In 1974, everyone was talking about beer and pubs – or, at least, a lot of middle-aged male writers. Like Keith Waterhouse, for example, who expressed his passionate views in a piece for Punch in July that year.
Before we get into that, though, let’s think about 1974.
Richard Boston’s column in The Guardian was in full swing, having started in the summer of 1973. Ian Nairn’s influential piece, ‘The Best Beers of our Lives’, appeared in the Sunday Times on 30 June 1974.
This was, in other words, a pivotal year.
But Keith Waterhouse was no bandwagon jumper. He’d threaded a commentary on pubs through his 1959 comic novel Billy Liar, suggesting this was something he thought about a lot:
The New House was an enormous drinking barracks that had been built to serve Cherry Row and the streets around it. The New House was not its proper title. According to the floodlit inn-sign stuck on a post in the middle of the empty car park, the pub was called the Who’d A Thought It. There had been a lot of speculation about how this name had come about, but whatever the legend was it had fallen completely flat in Clogiron Lane. Nobody called the pub anything but the New House.
His piece for Punch picks up this thread more than a decade later, on the other side of the invention of the theme pub and the ‘bird’s nest’, and the coming of Watney’s Red.
It opens, as essays about pubs often seem to do, with a reference to George Orwell’s ‘The Moon Under Water’ (now a successful podcast), before providing an update on the imaginary pub’s fortunes since the 1960s:
The Moon was originally owned by Buggins’s Brewery, a family concern so tiny that its entire output could be distributed throughout London by three teams of drayhorses. Buggins sold out to Duggins’s Draught, Duggins in turn merged with Coggins’s Keg, and finally the whole mini-conglomerate was taken over by Consolidated Piss.
This echoes CAMRA’s line of attack against Watney’s et al (their beer was full of chemicals) and gives us a taste of the anti-lager rhetoric to come (it looks like urine). It also reminds us of Bill Tidy’s longrunning ‘Keg Buster’ comic strip for CAMRA and its fictional brewery ‘Crudgington’s’.
It’s also a neat summary of what happened to many small local breweries during the period of post-war consolidation in British brewing.
Next, Waterhouse tells us, Consolidated Piss played its part in the revolutionising of the pub industry as a whole, being “as interested in commercial property, bingo halls, hamburger-dromes and roofing felt as they are in beer”. Each “independent corner pub”, he writes, “became one of a chain of 15,000 ‘outlets’.”
Waterhouse argues that The Moon Under Water took the wrong course at around the time of the Festival of Britain when its then landlord, “Len” decided to give it a facelift: “What the class of people we get in her wants… is more of your modern”:
So down came the ornamental mirrors and the stuffed bull’s head over the nally mantelpiece. The cast-iron fireplaces went to the scrapyard. New plastic tables, which could be wiped over with a cloth for all the world as if they were topped with marble like the ones that had graced the saloon bar for nigh on a century, were installed. And very pretty they were, if a bit rocky…
Len was succeeded by Ken who took things further yet in pursuit of his ambition to “get rid of the public bar trade and start a Sunday morning darts league among the cravat-wearers and ladies in trouser suits”.
Ken’s successor, Ben, installed “a juke box, a fruit machine, a television set, a pin-table, and later an ingenious electronic tennis game costing ten pence a go”.
It’s interesting reading this in 2022 when darts, juke boxes, ploughman’s lunches and, we guess, (non-craft) keg beer, are all considered markers of a pubs down-to-earth ‘properness’. It only takes a generation or so for the new-fangled to harden into tradition.
Through the course of the article, Waterhouse hits all the main notes of CAMRA rhetoric in this period, including that:
- pubs aren’t about food
- consumers are being sold worse and weaker keg beer with ever more ludicrous claims of ‘authenticity’
- the inevitable conclusion is demolition and reconstruction in glass and metal
At the end of the piece, though, he observes, albeit sourly, a turning of the tide:
Nowadays there seems to be a demand for traditional pubs, to compete with the craze for Edwardian wine bars. Their clever young designer knows where he can get his hands on some ornamental mirrors, marble tables, cast-iron fire places and various knick-knacks such as a stuffed bull’s head. He can also get hold of some original Victorian ceiling-moulds and there is a chemical process by which a ceiling can be stained dark yellow as if by tobacco-smoke. But of course all this stuff comes expensive, and it must inevitably be reflected in the price of beer.
And he was right – see chapter 6 of our book 20th Century Pub for more on that trend.
Does anyone know if Waterhouse was a CAMRA member? We’d be a bit surprised if not.
If, like us, you like to gather stray examples of beer writing from newspapers and magazines, it’s well worth hunting down a copy of this particular issue of Punch. Besides Waterhouse’s entertaining article there are various supporting features such as a collection of ‘New Pub Songs’…
The English Pub in Singapore
Is filled with Finns from door to door.
Skol! Gezondheid! Sante! Cheers!
Pleece, you gif me six warm beers.
…and a special spread of (not very funny) cartoons on the subject of pubs and wine bars. This one is the best:
The cover illustration, by Geoffrey Dickinson, is arguably the most eloquent statement of all.