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pubs

The door is open a crack

A dark street, an open door and a carpet of light rolled out in welcome… Come on in, hang your coat, find a spot. Pint?

It’s been an emotional year and it doesn’t take much right now to trigger a lump in the throat. The latest thing to catch us out was an episode of Hazell, a 1970s ITV series about a private detective in London.

In ‘Hazell works for nothing’ our hero, played by Nicholas Ball, is given the job of finding a man on the run in London’s docklands. Summoning his sidekick, his cousin Tel, he sets out the plan: “The London, and The Dickens, The Moorings, The Old House at Home, The Grapes, Chequers, Prospect and The Four Colts.”

The montage that follows is all wet Wapping cobbles and frosted windows as Hazell and Tel fall in and out of one pub after another. What got us specifically was the sight of a pub door from afar; its opening; and the surge of music, light and laughter.

It made us think of approaching The Royal Oak on Tabard Street on a winter’s evening, The Marble Arch in Manchester or The Merchant’s Arms here in Bristol. Lively pubs in quiet neighbourhoods, home fires burning.

In the finale of the TV series Ashes to Ashes light spilling from a pub door onto an otherwise deserted city street is an image of heaven – yeah, go one, just one more pint, for the rest of eternity.

In reality, that open door is a promise. A tease. An invitation.

Categories
bristol pubs

Because of lockdown?

The Bristol Post has produced a rundown of local food and hospitality businesses “that didn’t survive a year of lockdowns” – but is that a fair way to describe what’s going on?

For starters, there are several businesses on the list that haven’t actually ceased trading, as the article itself acknowledges.

The excellent Gopal’s Curry Shack, for example, has closed its retail unit, but is still operating as a delivery business, and will be attending markets and events when those start up again later this year.

Of course what particularly interests us is the fate of bars and pubs, and there are a few on the list. Again, though, we’re going to quibble – not least because lazily blaming lockdown means ignoring the long-term causes of pub closures:

  • Economics – you need a reasonable amount of disposable income to go to the pub regularly, and fewer people have this. 
  • Demographics and shifting trends – where are those that do have money going? Are new generations of pub goers coming through?
  • The ongoing persistence of the leasehold model for pub ownership, which makes it hard for publicans to make a living.
  • The value of pubs and the land on which they sit to developers.

To start with, one, Alchemy 198 on Gloucester Road, isn’t a closure but something of an upgrade, at least as far as beer lovers are concerned, because it became the Sidney & Eden craft beer bar last autumn.

The Windmill in Bedminster was actually put up for sale by its owners in the spring of 2019 and when we visited for our #EveryPubInBristol project in the autumn of that year was already the subject of a sadly unsuccessful local preservation campaign.

Another pub on the Post’s list is The Swan, not far from where we now live in Barton Hill, which closed for good in May 2020 and has now been bought for conversion by the community group next door. We never got to visit or, rather, chickened out of visiting because as we approached the door a very drunk bloke blocked it and made it clear we weren’t welcome. Now, perhaps we’re reading this incorrectly, but it looked like a pub on its last legs every time we walked past and even if lockdown was the final trigger, it’s hard to imagine it would have lasted much longer under any other circumstances.

The Three Blackbirds, one of the last pubs we visited before lockdown kicked in, is also on the list of supposed lockdown victims listed by the Post. But even their piece includes a statement from the landlady suggesting that the pub was in trouble before lockdown – and that’s certainly how it felt when we dropped in, and whenever we passed.

To be clear, we don’t doubt that there will be casualties from the last year once government support dries up completely – along with publicans’ savings and credit lines.

The Downend Tavern, also on the Post’s list, is perhaps one example. Famous as a pub rock venue and home of the Bristol Blues Club it always struck us as a lively local and seemed in passable health before 2020 came along. But that’s hard to package as a takeaway experience, especially if your clientele skews older and has less disposable income.

One pub not mentioned by the Post is another Barton Hill local, The Rhubarb, which may or may not reopen and is currently without tenants.

We’re still optimistic that people will be so hungry to go to pubs post-lockdown that there might be something of a renaissance. Closed pubs might reopen. Pubs that were limping along and scraping by under an old business model and veteran publicans might come alive with a new approach and new owners.

But the point is, really, that it’s too soon to tell how COVID-19 will affect the overall number of pubs. Let’s just wait and see – and, in the meantime, do what we can to support the pubs we love, either by ordering beer for delivery or donating to crowdfunders.

Categories
pubs

The value of the unattainable pint

A full year has now passed since our last pre-lockdown pub trip during which time we’ve developed a little game we play when we’re out walking: how much would you pay for a pint in that pub over there, right now?

A normal pint, that is, under pre-plague circumstances – just one hour of normality, arranged, we assume, by some red-nosed relative of the ghosts from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Back in April 2020, it was The Crafty Cow that first prompted the question. A big Greene King pub on Horfield Common in North Bristol, the Cow isn’t a pub we especially like. But after a month without any pubs, it suddenly began to look quite appealing.

“Twenty quid,” was Ray’s answer.

“Meh… Ten,” said Jess.

Well, what about a pint in The Drapers Arms? Ah, now, that’s different. At least £75, we both agreed. By May, it had crept up to £100 and even the Crafty Cow was looking like a £50-a-pint delight.

Last week, having not drunk in (outside) a pub since early October, we asked ourselves the question again as our constitutional took us past The Oxford in Totterdown and concluded that, Christ, we’d probably pay £200 to be able sit inside and drink a single pint of Bristol Beer Factory Fortitude with a packet of crisps.

Playing this game is almost painful, at times. It also usually leads to the melancholy thought that, actually, if there was a cash-based system for temporarily restoring normality, we’d use it to see our parents in Somerset and London respectively.

But perhaps it also bodes well for the fate of pubs in the long run. Not only are people dreaming about them but they’re also itching to spend. Or maybe that’s just us.

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20th Century Pub london pubs

Notable pubs: The Festival Inn, Poplar, 1951

The first significant post-war pub was more than a pub – it was a prototype, an exhibit and, perhaps surprisingly, built to last.

We first noticed The Festival Inn on the corner of Chrisp Street Market in Poplar, East London, more than a decade ago. On one of our long walks through the infinitely fascinating neighbourhoods between Walthamstow, where we lived, and the City of London, we spotted its fading 1970s Truman’s livery and paused to take some pictures.

Only years later, having developed an interest in architecture and town planning, and gearing up to write 20th Century Pub, did we realise its true significance.

In the late 1940s, Britain was still recovering from the Blitz. Rationing was still in place for many consumer items and the supply of building materials was severely restricted. The supply of men to use them was short, too, with many still serving in the armed forces. The only new pubs being opened were prefabs – and even those were sometimes controversial.

Then along came the Festival of Britain. Scheduled for 1951, it was designed to offer a vision of a post-austerity Britain, to lift the national mood and to put a definitive full stop on World War II.

For the Festival, all kinds of exceptions were made to the rules and regulations around construction and the organisers were given dibs on material and manpower. As well as the main Festival site on the South Bank of the Thames – the one you’ll generally see in old newsreel footage – there were other exhibitions across London and around the UK.

Among the most ambitious, and most practical, was the ‘Live Exhibition of Architecture’ at Poplar which saw the construction of the largest part of an entire new housing estate, from scratch. In fact, the LCC had been planning to build a new estate there anyway, to be known as Lansbury; the Festival just sped things up and ensured the involvement of Top Men.

The architectural exhibition was conceived by architect Frederick Gibberd, who also designed the shopping centre at Chrisp Street around which the estate centred. 

Newsreel footage of the King and Queen visiting the building site at Lansbury.

Gibberd played an important role in designing post-war Britain, from the distinctive BISF council house – a pragmatic response to the housing shortage – to the utopian vision of Harlow new town.

Gibberd’s design for Chrisp Street included two pubs, one at either corner of the shopping centre. Only one would be open in time to form part of the architectural exhibition, however – the appropriately named Festival Inn.

Detail from a plan of the exhibition from the official programme. The Festival Inn is marked 15, at the centre, with the other 15, on the right edge, being The Festive Briton, AKA Callaghan’s.

If Lansbury was a dry run for Harlow, Crawley and Stevenage, The Festival Inn was the prototype for their pubs. It was to be owned and operated by East End brewers Truman’s and took on the licence of The Grundy Arms, a Victorian pub that survived the Blitz but was demolished as part of the clearance of the Chrisp Street area.

The Grundy Arms. SOURCE: London Metropolitan Archive/PubWiki.

The exterior of The Festival Inn was designed by Gibberd because it was integrated into a block that housed a shopping arcade. The interior was the work of Truman’s own in-house designer R.W. Stoddart. It took the form of a traditional pub with multiple bars but with the clean, straight-edged, minimal look typical of post-war buildings.

Kerbey Street elevation of the Festival Inn by Frederick Gibberd. SOURCE: Brewing Trade Review, January 1951.

Artist’s impression of the Festival Inn – also by Gibberd? SOURCE: Brewing Trade Review, January 1951.

The interior of the pub, as described in The Brewing Trade Review for January 1951:

The house has a large public bar with recess for dart playing. The walls will be panelled to dado height with oak panelling. The fireplace will be of brick and stone with a large mural above it depicting a scene from the nearby docks. At the rear end of the bar a small glass dome is formed to give additional light to the bar. The service counter will have an oak-panelled front with a plastic top. Above the counter there will be cold cathode lighting to give a warm honey-coloured light… There are two saloon bars linked by an opening next to the fireplaces.

There was also a mirror featuring Abram Games’ famous Festival of Britain logo.

The pub sign, situated a little way from the entrance, was to depict children dancing round the famous space age Skylon as if it were a maypole – a fantastic representation of the collision of national tradition and futurism represented by the Festival as a whole.

SOURCE: The Sphere, 2 June 1951, via The British Newspaper Archive.

That theme continued in the publicity surrounding the pub’s construction and when its first chimney was completed in December 1950, a ceremony was held. Beer was delivered by horse-drawn dray and ‘ale wives’ in traditional costume hoisted a garland and served beer to the chimney by way of a blessing. Covering this event, The Sphere for 30 December 1950 described The Festival Inn as ‘an example of modern planning on traditional lines’.

In 1951, The Festival really was a sign of hope. Pubs destroyed in the Blitz would be replaced; communities would be rebuilt. It was open and trading as a pub from 2 May that year, serving both Festival visitors and market traders.

The similarly named Festive Briton, on the opposite side of the market square, didn’t open until 1952 and, anyway, lacked the razzle-dazzle that made The Festival a headline grabber.

Just as Lansbury would inspire the look and layout of new towns around the UK, The Festival Inn would produce its own offspring.

The Crane, Basildon. SOURCE: A Monthly Bulletin, June 1954.

Over the years, Lansbury weathered down and got worn in, and The Festival became part of the furniture. The sign disappeared at some point and the delicate new-Elizabethan lettering on the outer wall was replaced with Truman’s livery that was somehow both more up-to-date and more old-fashioned.

The Festival Inn c.2008.

Amazingly, 70 years on, The Festival Inn is still there and still trading, albeit on pause for COVID-19. It’s also remarkably well preserved inside and features in CAMRA’s official listing of historic pub interiors. It’s also now Grade II listed by Historic England, too, so is protected, at least structurally, whatever else might happen to the Chrisp Street Market area in years to come.

Could Britain’s first modern post-war estate pub also end up being its last? It’s entirely possible.

Categories
20th Century Pub pubs

Pubs in novels: seediness, glamour, fellowship

When musician and comedian Robin Allender asked on Twitter “What are your favourite descriptions of pubs in novels or poems?” it made us realise just how many of these we’ve collected over the years.

It also made us aware of the scattered nature of our notes, which is why we’ve decided to pull them together here.

Let’s start with Dickens. We’re both fans but Jess has read more, and rereads Our Mutual Friend most years. She’s got a theory that he invented Ye Olde Inn much in the same way he’s been said to have invented Christmas – but that’s a work in progress. In the meantime, here are a couple of pubs from his novels.

The bar of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters was a bar to soften the human breast. The available space in it was not much larger than a hackney-coach; but no one could have wished the bar bigger, that space was so girt in by corpulent little casks, and by cordial-bottles radiant with fictitious grapes in bunches, and by lemons in nets, and by biscuits in baskets, and by the polite beer-pulls that made low bows when customers were served with beer, and by the cheese in a snug corner, and by the landlady’s own small table in a snugger corner near the fire, with the cloth everlastingly laid. This haven was divided from the rough world by a glass partition and a half-door, with a leaden sill upon it for the convenience of resting your liquor; but, over this half-door the bar’s snugness so gushed forth that, albeit customers drank there standing, in a dark and draughty passage where they were shouldered by other customers passing in and out, they always appeared to drink under an enchanting delusion that they were in the bar itself.

Our Mutual Friend, 1865, Chapter Six

I was such a child, and so little, that frequently when I went into the bar of a strange public-house for a glass of ale or porter, to moisten what I had had for dinner, they were afraid to give it to me. I remember one hot evening I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best – your very best – ale a glass?’ For it was a special occasion. I don’t know what. It may have been my birthday.

‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.’

‘Then,’ says I, producing the money, ‘just draw me a glass of the Genuine Stunning, if you please, with a good head to it.’

The landlord looked at me in return over the bar, from head to foot, with a strange smile on his face; and instead of drawing the beer, looked round the screen and said something to his wife. She came out from behind it, with her work in her hand, and joined him in surveying me. Here we stand, all three, before me now. The landlord in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition.

David Copperfield, 1850, Chapter Eleven

Later on in the same decade, there’s a pub that’s so brilliantly described, and so important a marker in the development of the English pub, that we quoted it at length in our book 20th Century Pub. It’s from Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel Jude the Obscure:

[The inn] had been entirely renovated and refitted in modern style since Jude’s residence here… Tinker Taylor drank off his glass and departed, saying it was too stylish a place now for him to feel at home in unless he was drunker than he had money to be just then… The bar had been gutted and newly arranged throughout, mahogany fixtures having taken the place of the old painted ones, while at the back of the standing-space there were stuffed sofa-benches. The room was divided into compartments in the approved manner, between which were screens of ground glass in mahogany framing, to prevent topers in one compartment being put to the blush by the recognitions of those in the next. On the inside of the counter two barmaids leant over the white-handled beer-engines, and the row of little silvered taps inside, dripping into a pewter trough… At the back of the barmaids rose bevel-edged mirrors, with glass shelves running along their front, on which stood precious liquids that Jude did not know the name of, in bottles of topaz, sapphire, ruby and amethyst.

Here’s where we should mention another theory of ours: that the prevalence and presentation of pubs in literature tells us all we need to know about their social status. In 19th century novels, they’re lawless but joyful; then, as the 20th century approaches, they become wretched hives of scum and villainy – where characters go to get further down on their luck, or to get up to no good. Respectable writers don’t depict pubs at all. Then, later in the 20th century, perhaps as a result of the democratising effects of World War II, they begin to creep into ordinary novels as the settings for ordinary interactions between ordinary people. They become socially acceptable, their ubiquity in reality finally reflected in writing. But, again, this theory is a work in progress.

Speaking of villainy, Joseph Conrad deserves a mention here for his depiction of the Silenus, a German beer hall in London, which we cited in Gambrinus Waltz, our monograph on this very subject:

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer… An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity.  The din it raised was deafening.  When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

The Secret Agent, 1902, Chapter 4

P.G. Wodehouse didn’t often depict pubs but the odd one does appear, as a place for his comic toffs to interact with inscrutable oafs. There is also, however, The Angler’s Rest. Here’s a sample:

In a mixed assemblage like the little group of serious thinkers which gathers nightly in the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest it is hardly to be expected that there will invariably prevail an unbroken harmony. We are all men of spirit: and when men of spirit, with opinions of their own, get together, disputes are bound to arise. Frequently, therefore, even in this peaceful haven, you will hear voices raised, tables banged, and tenor Permit-me-to-inform-you-sir’s competing with baritone And-jolly- well-permit -me- to-inform-yous. I have known fists to be shaken and on one occasion the word ‘fat-head’ to be used.

‘The Man Who Gave up Smoking’, 1929

At this point, someone will mention Patrick Hamilton, whose novels of London life revolve around pubs. Honestly, we’ve only read one between us – Hangover Square, which Jess read in 2019, and found utterly bleak. We don’t have a quote at hand.

Post-war ‘angry young men’ novels (one of Ray’s specialist subjects) are a particularly rich seam of pub descriptions, often laden with class significance. In Room at the Top, for example, pubs are a grim reminder of what our socially mobile ‘hero’ is struggling to leave behind:

“Do you know, when I come into this pub, I don’t even have to order? They automatically issue a pint of wallop. And if I come in with someone else I point at them and nod twice if it’s bitter… Lovely, lovely ale… the mainstay of the industrial North, the bulwark of the British Constitution. If the Dufton pubs closed for just one day, there wouldn’t be a virgin or an unbroken window left by ten o’clock.”

Another John Braine novel, The Vodi, from 1959, has multiple pubs, all carefully described:

[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 like 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.

Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, also from 1959, gives us this portrait of an interwar estate pub:

There was a windy, rubber-tiled hallway where the children squatted, eating potato crisps and waiting for their mothers. Two frosted-glass doors, embossed with the brewery trademark, led off it, one into the public bar and one into the saloon…

The men who say [in the public bar] were refugees from the warm terrace-end pubs that had been pulled down; they sat around drinking mild and calling to each other across the room as though nothing had changed… The few items in the New House that gave it anything like the feel of a pub — the dartboard, the cribbage markers, the scratched blind-box, and the pokerwork sign that said IYBMADIBYO, if you buy me a drink I’ll buy you one — were all part of the same portable world, as if they had been wheeled here in prams in the flight from the old things.

(We’ve just noticed that clue to WYBMADIITY.)

There are also pubs to be found in the wonderful world of murder mystery. In fact, this lesser-known whodunnit is set entirely in a pub:

Lounge bar it was called, but it was not a place of thick carpets and potted palms. The bar, the stools, and the table tops were of plain dark-brown wood. The tables had strong iron legs, and they were bolted to the composition floor. The pictures on the walls were girlie advertisements for champagne cider and similar drinks. The four beer pumps had blue-and-white handles. But the place was clean and the girlie pictures were attractive, and on the shelves behind the bar was a bright display of bottles which promised drinks for the most exacting connoisseur of spirits and liqueurs.

The Pub Crawler, Maurice Procter, 1956

In an edition of our monthly newsletter from a year or so ago, Jess observed that the Inspector Wexford novels of Ruth Rendell (a great writer, not just a great crime novelist) tell the story of the development of the English pub as they progress over the course of decades. This is from 1967’s A New Lease of Death:

The Olive and Dove is the best hostelry in Kingsmarkham that can properly be called an hotel. By a stretch of the imagination the Queen’s Head might be described as an inn, but the Dragon and the Crusader cannot claim to be more than pubs. The Olive, as locals invariably call it, is situated in the High Street at the Stowerton end of Kingsmarkham, facing the exquisite Georgian residence of Mr Missal, the Stowerton car dealer. It is partly Georgian itself, but it is a hybrid structure with lingering relics of Tudor and a wing that claims to be pre-Tudor. In every respect it conforms to what nice middle-class people mean when they talk about a ‘nice hotel. There are always three waiters, the chambermaids are staid and often elderly, the bath water is hot, the food as well as can be expected and the A.A. Guide has given it two stars.

There are hundreds more pubs in hundreds more novel – these are just some that seem especially vivid or important to us. Are there any real corkers you think we’ve missed? If so, comment below.

In the meantime, Robin also asked about poems, so we’ll finish with a line from Adrian Henri’s ‘Liverpool Poems’ published in The Mersey Sound in 1967:

Note for a definition of optimism:
A man trying the door of Yates Wine Lodge
At quarter past four in the afternoon.