Ted Ray on Pubs: Wet Bars, Sodden Jackets, Dry Throats

The cover of Ted Ray's book about beer and pubs.

My Turn Next, published in 1963, is an unreliable memoir of the life of a variety comedian viewed through the bottom of a beer glass.

Ted Ray was born as Charles Old­en in Wigan, Lan­cashire, in 1905, but was brought up in Liv­er­pool. His father was a come­di­an, also called Charles Old­en, and Ray entered the fam­i­ly busi­ness in 1927. He was per­form­ing in Lon­don by 1930 and by 1949 was a big enough name to have his own radio show, Ray’s a Laugh, which ran until 1961.

Like many come­di­ans of this era, Ray has all but dis­ap­peared from the pub­lic con­scious­ness, though the BBC run occa­sion­al repeats of the radio shows on 4 Extra. Here’s a snip­pet of him in per­for­mance, giv­ing what we gath­er was his trade­mark vio­lin schtick:

The book con­veys a sense of whim­sy, the gift of the gab, drift­ing here and there into Wode­hou­sian wit. We think it’s sup­posed to be obvi­ous that the bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion is false or exag­ger­at­ed, and there’s cer­tain­ly no men­tion of Aunt Lucy in any of the oth­er sources we’ve seen:

I lived with Aunt Lucy because my father and moth­er could­n’t stand chil­dren. I near­ly said moth­er could­n’t bear chil­dren, but that would­n’t be true because she had six before she realised she did­n’t like them. Some of the oth­ers lived in oth­er parts of the coun­try, and I did­n’t see them again. They were con­stant­ly in my mind, how­ev­er, and I won­dered if their pub door­ways were as draughty as mine.

And with that bit of dark humour (ha ha, child neglect!) we get to what drew us to this book: its focus on beer and pubs. Ray’s Wikipedia entry refers to “golf­ing and alco­hol, two of his pas­sions” and My Turn Next cer­tain­ly con­veys his inter­est in the lat­ter.

For a throw­away book, per­haps designed to give Dad for Christ­mas, the writ­ing about booze is star­tling­ly evoca­tive, almost intox­i­cat­ing in its own right. He has a par­tic­u­lar tal­ent for con­vey­ing the phys­i­cal aspect of beer – it spills, it gets you wet, it stains your clothes, infus­es your kiss­es.

Uncle Reuben
One of the many George Houghton illus­tra­tions from the book.

Ear­ly in the book Ray describes learn­ing about pubs from Aunt Lucy’s hus­band:

My Uncle Reuben was a mag­nif­i­cent drinker. He would remain per­pen­dic­u­lar from open­ing time until just before he was slung out three min­utes after they closed. His left elbow on the wet counter, his feet in the saw­dust, he would shift twen­ty-five or thir­ty pints with­out a stag­ger… My Aunt Lucy did­n’t drink and I nev­er told her where Uncle Reuben spent his time when he was sup­posed to be tak­ing me for a walk. Some walk. I was left in the pub door­way with an out­size bis­cuit while Uncle joined the oth­er Sons of Suc­tion in “The Grapes”.

Sons of Suc­tion! Mar­vel­lous.

He goes on to tell the unlike­ly sto­ry of how he, after Uncle Reuben’s death, kept return­ing to the pub out of habit, like an aban­doned dog, before final­ly pluck­ing up the nerve to enter:

I remem­ber forc­ing my way past a very smelly cor­net play­er, attempt­ing a liq­uid ver­sion of ‘Nir­vana’. The bell of his green and gold instru­ment was squashed – prob­a­bly as a result of push­ing it too far into the pub as some­body slammed the door… I entered the bar and stopped. The smoke was deep pur­ple and the per­spir­ing peo­ple all seemed to be talk­ing at once.

Sweat, smells, beer-soaked whiskers every­where.

Two men at a pub bar.
By George Houghton.

It’s hard to tell with­out foren­sic study whether the beer-based gags Ray rolls out were hack­neyed when he used them or if he orig­i­nat­ed some or all of them. Suf­fice to say the sto­ry of his first pint of beer elic­its a roll of the eyes in 2018:

Slow­ly I raised the glass to my lips. My palate revolt­ed at the earthy bit­ter­ness. But it went down, and I kept on suck­ing until I saw through the bot­tom of the glass. I put the glass down, filled my lungs again, and returned the Major’s stare.

Well, my boy?” he wheezed. “How’s that?”

Hor­ri­ble,” I said. “Can I have anoth­er?”

Which brings us to anoth­er nugget that grabbed our atten­tion: the ubiq­ui­ty of The Major. The ear­li­est ver­sion of this bit of pub wis­dom we know is from T.E.B. Clarke’s 1938 book What’s Yours? but Ray attrib­ut­es it to fel­low come­di­an (and famous mous­tache wear­er) Jim­my Edwards:

Jim­my Edwards has a the­o­ry that you can walk into any pub in Britain and say “Has the Major been in?” and the bar­tender will say “yes” or “no”. In oth­er words Jim­my believes that there is at least one Major to every pub.

With a friend I tried this out. We entered a pub in Finch­ley and inquired of the chap behind the bar if he had recent­ly seen the ‘Major’. The man gave me a blank look. “Major?” he replied. “I don’t know no rud­dy major.”

I was dis­ap­point­ed, but five min­utes lat­er the bar­man reap­peared with the lounge bar­man.

Here,” he said, “Char­lie knows the Major. He’ll tell you.”

Ray’s descrip­tions of the sad, des­per­ate char­ac­ters who hung around the­atri­cal pubs cadg­ing free drinks, booz­ing them­selves to death, are played both for laughs and sen­ti­ment:

There were times when Cyril found him­self short of cash, and some­times the land­lords of the pubs he fre­quent­ed had to close cred­it. But if noth­ing else, he was resource­ful. Once he went into the Gents, removed the light bulb from the its sock­et, insert­ed a half­pen­ny, and replaced the bulb. The first per­son to switch on the light pro­duced a short cir­cuit and plunged the whole house into dark­ness. It was the eas­i­est thing for Cyril to grope a bit and gob­ble up some­ones else’s pint.

Prob­a­bly the most quotable chunk of the book comes when Ray attempts to sum up the char­ac­ter of the British pub by giv­ing a bril­liant­ly spe­cif­ic descrip­tion in lieu of vague gen­er­al­is­ing:

Every pub, I mean when they’re com­fort­ably full, has nine men in suits, or sports jack­ets – six are bald, but they all keep their heads cov­ered; and ten woman – eight fair­ly home­ly, two rav­ish­ing.

There’s near­ly always an old man in a long over­coat, a cloth cap, and a cig­a­rette (near­ly all ash) that nev­er leaves his mouth, even when he coughs. His name is Bert and he can get you any­thing. Then there are two men in tril­bies and rain­coats who look like TV detec­tives, and are detec­tives.

Often you’ll find a rad­dled bejew­elled blonde who says she used to be an actress. She car­ries a snif­fling pekinese that must be kept away from a black tom­cat sleep­ing at the end of the bar…

Most reg­u­lars sup­port the bar as if they are afraid it will fall down. They like to be near the drink source. Oth­er cus­tomers shout their order over “the front line”, pass cash, and take ale as it is hand­ed over, like water buck­ets at a fire.

Counter drinkers are eas­i­ly spot­ted. The shoul­ders of their jack­ets are yel­low from drip­ping of beer on the over­head route.

Is all this per­haps a joke at the expense of Mass Obser­va­tion? Maybe.

There’s lots more to dig out but we can’t quote the whole book. Let’s just have one more line, though:

The best descrip­tion I know of an Eng­lish pub is a place where you get wet change.

How’s that for pithy?

2 thoughts on “Ted Ray on Pubs: Wet Bars, Sodden Jackets, Dry Throats”

  1. Wet change”! I swear that when I read that sen­tence I could smell it. Cop­pers glazed with stale beer – mm-mmm…

    Fas­ci­nat­ing how hard it is to tell, at this dis­tance, how much of it (all of it? none of it?) is close obser­va­tion and how much is a straight-faced leg-pull (the yel­low shoul­ders, sure­ly…?).

  2. Ted Ray was a mar­vel­lous ad-lib­ber (as was Arthur Askey), a skill that, with the excep­tion of Paul Mer­ton, seems lost today.

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