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: