BOOKS: Pot Luck in England, 1936

Detail from a Whitbread advertisement, 1937, showing beer with food.

This 1930s travel memoir is far from essential reading but contains plenty of details which will be of interest to students of pub and beer history, and to those with a more general interest in English society in the 20th century.

Douglas Goldring pictured c.1920.
Douglas Goldring pictured c.1920.

Douglas Goldring (1887-1960) was an independently wealthy left-wing journalist who produced poems, novels, travel writing and biographies over the course of a long career. Pot Luck in England, published when he was in his fifties, records a mid-life crisis ramble through central England, with an unusual emphasis on pubs and hotels.

The most interesting section from our point of view is the introduction which amounts to an essay on the horrors of English hospitality and the stupidity of our licensing laws. His purpose in writing the book was, initially, to boost the kind of simple country hotel-pub which had evolved from the coaching inn:

I sincerely hoped that loving, as I do, good simple English food, English comfort and English amiability, I should find much to praise and little to condemn. It is with genuine regret, therefore, that I find that the only was in which I hope I can be of service to the English hotel-keeper is by pointing out what seems to me… some of his shortcomings.

On licensing and pub improvements, his views were that the Continental cafe offered a model to aspire to, Temperance campaigners were hypocritical spoilsports, and…

The right to refrain from committing adultery, and to avoid being intoxicated by the exercise of self-control and the practice of the virtue of temperance, is an elementary human right and the basis of civilization. When this right is infringed by the passing of ‘Blue’ laws, beloved by Puritains, the character of a race inevitably deteriorates.

Having decided that pretentious inns aspiring to be hotels are a dead loss, he concludes that pubs (those with ‘two or three rooms at the disposal of guests’) are in many ways preferable:

It is only by putting up with the minor discomforts of unpretentious proletarian accommodation that either the intelligent foreigner or the intelligent member of the ‘English travelling public’ can hope to get an idea of the racy flavour of simple English good living… I am inclined to say that in England the poorer you are and the less you pay, the better you are fed and the more genially you are welcomed. But the village pub is now, as it has always been, the most exacting school of manners.

Thereafter, the book consists of accounts of each leg of his journey, e.g. Chapter 1: London to Maldon, with little real structure and no strong narrative. There are numerous accounts of bus rides in the rain, and disappointed first impressions of dreary towns where everything is closed. Almost every chapter includes a regretful comment on having missed a really interesting pub because he went to the first one he saw to get out of the rain, and passing mentions of others seen from a bus window but otherwise unexplored, which can be frustrating to read. He eats, but does not at all enjoy, many meals of tough, dry cold meat and soggy salad.

The Briton's Arms, Norwich, by J. Dixon-Scott.
The only ‘plate’ in the book to feature a pub.

Though he has more of an eye for pubs and inns than many such writers, they are not the primary focus of the book: churches, castles and other interesting architectural and historical features are also described, though without great scholarly rigour, apparently drawing on half-remembered school lessons and guesswork.

Far more interesting are the accounts of bar-room discussions about politics and the coming war. By his own admission, Goldring was sort-of-a-Communist, ‘to a degree’, but his accounts of the views of the disturbing number of British fascists he meets (‘Mussolini knows what he is about’) seem unbiased — they are, above all, fellow Englishmen, and not inherently ridiculous. In on excellent, somewhat Wodehousian sequence, he gets into a row with a fascist in a pub in Shrewsbury and thus avoids the bar of the Lion Hotel on the following evening, visiting, instead, the Raven:

Alas, the first person I saw there was my béte noire. He had evidently migrated in order to escape me. We looked at one another, at first, with unconcealed nausea. But hang it, a chap can’t drink by himself! And there was no-one else available. Either we had to make the best of each other or consumer our night-caps in silence. After cautious opening gambits we settled down fairly comfortably to a discussion of dance music, actresses and the BBC.

Elsewhere, he expresses a view that continues to resonate in the age of Jeremy Corbyn and UKIP: if politicians spent more time in pubs outside London, listening to intelligent, far-ranging political debates, they might be more successful in understanding the concerns of the ‘common man’ and forming policies with popular appeal.

Little specific attention is given to beer but it seems as if every third paragraph includes a ‘tankard of ale’ or ‘a pint of beer’, interspersed with numerous whiskies. Though he notes the presence of an impressive Brewery (capital B) in Southwold, Suffolk, he had apparently forgotten its name by the time he came to write up his notes. Sometimes, the beer is ‘tepid’ and, in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex, it was particularly poor:

[The] sky was leaden, and after consuming some of the nastiest ‘Empire’ cheese, some of the soggiest white bread and some of the muddiest swipes I have ever been offered in a pub… I felt in no mood to be rained on.

Another passage of note is an account of the punishingly expensive, would-be trendy, and utterly joyless, deserted ‘American Bar’ in a Derby hotel. In fact, he hated Derby so much that its ‘foretaste of the horrors of the industrial north’ caused him to change course and head West. Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Somerset are all covered in detail, but there is no attempt to be comprehensive.

There are better books about old English inns, and better books from the period about beer and pub culture, but this still feels like a bit of a find. We expect to refer to and quote from it fairly frequently, although the £10 we paid for a tatty old copy withdrawn from a university library is probably a bit more than it’s worth.

5 thoughts on “BOOKS: Pot Luck in England, 1936”

  1. “There are numerous accounts of bus rides in the rain, and disappointed first impressions of dreary towns where everything is closed.”

    This sounds like many of my expeditions today hoping to find something to blog about…

  2. That photo of the Britons Arms, Norwich, also appears
    (uncredited) in The Old Inns of England (Batsford, June 1934)

  3. Swipes! Low-strength & probably low-quality beer, best suited to be drunk with food instead of water. Great word, used by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890s. I wonder if it was still current in Goldring’s time, or if that was an early example of the two-flagons-of-ale-stout-yeoman style of beery archaism.

  4. They sell good beer at Haslemere
    And under Guildford Hill.
    At Little Cowfold as I’ve been told
    A beggar may drink his fill:
    There is a good brew in Amberley too,
    And by the bridge also;
    But the swipes they take in at the Washington Inn
    Is the very best Beer I know.

    From West Sussex Drinking Song, by Hilaire Belloc.

    My money would be on conscious archaism in 1936.

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