Categories
pubs quotes

Michael Innes depicts temperance tensions in Scotland

John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, 1906-1994, was a respected Scottish novelist and academic who also wrote crime novels under the name Michael Innes, featuring Inspector Appleby of Scotland Yard.

Lament for a Maker from 1938 is a fascinating piece set in the Scottish Highlands. It has a beautiful, snowbound Gothic setting and, of course, a depiction of a pub.

Actually, you could pull the passages about the pub and stitch them together into an effective short story.

The angle is the tension between Roberts, landlord at the Arms, Kinkeig’s one hotel, and Mrs Roberts, who serves behind the bar: she is a sly temperance campaigner, always trying to convince customers to forego whisky and beer for tea or ginger beer.

Here’s the best bit, cleverly woven through and enlivening an expository passage in which the locals discuss the eccentric Laird of Kinkeig:

Once in a while, you must know, I take a look over to the private bar – most of the better-thought-of folk of the parish think it a decent enough space for a bit crack of an evening. Will Saunders was there, and Rob Yule, and whiles in came the stationy… And behind the bar was Mistress Roberts, banging the pots about to show she was real unfriendly to the liquor and had never thought to come to the serving of it; a sore trial she was to Roberts but not undeserved, folk said, for all the time of their courting had she not been slipping him wee tracts about the poisonous action of alcohol on the blood-stream, and might a publican not have taken warning from that? Mistress Roberts said never a word until in came wee Carfrae, the greengrocer. Carfrae never touches, only he comes into the private for a gossip and Mistress Roberts keeps him a special ginger beer; at one time she put a row of the stuff behind the bar with a notice: Sparkling, Refreshing and Non-Injurious, but at that Roberts put his foot down, everything had its place, he said, and the place for a notice like that was in the sweetie-shops. As I say, wee Carfrae came in for this dreich drink of his, and it was him restarted the speak about Guthrie… Mistress Roberts made a shocked-like click with her tongue and poured herself out a cup of tea: she ever has a great tea pot at her elbow in the private and anyone comes in she I like enough over a cup to, gratis; it makes Roberts fair wild.

[…]

Rob walked over to [carfrae] and took the glass of ginger beer from his hand and emptied it, careful-like, in Mistress Roberts’ nearest aspidistra. ‘Carfrae, he said, ‘the Non-Injurious is wasted on you, man. It’s over late for such precautions: you’re nought but a poison-pup already.’

It wasn’t you could call an ugly situation, for the greengrocer was far from the sort would put up a fight against Rob Yule, there was just no dander to rouse in him. But it was fell uncomfortable; Carfrae was looking between yellow and green, like one of his own stale cabbages, the stationy was havering something about its being technically an assault, and Mistress Roberts had taken up her teaspoon and was stirring furious at the teapot – which was what she ever does when sore affronted. And then Will Saunders, who had been holding his whisht the same as myself, thought to cut in with a bit diversion. ‘Faith,’ cried Will, and look at the aspidistra!”

I don’t believe the plant had really suffered any harm from the Non-Injurious, but the way Will spoke and his pointing to the poor unhealthy thing in its pot fair gave the impression it had wilted that moment. I mind I gave a laugh overhearty to the decent maybe in a man of my years and an elder of the kirk forbye, Rob gave a great laugh too and then we saw that this time Mistress Roberts was real black affronted, she rattled her teapot like mad, herself making a noise like a bubblyjock with the gripes. After all, the Non-Injurious was some sort of sym bol to the wife of her struggle against Roberts and the massed power of darkness that was the liquor trade she’d married into.

Note the aspidistra – a fixed feature in early to mid-20th century pubs, hence the inclusion on the playlist we put together for our last book of Gracie Fields singing ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’.

I get the impression Innes was fond of pubs and beer – the couple of other Appleby books I’ve read also feature little moments like this, which you don’t tend to get in Agatha Christie.

One reply on “Michael Innes depicts temperance tensions in Scotland”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: