J.B. Priestley on Improved Pubs in the Midlands, 1934

A pull quote from the text below.

The passage below appears in English Journey by J.B. Priestley, published in 1934, and just reprinted in hardback by Great Northern Books, though we found our copy for £4 in the local Amnesty bookshop.

A hundred pages in, it’s a fascinating, rather sour view of a land of cheap raincoats and glum hotel bars, but it’s impossible to write about England without at least acknowledging pubs, and the 1930s were an especially interesting time.

We’ve taken the liberty of inserting some extra paragraph breaks for reading on a screen:

Half-shaved, disillusioned once more, I caught the bus that runs between Coventry and Birmingham… We trundled along at no great pace down pleasant roads, decorated here and there by the presence of new gaudy pubs. These pubs are a marked feature of this Midlands landscape.

Some of them are admirably designed and built; others have been inspired by the idea of Merrie England, popular in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles. But whether comely or hideous, they must all have cost a pot of money, proving that the brewers… still have great confidence in their products.

At every place, however, I noticed that some attempt had been made to enlarge the usual attractions of the beer-house; some had bowling greens, some advertised their food, others their music. No doubt even more ambitious plans for amusement would have been put into force  if there had been no opposition from the teetotallers, those people who say they object to public-houses because you can do nothing in them but drink, but at the same time strenuously oppose the publicans who offer to give their customers anything but drink.

The trick is – and long has been – to make or keep the beer-house dull or disreputable, and then to point out how dull or disreputable it is. Is is rather as if the rest of us should compel teetotallers to wear their hair long and unwashed, and then should write pamphlets complaining of their dirty habits: “Look at their hair,” we should cry.

For more on inter-war improved pubs, with their bowling greens and tearooms, see chapter 2 of our 20th Century Pub.

3 thoughts on “J.B. Priestley on Improved Pubs in the Midlands, 1934”

  1. inspired by the idea of Merrie England, popular in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles

    A (FORMER) SUB-EDITOR WRITES:
    Hmm – did you inadvertently insert that comma along with the paragraph breaks? He seems to be referring to the specific idea of Merrie England which is popular in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles

    The trick is – and long has been – to make or keep the beer-house dull or disreputable, and then to point out how dull or disreputable it is.

    Ha! See also “maximising the number of health conditions and hospital admissions associated with alcohol, and then pointing out how many there are”.

  2. My dad’s local was the Good Companions, South Yardley, Birmingham, one of several 1930s reformed pubs on Priestley’s bus journey. It had a bowling green, a ballroom and several bars (including two public bars known by regulars as the Irish bar and the Welsh bar). When Mitchells and Butlers sought planning permission to demolish it in the 1980s an elderly resident reminded them of their pre-war promises to provide the neighbourhood with opportunities for “refreshment and recreation”. Nevertheless it was pulled down to be replaced by a Travelodge and a fast food restaurant. In turn that has given way to another lacklustre pub called the Shooting Star — alas no bowling green, not even a dartboard.

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