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.
Carpets were seen as taking pubs downmarket, somehow? Making them more frivolous?
A reminder that pub carpets aren’t a great old tradition – they’re a relatively new development.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.