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.

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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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QUOTE: Nairn on Northern Pubs

“The Vines was built in the last year of the [19th] century and every majestic detail is kept up as good as new… Tall and luminous, brown and gold giant pilasters combining elegance with immense force, and huge Victorian paintings between. Sitting in it, you feel ten feet tall, for it is the kind of grandeur that raises you up rather than crushes you. Drinking beer which is both better and cheaper than the metropolitan brew — any kind of Liverpool bitter is a good drop — you realize that London has nothing like this.”

Ian Nairn in the essay ‘Liverpool’ first published in The Listener in 1964 and collected in Britain’s Changing Towns in 1967, reissued and updated in 2013. There’s more information about The Vines on the CAMRA pubs heritage website.

Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House

“This is a basement under the angle between Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street. It is not trying to be Irish; it just is. A big, bare room with a central zinc-topped bar; no concession to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London… It has surely got the fairies on it, though mentioning fairies in this rough, shabby, real place you might get some strange looks.”

Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House, in Nairn’s London, 1966.

(NB. before it was Irish, it was German…)

Not Beer: Nairn on BBC4

From Ian Nairn's OUTRAGE column in the Architectural Review, 1964.
From Ian Nairn’s OUTRAGE column in the Architectural Review, 1964.

This Thursday night, 20 February, at 22:00, BBC4 (the channel for swots) is showing The Man Who Fought the Planners, an hour-long documentary about architecture critic Ian Nairn.

As well as writing about buildings and places, Nairn was also a beer and pub enthusiast, as we explained in the Winter 2013 edition of the Campaign for the Real Ale’s BEER magazine:

[Nairn’s] contribution to CAMRA’s success came in 1974 when, rather out of the blue, he published a lengthy essay in The Sunday Times entitled ‘The Best Beers of Our Lives’. A passionate argument in favour of local breweries and regionally specific products, as opposed to ‘national brew’, it opened with this statement: “It may be the fifty-ninth second of the fifty-ninth minute after eleven o’clock, but I think there is now a chance of saving what remains of draught beer in Britain. CAMRA… had 1,000 members a year ago: it now has 18,000,
including me.”

He also, for this reason and others, has a recurring walk-on part in our book, Brew Britannia.

We’re not sure how much The Man Who Fought the Planners will touch on his love of pubs, but if it doesn’t end with Philip Glass’s Façades playing over a photo of Nairn holding a pint while the narrator explains that he drank himself to death, we’ll be very surprised.

We do know that Gillian Darley has been involved in the programme, and should take this opportunity to belatedly recommend the anthology of writing about Nairn, Words in Place, which she edited with David McKie last year. It gives a flavour of each of his books (some of which are very hard to get hold of) as well as an overview of his life. The chapter on his mid-1960s US road tour is, we think, begging to be made into a film by the Coen Brothers.

Subtopian Beer

Having come across several mentions of an influential article on beer by Ian Nairn which appeared in the Sunday Times in the early 70s (some sources said 1972, others ’74), last week, we finally managed to track down a copy at the British Library Newspaper Archive at Colindale. It was worth the wait.

‘The Best Beers of Our Lives’ is more essay than article and just begging to be anthologised in some kind ‘beer reader’. Here’s what he has to say on the disappearance of local breweries during the Big Six takeover binge of the 1960s:

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

Though he’d been raging for almost twenty years against Subtopia — ‘the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern’ (Outrage, 1955) — this is the first time, as far as we are aware, that he had explicity applied that idea to beer.

And here’s what he has to say about being part of a niche market:

The choice. As a consumer, that’s all I ask. You can brew bland brand X until it runs out of your conditioned reflexes as long as you give me the choice. Otherwise I’ll drink Guinness, and there may be tens of thousands of others with the same calibre of unsatisfied throat.

Yes! Exactly! (Well, not exactly — Guinness isn’t much cop these days either.) He was right on numbers, too: the week after this article appeared, Michael Hardman told us, CAMRA received another thousand or so membership applications in an overwhelming deluge.

If you want to read it yourself, first check whether your local library service has signed up for this trial of the digitised Sunday Times archive. If the answer is ‘no’, then don your best moth-eaten tweed jacket, half-moon glasses and bicycle clips; get yourself to the Colindale microfilm readers; and wind your way on to page 33 of the 30 June 1974 edition of the paper.

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.