Our Village Parliament

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”.

Jarge Balsh as depicted in 1926.

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.

You can read more about Will Jones and Jarge Balsh in this comprehensive blog post by a relative of the author.

Cask Ale: a Kind of Magic?

“[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.’

It’s often been observed that particular beers that taste bland or even bad at home gain a certain glamour in a bar in Barcelona. Here’s Zak Avery on that subject from back in 2010:

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

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

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.


  1. Not to everyone — we know.
  2. We do, on the whole, but of course that’s not the same as saying cask is better. Subjective, innit?

H.E. Bates Evokes a Country Pub, 1934

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.

From ‘A Country Pub’ by H.E. Bates, New Statesman, 25 August 1934

Bar Staff on the Fiddle, 1944

The December 1944 edition of Lilliput, a ‘gentleman’s magazine’, includes an article about — or maybe an exposé of — bar staff in London pubs.

It’s credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ and is entitled Gulliver Peeps Behind the Bar implying a connection to the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift; with that in mind, it’s perhaps not the stuff footnotes are made of, unless carefully worded. Which is to say the author might well have just made it all up, or at least used plenty of creative licence in writing up material from various sources, although there is the ring of truth about many of the details. Here’s how it opens:

‘You’ll get thirty-five bob a week,’ said the barmaid ducking through a hatch in the mahogany counter, ‘a bit more if you’re lucky.’ Her peroxide head popped up again in the frame of the ornamental bottles and frosted glass at the back of the bar. ‘You live in,’ she said, ‘and you exist for one half-day out a week, from eleven in the morning til eleven at night.’

She went on to detail the various ways barmaids in London pubs compensate themselves for their miserable lot, namely ‘fiddling’.

‘Go on with you,’ said the barmaid. ‘You know what fiddling is, making a bit on the side.’ She gave a mascara wink.

First, there was the barmaid who took additional compensation in the form of drink, ‘a bottle of gin before breakfast’, the empty being refilled with ‘bulk gin and pale sherry’ to cover her tracks. The customers, starved for booze by wartime rationing, didn’t notice or care.

The cover of Lilliput, December 1944.

Then there was a barman who was in the habit of slipping coins into his waistcoat but was found out because his pocket was wet: ‘Don’t you know that money taken over the bar is always wet with the the spilt beer?’ Because of the prevalence of this kind of thing, according to Gulliver’s informant, most pubs banned bar staff from having any money in their pockets at all.

There were various methods for fiddling the till. First, there’s the simple wheeze of taking orders for multiple rounds but only ringing up the price of one — easy, but risky. Alternatively, they might work with a friend posing as a customer on the other side of the bar: ‘Every time the accomplice buys a drink he gets change for a quid.’ A third more elaborate approach sounds positively ingenious:

Why at one place I was at they bored a hole in the floor of the bar… The people in the bar used to drop the money on the floor, shuffle it down the hole and the cellarman used to catch it in a beer filter.

She explained that such dishonest bar staff worked in gangs, moving around to avoid the police, and alternating so that some worked while others laid low. They found new jobs using forged references, ‘sixpence each’.

The article concludes with details of a clever customer-side con trick that’s new to us:

The most famous trick is called ‘Ringing the Changes’. It’s worked by two men. One comes into the saloon bar, orders a drink and offers a pound note. Immediately after, the accomplice goes into the public bar, orders a drink too, and pays for it out of a ten-bob note. When he gets his change he says that it wasn’t a ten-bob note he had, it was a pound. And, to prove it, he gives the number. When they go to the till, they find the pound note because it’s the one the accomplice had just handed in. Well, when that happens, the landlord has to pay up.

Can anyone who works in a pub or bar tell us whether that still happens today, or have CCTV and the death of the multi-bar layout out done for this (ahem) fine old tradition?

The main illustration above is signed ‘Victoria’ which we think means it’s by Victoria Davidson, 1915-1999.

PUB BITS: Televisions in Pubs, 1955

1950s TV.

We’ve picked up lots of material on pubs that hasn’t made it into final text of The Big Project but we’re going to share some of it here in the coming months.

Back in 1955 people were really worried about the newly ubiquitous TV set killing off clubs, societies, cinemas, and even threatening the church. Publicans were grumbling, too, as journalist Derrick Boothroyd discovered when researching an article, ‘New Ideas Can Fight TV Competition’, for the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. (28/02, p.9.)

He spoke to some who ‘moaned’ that their pubs were deserted, especially when the boxing was on TV, but for balance also found someone who was more upbeat — the landlord of a ‘bright and cheerful’ public house:

TV has affected us undoubtedly… But it’s nothing like as bad as some people make out. I find the only nights that my trade is poor are when there is something really big on. Mind you, I’ve got to set out to attract people now and I think that’s what a lot publicans tend to forget. But provided you offer some incentive I don’t think TV need be feared. The average man — and the average working man in particular — is not the type who wants to stay at home every night. He wants to go out and have yap with his pals at the local — and if he has a decent local to go to, he’ll still go even if he has two TV sets. I should add however that it’s no solution to put TV in your pub. Everyone watches it and no one drinks. I’ve had mine taken out —and so have a lot other landlords.

Sixty-plus years on that still sounds like good advice to us. We hadn’t really considered it but it’s funny how many of the pubs we warm to, from down-home to high-falutin, are TV free.