Categories
20th Century Pub pubs

Keith Waterhouse on ‘The Pubs we Deserve?’, 1974

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.

This was the year of the first publication of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide and when membership of the organisation reached around 10,000 people.

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’.”

Again, this is an accurate reflection of the language of firms like Bass Charrington and Whitbread in this period, opening everything from shopping malls to motels.

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:

Cartoon: a man stands at the bar in a huge empty pub. The landlord says to his partner: "God, here's another one -- where the hell are they all coming from?"
SOURCE: Ken Taylor/Punch, 3 July 1974.

The cover illustration, by Geoffrey Dickinson, is arguably the most eloquent statement of all.

Categories
opinion

BOOK REVIEW: 50 Years of CAMRA

The decision by CAMRA to commission a warts-and-all official history by Laura Hadland made something of a statement: it is keen to balance celebration with reflection – and perhaps ready to show its sensitive underbelly to the world.

50 Years of CAMRA (RRP £16.99, 245 pages) will be most interesting to CAMRA members, either nostalgic or curious, and to scholars of British beer history.

It is built around a combination of archive research, with special emphasis on What’s Brewing, the CAMRA newspaper; and interviews with longtime CAMRA members, both in leadership positions and the rank-and-file.

Until now, we’d have said our own Brew Britannia offered the most detailed and balanced account of the early years of CAMRA, but Hadland’s book benefits from the space to zoom in on certain details that we had to summarise.

She also has input from founder member Graham Lees – something we never achieved, despite many grovelling emails.

Before opening the book, we had a particular test in mind: what might she say about the founding date of CAMRA?

Researching Brew Britannia we worked out that the official founding date didn’t tie in with another detail of the story – that the founders read a story in the Mirror about the poor quality of British beer on their way home from the trip to Ireland on which CAMRA was formed.

It’s a minor detail, it doesn’t really matter in terms of the grand narrative, but it is a flaw in what for decades was the accepted origin tale.

In a footnote to Brew Britannia we suggested that the trip must have been a week later than supposed and that the article probably prompted the founding of CAMRA; Hadland, based on new testimony from founder member Michael Hardman, argues otherwise.

What matters to us, really, is that this point is considered at all. It’s a sign of due diligence.

Throughout the book, similar rigour is displayed in terms of pinning down the facts, with reference to original sources and first-hand testimony.

Elsewhere, criticisms of the Campaign, arising both internally and from outside, are clearly set down and thoroughly interrogated.

“With nearly 200,000 members it is not surprising that CAMRA cannot always present a united front”, she writes. What it does present, through this book, is the ability to look at itself with clear eyes.

From institutional sexism to the constant debate over the organisation’s focus (is it ale, pubs, or something else?) and the failure of the CAMRA Revitalisation project, Hadland makes space for thoughtful comments from veterans, newcomers and objective outsiders.

Most talk sense, even if they often contradict each other, giving the sense that the instinct to debate and to compromise are among CAMRA’s strengths, not its weaknesses.

Although clearly and engagingly written, the book isn’t a narrative history to be read from cover-to-cover. Instead, it is arranged around big themes, each chapter or section bouncing the reader back and forth through the decades like a tiddly timelord.

We were particularly pleased to see space given to topics such as the role of women in CAMRA over the years and to a note on the founding of the Lesbian and Gay Real Ale Drinkers Group (LAGRAD) in 1995.

If you’re interested in the history (and future) of CAMRA, you’ll want this on your shelf. Every time you dip into it, you’ll learn some new detail; and as a reference, it will prove invaluable.

We bought our copy from the CAMRA bookshop. It’s also available via, for example, bookshop.org.

Categories
20th Century Pub Beer history Brew Britannia

Brew Britannia: new evidence in the case – CAMRA Branch Bulletin

The monthly newspaper What’s Brewing has been the semi-public face of the Campaign for Real Ale since the early 1970s; but the Branch Bulletin, intended to be private, tells the same story without any PR gloss.

We were lucky enough to come into possession of a near-complete set of these newsletters, sent from CAMRA HQ to local branches, thanks to Sue Hart, a veteran of The Ring and a long-time CAMRA activist.

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks digging and digesting which gave us the urge to go back to our 2014 book, Brew Britannia, and 2017’s 20th Century Pub and fill in some gaps with new information.

Pub preservation

In 20th Century pub, we wrote about the birth of the pub preservation movement as the rhetoric of Christopher Hutt’s 1973 book The Death of the English Pub turned into practical action.

We focused on the Pub Preservation Group and the work of Jenny Greenhalgh, Peter Lerner and crew, from the late 1970s onward, but here’s evidence that the work began in earnest a little earlier.

The earliest of the branch newsletters we have, from May 1975, includes a paper by Mike Dempsey of the East London Branch, a lawyer by profession, setting out what looks like the basis of much of the pub preservation activity that followed.

The paper establishes how the listing system works, how it might apply to pubs and how CAMRA members might go about using the system to prevent brewers (and especially the Big Six) from demolishing or altering pub buildings.

Here’s his concluding argument:

Pyrrhic Victories
The fact that you may have succeeded in having a building included on the statutory list does not mean that your battles are over. The first thing that the owner of the pub will do when he learns of the Secretary of State’s decision is to apply to the local authority for Listed Building Consent to carry out the works which he intended to carry out in the first place. This means that you have got to put in hand the suggestions made in paragraph 4 above, and make sure that representations are submitted to the local Council at the appropriate time. Do not, therefore, be lulled into complacency as a result of your initial successes. You will only have succeeded when the pub reopens for business, unspoiled and preferably serving real beer, but there are, of course, many pubs which are worthy of preservation even if their beer is not. In these cases, the beer will have to be the subject of your next campaign.

Categories
beer festivals Beer history

CAMRA Beer Festival, 1979: The Great Debauch?

Part of the reason for keeping up a blog and presence on social media is that the ongoing conversation draws new information out of the woodwork, such as the late Nigel Graves’ note on the 1979 Great British Beer Festival.

Nigel Graves was born in 1955 and died in 2004, at the age of 49. In 2014, his friend, Tim Sedgwick-Jell, edited an anthology of his writing as something by which friends and family might remember him.

As it happens, Tim reads our blog (or, at least, subscribes to the newsletter) and recently got in touch to ask if we’d like a copy of Far Be It From Me to be Hyperbolic because pubs, beer and beer festivals were frequent topics for Nigel’s writing. (If he’d lived a little longer, might he have started a beer blog?)

The bulk of his notes on beer and pubs are in one chapter – snippets, diary entries, letters and so on.

There’s a fiery letter to Wetherspoon corporate HQ, for example, sent in July 2000 after he was told he couldn’t bring his children into the Temeraire in Saffron Walden:

I believe your company was originally established to provide a type of pub modelled on that in George Orwell’s essay ‘The Moon Under Water’ and I know that several of your early pubs were given this name… Perhaps you would like to consider the following passage from this essay:

“The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden… Up at one end of the garden there are swings a chute for the children…”

For balance, in another piece he acknowledges that the general relaxation of the rules on kids in pubs then underway was great when you were with the kids, but less so when you wanted a session with “the lads”.

The extract that really grabbed our attention, though, was a diary entry written when Nigel was around 24 years old, giving an account of the 1979 CAMRA Great British Festival:

I actually went to the CAMRA organised Great London Beer Festival a few weeks ago. The usual unfriendly interior of the Alexandra Palace was as unalluring as ever, but had the added drawback of being cram-packed full of drunken wallies behaving as if they’d never tasted beer before in their lives, and demonstrating just about every [unattractive] male characteristic imaginable. Because of the tube-train conditions, it was impossible to sample any interesting new brews, or real cider, so I spent the evening drinking Ansells (wow, thrill!), avoiding steaming pools of puke an dodging spotty adolescents reeling around in search of the Gents. Great – I might as well have spent an evening in The Carpenters, or almost any other pub for that matter.

We like this because, as with the original CAMRA national festival in 1975, the official PR (necessary to gain a licence, of course) had it that the festival would consist of well-behaved connoisseurs gathering to sample beers in moderation. Pools of puke was not part of the image.

How many more valuable first-hand, contemporary accounts of key moments in British beer history are locked away in diaries, letters and company newsletters?

Or, worse, how many such accounts were taken to the tip or burned a week after the funeral?

Main image derived from a photo by Nicolas Lysandrou via Unsplash.

Categories
Blogging and writing bristol

Pints West: a mine of information

We’ve found ourselves getting a bit excited when we find a new edition of the local CAMRA magazine, Pints West, in the display holder at The Drapers Arms, because we always learn so damned much.

The latest issue, for autumn 2019, is just out and is a good example of why we like it so much.

First, with #EveryPubInBristol in mind, there’s a comprehensive update on what’s going on with local pubs based on extensive fieldwork from the Bristol Pubs Group. It tells us which pubs have closed, reopened and changed hands, usually before we hear via social media.

We’re fascinated by the fate of The Merchant’s Arms in Stapleton which just sits there with its big, blank, boarded-up facade; Pints West always gives us an update – stalemate, apparently, with the owner determined not to re-open it as a pub despite its ACV status.

But there’s more: we don’t drive (and wouldn’t drive to the pub if we did, obviously) so the pub crawls focused on walking and public transport are always inspiring. This quarter, Vince Murray suggests a couple of trips in South Gloucestershire by bus while Duncan Shine gives a run down of all the pubs along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path. We’re already working out ways to tackle some or all of those on the list.

We were also struck by a piece in the last edition by Robin E Wild on the best value pubs in the area – a positive way to address the fraught issue of the sometimes exclusive price of beer.

In general, there’s an openness about it that shows CAMRA at its best. All breweries are covered with enthusiasm and honesty, regardless of their particular cask-ale credentials. Licensed premises of all kinds get a look in and there are heartening tales of local activism to save apparently doomed pubs.

Now, disclosure, before someone brings it up: in the past, before we moved to Bristol, we publicly rolled our eyes at one of the cartoons in the magazine. It irritated us then and looking back, it’s still irritating. But we haven’t noticed anything like that since.

Anyway, our piece said, we’re off to explore a couple of the pubs mentioned in the most recent edition – and isn’t that what a local CAMRA magazine ought to inspire?