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…?).

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