Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 2: Richard Boston and Country Pubs

Ian Nairn leans on a wall.
Adapt­ed from ‘Nairn Across Britain’, 1972, via BBC Iplay­er.

There probably isn’t enough of Ian Nairn on beer to warrant the publication of Nairn on Beer, but it’s not far off – his interest did border on obsessive.

These are high­lights from a cou­ple of pieces he wrote for the Sun­day Times in the 1970s in addi­tion to his most famous essay on the sub­ject, ‘The Best Beers of our Lives’, pub­lished in 1974.

First, there’s a review from 1976: when Richard Boston’s book Beer & Skit­tles came out that year, who was bet­ter placed to assess it for the Sun­day Times than Nairn?

Beer and Skittles by Richard Boston.One of the first bits of paid beer writ­ing we did was a shared pro­file of Nairn and Boston for the Cam­paign for Real Ale’s BEER mag­a­zine back in 2013, as part of the reg­u­lar ‘Real Ale Heroes’ strand. Both men played their part in the rise of CAMRA and had sim­i­lar­ly large brains though Boston was a hip­py­ish left-winger and Nairn an ‘anar­cho-Tory’. As founder mem­ber of CAMRA Michael Hard­man put it, ‘It was per­fect. Boston appealed to the social­ists, Nairn to the cap­i­tal­ists.’

Polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences aside, Nairn’s review of Boston’s ‘delight­ful book’ appeared on 8 August 1976 and, with only brief side­swipe about mixed metaphors, was blaz­ing­ly pos­i­tive:

I know enough about beer and pubs to recog­nise just how much infor­ma­tion has been ingest­ed, digest­ed and then dis­tilled. Easy, easy, in the foot­ball chant. Just you try it. I am at the moment read­ing some of P.G. Wode­house for the n’th time; the style is quite dif­fer­ent, but the process is the same. Limpid sim­plic­i­ty meets hard work… In oth­er words this is a lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 2: Richard Boston and Coun­try Pubs”

Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 1: Middle Class Real Ale

This post contains hits upon a few of our favourite themes in relatively few words: Ian Nairn, class, and the similarities between real ale culture and post-2005 craft beer.

In 1974 the archi­tec­tur­al and cul­tur­al com­men­ta­tor Ian Nairn wrote an influ­en­tial arti­cle in the Sun­day Times which was reck­oned at the time to have been part­ly respon­si­ble for the sud­den leap in mem­ber­ship of the then young Cam­paign for Real Ale. That sto­ry is cov­ered in Brew Bri­tan­nia, Chap­ter Three, ‘CAMRA Ram­pant’ and the orig­i­nal arti­cle, we are assured, is going to be includ­ed in Adri­an Tier­ney-Jones’s upcom­ing anthol­o­gy of beer writ­ing. (Dis­clo­sure: it will also include some­thing by us.) Here’s a sam­ple, though, to give an idea of Nairn’s angle:

[To] extin­guish a local flavour, which is what has hap­pened a hun­dred times in the last ten years, is like abol­ish­ing the Beau­jo­lais: after all it’s red and alco­holic, might as well make it in Euroc­i­ty to an agreed Com­mon Mar­ket recipe. The prof­its would be enor­mous, and the peas­ants would­n’t know the dif­fer­ence… but the peas­ants are fight­ing back.

But here’s some­thing we had­n’t seen until recent­ly: the response from read­ers of the Sun­day Times pub­lished a week lat­er, on 7 July 1974. First, there’s an angry pub­li­can, Eddie John­son of Chip­ping Ongar, say­ing some­thing that, with a few changes, could be a com­ment on 21st Cen­tu­ry craft beer cul­ture:

Once more the voice of the mid­dle class is raised in right­eous indig­na­tion and is busi­ly telling the work­ing class what to drink… Would it sur­prise Ian Nairn to know that many years ago, when keg was first intro­duced and sold side by side with draught beer from the wood, keg was a run­away best sell­er? I worked in the Lon­don docks at the time, and 27 out of 30 dock­er bit­ter drinkers switched to keg… You see beer is a work­ing man’s drink… It’s not to be spo­ken or writ­ten of in trendy, man­nered lan­guage. It can’t be appre­ci­at­ed sipped out of half-pint dim­ple mugs by the chaps in their beards and jeans after a hard day’s sit­ting down the office.

This is part of a con­ver­sa­tion that goes round in cir­cles based large­ly on asser­tions: the thing I like, that was trendy 15 years ago, is hum­ble, hon­est and straight­for­ward; the thing they like, that’s just become trendy, is a symp­tom of snob­bery and a sym­bol of elit­ism.

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QUICK ONE: ‘The Windsor Bars’, Birmingham

A morris minor in a city street.
Adapt­ed from ‘1968–1971 Mor­ris Minor’ by Leon Fer­ri, via Flickr, under Cre­ative Com­mons.

Here’s a puzzle for you: which Birmingham pub was Ian Nairn actually writing about in his description of ‘The Windsor Bars’ in the Listener in 1960?

In Tem­ple Row, near St Philip’s Church­yard, is a pub of some char­ac­ter called The Wind­sor Bars. At the far end are the usu­al offices, and of these the Gents is Birm­ing­ham’s least-known piece of archi­tec­ture… What [the gents toi­let] is is a beau­ti­ful­ly detailed piece of Art Nou­veau. Who did it and why I can­not imag­ine, but for the wit­ty and ele­gant solu­tion of lit­er­al­ly the most mun­dane of archi­tec­tur­al prob­lems it would be hard to beat. The pub is part of Rack­ham’s site and is bound to come down with­in ten years.

Here’s the twist, though: in his 1967 post­script, added when the essay was col­lect­ed with oth­ers in a book called Nairn’s Towns, he con­fessed that he had no idea where he’d got the name The Wind­sor Bars – ‘an aber­ra­tion of mine’ – and con­firmed that the pub he had in mind had indeed gone, or pos­si­bly had only ever exist­ed ‘in a drunk­en dream’.

So, does any­one who knows Birm­ing­ham and the his­to­ry of its pubs have any sug­ges­tions as to which estab­lish­ment he might actu­al­ly have been think­ing of?

There’s no par­tic­u­lar rea­son we want to know, it’s just irri­tat­ing that Nairn let this loose end lie.

QUOTE: Ian Nairn on Pub Atmosphere

Detail from the cover of MODERN BUILDINGS IN LONDON: London Transport roundel and crane.

The White Knight [in Crawley]… is a common type done extremely well, not so much in its architecture as in its atmosphere, which seems to hit off exactly the balance of friendliness and circumstance which a New Town pub needs. If there was less fretting over architecture and more over atmosphere our towns would be better places.”

From Mod­ern Build­ings in Lon­don, Lon­don Trans­port, 1964

We used a line from this in a piece we wrote about Nairn avail­able in Back of a Beer Mat, our free e‑book col­lect­ing var­i­ous beer-relat­ed ‘lon­greads’.

Not Enough Opening Hours in the Day

It seems that this is ‘Quirks of Licensing Law’ season here on the blog: today, a few notes on the problems, and opportunities, of neighbouring districts with different pub opening hours.

The 1921 Licens­ing Act gave mag­is­trates the free­dom to fix with­in lim­its the open­ing and clos­ing hours of pubs in their dis­tricts. In Lon­don in par­tic­u­lar, this led to great con­ster­na­tion among pub­li­cans, who sim­ply want­ed uni­form pub open­ing hours from, say, 11 am to 11 pm.

It also turned the whole busi­ness into some­thing of a game, as one report in The Times point­ed out:

A curi­ous effect of these vary­ing hours is that any­body set­ting out to get drink dur­ing as long a peri­od of the day as pos­si­ble could begin at 11 am in Kens­ing­ton, con­tin­ue – if he took lunch – until 3:30 pm, start again at 4:30 in Stoke New­ing­ton, and by return­ing to the Hol­born area have a glass before him until half an hour after mid­night. (03/11/1921, p.7.)

What was fun for some, how­ev­er, meant trou­ble for oth­ers. In 1929, Mr E.H. Keen, chair of the Hol­born Licens­ing Jus­tices, told the Roy­al Com­mis­sion on Licens­ing of the result of Hol­born’s pubs stay­ing open until 11 while those in neigh­bour­ing Maryle­bone, Fins­bury and St Pan­cras closed at 10:

Between the hours of 10 and 11 out­siders from all quar­ters pour into Hol­born, and the scenes in the pub­lic-hous­es near­est the bound­aries baf­fle descrip­tion. The bars are over­crowd­ed with dis­or­der­ly men and women, many of them the worse for drink, and at clos­ing time they are turned out with dif­fi­cul­ty and behave out­side in the most dis­gust­ing and row­dy man­ner. The nui­sance to the neigh­bours is unbear­able… The con­di­tion of things is a dis­grace to civil­i­sa­tion. All decen­cy is dis­re­gard­ed. (Lancs Evening Post, 05/12/1929, p.7.)

But it would take years for this prob­lem to even begin to be solved – until the 1961 Licens­ing Act, as far as we can tell – dur­ing which time the strate­gies of drinkers became clev­er­er and more elab­o­rate as they learned of more dodges and tricks.

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