Pubs in novels: The Vodi, John Braine, 1959

The Penguin edition of The Vodi.

John Braine’s 1959 novel The Vodi is set in a fictional northern town where every other conversation takes place over a beer, or in a pub.

Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est is the por­tray­al of a large, mod­ern pub – a theme you might remem­ber comes up in anoth­er social real­ist nov­el from the same year, Kei­th Water­house­’s Bil­ly Liar.

Braine’s treat­ment is suc­cinct and direct:

[He] did­n’t like the Lord Rel­ton very much. It was a fake-Tudor road-house with a huge car park; even its name was rather phoney, an attempt to iden­ti­fy it with the vil­lage of Rel­ton to which, geo­graph­i­cal­ly at least, it belonged. But, unlike the Fru­men­ty, unlike even the Ten Dancers or the Blue Lion at Sil­bridge, the Lord Rel­ton belonged nowhere; it would have been just as much at home in any oth­er place in Eng­land. It even smelled liked nowhere; it had a smell he’d nev­er encoun­tered any­where else, undoubt­ed­ly clean, and even anti­sep­tic, but also dis­turbing­ly sen­su­al, like the flesh of a woman who takes all the deodor­ants the adver­tise­ments rec­om­mend.

Pubs in gen­er­al are pre­sent­ed as a kind of erot­ic play­ground, all flir­ta­tious bar­maids and “goers” – frus­trat­ed wives, lone­ly war wid­ows and oth­er women no bet­ter than they should be. It’s no won­der, then, that the (angry) young men in the book prac­ti­cal­ly live there, talk­ing end­less­ly about sex­u­al adven­tures, ambi­tions and the rel­a­tive attrac­tions of the women they know.

A black and white image of a roadhouse type pub.
The Three Tuns at Mir­field, ‘A Famous York­shire Road­house’. SOURCE: A Sec­ond Look at Mir­field.

As for old­er peo­ple, though, Braine also gives notes on the lads’ par­ents’ drink­ing habits. Here’s a bit about the pro­tag­o­nist’s fam­i­ly:

[Dick­’s] father [pre­ferred] the Lib­er­al Club (one pint of mixed, one large Lam­b’s navy rum, every evening at nine-twen­ty pre­cise­ly, except Wednes­day and Sun­day) and his moth­er rarely touched alco­hol at all, much less vis­it­ed a pub.

(‘Mixed’ is a blend of mild-and-bit­ter.)

There’s also a sur­pris­ing amount of drink­ing at home, giv­en the idea some­times con­veyed in com­men­tary that this is a new and dis­turb­ing phe­nom­e­non threat­en­ing pubs.

Dick and his father share bot­tles of Fam­i­ly Ale after they’ve done the week­ly accounts for the shop, and Mr Cov­er­ack, Dick­’s best friend Tom’s Dad, is an expert pour­er of bot­tled Tet­ley’s Bit­ter:

He opened anoth­er bot­tle of beer and filled his glass with his usu­al com­pe­tence; none frothed over and there was exact­ly the right amount of head on it to make it imme­di­ate­ly drink­able. Tom had once com­ment­ed to Dick with some bit­ter­ness on this trait of his father’s. “My Old Man,” he said, “can do any lit­tle thing you can men­tion, from mend­ing a switch to pour­ing a glass of beer, like a pro­fes­sion­al. It’s the big things, the impor­tant things, he mess­es up.”

There is even a brief descrip­tion of a spe­cif­ic beer – quite unusu­al in fic­tion gen­er­al­ly. It’s in a pas­sage set in a pub which is fill­ing up with the evening crowd, devel­op­ing a warm atmos­phere and buzz:

The sun was set­ting now; the faces at the far side of the room glim­mered pale­ly, the faces near­est the fire were dra­mat­i­cal­ly lit in red and black, the bit­ter in the tankard of the old man at the table next to Dick­’s was changed from straw-yel­low to near-amber sown with glit­ter­ing specks of gold; when the girl, bring­ing in Tom’s round, switched on the light there was an ele­ment of annoy­ance in the glances direct­ed for a split-sec­ond towards her; the tran­si­tion from an atmos­phere as cosy as a Vic­to­ri­an bal­lad had been too abrupt and the room seemed, dur­ing that tran­si­tion, drab and mean.

Straw-yel­low is inter­est­ing with the his­to­ry of north­ern beer in mind but this pas­sage is also a reminder of the impor­tance of light in both the mood of a pub and the appear­ance of any giv­en beer.

We won’t go through every pint, bot­tle and saloon bar in the book, but take our word for it, there are plen­ty – fur­ther evi­dence that acknowl­edg­ing the pubs exis­tence of pubs was a key fac­tor in giv­ing post-war British fic­tion its sense of star­tling real­ism.

For more on inter-war pubs, road­hous­es and the post-war response to them, check out our book 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub.

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