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.

Bits we underlined in ‘They’re Open!’, 1950

Every time we think we’ve at least heard of every substantial book about beer or pubs, a new-to-us specimen pops up. This weekend, we came across They’re Open! by Ronald Wilkinson and Roger Frisby, with illustrations by Neville Main, from 1950.

It’s fluff, real­ly – the kind of thing the chaps at the golf club would buy for anoth­er chap known to like the odd pint of bit­ter on the occa­sion of his birth­day. Still, it’s a reveal­ing time cap­sule, as throw­aways often are.

The gim­mick, as with T.E.B. Clarke’s What’s Yours? from 12 years ear­li­er, is that the book claims to be a man­u­al for those keen to learn the mys­te­ri­ous ways of the pub:

The stu­dent should on no account embark upon the the­o­ry of Seri­ous Drink­ing with­out first paus­ing to con­sid­er cer­tain fun­da­men­tal con­cepts and gen­er­al prin­ci­ples… It should be clear­ly under­stood from the out­set that the sub­ject must not be approached in a light or friv­o­lous vein…

Anoth­er sec­tion from the intro­duc­tion is prob­a­bly meant to be a joke but it’s hard to tell from this side of the real ale rev­o­lu­tion, when we’re used to this kind of thing being uttered in earnest:

It may strike the scep­tic as odd that the word ‘seri­ous’ is applied in this con­text. How­ev­er, the word is not cho­sen at ran­dom. It is, in fact, the key­stone of the whole arch of Alco­hol­o­gy. For the Seri­ous Drinker drinks not to be socia­ble; nei­ther does he drink to drown his sor­rows, nor for want of any­thing bet­ter to do. Above all, it can­not be too strong­ly impressed upon the stu­dent that drunk­en­ness in any shape or form must nev­er be the aim, nor indeed must it be the con­comi­tant of Seri­ous Drink­ing. The Seri­ous Drinker drinks on a ratio­nal basis. He drinks for no oth­er rea­son that that he likes drink­ing. One would nev­er ask a stamp-col­lec­tor why he is seri­ous about col­lect­ing stamps…

This intro­duc­to­ry sec­tion also sets out the book’s stall on the issue of women and beer:

In all the authors’ expe­ri­ence, they have nev­er encoun­tered a woman who held forth even the remotest promise of suc­cess­ful devel­op­ment into a Seri­ous Drinker. Her very make-up pre­vents it. Charm­ing, lov­able, fas­ci­nat­ing as women may seem, all attempts on their parts to become Seri­ous Drinkers have so far been but emp­ty threats.

(That’s me told. – Jess.)

Bottled beer.

There’s dis­ap­point­ing­ly lit­tle about beer in the book, of course, beyond a warn­ing against for­eign beer, where for­eign has the broad­est pos­si­ble def­i­n­i­tion: “For the Seri­ous Drinker is a drinker of beer, and beer is only to be found in Eng­land.”

There is a chap­ter on what to wear in the pub: thick-soled shoes to raise you above the saw­dust, with beer-coloured uppers to con­ceal stains; and drink­ing trousers with expand­ing waist­line and a deep left-hand pock­et for change.

The bit that real­ly grabbed our atten­tion, with 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub still ring­ing in our brains, is an attempt to clas­si­fy dif­fer­ent types of pub:

The Road­house… Con­struc­tion in con­crete… Design fre­quent­ly of the pseu­do-Tudor or bogus-rus­tic…

The Amer­i­can or Cock­tail bar… Neon signs… Stools… A pletho­ra of chromi­um… Pre­pon­der­ance of women… It is dif­fi­cult to find words ade­quate to con­demn this type of abom­i­na­tion…

The Chain House… This is a large estab­lish­ment usu­al­ly of brick which sports a car-park. It is by far the least offen­sive of the non-seri­ous types of drink­ing estab­lish­ments, and at a pinch it is per­fect­ly cor­rect for the Drinker to enter it…

The Pub or Local… The is the ide­al locus biben­di for the Seri­ous Drinker. Now, the true pub is not always easy to recog­nise… it will in all prob­a­bil­i­ty be tucked away in some side-street, mews or alley…

There are then pages and pages on the sub­ject of pub doors  – the var­i­ous types, their actions, how to oper­ate their han­dles  – and then a whole lot more on where to sit once you’re inside for opti­mum effi­cien­cy. There’s a sec­tion on pos­ture, one on how to grip your glass, and on how to chat up bar­maids. All of this is more or less tedious.

A crowd in a pub.
Detail from the end­pa­per of the book.

Things pick up again with an attempt to cat­e­gorise types of drinker:

The Seri­ous Drinker…

The Soli­tary or Intro­spec­tive Drinker… unshaven… uneth­i­cal ties…

Bar­maid-Chaffing Drinker… faint­ly furtive, con­fi­den­tial­ly bom­bas­tic tone…

The Qua­si-seri­ous or Com­pet­i­tive Drinker…

The Cryp­to-seri­ous or Mis­cel­la­neous Group… This group includes inter alia, the dart-play­ers, the shove-half­pen­ny boys, the domi­no kings, the crib­bage enthu­si­asts, the bar-bil­liards men and the pin-table fiends…

The Cel­e­bra­to­ry of Extro­spec­tive Drinker… a note­wor­thy haz­ard to the Seri­ous Drinker…

The Social or Gre­gar­i­ous Drinker…

The Med­i­c­i­nal or Ther­a­peu­tic Drinker… On no account should he be engaged in con­ver­sa­tion, because this inevitably con­sists of an inter­minable rep­e­ti­tion of his mor­bid ail­ments, past and present…

The Casu­al or Inter­mit­tent Drinker… He looks at the clock between gulps and speaks in an anx­ious tone of voice…

All in all, this is a minor work, per­haps of great­est use to those with an inter­est in atti­tudes to women in pubs.

Hilltop, “a new venture in public houses”, 1959

All pic­tures and text from Guin­ness Time, Autumn 1959.

Guin­ness have, in the past four years, been priv­i­leged to take part in a project which has now result­ed in the open­ing of a new pub­lic house which, both in its phys­i­cal lay­out and in the method of its plan­ning, exhibits sev­er­al new fea­tures.”

Modern pub windows.
The exte­ri­or of Hill­top.

The new pub is called Hill­top , and is in the South End neigh­bour­hood of Hat­field New Town. It is owned and oper­at­ed by Messrs. McMul­lens of Hert­ford, and it came into being after a most unusu­al piece of co-oper­a­tion.”

A crowd around the ale garland.
“Once the ale was pro­nounced good the Ale Gar­land was hoist­ed.”

It began when we found that the Hat­field Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion had no pub­lic funds avail­able to pro­vide the meet­ing place it had planned for the new pop­u­la­tion of this rapid­ly grow­ing neigh­bour­hood. The cen­tral site which had been reserved for this com­mu­ni­ty cen­tre would remain emp­ty and the only social build­ing would be a small pub­lic house which could not be expect­ed to meet all the needs of the local­i­ty. We thought this sit­u­a­tion offered a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty for an exper­i­ment.”

1950s pubgoers.
“The busy scene in the Saloon Bar after the offi­cial open­ing.”

We approached the Cor­po­ra­tion and asked them if they would con­sid­er per­mit­ting a brew­er to pro­vide the ameni­ties they had planned to include in their com­mu­ni­ty cen­tre. They agreed. We asked Messrs. McMul­lens if they would con­sid­er expand­ing the plans of the pub­lic house they were to build in the neigh­bour­hood to pro­vide these ameni­ties, and they read­i­ly agreed.”

A bland looking modern cafe.
The cafe.
A group of families and children.
“The chil­dren, too, had free drinks (and buns) on open­ing night.”

Hill­top offers the usu­al facil­i­ties of a pub, three bars and an off-licence where alco­holic refresh­ment is avail­able dur­ing licens­ing hours. It also has an unli­censed cafe where soft drinks and light meals are served. Then there is a large hall for use as a the­atre or for danc­ing or din­ners, and three com­mit­tee rooms. All these rooms may be attached either to the licensed or unli­censed part of the build­ing… by lock­ing the nec­es­sary doors. In addi­tion­al the Hert­ford­shire Health Author­i­ties have two rooms allot­ted to them in which they run a local Health Clin­ic.”

Cool looking young men with guitars and cowboy hats.
“A local skif­fle group enter­tains cus­tomers on open­ing night.”

Notes: Hill­top was designed by Lionel Brett, opened on 11 August 1959, and is still trad­ing as a pub under McMul­len’s, albeit renamed The Har­ri­er. Here’s how it looks today:

GALLERY: Guinness Time in the 1950s – design of the times

The set of Guinness papers we’ve been sorting through for their owner includes a fairly complete two-decade run of Guinness Time, the in-house magazine for the brewery at Park Royal.

While the con­tents is on the whole fair­ly dull (egg and spoon races, meet the toi­let atten­dants, and so on) the cov­ers are works of art, redo­lent of the peri­ods in which they were pro­duced.

Those pre­sent­ed below are all from the 1950s and so there are a cou­ple of ref­er­ences to TV, the hot trend of the day.

Guinness Time Summer 1956 -- a topiary seal.
Sum­mer 1956. Illus­tra­tor: Tom Eck­er­s­ley.
A man uses a giant bottle of Guinness as a telescope.
Autumn 1956. Illus­tra­tor: John Gilroy.

Con­tin­ue read­ingGALLERY: Guin­ness Time in the 1950s – design of the times”

Ted Ray on Pubs: Wet Bars, Sodden Jackets, Dry Throats

My Turn Next, published in 1963, is an unreliable memoir of the life of a variety comedian viewed through the bottom of a beer glass.

Ted Ray was born as Charles Old­en in Wigan, Lan­cashire, in 1905, but was brought up in Liv­er­pool. His father was a come­di­an, also called Charles Old­en, and Ray entered the fam­i­ly busi­ness in 1927. He was per­form­ing in Lon­don by 1930 and by 1949 was a big enough name to have his own radio show, Ray’s a Laugh, which ran until 1961.

Like many come­di­ans of this era, Ray has all but dis­ap­peared from the pub­lic con­scious­ness, though the BBC run occa­sion­al repeats of the radio shows on 4 Extra. Here’s a snip­pet of him in per­for­mance, giv­ing what we gath­er was his trade­mark vio­lin schtick:

The book con­veys a sense of whim­sy, the gift of the gab, drift­ing here and there into Wode­hou­sian wit. We think it’s sup­posed to be obvi­ous that the bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion is false or exag­ger­at­ed, and there’s cer­tain­ly no men­tion of Aunt Lucy in any of the oth­er sources we’ve seen:

I lived with Aunt Lucy because my father and moth­er could­n’t stand chil­dren. I near­ly said moth­er could­n’t bear chil­dren, but that would­n’t be true because she had six before she realised she did­n’t like them. Some of the oth­ers lived in oth­er parts of the coun­try, and I did­n’t see them again. They were con­stant­ly in my mind, how­ev­er, and I won­dered if their pub door­ways were as draughty as mine.

And with that bit of dark humour (ha ha, child neglect!) we get to what drew us to this book: its focus on beer and pubs. Ray’s Wikipedia entry refers to “golf­ing and alco­hol, two of his pas­sions” and My Turn Next cer­tain­ly con­veys his inter­est in the lat­ter.

For a throw­away book, per­haps designed to give Dad for Christ­mas, the writ­ing about booze is star­tling­ly evoca­tive, almost intox­i­cat­ing in its own right. He has a par­tic­u­lar tal­ent for con­vey­ing the phys­i­cal aspect of beer – it spills, it gets you wet, it stains your clothes, infus­es your kiss­es.

Uncle Reuben
One of the many George Houghton illus­tra­tions from the book.

Ear­ly in the book Ray describes learn­ing about pubs from Aunt Lucy’s hus­band:

My Uncle Reuben was a mag­nif­i­cent drinker. He would remain per­pen­dic­u­lar from open­ing time until just before he was slung out three min­utes after they closed. His left elbow on the wet counter, his feet in the saw­dust, he would shift twen­ty-five or thir­ty pints with­out a stag­ger… My Aunt Lucy did­n’t drink and I nev­er told her where Uncle Reuben spent his time when he was sup­posed to be tak­ing me for a walk. Some walk. I was left in the pub door­way with an out­size bis­cuit while Uncle joined the oth­er Sons of Suc­tion in “The Grapes”.

Sons of Suc­tion! Mar­vel­lous.

He goes on to tell the unlike­ly sto­ry of how he, after Uncle Reuben’s death, kept return­ing to the pub out of habit, like an aban­doned dog, before final­ly pluck­ing up the nerve to enter:

I remem­ber forc­ing my way past a very smelly cor­net play­er, attempt­ing a liq­uid ver­sion of ‘Nir­vana’. The bell of his green and gold instru­ment was squashed – prob­a­bly as a result of push­ing it too far into the pub as some­body slammed the door… I entered the bar and stopped. The smoke was deep pur­ple and the per­spir­ing peo­ple all seemed to be talk­ing at once.

Sweat, smells, beer-soaked whiskers every­where.

Two men at a pub bar.
By George Houghton.

It’s hard to tell with­out foren­sic study whether the beer-based gags Ray rolls out were hack­neyed when he used them or if he orig­i­nat­ed some or all of them. Suf­fice to say the sto­ry of his first pint of beer elic­its a roll of the eyes in 2018:

Slow­ly I raised the glass to my lips. My palate revolt­ed at the earthy bit­ter­ness. But it went down, and I kept on suck­ing until I saw through the bot­tom of the glass. I put the glass down, filled my lungs again, and returned the Major’s stare.

Well, my boy?” he wheezed. “How’s that?”

Hor­ri­ble,” I said. “Can I have anoth­er?”

Which brings us to anoth­er nugget that grabbed our atten­tion: the ubiq­ui­ty of The Major. The ear­li­est ver­sion of this bit of pub wis­dom we know is from T.E.B. Clarke’s 1938 book What’s Yours? but Ray attrib­ut­es it to fel­low come­di­an (and famous mous­tache wear­er) Jim­my Edwards:

Jim­my Edwards has a the­o­ry that you can walk into any pub in Britain and say “Has the Major been in?” and the bar­tender will say “yes” or “no”. In oth­er words Jim­my believes that there is at least one Major to every pub.

With a friend I tried this out. We entered a pub in Finch­ley and inquired of the chap behind the bar if he had recent­ly seen the ‘Major’. The man gave me a blank look. “Major?” he replied. “I don’t know no rud­dy major.”

I was dis­ap­point­ed, but five min­utes lat­er the bar­man reap­peared with the lounge bar­man.

Here,” he said, “Char­lie knows the Major. He’ll tell you.”

Ray’s descrip­tions of the sad, des­per­ate char­ac­ters who hung around the­atri­cal pubs cadg­ing free drinks, booz­ing them­selves to death, are played both for laughs and sen­ti­ment:

There were times when Cyril found him­self short of cash, and some­times the land­lords of the pubs he fre­quent­ed had to close cred­it. But if noth­ing else, he was resource­ful. Once he went into the Gents, removed the light bulb from the its sock­et, insert­ed a half­pen­ny, and replaced the bulb. The first per­son to switch on the light pro­duced a short cir­cuit and plunged the whole house into dark­ness. It was the eas­i­est thing for Cyril to grope a bit and gob­ble up some­ones else’s pint.

Prob­a­bly the most quotable chunk of the book comes when Ray attempts to sum up the char­ac­ter of the British pub by giv­ing a bril­liant­ly spe­cif­ic descrip­tion in lieu of vague gen­er­al­is­ing:

Every pub, I mean when they’re com­fort­ably full, has nine men in suits, or sports jack­ets – six are bald, but they all keep their heads cov­ered; and ten woman – eight fair­ly home­ly, two rav­ish­ing.

There’s near­ly always an old man in a long over­coat, a cloth cap, and a cig­a­rette (near­ly all ash) that nev­er leaves his mouth, even when he coughs. His name is Bert and he can get you any­thing. Then there are two men in tril­bies and rain­coats who look like TV detec­tives, and are detec­tives.

Often you’ll find a rad­dled bejew­elled blonde who says she used to be an actress. She car­ries a snif­fling pekinese that must be kept away from a black tom­cat sleep­ing at the end of the bar…

Most reg­u­lars sup­port the bar as if they are afraid it will fall down. They like to be near the drink source. Oth­er cus­tomers shout their order over “the front line”, pass cash, and take ale as it is hand­ed over, like water buck­ets at a fire.

Counter drinkers are eas­i­ly spot­ted. The shoul­ders of their jack­ets are yel­low from drip­ping of beer on the over­head route.

Is all this per­haps a joke at the expense of Mass Obser­va­tion? Maybe.

There’s lots more to dig out but we can’t quote the whole book. Let’s just have one more line, though:

The best descrip­tion I know of an Eng­lish pub is a place where you get wet change.

How’s that for pithy?