Mass Observation Strikes Again: (No) Village Inn, 1947

It’s worth asking next time you read an impassioned piece about villages without pubs whether they even had one in the first place.

In Tavistock last week we picked up a tatty copy of Exmoor Village, a 1947 book by W.J. Turner ‘based on factual information from Mass Observation’. It features a chapter on pubs and socialising called ‘Gardens, Pubs and Small Talk’. But our hopes of 20 pages of glorious detail on beer and boozers were shattered with the opening line:

There is no inn in Luccombe [in Somerset], nor anywhere on the Acland Estate. The nearest is at Wootton Courtney. There is virtually no social centre in Luccombe beyond the doorstep and the village street.

Some of the men in the village, the author says, were in the habit of going to pubs in nearby Wootton or Porlock ‘on Saturday or Sunday — seldom both’:

Mr Gould remembers brown ale at threepence a pint, and says he used to go every evening, wet or fine, to Wootton. To-day, on an old-age pension, his visits are rare. His son is a teetotaller, and Bill Tame is another… Although Somerset is famous for its cyder, and home-brewed cyder is found at many small farms and drunk by young and old alike, Mr Partridge is the only Luccombe person who has it. Another farmer, Mr Staddon, prefers beer.

The true Mass Observation touch, more literary than objective in tone despite its scientific pretensions, comes through in a description of the men at their usual haunt, the bar at a posh hotel in Wootton Courtney known as the ‘Dunkery’:

The public bar like most country bars is small, with two tables, two benches, and not enough chairs… A visitor at about seven o’clock in the evening would find Bob Prescott, looking tired and weather-beaten, slumped up in a chair next to the bar; Mr Hales, who has cycled from Luccombe, sitting in a chair by the window; a man of forty-five not from Luccombe in the next-door chair; Mr Keal, who has walked in, standing leaning on his cane. Talk centres on horses. One or two more men come in and join the talk… Ten men are present now, and conversation round the bar is about a stony field. ‘Ay, that’s the stoniest one you got, George, bain’t it?’ … ‘Big stones’ … ‘One along of Dunkery be stonier’ …

We assume the hotel in question is the Dunkery Beacon Hotel which fits the description — ‘a white building with a verandah’ — but it doesn’t seem likely the bar is still there in anything like its original form. The walk from Luccombe to Wootton Courtney (or Courtenay) is about 45 minutes according to Google Maps. And, for what it’s worth, Bailey recalls hearing people in Somerset genuinely, un-ironically saying ‘bain’t’ when he was a kid, though younger people had gone over to ‘ain’t’.

The men in the pub take snuff, smoke a lot, and talk about root crops, the pub in Porlock, the threat of invasion, German airmen and the Home Guard, chocolate rationing and other then hot topics. (The observations on which the book was based were from 1944.) When two Americans turn up (GIs, presumably) they dominate the conversation with talk of farming back home.

If the men were only occasional pub-goers, the women of Luccombe hardly ever went, and the young men of the village aren’t big drinkers. Meryn Arscott, an 18-year-old, is the case study and wasn’t a frequent drinker because he couldn’t afford it.

And that’s pubs done, in a page and half because ‘for the most part the men stay at home because they don’t want to go anywhere else.’ That’s a thread that come out very clearly in various bits of post-WWII writing on pubs — the idea that men were abandoning the pub not because it was bad but because home, family, gardens and allotments had become so pleasant.

If you’re interested in country life more generally, Somerset in particular, or Mass Observation (this project was controversial), then this book is worth getting. The 29 colour and 22 black-and-white photos by John Hinde are also lovely to look at, as are the charmingly period charts and illustrations. We paid £4.99 for our copy of this book; Amazon lists a couple for around £6.

Main image: a detail from a chart at the back of the book showing distances from Luccombe to key amenities.

Mass Observation Revisited, 1961

Did you know about Tom Harrisson’s follow-up to 1943’s Mass Observation book The Pub and the People, entitled Britain Revisited and published in 1961?

We certainly hadn’t registered its existence until the other week when a Google Books search turned up a reference. We ordered it from Amazon for £7 delivered — a lovely looking edition in a bright yellow Gollancz dust-jacket.

Book cover: Britain Revisited.

The pub chapter runs to 27 pages and draws on the original Mass Observation work from the 1930s; a commercial follow-up project comissioned by Guinness in the late 1940s; and a new set of observations carried out by one of the original team in 1960. If you’re interested in pub history you won’t need much more than that to persuade you to get hold of your own copy.

We’re going to be referring to it substantially in product of The Big Project but here are a couple of interesting nuggets to be getting on with. First, here’s Harrisson on a substantial change in drinking habits:

[There] is an increase in midday drinking, including a smattering of reeling drunks around town in the early afternoon — something not seen at all in the thirties. This affected locally by the new system of shift work in the cotton mills, by which no one there works all day, as they did before… Affluence has enabled drinking to be more extended and produced the occasional midday drunk as a new phenomenon in the North.

This is a point he also picks up while summarising the difference between a typical young man of 1960 and his father:

You may wear a tie instead of a scarf, your second best suit instead of the working clothes that had once been your only best suit, drink ‘best mild’ instead of ordinary, twenty-two pints a week instead of twenty, and maybe put in an hour in the boozer dinner-time, which your dad in 1937 couldn’t afford.

Well, we think he’s picking up the same point anyway, assuming he’s using ‘dinner-time’ here to refer to the middle meal of the day, as in school dinners, as in breakfast-dinner-tea-supper.

So can we conclude that the lunchtime drinking culture it sometimes feels we’ve lost — The Pub Curmudgeon often mentions it — was another of those things we didn’t really have for long in the first place?

A photo spread from Britain Revisited feat. a shot of a pub.

That section quoted above also starts us on another trail: which beers were people drinking in 1937, 1947 and 1960? The 1947 Guinness project notes, quoted in big chunks by Harrisson, record that:

About half of pubgoers usually drink mild or bitter or mild-and-bitter. Of the remainder about a third drink Guinness or stout. One drinker in the thirteen — even after prompting — can give no details about his usual drink beyond that it is ‘beer’.

But by 1960 a shift was underway:

[More] expensive beers are being drunk. More bitter (the rather costlier beer) and more bottled in the pubs.

Harrisson argues that this was part of a general narrative of what he calls ‘up-affluencing’ — a drift towards the better bars, away from the barebones vault or public; and a growing taste for Babycham, Cherry B, ‘a drop of gin dressed up’, and even cocktails among younger female drinkers, where their mothers would have been happy with stout. This quote from a pub landlord on the subject of flashy young men with money to burn contains a lot of meaning for a few words and might well apply to the craft beer scene of today:

[Lads] have always liked a drop of the best.

Session #113 — Mass Observation — Round Up

For this month’s edition of The Session we asked our fellow bloggers to go to a pub or bar and write a report on what they found, in the style of the 1930s Mass Observation project.

Alan McLeod at A Good Beer Blog didn’t manage to get to a pub or bar but instead shared some brief recollections of his first encounter with the work of Mass Observation in the form of a Penguin paperback, when he was 19-years-old.

Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer visited a St Louis pub where everyone had gathered to watch an episode of a TV game showJeopardy, in which a regular at the bar had competed:

When Gilbert’s picture appeared on the screen (there were two televisions in the bar area, another in the adjoining room) at 4:24 a cheer went up. The place went silent when the competition began, but low level conversations returned quickly enough. Mostly cheers followed, sometimes when he got an answer right, other times when one of his competitors got one wrong. Once in a while a chant — “Will! Will! Will!” — broke out. Wearing a T-shirt decorated with a St. Louis city flag and holding an Urban Chestnut ceramic mug Gilbert settled at one end of the bar, a step outside most of the madness.

UPDATE 17.07.2016: Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds observed a city centre pub in the hour or so after work:

There are real flowers in small vases on the table, nothing too unusual, nice light fittings, press button bells on the walls for service – I’ve tried it, no one came.

City centre pub with empty beer glass.

Rob Gallagher AKA Cuchuilain AKA The Bearded Housewife wrote a long, wonderfully thoughtful piece based on his observations of two very different pubs — a city centre place with craft beer, and a more down-to-earth East London local:

Apart from the discomfort involved in the deliberate observation of other people this task involved a much deeper and more personal discomfort, one that may touch on the secondary part of the brief about ‘The Pub and The People’, and my place within both pubs and peoples. It may get slightly confessional… Politically and philosophically, if not in every day practice, I consider myself working class, but the assumptions and attitudes I’ve displayed in this instance loudly proclaim the old trope of an effete liberal elite condescending to rough it in some sort of patronising urban safari.

Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site managed, by his own admission, only a brief set of bullet points on an outlet for Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, but even that contained intriguing details: ‘There’s a spittoon behind the bar that patrons can try to toss coins into.’

W.J. Kavanagh's -- bar view.

The Beer Nut provided a detailed record (‘homework’, he called it) of comings and goings at W.J. Kavanagh’s in Dublin one Sunday lunchtime, interwoven with tasting notes on the beers he drank. There are no pot plants or spittoons…

But it’s interesting how it has been kitted out, and I’m sure this is one of those features that are common to urban pubs but rarely noticed: everything is subtly nailed down and secured; nothing is hanging loose to be idly torn or knocked onto the floor. The pub doesn’t look at all sparse, but if you wanted to trash the place you’d find it tough to gather materials for doing so.

Luke Corbin gave us our only observation from outside the European-American axis, setting himself up at a bar called Suzuki Drink in Yangon, Myanmar:

An almost requisite stylised image of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi hangs close to the single television and in a large wall niche a collection of pottery, gourds, traditional instruments and tortoise shells draw the eye.  There are chairs for forty pax and the tables are tacky MDF.  A substantial bar sits in the northwestern corner with a single tap dispensing Regal Seven, a Heineken brand exclusively brewed in Myanmar.  It is surrounded by nice-looking glassware, Regal Seven-branded beer towers and a Conti espresso machine. 

The Anonymous author of the Deep Beer blog went to a ‘Bar & Grille’ in Crownsville, Maryland, with fish-carvings, patterned concrete, hops growing in the garden, and lots of people staring at their phones.

Mike Stein at Lost Lagers undertook an observation at a pub in Washington D.C. where, of 13 people in attendance, 9 were ‘tied to their mobiles’. The more substantial part of his post, however, is an extract from a memoir written by his father, a sociologist himself, about beer in pre-WWII Prague.

UPDATE 17.07.2016: The Anonymous author of Man Beach hung out in a suburban pub in Exeter, Devon, where a baby shower was underway:

The women and children in the alcove are obviously preparing for someone coming in – all but one hide behind the wall. A couple come in – the woman plainly pregnant – to be greeted by cheers from the crowd. A sign on the wall behind says ‘Baby Shower’ and someone has a doll dressed in baby clothes. The landlord/chef brings in sandwiches, snacks etc. for the assembly and later they can be seen playing party games such as ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ with the children.

The beer menu at The Mermaid.

Alec Latham, author of Mostly About Beer, conducted not one but two observation in St Albans, a commuter town just outside London which also happens to be the headquarters of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). First he visited The Boot where he found ‘about 40 customers… virtually all are watching England v Iceland in the Euros on one of the two televisions’. Then, on another day, he went to The Mermaid:

Just below ceiling height, the pub also boasts rows of both archaic and modern beer bottles and drinking vessels on a narrow shelf. I spot some bottles bearing candidates from the British 1992 election (John Major and Paddy Ashdown are represented, though I can’t see Neil Kinnock).

At his blog Oh Good Ale Phil, like Alec and Rob, provides notes on two pubs in Manchester, a branch of Wetherspoon’s and a famous brewery tap:

The conversation moves on to Guinness, seen as a particularly challenging beer (‘he said, we’ll chill it to fuck, you won’t have to taste it’) and past acquaintances who had been particularly fond of it (‘he’d just drink pint after pint after pint of it… towards the end of the evening when everyone was on shots, he’d just have another pint of Guinness…’). After a while they all go outside for a smoke; my nearest neighbours are now an animated young couple (both drinking the red cocktails) and a balding man sitting alone, wearing headphones plugged into his phone.

Martin Taylor AKA Retired Martin also looked at two different pubs, one in Epworth, and another in Barton-upon-Humber — ‘will be astonished if this place looks different on 1 July 2036’. Martin’s blog is an extended exercise in pub observation in its own right although he found this particular exercise a bit weird:

I’ve never been a detail person, and this was an odd piece to do, particularly when I had to ask the friendly barman for a pencil sharpener (pen and pencil were essential for authenticity).

Jordan at A Timely Tipple lives in Berlin where he set himself up at an English-style pub offering cask ale alongside more typically German styles:

I try to distinguish what people are talking about, but it’s a touch difficult given the three different languages being spoken in here. Some are catching up; others are discussing the philosophy of death. Typical pub talk, really.

Steve at Wait Until Next Year observed a central London craft beer pub around midday during the week when the customers were mostly colleagues sharing their lunch-breaks:

Variations on pork pies, pork scratchings and crisps are available. They are all on the craft-y side too. The pies are under a glass dome, the scratchings in glass Kilner jars. I see one person order the scratchings and the bar staff put on one of those blue catering gloves for handling them, squashing them into a ceramic ramekin.

And, finally, there’s our own contribution featuring button-up shirts, work boots, poker and a full-hearted rendition of My Way.

* * *

So, what did we learn from this admittedly small sample?

  1. Vaping in pubs, which we saw lot of in Newcastle and a bit in Birmingham, isn’t as universal as we’d expected.
  2. Pubs are pubs are pubs — there’s nothing in the descriptions above that made us think we’d be unable to cope with any of those venues, even Suzuki Drink, which sounds the farthest from our experience.
  3. A major football tournament doesn’t necessarily dominate pubs even when they’re showing it.
  4. That looking closely at even the most familiar pub can reveal intriguing details.
  5. Observations without narrative can seem rather dry… But anyone looking back on these in a hundred years time (digital decay and pending apocalypses permitting) will find plenty to enjoy in every entry.

* * *

If we missed your entry, grovelling apologies — give us a nudge and we’ll sort it. If you wanted to take part but didn’t get round to it in time, it’s worth doing anyway — we’re happy to add links retrospectively. The next Session is hosted by Al at Fuggled:

Session #113: Observers Arrive 20:02

Mass Observation: The Pub and The People.

This month’s edition of The Session is hosted by, er, us, on the subject of Mass Observation. Get involved, bloggers and let us know about your posts here, on Twitter, or by email! In the meantime, here’s our contribution.

Pub near harbour, small town, Cornwall. One large bar with mezzanine; dining room; outside smoking area (covered and heated); garden. All on one floor.

Three cask ales (traditional handpumps); Guinness (large illuminated font with rugby ball on handle); Korev lager (large chrome font with condensation); Guinness Hop House 13 Lager (large font with condensation); Carslberg, San Miguel, Amstel lagers on standard keg bar; Rattler (with cartoon snake head handle) and Strongbow ciders on same.

Pub is dominated by a party of nine (six men, three women) playing poker on a lage central table, formed by moving several other tables from the periphery. A green baize temporary playing board covers most of the surface. Loud discussion about the rules of the game at points.

Continue reading “Session #113: Observers Arrive 20:02”

Announcement: Session #113 — Mass Observation: The Pub and The People

We’re hosting the 113th edition of The Session in July and we’re asking you to go to the pub, observe, and report.

The beer blogging Session logo.In the late 1930s a team of social researchers descended on Lancashire and spent several years observing the people of Bolton and Blackpool as they went about their daily lives. As part of that, in 1937 and 1938, they made a special study of pubs, which led to the publication of one of our favourite books of all time, The Pub and The People, in 1943.

This is an extract from a typical entry from the original observation logs, probably from 1938, describing the Vault of a pub in Bolton:

13 men standing, 8 sitting. 4 playing dominoes. 2 of the sitters are postmen.

2 men, about fifty, short, sturdy, caps and scarves, shiny worn blue shirts quarrelling about politics. One keeps saying, ‘If ee don’t like the country why don’t ee go away? No one stops me getting a living.’ Then he suddenly shouts ‘Why shouldn’t the king and queen be there. I’m for them! They should be there.’ … Barman comes round with a small canvas bag, jangling it, asks me if I want a penny draw for a pie. So I put my hand into the bag and get out a worn brass disc about size of a half penny, which says Riggs Pies and has a number in the middle. The draw takes place somewhere else. Number 9 wins… and he gets a small hot pie, the sort you can get for fourpence.

What we want people to do for The Session is to recreate this exercise in 2016: take a notebook to a pub or bar — any one you fancy — and write a note of what you observe.

  • How many people are drinking?
  • Which beers are on tap, and which are people actually drinking?
  • What are they eating?
  • How are they passing the time?
  • What are the topics of conversation?
  • How is the pub decorated?
  • How many TVs are there and what are they showing?
  • Are there pot plants, parrots, spittoons?
  • How many smokers are there? And vapers?
  • Is there a dartboard, pool table or quiz machine, and are they in use?

Over the years, people have fretted about Mass Observation’s attitudes to privacy and so, in line with original Mass Observation practice, you might want to anonymise the pub — city centre sports bar, suburban dining pub, industrial estate brewery tap, and so on. And it’s bad form to give names and details which might allow individuals to be identified from your descriptions.

And an Optional Extra

As a chaser, after your observations, write whatever you like spurred by the idea of ‘The Pub and The People’. Really, whatever you like, as vaguely related to theme as it might be. Or instead of making any observations, even. The main thing is that you feel inspired to write something.

How this Works

Do your observing in the next few weeks, publish your post on or near FRIDAY 1 JULY and let us know about it by Tweeting (@boakandbailey), emailing (contact@boakandbailey.com) or commenting on this post. We’ll publish a round-up in mid-July to allow for stragglers.

If you’ve never taken part in The Session before, or have lapsed, do join in — it doesn’t have to be a huge effort and it’s a great way to connect with other beer bloggers worldwide.

QUOTE: Annual Booze-Ups

“These special customs, and especially those associated with the annual booze-ups of New Year’s Eve (when you may kiss almost anybody in public), St Patrick’s Eve, Whitsun, Oak Apple Day, Trinity Sunday, June Holiday and Christmas, are a simple part of the pattern of the year, its pre-industrial, pre-Christian even, background. A background of sowing and reaping, winter death and spring rebirth, a rhythm that, like the rhythm of the week, determines so much of behaviour… now dominates Worktowners who never think what it’s all about or know the difference between wheat and barley.”

Mass Observation, The Pub and the People, 1943.

Book Review: The Pub and the People

Is this post a good idea? Our review is late by either four years (the edition we have was published by Faber in 2009) or seventy (it was first published in 1943). The thing is, it’s made us so giddy with excitement and amusement that we’ve got to tell someone, and you, loyal reader, are in the frame.

The Pub and the People: a Worktown Study by Mass Observation.
The Pub and the People: a Worktown Study by Mass Observation.

Mass Observation’ was a social research group founded in 1936 founded by an anthropologist called Tom Harrisson, along with filmmaker Humphrey Jennings and poet Charles Madge. It ran, in its first incarnation, until the nineteen-sixties, and the ‘Worktown’ study was its first major piece of work. It saw Harrisson and a team of observers (some locals, others from academia) descend on the Lancashire town and, for three years from 1937, watch and record everything, however apparently inconsequential.

Time travel

If you were to attempt to recreate the experience of visiting a pub in Bolton in 1937, this book would give you everything you could possibly need. Pub architecture, the drinks on offer, the clothing and manners of the customers, the behaviour of the bar staff, and the nature of conversations in the saloon, lounge and taproom are all recounted. Graphs and tables tell you how much people of each ‘type’ drank in a session, on each day of the week, in what measures, and at what pace. (63.8 per cent of drinks were consumed in between 6 and 10 minutes on a Sunday.)

There is also information on how much they smoked, and what they did with the fag ends; as well as how often they spat, where, and to what reaction from their friends — ‘He is called a “filthy bugger”’.

The various pubs are analysed and mapped — what’s the difference between the saloon, lounge and taproom? How many pubs have music rooms? What’s a ‘vault’? There are even statistics given for the distribution of pot plants.

Though at first it seems absurd — where will the obsession with minutiae end? — it eventually leads to an almost hypnotic sense of ‘virtual reality’.

Funny

Mass Observation had some of the trappings of a scientific study and had pretensions of objectivity. The fact is, though, that the personalities and prejudices of the editors, writers and observers comes through quite clearly. This often results in funny lines, either intentional or otherwise. This ‘observation’ (anecdote) is not only amusing in itself, but also because the writer is so coy about it:

Navvy type of person aged about 35, says ‘If I get three pints down me I can…’ (What he said is the sort of thing considered ‘unprintable’. It amounted to the fact that when he went home he was able to have sexual intercourse with his wife with the maximum of efficiency, and when he woke up in the morning he was able to repeat the process with the utmost satisfaction.)

Those under observation also often express themselves wittily or at least pithily: ‘You can do almost anything you bloody well like in the vault, short of shitting on the place.’ Entire pages are given over to illustrations of stream-of-consciousness, rambling banter, full of free associations and Pythonesque silliness which we recognise from pubs with ‘regulars’ who know each other well.

At one point, in an attempt to measure the social makeup of clientele in certain pubs, the authors use headwear as a proxy, and thus invent ‘the bowler hat index’. That really tickled us. What’s the modern equivalent?

Assume nothing

The pint, as we all know, is the one true measure — the only proper way to drink beer — and it has ever been thus. Except that’s not true, and The Pub and the People in fact devotes quite a bit of time to the strange phenomenon of those few oddballs who drinks pints, especially Irish navvies in their dirty, spit-and-sawdust, near-segregated pubs. Most Boltonians in 1937, especially the manliest of men, in fact drank ‘gills‘.

Binge drinking and town centre ‘no go’ areas are a new thing, too, right? Part of the collapse of our society? We already know about 1958 and 1927, but the lengthy description in The Pub and the People of a weekend in Bolton reads like an episode of Cops With Cameras in a period setting. (Bobbies with Cinematographs?)

Passing down the street observer saw a man of 30 running across the road, through the entrance of this pub, up the steps and shouting. The next second the sound of breaking glass. The man then comes tumbling down the steps with another man on top of him. They begin to fight in the middle of the street… [Later] a sergeant with a stick and  P.C. came up… ‘What’s the matter? What’s it all about? Now then, come on there, get out of it, get out of it!‘.

The pretentious bit

(OK — the more pretentious bit.) There are times when the observers’ prose reflects the poetry of its time. Some passages could pass for a lost bit of T.S. Eliot, such as this list of ‘things people do in pubs’:

A passage from the text illustrating its resemblance to poetry.

There are lots of moments where an otherwise clinical description is enlivened by a startling piece of imagery or turn of phrase, which perhaps devalue the text as ‘observation’, but make it much more pleasant to read.

Conclusion

We’re not sure why this book isn’t talked about more. Anyone with an interest in the history of beer and pubs in Britain ought to read it, but don’t let that ‘ought’ make you think it’s an ordeal: it’s engrossing, compelling and amusing, despite the academic framing.

Beer geeks and buying local

Beer advert: Magee Marshall & Co, Bolton

The Mass Observation book The Pub and the People continues to offer eye-opening nuggets which suggest that beer and pubs aren’t so different now to how they were nearly eighty years ago.

1. Some landlords prided themselves on buying from small, local producers

The landlord here says he gets his beer from a small brewery in Derby Street. He doesn’t care for large breweries, he says: “It’s all done with chemicals”… beer from big breweries goes off in no time…

And why was this particular landlord so fussy? Because he’d identified a new market.

2. There were a small number of beer geeks

Most pub-goers simply drink the cheapest available beer, while a minority exist for whom quality is most important.

This statement is backed up an account from the same landlord quoted above of  the word-of-mouth buzz which surrounded a particularly well-matured barrel of bitter which sat in his cellar for six months before being tapped when a stranger visited the pub.

The stranger said that it was wonderful — ‘like wine’. This man took to calling in regularly for it, until the barrel was finished. It went soon because he told his friends, and they came in for it too.

Did he use Twitter or the Ratebeer forums? Or maybe he wrote about it on his blog?

Another drinker made this statement to the survey team:

There is, I think, many different brands of beer which so far I have not had the Pleasure of Tasting. Those I have, such as: Magee’s, Walker’s, Hamer’s, Cunningham’s, and one or two others, all have a nice Flavour… The Price question I will not Dispute, because I do not Drink Excessively, so I don’t favour any particular Beer.

Idiosyncratic prose style aside, isn’t that a familiar sounding beer geek statement?

Beer: piss and chemicals?

'Weekend Drinkers', from the wonderful Bolton Council Mass Observation photo archive. (No, that isn't us in the Dock Inn...)
‘Weekend Drinkers’, from the wonderful Bolton Council Mass Observation photo archive. (Any resemblance to the authors of this blog is purely coincidental.)

Humans, it seems, have a natural tendency to assume that the best of times was just before they arrived on the scene — that things aren’t what they used to be. That’s certainly often true of beer, both specifically (Pilsner Urquell, Hoegaarden, Rooster’s Yankee) and more generally.

We are now wondering how far back the general belief that ‘beer isn’t what is used to be’ can be traced. Here’s the start of the trail:

  • 1978: ‘The tragedy is that a generation of drinkers are being reared on mass-produced fizzy pap… Many have never tasted good, traditional beer…’ Roger Protz in Pulling a Fast One.
  • 1973: ‘It’s all piss and wind, like a barber’s cat.’ Man in a Midlands pub quoted by Christopher Hutt in The Death of the English Pub.
  • 1936: ‘…same wi’t bloody beer, it’s nowt but piss and chemicals…’ Man in a Bolton pub quoted by Mass Observation in The Pub and the People (1943).

Are there earlier examples of this kind of rhetoric? We bet there are. In fact, we reckon that, within about eight weeks of beer being invented, some miserable sod was moaning about how the second batch wasn’t as good as the first.

Another thought, though: apart from those who mourn the near disappearance of mild, and the watering of John Smith’s, are there many around today who think beer quality in Britain is, in general, declining?

Our copy of the Mass Observation pub study arrived yesterday and we’ve already found plenty of food for thought. A full review will follow soon but, in the meantime, here’s what Ron Pattinson had to say about it in several posts; and here’s George Orwell’s contemporary review.