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?

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.

QUICK ONE: The Flea and Sawdust School, 1927

The English Public House As It Is, a book by social observer Ernest Selley, was published in 1927. Re-reading it in search of a reference, we spotted a passage that hadn’t previously grabbed our attention.

In it, Selley reports on his visit to The Fellowship Inn, Bellingham, South London (pictured above when we visited in August), where he met someone who was unimpressed with the new style of ‘improved public house’:

Evidently this man is a member of what I once heard described as ‘The Flea and Sawdust School’; one of the type which prefers the stuffy ‘coziness’ of the dirty, ill-ventilated taproom to any of the ‘new fangled’ ideas.

Some ancestor of The Pub Curmudgeon, perhaps? (That’s not us having a go: we suspect he’ll quite like the comparison.)

It’s interesting to us that this lobby, which we associate with a certain wing within CAMRA today, was sufficiently well-developed by the mid-1920s for Selley to say he had ‘met several of these critics’, and for it to deserve a nickname. It was clearly, as they say, ‘a thing’.

The Fellowship Inn when it was new.
The Fellowship Inn in c.1920s. SOURCE: Inside Housing.

Also of note, in the section that immediately follows, is an account of early beer snobbery: Selley records a meeting with a bloke who won’t drink at the local improved pub because ‘the beer is rotten’. Selley says he tried it and found it anything but ‘rotten’. In his view the man was prejudiced because he resented the posher, more expensive pub, even though Selley was sure he would have enjoyed the very same beer served at the more down-to-earth ‘Pig and Whistle’. We can’t say for sure what was really going on — Selley was prejudiced too in his own way, in favour of improved pubs — but this kind of debate about value, quality, and the qualities of a ‘proper pub’ is certainly still going on 90 years later.

Beer in Pubs, 1951

Spread from LHATM.

It’s always exciting to come across specific notes on how beers of the past looked and tasted, especially when those notes are from someone inside the industry.

Through a footnote to a footnote in someone else’s book we recently came across Licensed Houses and Their Management, a three-volume guidebook published in multiple editions from 1923 onwards and edited by W. Bently Capper. It’s made up of a whole series of essays and articles by different authors covering everything from book-keeping to ‘handling female staff’. We’re going to post a few more bits from it in the Bits We Underlined format at some point but, for now, the stuff on beer seemed too interesting not to share in its own right.

The section is called ‘Ales and Stouts and Hints on Cellar Management’ and is credited to an anonymous ‘A Brewery Cellars Manager’. (Worth noting, maybe, that the accompanying pics are from Fuller’s.)

First, we should say that, throughout, it is made clear that beer should definitely possess ‘brilliancy’, i.e. must be completely clear. We’ve collected lots of examples of people not minding a bit of haze in their beer, or even preferring it, but there was certainly a mainstream consensus that clarity was best by the mid-20th Century.

There are three types of dispense listed: straight from the cask, via beer engine and ‘the Scottish method of drawing’ — that is air or top pressure. (The cause of so much strife in CAMRA during the late 1970s.) There is also a lovely mention of what are now known as sparklers:

With the beer engine, there is sometimes a difficulty during the winter months of producing a good head on the beer… To combat this there are several excellent fittings on the market in the shape of ‘nozzles’ or ‘sprinklers’ which are fitted to the spout of the engine. These agitate the beer as it passes into the glass and produce a head, without affecting the palate in any degree.

Right, then — time for the main event: BEER. This section begins by highlighting the importance of choosing good beers and the strength of ‘local conditions and prejudices’:

In London, for instance, one class of beer will find favour in one district, whilst in another part of the town the same beer would not be appreciated. The same thing applies through the whole of the counties…

The author then very usefully breaks it down by style:

Mild Ales… In some parts a dark, sweet ale must be served. This must be as fresh as possible and quite brilliant. In the industrial centres this beer will be in very great demand… In the residential or suburban areas, a mild ale of a lighter colour is more in favour…

Ron Pattinson has explored the difference between urban and country milds but we love the idea of Metroland Mild!

Burton… is a heavy-gravity ale, very red in colour, and with a distinct dry-hop flavour. There is a very steady demand for this beer all the year round, but in winter-time the sales in some districts equal those of mild ale… [It should be] neither too bitter nor too sweet, but [have] a round, full-bodied flavour.

Colour and flavour notes! Red ale — sounds quite trendy, doesn’t it?

Bitter… Bitter ales form the great part of the saloon and private-bar demand. These beers are the most delicate and sensitive of all brewed. The colour must be as of bright polished amber, and the pungent aroma of the hops must be well in evidence. It is very important… that the palate is quite clean as the great charm of bitter ales lies in their delicate palate flavour… There is little doubt that the Burton-brewed ales are the best of this variety, although great progress has been made in other parts of the country by brewers and competition is very keen in this beer.

In case you don’t know how social class mapped to bars, the saloon and private-bar were the relatively posh ones. Bitter was a premium product, the craft beer of its day, drunk for flavour as much as alcohol content or nourishment. (There’s more from us on the history of bitter here.)

Stouts… are brewed from highly roasted malts and are therefore dark brown in colour. The palate should be full and creamy, but not too sweet. Avoid stouts that are not in condition or that have too bitter a flavour. There is little doubt that among the best stouts the best are those brewed in London…

An early use of creamy to describe beer, there? From long before nitro was a thing, too. But what is the difference between stout and porter?

Porter… is a light-gravity black beer which is usually much sweeter than stouts.

There you go. Sorted. Sort of.

There are many more editions of LHATM stretching back 25 years from this one — if you have a copy from before World War II, perhaps you can check whether this advice changed over the years?