Pubs in novels: The Vodi, John Braine, 1959

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.

The mystery of The Golden Lion and The Golden Bee

The Golden Bee is the ‘English pub’ at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, USA, and it has intriguing origins.

We can’t recall how we first heard of it but the part of the offi­cial ori­gin sto­ry that grabbed our atten­tion was this:

You’ll feel trans­port­ed right to jol­ly old Eng­land at the Gold­en Bee, The Broadmoor’s 19th cen­tu­ry British Pub. The pub was actu­al­ly trans­ferred to The Broad­moor pan­el by pan­el, direct­ly from the UK.

So, this isn’t a recre­ation or a sham – it’s a real Eng­lish pub inte­ri­or relo­cat­ed across the Atlantic.

How did this come to hap­pen? And which pub did the fix­tures and fit­tings come from?

There’s some­thing a lit­tle excit­ing about the thought that a Lon­don pub long-demol­ished or con­vert­ed might live on across the ocean, still serv­ing some­thing like its orig­i­nal func­tion.

Our usu­al research avenues didn’t turn up much but for­tu­nate­ly, the Broad­moor, being some­thing of an insti­tu­tion, has an archivist, Jamey Hast­ings, with whom we were able to get in touch. Jamey very kind­ly pro­vid­ed copies of his­toric press and pub­lic­i­ty notices which, while still con­tra­dic­to­ry and con­fus­ing at times, do pro­vide use­ful infor­ma­tion from close to the moment.

This from the Col­orado Springs Gazette for 16 Feb­ru­ary 1964 gives a good sum­ma­ry of the sto­ry and feels as it might be the truth pure­ly because it feels less neat and roman­tic than the typ­i­cal mar­ket­ing blurb:

The fix­tures, the bar and acces­sories are those of an Eng­lish pub built in the 1880s and lat­er brought to this coun­try intact and set up in New York. When the Broad­moor decid­ed to build the Bee, it asked W. and J. Sloane and Co. to find it some authen­tic pub fix­tures.

The firm did more than that. It found an entire pub, cov­ered with dust, in a ware­house in New York… The pub itself had been oper­at­ed at one time in an area near the old Lon­don Ter­race sec­tion of New York, once one of the fash­ion­able res­i­den­tial dis­tricts of the city.

Anoth­er arti­cle, from just after the pub launched in 1961, says more or less the same only it spec­i­fies that the pub inte­ri­or went from Eng­land to New York as far back as the 19th cen­tu­ry.

So far, so good, until we come to a sim­i­lar­ly cred­i­ble sto­ry from Broad­moor Bonan­za for spring 1984, which sug­gests a slight­ly dif­fer­ent chain of events:

Forty years ago, The Gold­en Lion was a pop­u­lar 17th cen­tu­ry pub locat­ed near the Thames Riv­er in Lon­don. It’s not in Lon­don any­more but it’s still pop­u­lar. Now called The Gold­en Bee, it’s one of The Broad­moor’s tru­ly remark­able tra­di­tions… In the mid-1950s, Thay­er Tutt, Hon­orary Chair­man of The Broad­moor, heard about an authen­tic Eng­lish pub for sale from a friend, Sir Guy Bracewell Smith, who was own­er of the Park Lane Hotel in Lon­don. The pub was owned by the Whit­bread House and they want­ed to sell it to an Amer­i­can busi­ness to aid in pub­li­ciz­ing their ale in the Unit­ed States. Through the Broad­moor’s inte­ri­or design firm, W.J. Sloan, and its rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Leslie Dorsey, Mr Tutt arranged to pur­chase the dis­man­tled bar for $20,000.

The sug­ges­tion here, then, is that the pub was old­er by about two hun­dred years, was still intact in Lon­don as late as the post-war peri­od, and was owned by Whit­bread. That’s plen­ty of con­crete infor­ma­tion to latch on to.

So far, though… Noth­ing. We have a pret­ty good run of 1950s edi­tions of The House of Whit­bread, the brewery’s in-house mag­a­zine, and can’t find any men­tion of this sale. It’s not men­tioned in any of the offi­cial his­to­ries to which we have access, either. Nor does A Month­ly Bul­letin seem to cov­er it in any of the issues we’ve got.

One item we did dig up is in The Tav­erns in the Town by H.E. Popham, from 1937:

In the Ful­ham High Street is The Gold­en Lion, a fifty-year-old house stand­ing on the site of a very ancient tav­ern of the same name. The orig­i­nal build­ing, which dat­ed back to the reign of Hen­ry VII, is said to have been the res­i­dence of Bish­op Bon­ner… On the pulling down of the orig­i­nal Gold­en Lion, the pan­elling was pur­chased by Lord Ellen­bor­ough for the fit­ting up of his res­i­dence, Southam House, near Chel­tenham.

So there was at least one his­toric Gold­en Lion inte­ri­or divorced from its orig­i­nal loca­tion and float­ing around.

At this stage, we’re left with more ques­tions with answers.

Because all the sources are Amer­i­can, and because we sus­pect a cer­tain amount of obfus­ca­tion, it’s cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble the details might have got man­gled – that the orig­i­nal pub wasn’t called The Gold­en Lion, or wasn’t in Lon­don, or wasn’t owned by Whit­bread. Although that last seems the most like­ly to be true.

So… Does any­one have any evi­dence that might unlock this? Not guess­work but ref­er­ences to news­pa­pers, books, mag­a­zines or oth­er papers that might pin this down.

Fur­ther read­ing: Gary Gill­man has been writ­ing exten­sive­ly about the idea of the Eng­lish pub in Amer­i­can cul­ture for some time, as in this post. Do check out his back cat­a­logue.

The snob quality of keg bitter and lager, 1966

It can be hard to get into the headspace of people in the past but here’s a nugget that reveals attitudes to different types of beer, and different measures, in the mid-1960s.

It’s a let­ter by H.C.G. Sloane to A Month­ly Bul­letin, a brew­ing trade pub­li­ca­tion, pub­lished in June 1966:

In this age of alleged democ­ra­cy and an appar­ent ten­den­cy to throw con­ven­tion to the winds, it is sur­pris­ing to hear that two cus­tomers din­ing in an old hotel restau­rant were refused “two pints of best bit­ter”. Pints of bit­ter were not served because they “low­ered the tone” of the hotel.

So far, so famil­iar – as we cov­ered in Brew Bri­tan­nia, refusal to serve pints has become embed­ded as an indi­ca­tor of an estab­lish­ment that wish­es to set itself apart from, and of course above, the bog stan­dard booz­er. Bris­tol has a cou­ple of such places.

It seems that we must come to terms with the fact that, rather than becom­ing anachro­nisms, pet­ty snob­bery and the sta­tus sym­bol may yet extend and widen the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the absurd.

Well, it’s true that beer has got com­pli­cat­ed with all those tribes and sym­bols and laws of eti­quette.

Beer will, if this hap­pens, prob­a­bly be asso­ci­at­ed only with shab­by tap­rooms, cloth caps, and news­pa­per-wrapped fish and chips. Already one is begin­ning to feel less ple­beian when ask­ing for “keg” rather than “bit­ter”; or a lager instead of a light ale. It sounds nicer, some­how, and more sophis­ti­cat­ed.

This is some­thing we keep com­ing back to – how did lager go from being, in 1966, the classy prod­uct you ordered when you felt a lit­tle fan­cy to, by the late 1980s, riot fuel?

And keg as the upmar­ket choice… That still rings true, sort of, though IPA or ‘craft lager’ are what peo­ple actu­al­ly ask for.

The New Age bar­tender may look askance should one inad­ver­tent­ly demand a glass of mild instead of a beaker of bland.

No, the cor­rect term is “dark ale”.

A “mixed” may in future be called a blend.

Cor­rect.

An igno­rant saloon bar cus­tomer might even ostracised (or banned from using the premis­es) should he refer to his favourite tip­ple as brown ale – once the colour has changed to beige.

Wrong – instead, it’s almost extinct, and two rare sur­vivors are ordered by brand name.

Over­all, Sloane got it right – though nev­er entire­ly as class­less and sim­ple as some roman­tics would have you believe, beer has become increas­ing­ly com­plex, strat­i­fied and laden with mean­ing.

But things have also been pret­ty well swirled about, too.

Is a dim­ple mug of Black Sheep Bit­ter posh, or ple­beian? It depends where you drink it and whether it’s accom­pa­ny­ing a pack­et of scratch­ings or a plate of gnoc­chi.

A peek behind the scenes: why are we sud­den­ly look­ing at A Month­ly Bul­letin again? Because we had a real­ly thor­ough tidy up of what we jok­ing­ly call The Arthur Mil­lard Memo­r­i­al Library – that is, our box­room – and hav­ing got rid of a load of books and organ­ised the rest, we’ve redis­cov­ered lots of stuff that we for­got we had. It’s easy to dip into some­thing before bed or in the morn­ing before work and AMB in par­tic­u­lar is espe­cial­ly dip­pable.

Our pubs are becoming too posh, 1964

The January 1965 edition of A Monthly Bulletin, a publication about beer and pubs sponsored by the brewing industry, contained a letter which  seems to capture the exact moment the pub ceased to be a working class institution.

Writ­ten by one A. Bev­er­ley of 55 Har­ring­ton Avenue, Black­pool, the let­ter is actu­al­ly a response to anoth­er item of cor­re­spon­dence that appeared in “a nation­al news­pa­per”. Though they quote large chunks, Bev­er­ley does­n’t give the spe­cif­ic source and we can’t find a match in the GuardianTimes or Mir­ror.

Here’s Bev­er­ley’s sum­ma­ry, though:

In com­plain­ing that “our pubs are becom­ing too posh” [they assert] that it is “vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for a man in over­alls to get a hot din­ner in the cen­tre of many a big city”. He mourns, too, because many coun­try pub­lic hous­es are attract­ing cus­tomers from towns at mid-day, offer­ing “busi­ness lunch­es” and pro­vid­ing plen­ty of space for park­ing motor cars. Where is the work­ing man in his work­ing clothes to go? Will nobody cater for him?

This line might seem sur­pris­ing if you’ve bought into the idea that food in pubs is an inven­tion of the 1990s, or are of the view that food in pubs is some­how inher­ent­ly un-work­ing-class. But if you’ve read the chap­ter on gas­trop­ubs in 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub, you’ll know oth­er­wise.

But, any­way, Bev­er­ley is hav­ing none of it:

This type of com­ment ignores the real­i­ties of 1964 cater­ing. If the char­ac­ter of our pubs is chang­ing with the times, it is rea­son­able to assume, too, that the same can be said of the cus­tomers. The num­ber of cus­tomers who go into bars in over­alls at any time is dwin­dling. But the num­ber of cus­tomers who, after work­ing hours, change into well-cut suits to go into pub­lic hous­es with their wives or girl friends is increas­ing. These female com­pan­ions not unnat­u­ral­ly pre­fer the com­fort and ameni­ties of a mod­ern, taste­ful­ly appoint­ed bar rather than sur­round­ings that are drea­ry and out­mod­ed.

(Isn’t CAM­RA’s nation­al inven­to­ry essen­tial­ly the Drea­ry and Out­mod­ed Pub Guide?)

Bev­er­ley’s argu­ment is not only that “men in over­alls” in the pub are a dying breed but also that their suc­ces­sors, “who wear… pro­tec­tive cloth­ing at work”, prob­a­bly earned as much as, or more than, white-col­lar work­ers.

With the growth of automa­tion and the short­en­ing of the work­ing week, the over­all and boil­er suit may dis­ap­pear entire­ly, and the well-appoint­ed, well-warmed pub or inn, pro­vid­ing tasty meals and cor­rect­ly served drinks, should estab­lish itself yet more firm­ly in the design for a life offer­ing greater peri­od of leisure.

The punch­line to all this is, we think, quite fun­ny: the real prob­lem, Bev­er­ley writes, isn’t that pubs are being poshed-up but that, as of the end of 1964, the new aspi­ra­tional work­ing class­es had­n’t quite learned how to behave.

It is only hoped that, as high­er stan­dards are called for and met, appro­pri­ate improve­ments in human behav­iour also will devel­op. Licensees, proud of their “poshed-up” pubs, have dif­fi­cul­ty in believ­ing that change is for the good when expen­sive car­pets and table-tops are dam­aged by cig­a­rette burns. To be tru­ly ben­e­fi­cial, the winds of change… must blow some instinct of respon­si­bil­i­ty and sense of val­ues into the minds of those who are usu­al­ly the most insis­tent and vocal in their demands for lux­u­ry in the “local”.

It’s inter­est­ing to read this along­side those 1960s Bats­ford guides with all their talk of mut­ton cur­ry and beef fon­due, and oth­er accounts of the com­ing pub car­pets at around the same time. The mid-1960s were in pubs, as they were in art, music, lit­er­a­ture, film, some­thing of a moment as the tra­di­tion­al indi­ca­tors of class got jum­bled up or messed around with.

Fifty plus years on, peo­ple are still com­plain­ing about pubs being “poshed-up”, although these days the dis­ap­pear­ance of the car­pet in favour of bare boards is a key indi­ca­tor of com­ing posh­ness.

And the objec­tion seems to be less about class than atti­tude: pubs should be infor­mal, unguard­ed, live­ly and spon­ta­neous, not com­posed, curat­ed or man­nered.

We got our col­lec­tion of edi­tions of A Month­ly Bul­letin from Mar­tyn Cor­nell who kind­ly gave us his spares a few years ago. Thanks again, MC.

J.B. Priestley in Bradford, on Sunday, in the rain

In his travelogue English Journey, published in 1934 but based on observations made in the autumn of 1933, the writer J.B. Priestley unknowingly foretells the fate of the public house.

We’ve been dip­ping in and out of this book, with H.V. Mor­ton’s In Search of Eng­land as a com­pan­ion piece, for about a year now. It lends itself to dip­ping, each chap­ter cov­er­ing a dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try and com­plete as stand­alone essays.

In ‘To the West Rid­ing’, Priest­ley lands in Brad­ford on Sun­day evening as heavy driz­zle falls, and is all but begged by locals not to go into the town cen­tre: ‘“But there isn’t any­thing,” they almost screamed.’

He finds the warn­ing accu­rate: there’s a Sal­va­tion Army band play­ing, a cou­ple of cafés shut­ting up, and some shop win­dow dis­plays to look at, while young peo­ple ‘prom­e­nade’ – that is, walk up and down in the rain.

Ever since I can remem­ber, elder­ly cit­i­zens have been protest­ing against this prac­tice of prom­e­nad­ing on Sun­day nights. They have always been dis­gust­ed by the sight of young peo­ple mon­key-parad­ing in this fash­ion. It is, how­ev­er, the same elder­ly cit­i­zens who have seen to it that near­ly all doors lead­ing out of the street shall be locked against these young peo­ple. They can­not lis­ten to plays or music, can­not see films, can­not even sit in big pleas­ant rooms and look at one anoth­er; so they walk up and down the street… They have, of course, to get on with their mat­ing, what­ev­er elder­ly per­sons may think…

Priest­ley’s pub crawl is depress­ing. He finds the first one he vis­its very qui­et with ‘five or six hob­blede­hoys drink­ing glass­es of bit­ter’ and both­er­ing the bar­maid. ‘Noth­ing wrong with the place’, he writes, ‘except that it was dull and stu­pid.’

Pub #2 is busy with young men and ‘women of the town’:

This is not an attack on the place; I have not the least desire to see it closed… [but] can­not see why play­go­ing, lis­ten­ing to music, watch­ing films, even danc­ing, should be con­sid­ered so much worse – or at least more sec­u­lar – than booz­ing with pros­ti­tutes.

The third pub is the liveli­est, large and crowd­ed, with some ‘lit­tle coloured lights in the lounge’.

That was all; noth­ing else, not even rea­son­able com­fort; but it was enough, and every table, every seat was tak­en. Fif­teen shillings’ worth of coloured lamps: this was gai­ety, this was life; and so the place was sell­ing beer, stout, port, as fast as it could serve them, to patrons of both sex­es. I do not think any of these peo­ple – and they were most­ly young, pairs of boys, pairs of girls; with here and there an old­er cou­ple – could real­ly be said to be real­ly enjoy­ing them­selves; but at least they could look at one anoth­er, gig­gle a bit, talk when they found some­thing to say, and admire the car­ni­val splen­dour of the coloured elec­tric lights.

Priest­ley’s con­clu­sion is that it would be bet­ter for sup­pos­ed­ly reli­gious towns to per­mit the break­ing of the Sab­bath if it meant ‘a choice between mon­key-parad­ing and dubi­ous pubs’.

It strikes us that what he has land­ed on, in analysing one Sun­day night in one town, is a diag­no­sis of the whole prob­lem with pubs: they were the default for many peo­ple not nec­es­sar­i­ly because they were love­ly, but for lack of any alter­na­tive.

As hous­es got bet­ter and big­ger, more peo­ple stayed at home. As open­ing hours relaxed and the range of busi­ness­es in towns broad­ened (cof­fee shops, snack bars), pubs ceased to be the only option.

Their monop­oly came to an end.

For more on pubs, includ­ing pros­ti­tu­tion, fight­ing, spit­ting and riots, do check out our book 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub. For more on Brad­ford pubs in par­tic­u­lar hunt down Paul Jenning’s The Pub­lic House in Brad­ford 1770–1970, pub­lished in 1995. Main image above adapt­ed from one sup­plied by Brad­ford Libraries on Flickr.