Some Beer Writing Not By Beer Writers

We don’t often write book reviews these days but two newly published volumes from outside the bubble grabbed our attention.

The first is One for the Road: an anthology of pubs and poetry edited by Helen Mort and Stuart Maconie, and published by smith|doorstop at £10. It’s a large format paperback with about 130 pages of real content, author bios and indexing aside, and the bulk of that is poetry. Once upon a time we might have been able to provide some meaningful critical commentary but those muscles have all seized so we’ll just say that, in general, most are closer to pop ballads than T.S. Eliot. Which is to say, they make obvious sense, often rhyme, and are on the whole fairly unpretentious.

Book cover: One for the Road

They’re organised into four categories by theme although the majority seem to share a certain nostalgic, lamenting poignancy. One poem by Carole Bromley is called ‘All the Pubs Where We Used to Drink are Sinking’; another, by Alicia Stubbersfield, is entitled ‘Calling Time at the Bull’s Head’:

The Bull’s Head has gone. Now offices to let,
a bleak image on a ‘lost pubs’ website.
No mark on its old walls to say — here
my grandfather died his very Scottish death:
a whisky chaser undrunk before the heart attack.

The prose pieces close each section and include, for example, an extract from Mark Hailwood’s 2014 academic book on alehouses and Stuart Maconie’s portrait of the famous Buffet Bar at Stalybridge Station:

‘Now then, sir, the barman begins apologetically, if you’ve come for our infamous black peas’ — this is a northern delicacy, often enjoyed around bonfire night and delicious in a Dickensian sort of way — ‘then I have to tell you that they haven’t really been soaking for long enough yet. I can offer you a hot pork pie from Saddleworth and mushy peas though, and after that perhaps some home-made pudding.’

What this book is made for — where it would be perfect — is the kind of distracted dipping in and out you might do while sitting on your own in the corner of a pub, where there’s usually too much going on to concentrate on a novel, but where you might find yourself in a state of sufficient dreaminess to appreciate a poem even if you usually don’t. Especially if it’s about crisps and ale and merry departed drunks.

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The second book is Know Your Place: essays on working class culture by the working class, a crowdfunded collection from Dead Ink books edited by Nathan Connolly, RRP £15.99. (Disclosure, we guess: we backed this one on Kickstarter, so the opposite of a freebie.)

Book cover: Know Your Place.

It’s a hardback with about 200 pages of real substance, its cover designed to resemble a beer label. There’s actually only one essay expressly on the subject of pubs, ‘The Death of a Pub’ by Dominic Grace, a playwright from Leeds. As you might guess from the title, which deliberately or otherwise echoes Christopher Hutt, it tends to the same kind of bitter nostalgia as the poems discussed above:

We’re losing living, breathing, vibrant cells in the body of our country… Government has done little to reverse this loss, perhaps seeing no merits in a working class that is in touch with itself and can feel not just its muscles but sense the power that resides within itself. Meanwhile, heritage and preservation industries in the UK are worth millions and employ thousands, but the heritage they wish to preserve has nothing to do with the cultural endowment resting in the reservoir of working class communities. Instead, it concerns itself mainly with the houses of the aristocracy…

Grace argues for the pub as the anti-safe-space where you might get ‘called names’ and revels in the ribaldry and naughtiness of working class pubs at full throttle. He recalls, too, the first moment he realised middle class people also went to pubs on an expedition to north Leeds: ‘Everyone else in the pub, bar none, was better looking than us.’

It’s very much a piece about feelings and experience rather than cautious, evidenced analysis (ahem, hello) but there is room for both types of writing, taken on their own terms, and anyone with an interest in pubs and society will want to read it. Whether it justifies the purchase of an entire book will depend on whether your engagement in the politics of working class life goes beyond the boozer.

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Perhaps there’s something significant in the fact that these two books have arrived now, without any of the usual Beer Writing names or faces attached, and from people who see beer and pubs not as the be-all-and-end-all, but as part of a bigger picture. After all, pubs barely feature in any of the other essays in Know Your Place — a reminder that, despite Dominic Grace’s observation that pubs are a literary and filmic signifier of working classness, they’re not necessarily as integral as we monomaniacs might imagine.