Beer: liquid sex, or substitute for soup?

William Schlackman was an American psychologist specialising in attention grabbing market research projects carried out on behalf of big companies. In 1966 he suggested that, for English drinkers, beer was a substitute for sex.

We’ve struggled to track down a copy of the research report itself which is, uh, frustrating, but there’s a summary of its contents in A Monthly Bulletin for January 1967:

At the superficial Freudian level of the unconscious mind, beer-drinking was found, incredibly, to be equated with sex. More profound research revealed this equation with sex to be but a defence enabling the beer-drinker to deny his true motivation… Hunger, the psychologists pointed out, is strong enough in primitive man to stimulate the hunt and the kill. In primitive man, in other words, hunger is overtly a more powerful drive than sex… It comes as a surprise to most of us to learn from the leader of the brewery’s research team, William Schlackman, an American doctor, that what a beer-drinker feels when opening time approaches “is the primitive tension of the hunt.” In civilised man, as in primitive man, “it may outweigh the sex drive.”

The Daily Mirror also picked up the story, quoting Schlackman extensively. Here’s a clearer explanation of his point about beer and sex, in his own words:

The regular drinker puts his love life secondary to his pub life, which is the real reason why so many marriages founder over drink… Confirmed drinkers are rarely womanisers. In fact, they are often hostile to women and to pubs that encourage women’s custom.

So beer displaces sex – got it.

The Mirror article also picks up on a suggestion by Schlackman that the particularly British taste for “tepid” ale rather than cold lager was because…

Beer, which traditionally even schoolboys used to drink for breakfast, subconsciously bears an image very close to that of soup.

Schlackman’s research team came up with a set of personality types matched to beer preference:

The typical draught-bitter drinker was a farm worker on his way home from the plough-field… The mild-and-bitter drinker: A 50-year-old underpaid clerk, dreaming of winning the pools… The Bass and Worthington drinker: A hairy-chested docker… One of the interviewed people though that the typical Bass drinker would probably be a wife-beater, too.

That’s one of those startling statements that makes clear just how much the perception of brands and types of beer can change over the course of decades.

Of course, this should all be taken with a pinch of salt: this kind of pop Freudian analysis has rather gone out of fashion. In 1969, Schlackman suggested that English people liked tea because it reminded them of home, mother and the womb, which says it all, really.

You can read more about William Schlackman and how he ended up living and working in London this obituary – he died in May at the age of 88.

The snob quality of keg bitter and lager, 1966

It can be hard to get into the headspace of people in the past but here’s a nugget that reveals attitudes to different types of beer, and different measures, in the mid-1960s.

It’s a letter by H.C.G. Sloane to A Monthly Bulletin, a brewing trade publication, published in June 1966:

In this age of alleged democracy and an apparent tendency to throw convention to the winds, it is surprising to hear that two customers dining in an old hotel restaurant were refused “two pints of best bitter”. Pints of bitter were not served because they “lowered the tone” of the hotel.

So far, so familiar – as we covered in Brew Britannia, refusal to serve pints has become embedded as an indicator of an establishment that wishes to set itself apart from, and of course above, the bog standard boozer. Bristol has a couple of such places.

It seems that we must come to terms with the fact that, rather than becoming anachronisms, petty snobbery and the status symbol may yet extend and widen the possibilities of the absurd.

Well, it’s true that beer has got complicated with all those tribes and symbols and laws of etiquette.

Beer will, if this happens, probably be associated only with shabby taprooms, cloth caps, and newspaper-wrapped fish and chips. Already one is beginning to feel less plebeian when asking for “keg” rather than “bitter”; or a lager instead of a light ale. It sounds nicer, somehow, and more sophisticated.

This is something we keep coming back to – how did lager go from being, in 1966, the classy product you ordered when you felt a little fancy to, by the late 1980s, riot fuel?

And keg as the upmarket choice… That still rings true, sort of, though IPA or ‘craft lager’ are what people actually ask for.

The New Age bartender may look askance should one inadvertently demand a glass of mild instead of a beaker of bland.

No, the correct term is “dark ale”.

A “mixed” may in future be called a blend.

Correct.

An ignorant saloon bar customer might even ostracised (or banned from using the premises) should he refer to his favourite tipple as brown ale – once the colour has changed to beige.

Wrong – instead, it’s almost extinct, and two rare survivors are ordered by brand name.

Overall, Sloane got it right – though never entirely as classless and simple as some romantics would have you believe, beer has become increasingly complex, stratified and laden with meaning.

But things have also been pretty well swirled about, too.

Is a dimple mug of Black Sheep Bitter posh, or plebeian? It depends where you drink it and whether it’s accompanying a packet of scratchings or a plate of gnocchi.

A peek behind the scenes: why are we suddenly looking at A Monthly Bulletin again? Because we had a really thorough tidy up of what we jokingly call The Arthur Millard Memorial Library – that is, our boxroom – and having got rid of a load of books and organised the rest, we’ve rediscovered lots of stuff that we forgot we had. It’s easy to dip into something before bed or in the morning before work and AMB in particular is especially dippable.

London pubs from a woman’s perspective, 1964

A drawing of a pub.
The Kings Head and Eight Bells by John Cooper.

In 1964 Batsford published a guide to London with a twist: it was about where to go and what to do on sleepy Sundays. Such as, for example… visit the pub.

We picked up our copy of London on Sunday at Oxfam in Cotham for £3.99. It’s not a book we’ve ever encountered before, or even heard of.

We haven’t managed to find out much about the author, Betty James, either, except that she wrote a few other books, including London and the Single Girl, published in 1967, and London for Lovers, 1968. She was older than the girlish tone of the book might suggest – in her late forties, we gather – and twice divorced by the time she was profiled in the Newcastle Journal in 1969.

Before the main event, individual pubs crop up here and there – the Grapes in Wapping is accurately described as ‘an old sawdusty river pub’ where the staff give directions to a particularly good but hard-to-find Chinese restaurant.

One of the best lines in the book, thrown away in an itinerary for a walk, is, we’re certain, a dig at male guidebook writers of the period who couldn’t resist rating barmaids:

The Colville Tavern at 72 Kings Road… [has] the best-looking barman in London. Ask for Charles.

Pubs are given real, focused treatment in the dying pages of the book, which is a statement in its own right.

From Monday until Saturday this Sunday is the Local Public House of somebody else in whom once has no interest whatsoever. However… on Sunday at the hour of noon it is entered immediately by the knowledgeable tosspot in order that he may refresh himself in convivial company, while his wife cooks the joint to which he eventually return too late to avoid unpleasantness… Meanwhile, the regular visitor to this Sunday Pub (whose Local Public House it is from Monday until Saturday) will repair to another Sunday Pub because it is considered not schmaltzy to take drink in one’s own Local Public House upon a Sunday.

Inevitably, the first pub to get a write-up is the Grenadier, which we visited earlier this year:

This very old pub is impossible to find. You can wander around the chi-chi little mews surrounding it, absorbing the untraceable emanations of Guards subalterns and debutantes without actually ever seeing anything but a chi-chi little mews… A dread silence occasionally falls upon the place… [because] somebody has mislaid a debutante.

The Kings Head and Eight Bells in Chelsea sounds like fun, with people drinking outside in the embankment gardens on Sunday morning, or blocking the road ‘where they risk being knocked drinkless by other cognoscenti in fast sports job’. It is, Ms. James says, ‘exclusively patronised by absolutely everybody who isn’t anybody’. Sadly, this one seems to be a goner.

A drawing of a pub interior.
The interior of the Square Rigger by John Cooper.

Of course we got really excited at the description of a theme pub, the Square Rigger in the City, near Monument Station:

Fully rigged with seagull cries and the sound of breaking surf there is also an enormous social schism between the Captain’s Cabin and the Mess Decks both 1 and 2… ‘Tween decks there are rope ladders, sails, and yard-arms and that. Together with a lot of beautifully polished brass bar-top.

We see from whatpub.com that it was a notable booze bunker, before its demolition in the 1980s.

Back to those classic mews pubs of west London, the Star in Belgravia, of course, gets a mention, and rather a cheeky one: ‘Well now… The best thing we can say about this pub is that all the aforementioned missing debutantes may be discovered here… recovering… And some of them simply aching for the utter, utter blissikins of getting mislaid again as soon as possible’.

The Windsor Castle in Kensington apparently had ‘Luscious sandwiches’ and quite the scene going on, with actors in the bar and ‘a pig ogling a cow in the pleasant walled garden’.

The last pub tip is given reluctantly:

There is of course one Sunday Pub to which afficionados resort of a Sunday evening. However, it could so easily be completely ruined by hypermetropic invasion that I hardly like to mention it. This is the Lilliput Hall, a Courage’s house at 9 Jamaica Road SE1, where, at around 9 pm, commences the best not-too-far-out jazz this side of paradise. The hundred per cent professional group renderings are led by the guv’nor, Bert Annable, a name to be conjured with in the business, since he’s worked with Cyril Stapleton and Paul Fenoulhet, among others.

Sound like a laugh. Now, it goes without saying, flats, but the closedpubs.co.uk records some nice firsthand memories.

We reckon it’d have been quite nice to read an entire book about pubs by Betty James. She seems to have a feel for them, and her archness is amusing.

Australian drinking culture in London, 1966-1970

One of the perks of having been blogging for as long as we have is that people find us via Google and send us interesting things without us having to make the slightest effort.

At the beginning of February, Sally Mays emailed us asking for help tracking down information about a pub she remembered visiting years ago, the Surrey, just of the Strand in London:

I went there a number of times with my boyfriend when I was a very young woman, around 1970. We were planning to travel to Australia as Ten Pound Poms and Australia House (where we were interviewed) was just around the corner from the Surrey – well, actually on the other side of the Strand, on a corner opposite Surrey Street.

I’m not sure quite how we became aware of the pub but it was mainly frequented by Aussies and New Zealanders and served mostly (perhaps only) Foster’s beer (or lager, I should say). I think it was the only period of my life where I imbibed the amber nectar.

It didn’t look much like a pub – it was housed in one of the buildings on the right hand side of Surrey Street, as you walk down it towards the Embankment. Its décor was very basic – plain, I seem to remember, with lots of beer spilled onto the floor, and a raucous ambience.

Those were days when it was still possible for [incoming] travellers to park their Combi vans down by the Thames for the purposes of selling [them on to outgoers].

[The pub] was a very male-dominated place – the sort that wore shorts and flip flops no matter what the weather!

Sally also pointed us to one of the few sources she’d been able to find – a 1966 diary by a young Australian traveller in London shared on a blog – but we think it’s now been hidden from public view.

The good news is that the first book we reached out for, Green and White’s 1968 Guide to London Pubs, had a detailed entry on the Surrey that confirmed Sally’s memories:

The Surrey, just off the Strand, is the first visiting-place of the newly arrived Australian; though they don’t actually serve schooners of beer, you can get two home-brewed varieties: Swan’s Lager on draught and Foster’s in the bottle. The present house dates back to the turn of the century and had, until a recent fire, a fine collection of Australiana; this was reduced to a couple of boomerangs and photographs of visiting cricketers. It is the sort of place in which the lone Pommie, towards closing time, feels rather uncomfortable; there is a lot of back-slapping and singing and rather too much noise. Otherwise, it is a perfectly normal pub, serving lunch and snacks all day. The upstairs bar is a trifle small, particularly when it gets crowded at lunch-time, but there is plenty of room downstairs, and even a dartboard. A visiting Canadian professor once refused to buy his publisher a box of matches here, but the staff obligingly accepted a 2d cheque, which must prove something. Being handy for Australia House, the prospective migrant, harried by bad weather, housing and taxes, might well take a drink in the Surrey to see how the natives disport themselves.

Since January, we’ve also managed to find our copy of The New London Spy, edited by Hunter Davies and published in 1966. Its section on ‘Australian London’ mentions the Surrey repeatedly as something of a centre of Australian life in London:

Here, on a Friday night, elbow to elbow, surrounded by boomerangs and familiar accents, London’s Australians sip their Fosters (Melbourne) and Swan (Perth)… and complain about jobs (‘lousy bloody seven quid a week’), food (‘I haven’t had a decent steak since I got here’ and the weather (‘How can you ever get a tan in this place?’).

The pace of drinking is, by British standards, express-like, but even so it is unlikely you will see that well-known Australian sight, rare in Britain, the-face-on-the-bar-room-floor. (You can, by the way, pick out the old Australian from the newly-arrived. The seasoned man drinks iced English beer instead of iced Australian.)

This book, though, also lists other notable Australian pubs: the Zambesi Club and the Ifield, both in Earls Court, then known as ‘Kangaroo Valley’ because of its supposed population of 50,000 rowdy Aussies.

An article by Rodney Burbeck in Tatler for 7 May 1966, available in full via to subscribers to the British Newspaper Archive, puts this influx down to the opening of the Overseas Visitors Centre (OVS) in Earls Court in 1955. It also has notes on the culture clash between British drinkers and Australians:

Bill Robertson, 28-year- old farmer, strolling along Earls Court Road on his second night in London [said] ‘We went to Wimbledon last night to see how the other half live. Walked into a pub and every head turned round. We were strangers, foreigners. And what’s more they didn’t drink as quickly as Australians.’ In Earls Court you can walk into a pub and be the only Englishman there. Colleague John McLeod, who writes the London Life drinks column, doesn’t like Australians in pubs. He thinks they are rowdy and boorish and drink too much. I have a friend who says you can always tell an Australian in a pub because when he has finished drinking he falls flat on his face… One girl living in Earls Court says ‘The only Australians I have met have only been interested in two things: rugger and beer.’

The 1972 film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie includes a scene set in an Australian pub in London, with Barry disgusted by English beer and demanding ‘a decent chilled Foster’s’. It might be satire but it probably captures to some degree how these pubs really felt. (For now, you can see it here, at 14:46.)

It feels as if there’s a lot more to be explored here. If you’re an Australian who lived in London in the 1960s-70s with memories of pubs and of hunting ‘iced beer’, do drop us a line.

Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?

You can’t have cops without robbers, or Batman without the Joker, and so the story of the revitalisation of British beer needs its bad guys too. Enter Watney’s.

Watney’s (or Watney Mann, or Watney Combe Reid) was the Evil Corporation which sought to crush plucky small brewers and impose its own terrible beer on the drinking public. It acquired and closed beloved local breweries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clumsy makeovers.

Its Red Barrel was particularly vile – a symbol of all that was wrong with industrial brewing and national brands pushed through cynical marketing campaigns.

This, at least, was the accepted narrative for a long time, formed by the propaganda of the Campaign for Real Ale in its early years, and set hard through years of repetition.

But does it stand up to scrutiny? What if, contrary to everything we’ve heard, Red Barrel was actually kind of OK?

This long post was made possible by the kind support of Patreon subscribers like Matthew Turnbull and David Sim, whose encouragement makes us feel less daft about spending half a weekend working on stuff like this. Please consider signing up, or just buy us a pint.

Continue reading “Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?”

Saddleworth Pub Carpets, 1966

Graham Turner’s fascinating 1967 book The North Country paints portraits of towns and cities from Wigan to Durham, often stopping off in pubs and clubs on the way.

You might remember us quoting from it before, on the subject of Pakistani migrants attempting to integrate into pub life in Bradford in the 1960s.

The rather less politically charged extract below, from a chapter called ‘Over the Top’ about Saddleworth Moor, grabbed our attention for a couple of reasons.

No group of people in the valley are in more demand than the members of the Boarshurst Silver Band. George Gibson, a large, enormously jovial man with a great red face who plays the ‘basso profundo’ and also teaches brass in the local schools, reckons to be out either playing or teaching ‘very near every night’… [He] said over a pint at the King William [that] finding players was not any particular problem – “you find me twenty-four instruments and I’ll find you twenty-four kids”. The King William, incidentally, is one of the pubs in Saddleworth which has treated itself to wall-to-wall carpeting, an extravagance which [local character] John Kenworthy thinks has changed them from forums of discussion into mere drinking places. At one end of the bar were a group of the men we had been drinking with the night before at the Gentleman’s [Club], now deeply engrossed in a catholic selection of racing papers. At the other were half a dozen men in overalls.

So:

  1. Carpets were seen as taking pubs downmarket, somehow? Making them more frivolous?
  2. A reminder that pub carpets aren’t a great old tradition – they’re a relatively new development.
  3. And, carpets aside, a reminder of how class segregation can happen even without physical boundaries.

In case you’re wondering, by the way, the William IV is still there, and still trading as a pub.

Guinness Confidential, 1977: Economic Crisis, Quality Problems, Image Issues

In 1977 Guinness commissioned consultant Alan Hedges to look into why sales of the bottled version of the stout were dropping off. His research revealed changes in the beer, and changes in society.

Hedges is, it turns out, something of a legend in the world of market research having written an important book called Tested to Destruction, published in 1974.

We guess from the odd contextual clue that he got the Guinness gig because he had worked for S.H. Benson, an advertising firm that held the Guinness account in the 1960s.

He may well still be around — he was active in the industry in the past decade or two — so maybe he’ll pop up to tell us more if he ever stumbles across this post. (That’s one reason we like to put things like this out into the world.)

This particular item is yet another document from the collection of Guinness paperwork we’re currently sorting through on behalf of its owner. We’re not going to share the whole thing, just highlight some of the most interesting parts.

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The Mother lode: Attitudes to Beer, 1963

In 1963 Guinness hired Public Attitude Surveys Ltd to compiled research into the attitudes of drinkers towards stout, and the state of the beer market more generally.

The resulting report feels to us like an important document, recording statistics on different types of beer, and different types of drinker, based on gender, social class and attitudes to alcohol.

It’s about Guinness but almost accidentally gives us great insight into the rise of lager, the death of mild, and so on.

Unless we’re mistaken, this is a source that hasn’t previously made its way into the public domain or otherwise been much exploited, though there were some contemporary newspaper reports picking up on its findings. We only have our hands on a copy because it came as part of the collection of Guinness papers we’re sorting through on behalf of the owner.

It begins with a summary of what was learned from previous ‘National Stout Surveys’ carried out in 1952-53 and 1958-59:

Guinness was markedly more dependent on the heavy drinker than Mackeson, the next most successful stout on the market… Recruitment to Guinness was not to any substantial amount from sweet stouts… [And] Guinness was much more dependent on the older drinker – those over 45 – than Mackeson and the other sweet stouts.

This helps us understand what Guinness was worried about: that younger drinkers were turning away from dark, bitter, heavy beers. That’s a problem when your flagship product — more or less your only product — is a dark, bitter, heavy beer.

Graph -- main drink by sex

This is the first big splash from the document. It shows that in the early 1960s women hardly touched draught bitter or mild, and weren’t especially keen on the then fashionable bottled ales either. But lager and stout – two opposite ends of the spectrum you might say – were about equally popular with men and women.

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Bits We Underlined In… A Year at the Peacock, 1964

BOOK COVER: A Year at the Peacock

There was a rash of memoirs by publicans in the mid-20th century and Tommy Layton’s A Year at the Peacock is a classic example, full of detail, riven with snobbery, and ending in unhappiness.

Paul Bailey (no relation) tipped us off to this one a few years ago but we only recently acquired a copy and set about it with the highlighter pen.

Layton (born in 1910) was a restaurateur, wine merchant and drinks writer generally described using words such as “irascible”, “eccentric” or “quirky”. His self-portrayal in this book conveys that bad-tempered eccentricity, exhibiting a remarkably objective view of his own rather sour personality.

The book tells the story of how he came to take on a pub in Kent, having first noticed its potential while passing through on the way to France on a wine-related mission. In his first conversation with the incumbent publican Layton gleans some interesting nuggets of information about beer,  a subject about which he is initially quite ignorant:

“Whose beer do you take?” I continued.

“Fremlins. The hop-pickers like it far the best,” he said.

“Hop-pickers?” I replied. “I thought they were all in Kent.”

“You are in Kent here,” he said. “The boundary is a bit funny round here.”

Then he loosened up a bit and gave me a fat, pleasant smile. “Cor! You should have seen the crowds here on the lawns before they started installing the hop-picking machinery. Hundred upon hundreds of them, all drinking pints as fast as you could pour it out. Why, we had to take over a huge shed which has been specially licensed as an overflow service.”

Layton eventually bought the pub, despite grim warnings from Mr Christopher, the outgoing publican (“You take practically nothing here in the winter, and precious little more in the summer.”) and set about rejuvenating the old inn.

Tommy Layton
Tommy Layton

A string of odd discoveries follow: the pub sold foul-smelling vinegar and paraffin by the jug from casks stored in the cellar next to the beer; there was no bar, only  a hatch, so the person serving had to stand for their entire shift; and the cellar froze in winter, but became a furnace in summer.

As in the fictionalised memoir We Keep a Pub a large part of Layton’s book is taken up with portraits of publicans — in this case, the temporary managers he hires to do the actual day-to-day work of running the pub, via an agency. Shepherd is his clear favourite:

[He was] a thin middle-aged man who to the inn at once, and the inn seemed to fit him to perfection. Beer was to him what wine is to me; a hobby, a livelihood, and a darned good drink. Before inquiring about his accommodation, or food arrangements, and quite unaffectedly and in such a way one could not take offence, he went straight to the beer casks, pulled out the spigots, pulled himself a glass of beer, held it up to the light and savoured it. An extraordinarily pleasant smile lit up his face as the bitter got his approval. He then did the same with the mild , and again he was happy.

Shepherd patiently corrects all of Layton’s mistakes, such as using optics designed for dispensing fruit cordials to hop-pickers’ children for spirits so that every measure was by default a double. He also educates Layton on the benefits of different methods of dispense, starting with a dissection of “Beer from the Wood” served direct from casks on the bar:

“It tastes much flatter, and the beer doesn’t retain its head,” said Shepherd.

Actually, the nauseating white froth which appears on the top of a glass of ale is supposed to appeal to the beer-drinking populace and professional brewers talk about ‘collar retention’.

By and large Shepherd was right; the advantages of below-ground cellars for beer in wooden casks, in contradistinction to the trouble-free beer dispensers in metal drums under pressure, are irrefutable…

Among the advantages Layton mentions is that “There is no contamination due to pipe smoke” — not something we’d ever considered given the smoke-free days we live in.

If further confirmation was required that cask ale could sometimes be a grotty product, Layton provides it in his account of the overspill bowl which catches drippings from reused glasses that customers insist must be filled right to the brim ever time:

[Overspilled] beer from fifty different mouths… is more often than note left in the bar all night and goes back into the casks for consumption the next day. I do not exaggerate: this is what is happening all over Britain, and is a practice that the Ministry of Health… is trying to stop by forcing publicans to adopt a lined measure so that the beer does not come up to the rim of the glass.

When he later has a falling out with Shepherd it is over his mishandling of a recently treated cask: “I’d just topped that cask up with yesterday’s spillings… and they would have settled down nicely. Now they are all churned up.”

Layton, hygienically minded and no lover of cask ale, is fairly warm towards convenient, clean keg bitters:

The beer in these containers is brewed to appeal to the younger generation; it is crisper and less oily than the cask stuff, and there are some who disapprove of it strongly. My friend Brian Fox, of the Victory Inn, Arundel, fumes with indignation at the thought of any free Mine Host stocking such swipes. But he is wrong; tastes change.

Elsewhere in the book you can enjoy Layton expressing his disdain for northerners and their disgusting cooking — “It may be all right up north… but down here we wouldn’t throw it to the pigs” — and revolutionising the pancake; if we’d read it sooner we might have cited it in the section of 20th Century Pub on the development of the gastropub.

After snottily ordering around a succession of managers, treating them more like his personal servants than skilled agency staff, and ending up with worse and weirder characters each time.

Eventually, he has something of a breakdown:

The truth was that the Peacock Inn, Iden Green was wearing my nerves raw. I became aware of this when I drove up to the inn and realized that I had been sitting in the driving-seat for some minutes summoning up the willpower to get out and enter the house.

Seemingly out of nowhere, but perhaps an oblique reflection of his mental state, one of the final chapters is an account of a tour of the sites of Nazi concentration camps on the Continent.

It isn’t a great book. Layton isn’t a great writer. The structure is episodic, digressive, and repetitive. But, still, if you want a snapshot of life in a country pub in the early 1960s, here it is, from bottles of brown ale to “segments of gherkin” on the bar on Sunday afternoon.

Our copy cost a fiver and will no doubt prove a useful addition to the Arthur Millard Memorial Library.

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?