Drinking About Architecture

Detail from the cover of Nairn's London.

We’d never heard of Ian Nairn until a couple of weeks ago, but he’s unavoidable if you spend any time at all reading newspapers from the 1950s and 60s. He made his name with Outrage (1955), a treatise on the architectural (and therefore cultural) homogenisation of British culture, lavishly illustrated with photographs from towns around the country which demonstrate the increasing difficulty of telling the suburbs of Southampton from those of Carlisle. Thereafter, he wrote hundreds of weekly columns and books, and hosted several TV shows up until the 1970s.

He worked with, and was a disciple of, Nikolaus Pevsner, but his own books were much more accessible. Perhaps disproving the point we made here, his architectural guide to the capital, Nairn’s London (1966), includes almost thirty pubs and, in many cases, mentions the quality of the beer. (Nairn liked a drink. No, actually, Nairn liked lots of drinks.)

He writes about pubs with flourish and wit.

  • The Barley Mow, Marylebone: has ‘cubicles… for romantic indiscretion or flogging atomic secrets’.
  • The Beehive, a Fuller’s pub in Brentford: ‘a song’, but causes him to lament that ‘there don’t seem to be the same number of real people around any more, especially among the designers of pubs’.
  • The Black Friar, Blackfriars: ‘tainted with a particularly musty imagination which has clouded the space like a bad pint of bitter’.
  • The Black Lion, Plaistow: ‘has gone back to the fountain-head of human pubbiness’.
  • Crown and Greyhound, Dulwich: ‘an act of love, it bursts out all over — and has the same reverberating effect as a an untouched nineteenth-century pub, because it is set off by a similar gusto’.
  • The Grenadier, Wilton Row: ‘untouched by half timber, leaded light, chromium plate, or Festival of Britain lettering… the old servants’ pub that has short-circuited to become a local for rich mews-dwellers’.
  • The Swan and Mitre, Bromley: ‘teeters all the time on the brink of preciousness, but never quite falls in… the tension is invigorating… The notice requesting you not to take draught beer into the lounge… is in fact topographically just: this really is the place where you drink with your little finger crooked’.

Our 1967 paperback, on the brink of disintegration, wasn’t cheap: if you see a copy, snap it up.

European Beer, 1634

Oscar A. Mendelsohn’s Drinking With Pepys (1963) is a compendium of everything Pepys wrote about alcoholic drinks, including beer and ale. As a bonus feature, Mendelsohn also includes a long letter by a contemporary of Pepys, James Howell, to Lord Cliff. Here are our favourite bits.

In this Island the old drink was Ale, noble Ale, than which, as I heard a great Forreign Doctor affirm, that there is no Liquor that more encreaseth the radical Moysture, and preserves the natural Heat, which are the two Pillars that support the Life of Man, but since Beer hath hop’d in amongst us, Ale is thought to be much adulterated, and nothing so good as Sir John Old-Castle, and Smugg the Smith was us’d to drink…

In the Seventeen Provinces hard by, and all by low Germany, Beer is the common natural Drink, and nothing else, so it is in Westfalia, and all the lower Circuit of Saxony, in Denmark, Swethland and Norway; The Prusse has a Beer as yellow as Gold made of wheat, and it inebriates as soon as Sack. In some parts of Germany they use to spice their Beer, which will keep many years; so that at some Weddings there will be a But of Beer drunk out, as old as the Bride.

His source is a 1624 edition of The Familar Letters of James Howells, e-texts of which are available online, though we’re struggling to find this particular letter.

Drunken Uncles

Detail from the cover of The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart.

Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957) was once a very fashionable book but, like Room at the Top, is little read these days. It is a review of working class culture in Britain which sits neatly alongside the ‘angry young man’ fiction of the time. Its thesis is that working class life, with its many complexities and regional variations, is being eroded by industrialised ‘mass culture’, especially that imported from the United States.

Of course, no study of British life would be complete without a look at drinking.

On the one hand, drinking is accepted as part of the normal life, or at least of the normal man’s life, like smoking. ‘A man needs ‘is pint’; it helps to make life worth while; if one can’t have a bit of pleasure like that, then what is there to live for? It is ‘natural’ for a man to like his beer. Women seem to be drinking more easily now then they did a generation ago; even as late as my adolescence [in the 1930s] the ‘gin-and-It’ woman was regarded as a near-tart.

He goes on to explain that men in different situations are ‘allowed’ to drink more or less depending on their particular circumstances. Widowers can drink as much as they like as they have nothing to go home to; men without children can’t be said to be ‘taking the bread from their children’s mouths’ if they spend a lot on beer; but a man with wife and children should always ‘provide’ first.

On the whole, the emphasis is a double one: on the rightness of drinking in itself, and on the realization that, if it once ‘gets hold’, complete collapse — a near-literal home-breaking as the furniture is sold — may well follow.

Is it any wonder, Hoggart observes, that the Temperance Movement had such success from the 19th century until the 1930s? ‘I had a drunken uncle, the last of a line which stretched well back to the seventies,’ he recalls. Publicans must miss those drunken uncles.

We’re reading Hoggart, along with Ian Nairn, as we get to grips with the post-war fear of cultural homegenisation which we think was important in the emergence of CAMRA and ‘real ale’ culture.

Home Brewing Without Failures

Home Brewing Without Failures by H.E. Bravery

Bailey’s mum keeps her eye out for books on beer and brewing and pops them in our Christmas stockings as little extras. Suffice to say, they are often among the most interesting gifts we receive.

Following on from yesterday’s post about reckless, thrill-filled world of elderflower champagne making, here are some hints and tips from Home Brewing Without Failures by H.E. Bravery (1965; our edition 1969).

1.”For fermentation purposes, a polythene dustbin bought especially for the purpose is ideal… [A] thick polythene bag… may be used quite well for fermenting beers provided it has suitable support… [such as] an old barrel.”

2. “Where there must be no flavouring from the sugar and where darkening must be practised… gravy browning may be used, but go easy with it.” (B&B’s emphasis.)

3. “How does the trade get the yeast out of bottles? The fact is that they let them ferment right out, and then siphon the still beer into bottles… and then charge them with gas. The word used is ‘carbonated’. Maybe one day there will be a means by which any home operator will be able to do this; until then, the commercial brewer has the advantage over us.”

4. “Mild Ale recipe ingredients: 4 lb crystal malt, 3 lb demerara sugar, 1 lb. flaked maize, 5 oz hops, small level teaspoonful salt, ¼ oz citric acid, dessertspoonful caramel.” (B&B’s emphasis.)

5. “Brown Ale I recipe ingredients: 4 lb roasted malt, 1 lb black patent malt, 4 lb demerara sugar, 4 oz hops, 1 level teaspoonful salt, ½ oz citric acid, yeast, nutrient.” (B&B’s emphasis.)

6. “I have come to the conclusion that France and the Frenchman do not know what good beer really is… Beers in France are more like thin lager and I have a suspicion — probably false — that some of them are produced from the remnants of the grape crops.”

7. If you decide to make beer with black grapes “use only the juice… otherwise you will have a pink lager owing to the colour coming from the grape skins. Pink Lager — well, why not? The die-hards will be at my throat for this one!”

Doesn’t that last one sound like Count Arthur Strong?

Stimulus from the World of Wine

Close up of The Thinker

We recently asked people to recommend books which weren’t about beer but which could help us better understand beer, prompted by reminders from Knut and Alan that books on other topics do actually exist and can be all the more illuminating for their distance from The Obsession.

Gareth, who writes the Beer Advice blog, and has a background in wine retailing, suggested Questions of Taste: the Philosophy of Wine (Ed. Barry C. Smith, 2007), a collection of essays exploring what it really means to ‘taste’ wine. Is it possible to taste objectively? Which qualities are an essential part of the wine and which are projected by the taster? Are some wines really better than others in an objective sense? And so on.

If you’re allergic to the merest whiff of pretension, you won’t enjoy it, but, so far, like Johnny Five in search of input, we’re finding it very thought-provoking, and are already itching to write posts based on ideas therein.

Here’s one example from the essay ‘The Power of Tastes: Reconciling Science and Subjectivity’ by Ophelia Deroy:

Am I objective when I say that this wine tastes like ripe pineapple, or do I just indulge in association of memories, condemned to remain purely personal? Do I try to find rare tastes or fine adjectives to conform to a social ritual, in an arbitrary and perhaps pretentious way? But, even if socially codified, do these practices and ways of talking about wine transform the experience we have of it?

This set of all kinds of fireworks in our brains. We’ve certainly found ourselves thinking: “We can’t just call this beer hoppy — people won’t approve,” and so sipped, sniffed, struggled, trying to unlock a particular elusive aroma or flavour; and we recently saw a novice beer reviewer (one with a provocative sense of hubris) shot down for the lack of finesse in his tasting notes — for not going deep enough.

What if those elusive flavours just aren’t there? Or the label we’re putting on them only makes sense to us because we’re recalling a particular mango, of a particular variety, at a specific point of ripeness, that we ate at a particular time in a particular place?

Other recommendations — the further removed from beer the better — very welcome! Picture from Flickr Creative Commons.