We’re increasingly convinced that if you pick up most popular novels published between about 1945 and 1970 and start flipping the pages you’ll soon stumble upon an extended passage about beer and/or pubs.
Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright gets straight down to business: within the first 10 pages the protagonist, Grant, hits the hotel bar in the desolate outback settlement where he teaches.
“Schooner, Charlie,” he said to the hotel-keeper, who emerged from his dark back room wearing, for some reason, a waistcoat over his drenched shirt.
Charlie pulled the beer.
In the remote towns of the west there are few of the amenities of civilization; there is no sewerage, there are no hospitals, rarely a doctor; the food is dreary and flavourless from long carrying, the water is bad; electricity is for the few who can afford their own plant, roads are mostly non-existent; there are no theatres, no picture shows and few dance halls; and the people are saved from stark insanity by the one strong principle of progress that is ingrained for a thousand miles, east, north, south and west of the Dead Heart – the beer is always cold.
The teacher let his fingers curl around the beaded glass, quelling the little spurt of bitterness that rose when he saw the size of the head of froth on the beer, because, after all, it didn’t matter, and this poor devil of a hotel-keeper had to stay here and he was going east.
He drank quickly at first, swamping the dryness in his throat in a flood of beer; and then, when the glass was half empty, he drank slowly, letting the cold alcohol relax his body.
Wake in Fright has been adapted for the screen twice, mostly recently in 2017, and the most recent edition from Text Classics is a TV tie-in. Our edition is a Penguin paperback from 1967 and cost £2.50.
A hundred pages in, it’s a fascinating, rather sour view of a land of cheap raincoats and glum hotel bars, but it’s impossible to write about England without at least acknowledging pubs, and the 1930s were an especially interesting time.
We’ve taken the liberty of inserting some extra paragraph breaks for reading on a screen:
Half-shaved, disillusioned once more, I caught the bus that runs between Coventry and Birmingham… We trundled along at no great pace down pleasant roads, decorated here and there by the presence of new gaudy pubs. These pubs are a marked feature of this Midlands landscape.
Some of them are admirably designed and built; others have been inspired by the idea of Merrie England, popular in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles. But whether comely or hideous, they must all have cost a pot of money, proving that the brewers… still have great confidence in their products.
At every place, however, I noticed that some attempt had been made to enlarge the usual attractions of the beer-house; some had bowling greens, some advertised their food, others their music. No doubt even more ambitious plans for amusement would have been put into force if there had been no opposition from the teetotallers, those people who say they object to public-houses because you can do nothing in them but drink, but at the same time strenuously oppose the publicans who offer to give their customers anything but drink.
The trick is – and long has been – to make or keep the beer-house dull or disreputable, and then to point out how dull or disreputable it is. Is is rather as if the rest of us should compel teetotallers to wear their hair long and unwashed, and then should write pamphlets complaining of their dirty habits: “Look at their hair,” we should cry.
For more on inter-war improved pubs, with their bowling greens and tearooms, see chapter 2 of our 20th Century Pub.
Will Jones’s Somerset bumpkin character Jarge Balsh first appeared in print in 1925 and thereafter in a series of books, article and radio broadcasts. The last book, Our Village Parliament, written in the late 1940s, is set in and around an important institution: the inn.
Like the other Jarge Balsh books it is narrated by a city man in standard English, while the yokels’ speech is reported in a version of north Somerset dialect: “I da zee, accordin’ the ‘The Rag’ thaay bin a meade a vine mess on’t now in Parliament”, and so on. Here’s how the narrator opens Our Village Parliament:
Away back in in the nineteenth century, in days when motor-propelled vehicles had not begun to disturb the peaceful serenity of the country-side, and when the rural landscape lay yet unsullied by poles and wires for conveying electric power or for receiving the distracting sounds sent out through the ether; men were wont to foregather at the village inn to discuss local topics and world events.
The popular night was pay-night and Friday acquired an added important from the fact that the local weekly newspaper was published on that day. The national daily papers were taken only by a select few who had to be content with getting them a day late by post.…
A detailed description of the ‘King William’ kitchen with its chimney-place like a small room and the extraordinary characters which make up “woold Mother Barker’s” clientele would but bore those readers who have met them in other records by the present writer.
Though the action of the stories in the book takes place in the pub it is not primarily about pubs. There are nonetheless some nice details:
“Time, gennamin, please,” broke in the voice of Mrs Barker. “Let I zee your backs tonight an’ your feaces at ten-thirty, marra’ mornin’.”
There followed the usual reference to watches which seemingly agreed that the King William clock was “vive minutes in front o’ the Church clock – how a hit nine o’clock”, but our landlady stoutly maintained the veracity of her timepiece.
Overwhelming testimony that her faith was justified came from the Church clock itself, which interrupted the argument by striking the fatal hour. Mrs Barker paused in the middle of a heated sentence and turned out the light.
And so we all went home.
Battles between the regulars and Mrs Barker over closing time are a recurring theme throughout the book (she is anxious about the new teetotal village constable) as is her stinginess with the oil lamp, “so different to the glare of the electric bulb”.
Chapter III is an interesting one to read in 2018’s climate of political division concerning as it does the wisdom of discussing politics in the pub. It opens with a gloom settled oved the “old tap-room” as Jarge Balsh and Abraham Nokes sit sulking having disagreed over the question of “Nationalization and Private Enterprise”:
If I had my waay, thaay as do arg’ on politics outside a political meetin’ should be shut up together ’til tha’ learned on another better. Whut good do ’em do wi’ ther’ blitherin’ I should like to know?
Elsewhere there are passages concerning pub seating…
He who made the first settle must have chuckled with Satanic glee after having tested and proved the potential misery contained in the thing… Not being blessed with even average adipose tissue I can only endure the experience by pressing a hand on the seat either side of that portion of my anatomy so essential for the act of relief. This redistribution of pressure certainly affords relief to the angle-bones but at the same time is inconvenient to one requiring the use of his hands for inhaling cigarette smoke and imbibing cider… I might have mentioned that its back rises straight from a seat which is nothing else but a nine-inch board.
…and pub fires:
In the hearth fire, beneath the huge chimney, the butt ends of oak tree branches blazed and crackled merrily. Mrs Barker provided the branches and her customers pulled them along the floor as the ends became consumed on the hearth. The pleasant aroma of burning wood pervaded the atmosphere and the cider, for which the King William was noted, left one little more to desire.
There’s also what feels like an early use of the word “banter” to describe the particular kind of blokish back-and-forth that, for many, is the very point of the pub, and notes on judging the condition of cider by sound: “I do like to yur it go znick! znick! when I da put it to me yur.”
In short, if you’re after a portrait of pub life as it was in the early to mid-twentieth century, that hasn’t already been milked to death by anthologisers and quotationeers, and that focuses in particular on country life, then this might be the book for you.
Our paperback edition, dating from around the 1960s, cost us about four quid, and there are plenty of copies around.
“[Modern] beer is little more than a symbol. What would a pint of ‘mild’ taste like except dishwater if it were poured down the rural and metropolitan throats anywhere but in a public house?”
‘Y.Y. ’, New Statesman, 13 March 1943
Y.Y. was the pen name of Belfast-born writer Robert Lynd (1879–1949) and coincidentally it was a conversation with a barman from Northern Ireland the other night that got us thinking about the effects of magic upon the perceived quality of beer.
The barman we spoke to rolled his eyes at the suggestion (not from us) that Guinness is somehow better in Dublin: ‘It’s just because they pull through so much. And because, you know, you’re in Dublin, on holiday.’
In my memory, Cruzcampo was my holiday beer par excellence – cold, snappy, crisp, and perfect to wash down plates of jamon or gambas. In actuality, Cruzcampo is an ordinary mass-produced lager, tasting slightly oxidised and having a faintly sweet yellow apple note, neither of which are appealing or refreshing.
So, if Spanish sun makes bad lager taste good, and being in sight of St James’s Gate makes Guinness taste better, could it be, as Y.Y. suggests, that the pub itself – that romantic, almost sacred institution – is at least part of what gives cask ale its appeal?¹
Let’s put that another way: we’ve asked several people over the years exactly why we might prefer cask ale to keg² and the answers we’ve received have tended to point to gentler carbonation, lack of filtration and/or pasteurisation, and slightly warmer serving temperatures. And perhaps those are the tangible reasons, but isn’t it also to do with the paraphernalia?The brass and porcelain hand-pump, for example, could just as easily be (has been) an electric push-button if everyone was being coldly logical about all this. But those pumps add something.
We have a theory that a mediocre pint of, say, Timothy Taylor Landlord in a Victorian pub full of cut glass and dark wood, or a country pub with a crackling log fire, would register as tasting better than a technically perfect one in a laboratory. Or, indeed, that a pint of keg bitter would taste better in that ideal pub than a mediocre cask ale in the lab.
There are limits, of course: at a certain threshold, the spell is broken, and a bad beer will taste bad whatever the occasion or setting.
The point is, it’s complicated, and most of us aren’t coldly logical, and that’s fine: if you’re susceptible to being bedazzled, as we are, then let it happen.
Not to everyone – we know.
We do, on the whole, but of course that’s not the same as saying cask is better. Subjective, innit?
It must be forty years since my aunt began to keep the pub of which I am writing; and less than five years since she ceased to be the landlady of it… It was not prim, and I am pretty sure it was not always proper, but it had about it a kind of austere homeliness. The floors were of polished brick, the tables were scrubbed like bleached bones, and the lamps shone like alter brasses. There were three rooms – the bar, the smoke-room, and the parlour – and they had characters of their own. And just as I see my aunt in perpetual black, so I never think of that pub without remembering the mild beery smell that all her scrubbing could never wash away, the odour of lamp oil and the faint fragrance of old geraniums sun-warmed in the summer windows.