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.