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.

Cold Beer in the Australian Outback, 1961

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.

J.B. Priestley on Improved Pubs in the Midlands, 1934

The passage below appears in English Journey by J.B. Priestley, published in 1934, and just reprinted in hardback by Great Northern Books, though we found our copy for £4 in the local Amnesty bookshop.

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.

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?