Ted Ray on Pubs: Wet Bars, Sodden Jackets, Dry Throats

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?

Watney’s Pubs of 1966-67: Failsworth, Harlington, Lambeth, Stevenage, Wythenshawe

We continue to keep our eyes peeled for old in-house magazines from British breweries and most recently acquired a copy of Watney’s Red Barrel from February 1967.

It’s particularly rich in pictures of modern pubs, from Manchester to London. Let’s start with a trip to Wythenshawe, a place we studied in some depth when researching 20th Century Pub, where we find the Flying Machine and the Firbank.

The Flying Machine was designed by Francis Jones & Sons and built near Manchester Airport, with “interior decoration featuring vintage aircraft with some attractive prints of biplanes”. Is it still there? Yes! But now it’s called the Tudor Tavern.

The Firbank was designed by A.H. Brotherton & Partners and that’s about all the information the magazine gives. That concrete mural looks interesting, at any rate. The pub is still going, and award-winning, but has been the centre of drama in recent years with drug dealers attempting to blackmail the publican.

The Brookdale, Failsworth.

Sadly there’s no exterior image of the Brookdale in Failsworth, only this image of S.H. Threadgill, M.D. of Watney’s subsidiary Wilson’s, receiving a pint pulled by footballer Bobby Charlton. This pub has been knocked down to make way for housing.


The Long Ship pub in Stevenage.

The Danish Bar at the Long Ship pub.

Phwoar! The Long Ship in Stevenage is a pub we first noticed in the background of a scene in the 1968 film Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. It was the first Watney Mann pub in the Hertfordshire new town and occupied the base of the Southgate House office block.

It has a really interesting architectural pedigree: that great gorgeous mural is by William Mitchell, a sculptor currently enjoying a revival. It was sixty feet long and depicted Vikings returning to their homeland after a raid on England. Sadly it seems this mural was just torn off and chucked away when the pub was demolished.

Obviously the bars in the pub were the Viking bar and (pictured above) the Danish lounge and grill room.

The architect was Barnard Reyner of Coventry.


The Gibraltar pub near Elephant & Castle in London.

The Gibraltar in St George’s Road, London SE1, near Elephant and Castle, also has a name designer attached: architect E.B. Musman, who made his name with grand Art Deco designs in the 1930s, such as the Comet at Hatfield and the Nags Head in Bishops Stortford. It replaced a Victorian gin palace on the same site. Musman actually went to Gibraltar to make the sketches on which the sign was based.

In recent years it became a Thai restaurant before being demolished in 2012-13 to make way for, you guessed it, yuppie flats.

Interior of the Jolly Marshman, Abbey Estate, London SE2.

Still in London we have the Jolly Marshman on the Abbey Estate, London SE2. There’s no exterior shot in the magazine, only this image of the bar with “basketwork light shades and, centre back, the colourful mural of a ‘marshman’”. It was designed by J. Barnard of L.D. Tomlinson & Partners.  It has gone.


The Gamekeeper, Harlington.

Out at the end of the Piccadilly Line near Heathrow Airport something a bit different was afoot in the form of the Gamekeeper, the fourth of Watney’s Schooner Inns. It was a restaurant supposedly in the shape of a pheasant built behind an existing old pub of that name. It was a steakhouse with seating for 82 people. The architect was Roy Wilson-Smith who also designed the more famous Windsock at Dunstable. Astonishingly, this one still seems to exist — worth a pilgrimage, we reckon.


The picture at the very top of this post offers a bare glimpse of another Schooner Inn, the Leather Bottle in Edgware, which apparently closed in 2002.

Old Haunts #3: The Fountain

The front of a pub with a brewery sign.
The Fountain in 2007.

I was astonished to turn round and see a bloke with his arm round my Dad’s shoulders at the bar of The Fountain.

It looked like a standoff. Neither Dad nor the stranger was talking, just staring at each other. I couldn’t read the situation at all.

The Fountain is the one pub in my hometown that anyone ever seems to recommend, and it’s been that way for a couple of decades.

It’s not the kind of place you’d send anyone out of their way to visit but it’s always had vaguely interesting ale and a proper pub-like atmosphere.

When I happen to be back in town and need somewhere to meet my oldest friends, that’s where we often end up. We’d found it fairly welcoming as teenagers and young twenty-somethings.

Before Mum and Dad moved out of town, it was the most common place for us to settle at the end of family pub crawls, and I remember the odd Boxing Day session there.

I’ve got a suspicion it might have been where Jess had her first pint with my parents, too.

In short, I have a soft spot.

Mum and Dad started visiting again recently after they popped into town on some errand or other and dropped into the pub on a whim. They found it under new management and were pretty well charmed by the current landlady, a no-nonsense, energetic young woman who seems to have The Knack.

I could certainly see a difference. There wasn’t only the typical Butcombe Bitter of the region but also Fuller’s Oliver’s Island — an interesting beer to encounter in Somerset — and the pub felt alive. People spoke to me at the bar — “I’m from London. I came to visit my aunt in 1973 and never went home.” Conversations took place between one table and the next. There were old boys and youngsters, all mingling quite happily, drinking whatever they wanted to drink, from lager to scrumpy to wine to cask bitter.

But then this bloke grabbed hold of Dad, and kept hold of him.

“Uh… Do you two know each other?” I asked eventually.

The stranger looked startled that I even had to ask.

Then more white-haired men turned up, surrounding Dad, and a sort of mass Somerseting occurred: “’Ow be, boy?” “Bloody hell, ‘ow be, Dave?”, “Ginger!”, repeat.

Mum had to explain what was going on. These were the boys Dad grew up with on a council estate in the countryside, all prefabs and concrete, built to house munitions workers during World War II. They had spent the 1960s being tearaways together, stealing cars, starting bands, starting fights… All of them were now 70 or more years old, some of them still living on the estate.

It turned out that although Dad hadn’t seen most of them in years, even decades, they had been keeping tabs on his movements and had discussed him from time to time in their regular meet-ups at The Fountain.

It was weird to see Dad acting like a teenager again, laughing as he remembered the time he and his pals tried to make wine from rhubarb. I wanted to take a picture but didn’t dare disrupt the moment but it looked pretty much like this:

The Lads of the Village.

When we left the lads all took turns to tell Dad to drop into their regular sessions more often than once every 20 years, and he said he would.

I wonder if he will.

The Great Age of Steam

Beer signs at the Head of Steam bar in Birmingham.

We’ve been intrigued by the growth of the Head of Steam chain of beer bars for a while and Phil’s recent post prompted me to go out of my way to drop into the Birmingham branch while traversing the Midlands.

Founded by Tony Brookes in the North East of England in 1995, the original proposition of Head of Steam was that the pubs (with bottled beer, flavoured vodka, and so on) would be near city train stations, occupying railway property. In 1998 there were branches in Newcastle, Huddersfield and at Euston in London.

In 2009 when regional giant Cameron’s took over, with backing from Carlsberg, there were seven pubs in the Head of Steam group. There are now 15 bars, mostly in the Midlands and the North, with more on the way.

Based on my experience in Birmingham, the approach is to try to convince you you’re stepping into an individualistic place with personality and taste, not a Craft Pub Chain Concept. The signs are all ther, though: distressed and mismatched furniture, walls that’ll give you splinters, but with all the crucial bits kept conveniently wipe-clean.

Vintage pub seating and wooden walls.

There’s an off-the-peg Eclectic Playlist, of course — breathy indie switches to quirky ska and then, inevitably, to Africa by Toto — delivered through a state of the art Hospitality Background Music Solution.

And the food looks like standard pub grub disguised with a sprinkling of kimchi.

Now, all that might sound a little sour but actually I didn’t dislike the place at all.

There was an interesting selection of beer, for starters.

I was also impressed by the very chatty bartender who for all his patter knew when to pitch a recommendation and when to just pour.

As I was on a tight turnaround I only had a couple of small ones — Horizon by the Shiny Brewing Company, which didn’t touch the sides — hazy, refreshing, tart, and bitter; and an imported German lager, ABK, which struck me as pretty decent, too, in a literally nondescript way.

Cameron’s also spent some of the refurb money on ensuring there are plug points at practically every table which in this day and age is a not insignificant factor in deciding where to go for a pint in a strange town.

My first instinct was to say that it isn’t the sort of place I’d generally choose to go again but actually I had to concede that it made a good pit-stop while changing trains, being less than five minutes from New Street.

Then I found myself going a little further: if I lived in Birmingham, I reckon I’d probably end up there quite a bit.

I can imagine it appealing to non-beer-geek friends and family with its cleanness, friendliness, and vast range of drinks.

And I can certainly deal with the whiff of the corporate when there’s a cage of Orval and Westmalle to be enjoyed.

The Beer of the Future, 1924

More lager, daintier glassware, beer at the dinner table… These were some of the predictions made by  brewing scientist Herbert Lloyd Hind in a talk given to a meeting of Scottish brewers on Burns Day 1924.

We came across this paper while researching our big two-parter and thought it deserved a bit of attention in its own right.

As everyone knows, making predictions is a mug’s game, but Mr Hind, as you’ll see, did pretty well.

Detail from a Whitbread advertisement, 1937, showing beer with food.

1. Beer must get prettier

“The days are past when meals could be eaten from wooden bowls, and the days of the old pint pot are numbered. There was nothing like the pewter pot when it was necessary to hide the drink from the eye to make its consumption possible. Developing taste demands that food be served with greater delicacy, and that beer be offered in shining glass which sets off its attractive sparkle and condition to the utmost, and under conditions in which it has nothing to suffer when compared to champagne, or dark red wine.”

This might seem like a pre-echo of the so-called ‘winification of beer’ — more an aspiration than a reflection of reality — but think about how beer has been presented in the last century: glass became the norm, and even quite ordinary commodity beers have their own branded glassware and prescribed pouring methods.

Hind goes on to argue that British beer suffers in beauty contests because it lacks the substantial, stable foam of the Continental rivals. Which brings us to…

1937 advertisement for Barclay Perkins lager.
2. More lager, and a drift away from ale

In this country beer drinkers have become so wedded to the flavour of top fermentation beer that they prefer it, and in many cases express dislike for lager. The great majority, however, of those who decry lager have never tasted it as it should be, and generally say they do not like such thin stuff, ignoring the fact that such a description does not apply to good lager any more than it does to good English beer.

Hind was cautious on lager but essentially called it: tastes can change, he argued — British drinkers had already ditched “that acid beer that used to have a great sale in several districts” — and Denmark was an example of a country similar in climate to Britain where lager had ousted top-fermented beer.

In fact, he pointed out, Britain was the oddity in having not embraced lager, and that perhaps the decrease in beer consumption in Britain could be put down to the fact that brewers weren’t giving people beer they wanted to drink:

[Those] countries showing an increase [in beer consumption] were all lager-drinking countries, or countries where lager was gradually ousting top fermentation beers. If there is anything in this argument it must follow that lager is better than ale

Oof!

He certainly got this right, anyway: Britain did eventually embrace lager, and in a big way. Only now in the 21st century is there any evidence of re-balancing.

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

3. Cleaner, more stable beer

Typical characteristics of British beers are their hop aroma and the flavours produced by secondary fermentation. Chilling, filtration and pasteurisation tend to remove these very much-desired flavours, so that chilled and filtered beer generally suffers in comparison with naturally conditioned beer.

This is particularly astute and sets up a debate that would dominate the following century: how do we retain the essential character of British beer while also taming it for ease of production, distribution and dispense?

Hind goes on to argue that the British beer ought to be fermented with pure yeast strains — that it was time to do away with the superstition and sentiment around English brewing yeast:

[The] sweeping condemnation some times passed on any suggestion to adapt pure yeast to English conditions is not justified. The only trials I know of were made many years ago and in connection with beers whose distinctive palate depended on a secondary fermentation. This distinctive Burton flavour I have seen produced in beers as different from normal Burton beers as bottom-fermented stout by an inoculation in the bottle of pure cultures of Bretannomyces, as its discoverer, Clausen, called the particular Torula employed. Conditions are now entirely altered. Secondary fermentation in far the greater number of breweries is a thing of the past, and the desideratum now is to prevent the development of secondary yeast. Under conditions such as these, surely it is time to reopen the investigation and endeavour to put fermentation on a sounder and more certain basis.

This point of view certainly won out in the industry but, of course, drinkers did notice when Adnams changed and Boddington’s lost its complexity.

"Traditional Country Ales" window livery.

4. Traditional English methods don’t work for session ales

I think it will be admitted on all hands that the typical English naturally matured pale ales left very little to be desired. They had a delightful appetising flavour, and poured from the bottle with beautiful appearance and condition. The cask beers of similar type were also excellent, but lower gravities have been forced upon us, and the tendency towards a lighter kind of beer seems so definite that it is hardly likely that there will be any return to the old style. Endeavours to brew these lighter beers on the old lines are not altogether a success, as is evidenced by the amount of beer on the market lacking in brilliance or condition.

This is some controversial stuff, or at least seems that way from this side of the real ale revolution of the 1970s.

It’s become a point of faith that British brewing methods are particularly well suited to producing low ABV beers, adding complexity to make up for the lack of oomph.

The answer to this contradiction — the desire for beers to be both lighter and cleaner — is, Hind argues, to adopt lager brewing methods even for beers that aren’t presented as lager.

Which is exactly what, for example, Thornbridge does, using lager yeast for its packaged products and traditional ale yeast for casks. (At least this is what we think Rob Lovatt, Thornbridge head brewer, told us in a pub about four years ago.)

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

5. Keg!

Even though our methods of manufacture were ideal, there is no possibility of the invariable appearance of the beer in the customer’s glass in condition that will satisfy a connoisseur, or even a man with ordinary standards of taste and perception. The methods of retail are hopelessly out of date. Though the brewers do all that is humanly possible, there are all too many chances of the beer being ruined in the publican’s cellar or at the bar… While bars are fitted with the usual types of pumps, and unlimited air is allowed to pass into casks, flattening and destroying the flavour of the beer, how can it be expected that beer will serve well to the end of the cask ? The possibilities which are offered in this direction by compressed CO2 collected in the brewery have hardly been explored at all in this country…

He really nailed this one.

Almost a hundred years later the same conversation is still going, keg bitter having arrived then retreated, while gas remains the key flashpoint in Britain’s beer culture wars.

It’s all about quality, everyone agrees, and cask ale at point of service doesn’t always make a good showing for itself. “Look after it better!” say the purists; “Reduce the opportunity for user error!” answer the pragmatists.

Meanwhile, most people carry on drinking lager, oblivious and uninterested.

* * *

Hind’s predictions are interesting because they’re not outlandish — robot bartenders! Powdered beer! — but careful, based on observation, and on a knowledge of things already afoot in the beer industry in the UK, and especially abroad.

It would be interesting to read similar papers from brewers active in 2018.