Cold Beer in the Australian Outback, 1961

We’re increasingly convinced that if you pick up most popular novels published between about 1945 and 1970 and start flipping the pages you’ll soon stumble upon an extended passage about beer and/or pubs.

Ken­neth Cook’s 1961 nov­el Wake in Fright gets straight down to busi­ness: with­in the first 10 pages the pro­tag­o­nist, Grant, hits the hotel bar in the des­o­late out­back set­tle­ment where he teach­es.

Schooner, Char­lie,” he said to the hotel-keep­er, who emerged from his dark back room wear­ing, for some rea­son, a waist­coat over his drenched shirt.

Char­lie pulled the beer.

In the remote towns of the west there are few of the ameni­ties of civ­i­liza­tion; there is no sew­er­age, there are no hos­pi­tals, rarely a doc­tor; the food is drea­ry and flavour­less from long car­ry­ing, the water is bad; elec­tric­i­ty is for the few who can afford their own plant, roads are most­ly non-exis­tent; there are no the­atres, no pic­ture shows and few dance halls; and the peo­ple are saved from stark insan­i­ty by the one strong prin­ci­ple of progress that is ingrained for a thou­sand miles, east, north, south and west of the Dead Heart – the beer is always cold.

The teacher let his fin­gers curl around the bead­ed glass, quelling the lit­tle spurt of bit­ter­ness that rose when he saw the size of the head of froth on the beer, because, after all, it didn’t mat­ter, and this poor dev­il of a hotel-keep­er had to stay here and he was going east.

He drank quick­ly at first, swamp­ing the dry­ness in his throat in a flood of beer; and then, when the glass was half emp­ty, he drank slow­ly, let­ting the cold alco­hol relax his body.

Wake in Fright has been adapt­ed for the screen twice, most­ly recent­ly in 2017, and the most recent edi­tion from Text Clas­sics is a TV tie-in. Our edi­tion is a Pen­guin paper­back from 1967 and cost £2.50.

J.B. Priestley on Improved Pubs in the Midlands, 1934

The passage below appears in English Journey by J.B. Priestley, published in 1934, and just reprinted in hardback by Great Northern Books, though we found our copy for £4 in the local Amnesty bookshop.

A hun­dred pages in, it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing, rather sour view of a land of cheap rain­coats and glum hotel bars, but it’s impos­si­ble to write about Eng­land with­out at least acknowl­edg­ing pubs, and the 1930s were an espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing time.

We’ve tak­en the lib­er­ty of insert­ing some extra para­graph breaks for read­ing on a screen:

Half-shaved, dis­il­lu­sioned once more, I caught the bus that runs between Coven­try and Birm­ing­ham… We trun­dled along at no great pace down pleas­ant roads, dec­o­rat­ed here and there by the pres­ence of new gaudy pubs. These pubs are a marked fea­ture of this Mid­lands land­scape.

Some of them are admirably designed and built; oth­ers have been inspired by the idea of Mer­rie Eng­land, pop­u­lar in the neigh­bour­hood of Los Ange­les. But whether come­ly or hideous, they must all have cost a pot of mon­ey, prov­ing that the brew­ers… still have great con­fi­dence in their prod­ucts.

At every place, how­ev­er, I noticed that some attempt had been made to enlarge the usu­al attrac­tions of the beer-house; some had bowl­ing greens, some adver­tised their food, oth­ers their music. No doubt even more ambi­tious plans for amuse­ment would have been put into force  if there had been no oppo­si­tion from the tee­to­tallers, those peo­ple who say they object to pub­lic-hous­es because you can do noth­ing in them but drink, but at the same time stren­u­ous­ly oppose the pub­li­cans who offer to give their cus­tomers any­thing but drink.

The trick is – and long has been – to make or keep the beer-house dull or dis­rep­utable, and then to point out how dull or dis­rep­utable it is. Is is rather as if the rest of us should com­pel tee­to­tallers to wear their hair long and unwashed, and then should write pam­phlets com­plain­ing of their dirty habits: “Look at their hair,” we should cry.

For more on inter-war improved pubs, with their bowl­ing greens and tea­rooms, see chap­ter 2 of our 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub.

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?

Our Village Parliament

Will Jones’s Somerset bumpkin character Jarge Balsh first appeared in print in 1925 and thereafter in a series of books, article and radio broadcasts. The last book, Our Village Parliament, written in the late 1940s, is set in and around an important institution: the inn.

Like the oth­er Jarge Balsh books it is nar­rat­ed by a city man in stan­dard Eng­lish, while the yokels’ speech is report­ed in a ver­sion of north Som­er­set dialect: “I da zee, accordin’ the ‘The Rag’ thaay bin a meade a vine mess on’t now in Par­lia­ment”, and so on. Here’s how the nar­ra­tor opens Our Vil­lage Par­lia­ment:

Away back in in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, in days when motor-pro­pelled vehi­cles had not begun to dis­turb the peace­ful seren­i­ty of the coun­try-side, and when the rur­al land­scape lay yet unsul­lied by poles and wires for con­vey­ing elec­tric pow­er or for receiv­ing the dis­tract­ing sounds sent out through the ether; men were wont to fore­gath­er at the vil­lage inn to dis­cuss local top­ics and world events.

The pop­u­lar night was pay-night and Fri­day acquired an added impor­tant from the fact that the local week­ly news­pa­per was pub­lished on that day. The nation­al dai­ly papers were tak­en only by a select few who had to be con­tent with get­ting them a day late by post.…

A detailed descrip­tion of the ‘King William’ kitchen with its chim­ney-place like a small room and the extra­or­di­nary char­ac­ters which make up “woold Moth­er Barker’s” clien­tele would but bore those read­ers who have met them in oth­er records by the present writer.

Though the action of the sto­ries in the book takes place in the pub it is not pri­mar­i­ly about pubs. There are nonethe­less some nice details:

Time, gen­namin, please,” broke in the voice of Mrs Bark­er. “Let I zee your backs tonight an’ your feaces at ten-thir­ty, mar­ra’ mornin’.”

There fol­lowed the usu­al ref­er­ence to watch­es which seem­ing­ly agreed that the King William clock was “vive min­utes in front o’ the Church clock – how a hit nine o’clock”, but our land­la­dy stout­ly main­tained the verac­i­ty of her time­piece.

Over­whelm­ing tes­ti­mo­ny that her faith was jus­ti­fied came from the Church clock itself, which inter­rupt­ed the argu­ment by strik­ing the fatal hour. Mrs Bark­er paused in the mid­dle of a heat­ed sen­tence and turned out the light.

And so we all went home.

Bat­tles between the reg­u­lars and Mrs Bark­er over clos­ing time are a recur­ring theme through­out the book (she is anx­ious about the new tee­to­tal vil­lage con­sta­ble) as is her stingi­ness with the oil lamp, “so dif­fer­ent to the glare of the elec­tric bulb”.

Jarge Balsh as depict­ed in 1926.

Chap­ter III is an inter­est­ing one to read in 2018’s cli­mate of polit­i­cal divi­sion con­cern­ing as it does the wis­dom of dis­cussing pol­i­tics in the pub. It opens with a gloom set­tled oved the “old tap-room” as Jarge Balsh and Abra­ham Nokes sit sulk­ing hav­ing dis­agreed over the ques­tion of “Nation­al­iza­tion and Pri­vate Enter­prise”:

If I had my waay, thaay as do arg’ on pol­i­tics out­side a polit­i­cal meetin’ should be shut up togeth­er ‘til tha’ learned on anoth­er bet­ter. Whut good do ‘em do wi’ ther’ blitherin’ I should like to know?

Else­where there are pas­sages con­cern­ing pub seat­ing…

He who made the first set­tle must have chuck­led with Satan­ic glee after hav­ing test­ed and proved the poten­tial mis­ery con­tained in the thing… Not being blessed with even aver­age adi­pose tis­sue I can only endure the expe­ri­ence by press­ing a hand on the seat either side of that por­tion of my anato­my so essen­tial for the act of relief. This redis­tri­b­u­tion of pres­sure cer­tain­ly affords relief to the angle-bones but at the same time is incon­ve­nient to one requir­ing the use of his hands for inhal­ing cig­a­rette smoke and imbib­ing cider… I might have men­tioned that its back ris­es straight from a seat which is noth­ing else but a nine-inch board.

…and pub fires:

In the hearth fire, beneath the huge chim­ney, the butt ends of oak tree branch­es blazed and crack­led mer­ri­ly. Mrs Bark­er pro­vid­ed the branch­es and her cus­tomers pulled them along the floor as the ends became con­sumed on the hearth. The pleas­ant aro­ma of burn­ing wood per­vad­ed the atmos­phere and the cider, for which the King William was not­ed, left one lit­tle more to desire.

There’s also what feels like an ear­ly use of the word “ban­ter” to describe the par­tic­u­lar kind of blok­ish back-and-forth that, for many, is the very point of the pub, and notes on judg­ing the con­di­tion of cider by sound: “I do like to yur it go znick! znick! when I da put it to me yur.”

In short, if you’re after a por­trait of pub life as it was in the ear­ly to mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, that hasn’t already been milked to death by anthol­o­gis­ers and quo­ta­tion­eers, and that focus­es in par­tic­u­lar on coun­try life, then this might be the book for you.

Our paper­back edi­tion, dat­ing from around the 1960s, cost us about four quid, and there are plen­ty of copies around.

You can read more about Will Jones and Jarge Balsh in this com­pre­hen­sive blog post by a rel­a­tive of the author.