘Laddie’; piss themselves; treat the lounge ‘like a brothel’; smuggle their own food but use the pub’s mustard; and — worst of all — use the car park without buying anything. This eventually leads to a kind of crisis for Jim and a counselling session with the local vicar in which he decides to be friendly with those he genuinely likes, while insisting it will be  ‘played tough’ with the others.

The book isn’t unrelentingly pessimistic about relations between publican and customer and one of the best passages describes a quiet night at the end of the summer season, with the power out and candles around the bar, while three old regulars share stories, tease each other, and drink plenty of beer. Their senior member, George Tregunna the stonemason sums up:

Quite like the ol’ days. Little ol’ oil lamps a burnin’, and civil company. All ‘ell let loose artside.

Students of beer history will probably most enjoy the details of the running of the brewery, the cellar and the bar. The story of the arrival of hand-pumps at the pub, replacing casks on stillage on the counter-top, is full of interesting details. In protest, Wilkinson writes, some switched to mild but…

soon became dissatisfied with that innocuous drink and were delighted by the tastiness of the bitter when they returned to it; nevertheless they continued to argue that beer drawn directly from a cask must be better than beer coming from a cask via pipes. When asked to give a reason to substantiate their statements the usual reply was: ‘Well, stands to reason, it must be now! Mustn’t it, you?

The rise of bitter and demise of mild, and the seed of the SPBW/CAMRA tendency, captured in one short paragraph.

There is also a wonderful account of Jim’s education in how to pour bottle-conditioned beer by a cantankerous customer, which was then the connoisseur’s choice:

Now, let me tell you, Red Bass and White Worthington are works of brewing art. As such they should command respect. Nurse them, treat them gently, always… In this next move you can ruin the drink or save it. Press slowly, slowly. Listen to the steady hiss of the escaping gas, listen, now… Steady now, not a shake in your wrist, mind. Raise and tilt the glass before a light of some sort… Neck of bottle to lip of glass but not touching. Pour slowly. Watch the head now; if it rears, pour slower, but never, never, stop pouring… Now looks in the neck of the bottle. Don’t take your eyes off it. Observe… STOP!

Ultimately, Wilkinson isn’t much of a writer: there are plenty of clichés and whole chapters, especially near the end, read like desperate padding to reach word count. Which perhaps explains the second problem, which is the absence of real drama. Wilkinson must have realised there wasn’t quite enough to sustain 195 pages when, in a chapter entitled ‘The Dogs — Decorating — The Garden’ he found himself writing, ‘Plastering was both exciting and interesting’.

If you have a particular interest in pubs and/or Cornwall, especially in the post-war period, then it might be worth picking up a copy for the current going rate of about a fiver.

12 thoughts on “BOOKS: ‘We Ran a Cornish Pub’, 1967”

  1. I have a copy of a book called “A Year in the Drink” by Martin Green, published in 1982, which describes his experiences of buying and running a pub in a small Welsh market town.

    It’s a more entertaining read than your one sounds, but he still can’t help being scathing about some of his customers. It also describes his dealings with CAMRA.

    I’m sure anyone who runs a pub rapidly comes to realise that many of their regular customers are to some extent rogues, whether lovable or not.

    If you haven’t already got it, I’d say it’s well worth searching out a copy.

  2. I came across this obituary of Martin Green, who was born in Stockport in 1932 and in fact only died earlier this year.

    He was also the co-author of a 1965 Guide to London Pubs. The obituary says that in his later years “his attitudes toward anything new in the world were those of a curmudgeonly dotard.” 😉

  3. Another book written in a similar vein, and dating from around the same time, is “A Year at the Peacock”, by T. A. “Tommy” Layton. The pub in question is the Peacock Inn, a few miles outside the village of Goudhurst; about 12 miles from where I live. The pub is still trading today, and is owned by Shepherd Neame.

    Mr Layton was a well-to-do gentleman who was not only a renowned wine connoisseur, but also someone who ran a top notch London restaurant. He bought the pub, more or less on a whim, back in the early 1960’s. Despite being a wine expert, he knew nothing about beer, or other pub drinks for that matter, so running the peacock was a steep learning curve for him.

    Whilst he comes across as quite condescending and rather snobbish at times, he obviously had high standards and was determined to stamp his authority, and personality on the pub. The book is a fascinating, and at times entertaining description of pub life, and pub characters, during the early 1960’s.

    Published 1964, by Cassell & Company of London, price 25/- (£1.25).

    1. Thanks for the intel, Paul. Another one for the shopping list.

      So, a list of what we’ve got so far:

      Inkeeper’s Diary, John Fothergill, 1934
      Confessions of an Innkeeper, JF, 1938
      My Three Inns, JF, 1949
      We Keep a Pub, Tom Berkley, 1955
      A Year at the Peacock, Tommy Layton, 1964
      We Ran a Cornish Pub, Tim Wilkinson, 1967
      A Year in the Drink, Martin Green, 1982
      The Inn at the Top, Neil Hanson, 2013

      But I bet there are quite a few others.

  4. My contribution is one you’ll probably already know about: The Landlord’s Tale by Barrie Pepper (CAMRA books – 2002) about running a Yorkshire pub in the 1950s. I began going to the pub in 1971, and my uncle was a licensee in Bootle and Liverpool from the 1950s, so some of this was vaguely familiar to me in an ‘end of an era’ kind of way. Very readable.

  5. It’s interesting how many of these authors only manage to spend a year running their pub. Martin Green opened his at the beginning of April, and by August was getting fed up of it and making plans to sell up.

    Of course, the problem is that in reality pubs are not generally havens of witty conversation.

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