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.
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.