A Texan in England, 1943-44: pub trivia and pints of bitter

Cambridge 1943.

In 1943, American writer J. Frank Dobie was offered a post at Cambridge University. He used the opportunity to observe English life, including the central role of beer and pubs.

We mentioned Dobie’s 1946 memoir A Texan in England in our recent post about Ray Oldenburg. We then managed to track down a copy, printed in 1946 on thin austerity paper, for just shy of £6, delivered. It has no dust jacket but on the upside, it is signed by Jack Barrett, landlord of The Anchor Hotel, of whom more later.

The material on pubs is primarily confined to a single chapter, although they’re mentioned in passing at various points. Beer also makes a cameo early on in the book in a description of the culture of university societies:

I went to the monthly meeting of a historical society presided over by a genial tutor. Only about a dozen men belong to it. After coffee one of them began reading a paper on Punch. As soon as he opened his mouth there was a bolt of all other members to a case of brown bottles I had observed in a corner of the room. It is a part of the formalism of the society that beer shall be drunk while the programme is in progress but that nobody shall touch beer until the speaker begins… Most of the men drank two or three bottles apiece during the course of the evening. A large proportion of University men drink beer, and think no more of it than of drinking coffee. I have not seen any undergraduate intoxicated beyond gaiety.

This perhaps explains why there are so few mentions of beer or pubs in writing from before about 1960 – because it was utterly and literally unremarkable.

J. Frank Dobie
J. Frank Dobie from the US National Portrait Gallery.

The chapter on pubs is actually about one specific pub, The Anchor on Silver Street, overlooking the river where the punts park. It opens, however, with a quick rundown of others in the city:

The Baron of Beef, out of bounds for American soldiers; The Angel, where soldiers are too thick for anybody else to get in bounds; The Castle, where the matured barmaid combines dignity with easy welcome; The Jug and Bottle, where citizens take their pitchers to be filled; The Red Cow, too cavelike for cheer; The Bun Shop, often in stock when other pubs have run out but too garrulous for conversation; The Hat and Feathers, too far away; The Little Rose, just what is should be.

As you’ll know if you’ve read 20th Century Pub, Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell or any number of other sources, beer wasn’t rationed during World War II but was in short supply, hence the comment on The Bun Shop.

Dobie’s poetic introductory description of The Anchor is lovely, and one in which you might want to wallow in these pub-deprived times:

The time I began finding it a refuge was when darkness came early and black curtains shut off the view from the river, but the ingle fire was ‘bleezing finely’. Then the days lengthened, and from the seat by the window that I always seemed to find – by being prompt at the six o’clock opening – I could see the mallard duck with her little ones, which grew up and practised skimming. In the elm trees beyond the river and a bit of fen, the rooks talked about their nests, their eggs, their young ones and other things until they all went away.

Jack Barrett, Dobie tells us, had a sideline renting boats from the wharf attached to the pub. After hours were restricted by the Government, he let regulars continue sneaking in at the usual time by the back door, pulling their own pints of bitter on the way. ‘Jack is a philosopher,’ writes Dobie, ‘kind of partridge-built, quick as a cat on his feet, light always dancing in his eyes.’

Per the quote that appeared in the previous post, Dobie was fascinated by the British innkeeper’s attitude to money:

The good English publican is certainly not averse to making money, but he is content with making a living. His pub has likely been a pub for generations without appreciable growth. The pictures on its walls go back sometimes as far as the walls themselves. They are quiet, inclining to landscapes, coaches, cheerful faces… This is the very opposite of the American bar pictures, which are designed to inflame all the lusts. The absence of silence-murdering noises from radios, nickelodeons and slot machines harmonizes with the pictures. In all the pubs you can play darts free. The proprietor is not trying to peddle sidelines…

We can’t help but wonder if Dobie ever came back to Britain and thought, oh, that didn’t last, as radios, TVs, fruit machines, jukeboxes and so on began to appear with greater regularity during the 1950s and 60s.

His idealising of the pub continues with a passage on attitudes to alcohol, which seem rather at odds with the notes taken by the Mass Observation crew in Bolton only a few years before:

These pubs do not try to make drinking ‘attractive’. Ideally, they are just homey spots among a very settled and not at all Bohemian population. They are more cheerful than merry… Neither ale nor beer – they are the same thing – taken moderately is highly potent as ‘conversation juice’. I have watched a labourer sip at his pint for an hour without saying a word, just sitting and thinking or maybe just sitting.

The bulk of the chapter is given over to a record of the pub conversation between Dobie and his cronies, the underlying point being the extent to which trivia rules. One, for example, has a list of Assyrian names for girls in his pocket to prompt a discussion about which is the prettiest. They touch on politics, but lightly, and there are competitive bouts of did-you-know about Henry VIII, the burial practices of Burmese priests, jellied eels and judicial wigs.

As one perspective among many, it’s a useful thing to have, but Dobie is clearly a romantic, writing about a particular type of pub, in a very peculiar city.