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 reading “GALLERY: 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?