The Welsh poet and essayist Dylan Thomas enjoyed beer rather too much and it’s no surprise that pubs often crop up in his writing, and that their atmospheres are so brilliantly evoked.
‘Return Journey’ was written for the BBC in 1947 and we came across it in Quite Early One Morning, a 1954 collection of Thomas’s radio scripts. You can find the full text today in various books in print today such as the Dylan Thomas Omnibus.
But, by way of a taster, here’s the passage in which Thomas describes visiting the Hotel (a pub) in a bleak post-Blitz Swansea in search of his younger self:
The bar was just opening, but already one customer puffed and shook at the counter with a full pint of half-frozen Tawe water in his wrapped-up hand. I said Good morning, and the barmaid, polishing the counter vigorously as thought it were a rare and valuable piece of Swansea china, said to her first customer:
Seen the film at the Elysium Mr Griffiths there’s snow isn’t it did you come up on your bicycle our pipes burst Monday…
A pint of bitter, please.
Proper little lake in the kitchen got to wear your Wellingtons when you boil an egg one and four please…
The cold gets me just here…
…and eightpence change that’s your liver Mr Griffiths you been on the cocoa again…
After a passage in which Thomas describes his younger self (“blubber lips; snub nose; curly mousebrown hair”) there is a wonderful non sequitur from the barmaid…
I remember a man came here with a monkey. Called for ‘alf for himself and a pint for the monkey. And he wasn’t Italian at all. Spoke Welsh like a preacher.
…and some more customers arrive:
Snowy business bellies pressed their watch-chains against the counter; black business bowlers, damp and white now as Christmas pudding in their cloths, bobbed in front of the misty mirrors. The voice of commerce rang sternly through the lounge.
The final sad comment on pubs in this story reflects a common experience across Britain during the post-war period:
What’s the Three Lamps like now?
It isn’t like anything. It isn’t there. It’s nothing mun. You remember Ben Evans’s stores? It’s right next door to that. Ben Evans isn’t there either…
Among the literary sources we identified but did not have space to mention in 20th Century Pub was Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 comic social realist novel Billy Liar.
It contains a chapter in which Billy Fisher, an aspiring comedian and writer in the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, practices his stand-up routine at a local pub:
The New House was an 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.
There was a windy, rubber-tiled hallway where the children squatted, eating potato crisps and waiting for their mothers. Two frosted-glass doors, embossed with the brewery trademark, led off it, one into the public bar and one into the saloon…
The men who say [in the public bar] were refugees from the warm terrace-end pubs that had been pulled down; they around drinking mild and calling to each other across the room as though nothing had changed… The few items in the New House that gave it anything like the feel of a pub – the dartboard, the cribbage markers, the scratched blind-box, and the pokerwork sign that said IYBMADIBYO, if you buy me a drink I’ll buy you one – were all part of the same portable world, as if they had been wheeled here in prams in the flight from the old things.
This fictional pub has a concert hall which suggests to us that Waterhouse had in mind one built between the wars rather than in the period after World War II.
The Belle Isle, on an estate not far from where Waterhouse grew up, is one possible candidate as a model – a drinking barracks indeed, but now a nursing home.
The ‘Real Ale Twats’ strip first appeared in the adult comic Viz in 2001 and has a cult following among beer enthusiasts, because they recognise in it either themselves, or The Enemy.
We’re long-time Viz subscribers and spent a bit of time researching the RATs, as they are abbreviated, when we were writing Brew Britannia. A couple of people had suggested to us that the RATs might be the source of the popular stereotype of the bearded CAMRA member, assuming incorrectly (as did we) that it had first appeared as far back as the 1980s. That proved to be a dead end for the book but gave us a fresh appreciation for the strip, especially on those occasions when it felt as if the author was eavesdropping on beer social media.
Then, when we happened to connect via Twitter with its creator, Viz veteran Davey Jones, earlier this year, we took the opportunity to ask him some questions about how the strip came to be, and the source of its often painfully accurate observations.
The following Q&A was conducted by back-and-forth of emails with some light editing for clarity and flow.
* * *
What prompted the idea of the Real Ale Twats? Was there some specific incident or person you had in mind?
I’ve always been a fan of the band Half Man Half Biscuit and they had done a song called ‘CAMRA Man’ which made me want to draw a strip along those lines. It’s got lyrics like “Weekend vintage car show, Dr Who aficionado” and so on.
Also I’ve spent quite a lot of time in pubs and the characters are sort of composites of types that I encountered. There was a bloke who used to come into my local in Newcastle who had a big beard and a beret and always seemed to be carrying several shoulder bags. He may not even have been a real ale enthusiast – I don’t think I ever heard him speak – but he had the right look, so I drew him. Probably very unfairly.
How did the editorial team react to the idea when you pitched it?
Back then I was part of the editorial team – there were five of us at the time, I think. I’ve since gone back to being a freelancer, working on my own. But in 2001 we were sat around in someone’s back garden, trying to come up with ideas, and I mentioned wanting to do this strip about real ale drinkers. As we were chatting about it, Simon Donald, who did the Sid the Sexist strip, started talking in this stupid ‘stout yeoman of the bar’ voice – “Hither barlord, a foaming tankard of your finest” and all that, and that seemed to fit.
The first strip involved the three characters going to a pub called The Murderer’s Arms by mistake, and ends with the main character getting a pint glass shoved in his face. Which is something that happens quite often in Viz cartoons.
How does a strip typically come together? How do you go about finding the seed for a story?
I just try to think of a pub-related theme that I haven’t done yet – vaping, or pub grub, or whatever. I enjoy doing ones that are vaguely autobiographical, or at least are exaggerations of thoughts that I’ve had myself. For instance, I’ve caught myself inwardly grumbling about all the people who only go to the pub over Christmas, crowding the place out and not knowing the correct rules of behaviour at the bar. So I got a couple of strips out of that, with the Twats pontificating about “amateur drinkers” and so on. It can be quite satisfying to make fun of yourself, especially if you’re the only one who knows that you’re making fun of yourself.
That’s interesting. It makes it seem a bit less ‘mean’, for want of a better word.
Yes, I do regard myself as being a bit of a Twat. It takes one to know one, to some extent.
But what about real ale – have you ever been a CAMRA member yourself?
I never got round to joining CAMRA. I don’t know why. I love pubs. When I was younger I spent a lot of time sitting in pubs on my own, and there’s nothing quite like it. You just sit there drifting from thought to thought, and tuning in and out of conversations going on around you, as the drink settles in. As I’ve got older I do less solitary drinking, but sometimes think I should go back to it a bit more, because you get to observe all these weird social dynamics and power games going on around the bar. All the boasting and one-upmanship. When you’re having a sociable drink with friends, you tend to miss all that, probably because you’re doing all those things yourself.
I drink real ale and like it, but I’m not knowledgeable about it. If it’s about 4 to 4.5 percent, and got ‘summer’ or ‘blonde’ or ‘golden’ in the name, I’ll probably give it a go. But by the time I get home, I’ll have forgotten what I was drinking. Having said that, my favourite beer is Wye Valley Brewery’s Butty Bach. I’m from Hereford, where Wye Valley Brewery is based, and whenever I go back to visit family I’ll have a few pints of that. Part of the reason they’re my favourite is that they sent me a free box of their HPA when I mentioned them in a RATs strip. I also like Wylam Brewery who are based in the North East, and who once sent a couple of crates of their assorted beers to the Viz office.
One of our local pubs in Bristol, a fairly down-to-earth place that doesn’t tend to have real ale on offer, has one of your RAT strips pinned on the wall, and that’s something we’ve seen a few times up and down the country. It feels a bit like a warning to us, or perhaps just an expression of frustration on the part of publicans. How do you feel about that kind of thing?
Yeah, I’ve occasionally seen them pinned up in pubs. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign that they hate real ale enthusiasts. I’ve never worked behind a bar, but I imagine it’s a job that often involves putting up with bores. Not all pub bores are real ale bores of course, by any means. But the main RAT character with the beard is definitely a bore, and I quite often have him holding forth to the bar staff, because they’re a captive audience. And as you say it must get quite frustrating to be subjected to someone’s pompous opinions for hours. But in general the strips are intended as a fairly affectionate piss-take, so I hope they’re pinned up in the same spirit.
What has been the feedback from readers over the years?
Readers will sometimes send in pictures of lookalikes who they’ve spotted in the pub. Some of them are, er, quite remarkable.
And CAMRA members? Have you ever received any complaints?
I don’t think CAMRA has ever complained, as far as I know. The Real Ale Twats are doubtless CAMRA members but they’re not really supposed to be representative. They’re stereotypes of a certain kind of pub-goer, really.
On a related note, what do you make of the number of real life real ale drinkers who identify themselves as Real Ale Twats?
It’s quite odd. I recently became aware of a Real Ale Twats group on Facebook, which has thousands of members. Which felt strange. I don’t suppose they’re all familiar with the Viz cartoon, but if they’re happy to laugh at themselves that’s probably a good thing. I think.
In recent years it’s felt as if the strip has fallen into sync with ideas around ‘mansplaining’ and the latent sexism of a certain type of know-all bloke. How consciously have you set out to make that kind of point?
It was never a conscious attempt to make a point, I don’t think. The characters just lend themselves to those attitudes. The types of people the RATs are based on are ones I’d see in the pub, a bit socially inept, coming out every night and making ham-fisted attempts at flirting with the barmaid. I’d imagine that a lot of women who do bar work can feel their hearts sink when they see a particular regular coming in through the door – someone who is going to spend the whole night on a barstool regaling them with witty banter, and spraying crisp crumbs in their face. And blokes going on and on about their divorces – “Best thing that ever happened to me!” repeated over and over throughout the evening. I think the RATs are scared of women but try to cover that up with bravado, which is fuelled by booze. A bit like Sid the Sexist in that respect, come to think of it.
Do you still think, in 2018, that real ale drinkers are a target worth satirising? Is there any chance of the RATs morphing into the Craft Beer Twats at any point, for example?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if the beardy, pot-bellied stereotype is a bit outdated. Maybe it is. Viz has always dealt with quite broadly-drawn stereotypes, but the characters somehow develop lives and personalities of their own. To some extent it becomes more about the characters than about satire. So as long as you keep thinking of situations to put them in, you keep drawing the strips. Actually there was a strip a few years ago which had the RATs looking down their noses at craft beer-drinking hipsters. I think it ended with the RATs starting up a ‘Campaign for Real Real Ale Campaigners’ or something.
Of all the RAT strips you’ve produced over the years are there any you think stand up particularly well?
I think my personal favourite was one where the RATs set off to their local, talking about the wide range of fascinating characters you meet in the pub, and then there’s a big picture of the pub interior and all the customers look, and talk, just like the Twats. The reason I like that one is that I spent quite a long time on the drawing and was quite pleased with how it turned out. Which doesn’t always happen.
Have you ever thought about a Real Ale Twats book? We suspect all of us beer bores would buy it.
Yeah, I’d like the idea of doing a collected book, but all the copyright belongs to Viz and the publishers, so it would be up to them, really. (I retired from the editorial six years ago, and went back to being freelance). I’m not sure there’d be enough material to justify a book just yet. But cheers for the vote of confidence.
* * *
You can read ‘The Real Ale Twats’ in Viz on an irregular basis, in the Christmas annuals, and there is a sample on the official website. Images in this post were supplied by Davey Jones.
We’d love to be able to buy a reference anthology of great writing on the subject of IPA. This post, a manifestation of wishful thinking, is the next best thing.
There is also an idea that when people ask for advice on where to read about the history and culture of IPA, which happens from time to time, we can just point them here.
Hopefully, this series of links, in roughly this order, provides the outline of a narrative without too many details and diversions.
It’s aimed at learners, or people after a refresher, but we hope even jaded veterans will find a couple of items they’ve missed.
Where we have been able to identify free-to-access sources we’ve provided links and in the cases of material you have to pay for we’ve tried to suggest free alternatives.
This one feels like more of a work in progress than the lager list. If you can suggest substantial, solidly researched articles that fill in gaps then let us know either in the comments or by email.
In the summer of 1991 The Times’s food critic, Jonathan Meades, took a break from visiting upmarket restaurants to investigate a new eatery that was generating a strange amount of buzz.
He found it ‘chaotic-looking and very noisy’ and was lukewarm about the informal set-up: no bookings, order at the bar, lunge for any available seat before anyone else took it. The customers around him were young, though, and seemed to like this kind of thing. The food wasn’t refined but it was good value, generously portioned, very much in line with the ‘rustic’ style then in fashion. He duly filed a review of the Eagle in Farringdon Road, North London, which was not far from glowing.  Something interesting was afoot but, for the moment, the language lacked a word to describe this collision of gastronomy and the public house.
The founders of what is generally recognised as the first gastropub were Michael Belben and David Eyre. They had worked together at several restaurants, mostly recently Mélange in Covent Garden, Eyre as a cook, Belben in management. In a portrait photo taken in 1990 they look like members of a synth pop group – slim, moody, Belben in a dark suit, Eyre in cotton shirtsleeves.  Belben is older, born in 1952, while Eyre, born in 1961, grew up largely in Mozambique and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), moving to Britain to attend university. 
They were both keen to start out on their own but, in the meantime, absorbed culinary influences, struggling to reconcile their taste in fine food with their limited funds. Eyre got married in 1989, but came out of that short-lived relationship after 20 months with very little except an idea, given to him by his ex-wife’s aunt: with a recession imminent, opening a restaurant would be foolish, she argued, so why not run a pub? She hadn’t meant a pub with food, but it was the spark Eyre and Belben needed. Why not open a pub with decent food, catering to people like them who longed, but couldn’t afford, to eat at places like the then super-hip River Café?
Fortunately for them, a catastrophic change to the British pub ownership model was underway. In 1989 the UK government passed a bill which meant that breweries owning more than 2,000 pubs would be required to dispose of half of the excess. This act, known informally as the Beer Orders, meant in the first instance that the largest brewers had no choice but to dump a large number of their worst-performing pubs on to the open market, or sell them en bloc to other firms. In this respect, as food critic Jay Rayner has said, ‘the gastro pub movement is a pure product of Thatcherism’.
The Eagle was an unremarkable Victorian corner pub in Farringdon, then a rather unfashionable part of London, and was owned by the astonishingly unfashionable brewery Watney’s. For a brief time in the 1980s it was a freakish hangover from the theme pub era – a ‘fun pub’ decorated with metal furniture, exposed pipes and bare breeze-blocking so as to resemble a nuclear bunker.  (Fun indeed.) When it was unloaded by the brewery in response to the Beer Orders, Belben and Eyre took it on, describing it as ‘the first and cheapest dead pub we found… But beneath the sad grime we could see an attractive, if small, room with huge windows and maple floor’. 
They paid for it with a combination of bank loans and money borrowed from family, got the keys on 18 December 1990, and undertook renovation work themselves, scrubbing it back to an almost bare minimalism and letting the light flood in. Michael Belben fitted it out with, as food writer Diana Henry recalled in 2003, ‘mismatched china, battered furniture, sagging sofas and a few lamps with wobbly shades’.  They operated at first, from 16 January 1991, with an 8 by 5 foot kitchen containing a microwave, fridge, grill, two burners and a sink, none of professional standard. In the flat above the pub, where Eyre also lived, they used an oven to prepare one or two shareable dishes in pots, such as casseroles. Twenty years on, Eyre recalled their working relationship:
Mad Mike. Mike was prone to be a bit crazed at any time. But you see, he did get it and he was very good at… [pause] I got all the glory, but he was very good at trudging down to the bank and getting the float and spending hours and hours in the office… Not the best people person sometimes. Infuriating sometimes. I mean, we did have some blinding arguments… But we were good. It was that kind of opposites thing.
Belben and Eyre have always emphasised their democratic intentions, underlining what to them were key signs that the Eagle was still a pub:
It was important that a table could be used by people in muddy boots drinking lager as much as by people who’d come to the best place to eat ribollita. It was very egalitarian – a great leveller. You’d have the editor of the Guardian next to a builder, next to a fresh-out-of-school graphic designer. 
There were no reservations for tables, no dress code and, they insisted when challenged, customers could just turn up for a drink – dining was not compulsory. ‘It was the Anti-Restaurant Thing that we sort of embraced wholeheartedly,’ Eyre would recall in a series of recordings made in 2011 by Niamh Dillon for an oral history project:
No uniforms, chefs wore fisherman’s smocks… Mismatched plates, the no starters, the no desserts, the one-course eating, the old fashioned portions of the food, the fact that there was no service – if you wanted to tip a member of staff you bought them a drink. 
The comedian and broadcaster Graham Norton worked with Eyre and Belben at Mélange and considered Belben ‘one of the most heterosexual men I had ever come across’ but ‘impossible to work for’,411 a friend and a mentor. He joined the waiting staff at the Eagle where, freed from the obligation to kiss-up to earn tips, he enjoyed being rude to customers:
‘A smile costs nothing,’ a customer who’d been ordering in dribs and drabs and therefore irritating me would say.
‘And intelligence can’t be bought,’ I’d retort. Why nobody rabbit-punched me I don’t know. 
From the customers’ perspective this kind of thing meant that the Eagle could sometimes be faintly intimidating, despite its founders’ avowed desire to create warmth and conviviality.
In the same 2011 recording Eyre explained that the Eagle was able to operate with a lower mark-up on food than restaurants proper – 60 per cent gross profit rather than 70 or 75 – because there was no air-conditioning, no linen, and the kitchen staff, having less formal training, would work for less. Until 1997 even the most expensive items on the menu cost no more than £10 (about £20 in today’s money) and, Eyre said, students or younger office workers could go to the Eagle and have something substantial and well-made for only ‘twice the price of a sandwich in a sandwich shop’.
At its best, the atmosphere was lively and, at its worst, when hype brought crowds of would-be diners into a venue with no table bookings, it could be loud and chaotic. The background music was directed by Eyre’s older brother Robert, who worked there for a time and had a large, quirky record collection: ‘I really do believe my brother was the first person to buy Buena Vista Social Club.’ There was world music, jazz, blues, but definitely, pointedly, no guitar-heavy classic rock.
There was a problem with all this. In a January 2016 interview with Susie Mesure marking the 25th anniversary of the Eagle’s opening Eyre said: ‘We weren’t really pub-going people, because pubs didn’t seem to answer our needs’.  And therein perhaps lies the source of much of the irritation that gastropubs would go on to generate in the decade that followed among those who were dedicated ‘pub-going people’: they were seen by many as middle- class colonisers taking over pubs and, in the process, denuding them of their essential ‘pubness’. In practice, to drinkers, the Eagle looked like an informal restaurant rather than a pub with food and, even if it was theoretically possible to turn up and just have a drink, the pub soon became so hip it was impossible to get in the door anyway.
Jay Rayner, reflecting on gastropubs in 2001, said, ‘It is hard to overstate the importance of The Eagle… When it launched in the early 90s, the idea was extraordinary, if not bizarre.’ He also pointed out that, though much of what the Eagle did had by then become to seem clichéd, in 1991 it seemed ‘nigh on revolutionary’, inspiring many imitators, often founded by people who had themselves worked at the Eagle. 
 ‘Popped in, pigged out’, The Times, 3 August 1991, Saturday Review supplement, p.27.
 Reproduced in the Independent, 9 January 2016, pp.20–21.
 Biographical details for Mike Belben from Debrett’s, retrieved 26 May 2016; and for David Eyre from 2011 oral history recordings, ‘Eyre, David (1 of 10)’, Niamh Dillon, Food: From Source to Salespoint, British Library.
 Correspondence with veteran pub-goer Ian Worden, 14 June 2016.
 Big Flavours, Rough Edges, David Eyre, 2001, p.8.
 The Gastro Pub Cookbook, p.6.
 ‘20 Years of the Eagle Interview’, Liz Edwards, Clerkenwell Post, 2011.
 ‘Eyre, David (6 of 10)’, Food: From Source to Salespoint, British Library.
 So Me, 2004, pp.74–75.
 ‘The Eagle: Britain’s first gastropub celebrates its 25th birthday’, Susie Mesure, Independent, 9 January 2016, retrieved 17 March 2016.
 ‘Fox Hunting’, Observer Magazine, 22 July 2001, p.49.