Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 2: Richard Boston and Country Pubs

Ian Nairn leans on a wall.
Adapt­ed from ‘Nairn Across Britain’, 1972, via BBC Iplay­er.

There probably isn’t enough of Ian Nairn on beer to warrant the publication of Nairn on Beer, but it’s not far off – his interest did border on obsessive.

These are high­lights from a cou­ple of pieces he wrote for the Sun­day Times in the 1970s in addi­tion to his most famous essay on the sub­ject, ‘The Best Beers of our Lives’, pub­lished in 1974.

First, there’s a review from 1976: when Richard Boston’s book Beer & Skit­tles came out that year, who was bet­ter placed to assess it for the Sun­day Times than Nairn?

Beer and Skittles by Richard Boston.One of the first bits of paid beer writ­ing we did was a shared pro­file of Nairn and Boston for the Cam­paign for Real Ale’s BEER mag­a­zine back in 2013, as part of the reg­u­lar ‘Real Ale Heroes’ strand. Both men played their part in the rise of CAMRA and had sim­i­lar­ly large brains though Boston was a hip­py­ish left-winger and Nairn an ‘anar­cho-Tory’. As founder mem­ber of CAMRA Michael Hard­man put it, ‘It was per­fect. Boston appealed to the social­ists, Nairn to the cap­i­tal­ists.’

Polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences aside, Nairn’s review of Boston’s ‘delight­ful book’ appeared on 8 August 1976 and, with only brief side­swipe about mixed metaphors, was blaz­ing­ly pos­i­tive:

I know enough about beer and pubs to recog­nise just how much infor­ma­tion has been ingest­ed, digest­ed and then dis­tilled. Easy, easy, in the foot­ball chant. Just you try it. I am at the moment read­ing some of P.G. Wode­house for the n’th time; the style is quite dif­fer­ent, but the process is the same. Limpid sim­plic­i­ty meets hard work… In oth­er words this is a lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece.

It also acts as a use­ful foot­note to Nairn’s orig­i­nal 1974 arti­cle. CAMRA, of which he was an ear­ly cham­pi­on, has, he says, ‘built up to a qui­et rev­o­lu­tion’ and Beer & Skit­tles ‘is a kind of mid-term report’:

The big brew­ers have climbed on the band­wag­on, brew­ing real beer – most­ly too strong and expen­sive – to replace with pur­blind hind­sight the ordi­nary beer that they killed of 10 years ago. CAMRA has pre­dictably bred beer snobs, most­ly in and around Lon­don, but the move­men­t’s direc­tion is sound and there are enough peo­ple north of Wat­ford to keep the move­ment sane.

(This north-south divide argu­ment was echoed, 40 years on, by the Pub Cur­mud­geon in a com­ment on yes­ter­day’s Nairn post.)

Prompt­ed by Boston’s men­tion of King & Barnes bit­ter with a low orig­i­nal grav­i­ty of 1035 (about 3.7% ABV) Nairn’s final obser­va­tion is typ­i­cal­ly sharp, and an ear­ly exam­ple of the now com­mon ‘I don’t drink to get drunk’ rhetoric:

That’s the whole point. Beer is for sus­tained enjoy­ment, not a short cut to obliv­ion. If you want that, get some indus­tri­al alco­hol out of the med­i­cine chest, and don’t get offen­sive­ly plas­tered in my local.

* * *

The sec­ond piece from which we’re going to give you a few choice shav­ings is from 9 July 1978 and again involves Richard Boston: he wrote the fea­ture, ‘The Charm of the Coun­try Pub’, while Nairn pro­vid­ed a B‑side back-up piece enti­tled ‘No Vil­lage Should Be With­out One’. Nairn asks:

[Why] is it that only Eng­land and Ger­many, in my expe­ri­ence, have real coun­try pubs, not trans­plant­ed urban bars? Good beer, for one thing. There are parts of Bavaria where every oth­er vil­lage seems to have its own brew­ery, and two of the best beers in Eng­land come from the heart of the Cotswolds – Don­ning­ton and Hook Nor­ton… In both coun­tries, the pub is the vil­lage. You may end up stoned, but that isn’t the object of the exer­cise. Close the vil­lage pub, and you close the vil­lage, which is what Wat­ney’s found a few years ago in Nor­folk.

He also men­tions Adnam’s [sic] as ‘anoth­er splen­did pint’. He goes on to argue that plan­ners need to pro­vide stim­u­lus for coun­try pubs:

If they don’t, the coun­try pub will become a muse­um-piece, depen­dent on week­end tourists and hol­i­day-mak­ers – the motor­way cafe in a pret­ti­er set­ting. The Eng­lish pub depends on a steady bal­ance, not famine-or-flood. This bal­ance can no longer occur nat­u­ral­ly; it has to be helped.

We could prob­a­bly have past­ed some of this as a com­ment on last week’s post about casu­al drinkers and no-one would have ques­tioned it.

Postcard of the Crooked House c.1900.

After a bit of ram­bling prose about Home Coun­ties vil­lages – he was los­ing his edge by the late 1970s in large part because of his depen­dence on alco­hol – he names one final coun­try pub: the Glynne Arms, AKA The Crooked House, near Dud­ley, which is famous­ly wonky because of sub­si­dence. He packs a lot into this final cou­ple of para­graphs:

You get there down a track, through a kind of jun­gle, between Dud­ley and Gor­nal­wood. Geese peck at your on the way in; you might as well be in the mid­dle of Mex­i­co. The beer – Bank’s of Wolver­hamp­ton – is good… The world turned upside-down? – or an unex­pect­ed san­i­ty? San­i­ty, for me. Wild­ness in the mid­dle of the dens­est of urban Britain.

* * *

We’re done with Nairn but not quite done with the 1970s Sun­day Times: next up, Bill Urquart and the found­ing of the micro­brew­ery move­ment.

5 thoughts on “Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 2: Richard Boston and Country Pubs”

  1. Inter­est­ing quote there in light of Nairn’s alco­holism: cf Jonathan Meades’ rec­ol­lec­tions of his lat­er years, when despite his con­di­tion he did­n’t switch to spir­its, but drank him­self to death with pints of bit­ter and Guin­ness.

  2. That’s the very first thing I think of too. I took a pho­to last year of St Georges Tav­ern in the precincts of Vic­to­ria Sta­tion. It’s where JM inter­viewed Nairn. He said his neck was flop­ping over his col­lar like lapels he’d become so obese from chain-guz­zling pints of Char­ring­ton Bass. Trag­ic.

  3. On his trav­els writ­ten for the Sun­day Times he fre­quent­ly men­tioned pubs, and local beers, and indeed one whole dou­ble page spread on real ale, before it was known as that. Harold Evans of the ST indulged him to write on such sub­jects. I have a fair­ly com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tion of the arti­cles, painstak­ing­ly researched.

    1. Is the dou­ble page spread you men­tion dif­fer­ent to the 1974 arti­cle ‘The Best Beers of our Lives’? If so, we’d love to know a more.

Comments are closed.