When musician and comedian Robin Allender asked on Twitter “What are your favourite descriptions of pubs in novels or poems?” it made us realise just how many of these we’ve collected over the years.
It also made us aware of the scattered nature of our notes, which is why we’ve decided to pull them together here.
Let’s start with Dickens. We’re both fans but Jess has read more, and rereads Our Mutual Friend most years. She’s got a theory that he invented Ye Olde Inn much in the same way he’s been said to have invented Christmas – but that’s a work in progress. In the meantime, here are a couple of pubs from his novels.
The bar of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters was a bar to soften the human breast. The available space in it was not much larger than a hackney-coach; but no one could have wished the bar bigger, that space was so girt in by corpulent little casks, and by cordial-bottles radiant with fictitious grapes in bunches, and by lemons in nets, and by biscuits in baskets, and by the polite beer-pulls that made low bows when customers were served with beer, and by the cheese in a snug corner, and by the landlady’s own small table in a snugger corner near the fire, with the cloth everlastingly laid. This haven was divided from the rough world by a glass partition and a half-door, with a leaden sill upon it for the convenience of resting your liquor; but, over this half-door the bar’s snugness so gushed forth that, albeit customers drank there standing, in a dark and draughty passage where they were shouldered by other customers passing in and out, they always appeared to drink under an enchanting delusion that they were in the bar itself.Our Mutual Friend, 1865, Chapter Six
I was such a child, and so little, that frequently when I went into the bar of a strange public-house for a glass of ale or porter, to moisten what I had had for dinner, they were afraid to give it to me. I remember one hot evening I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best – your very best – ale a glass?’ For it was a special occasion. I don’t know what. It may have been my birthday.
‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.’
‘Then,’ says I, producing the money, ‘just draw me a glass of the Genuine Stunning, if you please, with a good head to it.’
The landlord looked at me in return over the bar, from head to foot, with a strange smile on his face; and instead of drawing the beer, looked round the screen and said something to his wife. She came out from behind it, with her work in her hand, and joined him in surveying me. Here we stand, all three, before me now. The landlord in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition.David Copperfield, 1850, Chapter Eleven
Later on in the same decade, there’s a pub that’s so brilliantly described, and so important a marker in the development of the English pub, that we quoted it at length in our book 20th Century Pub. It’s from Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel Jude the Obscure:
[The inn] had been entirely renovated and refitted in modern style since Jude’s residence here… Tinker Taylor drank off his glass and departed, saying it was too stylish a place now for him to feel at home in unless he was drunker than he had money to be just then… The bar had been gutted and newly arranged throughout, mahogany fixtures having taken the place of the old painted ones, while at the back of the standing-space there were stuffed sofa-benches. The room was divided into compartments in the approved manner, between which were screens of ground glass in mahogany framing, to prevent topers in one compartment being put to the blush by the recognitions of those in the next. On the inside of the counter two barmaids leant over the white-handled beer-engines, and the row of little silvered taps inside, dripping into a pewter trough… At the back of the barmaids rose bevel-edged mirrors, with glass shelves running along their front, on which stood precious liquids that Jude did not know the name of, in bottles of topaz, sapphire, ruby and amethyst.
Here’s where we should mention another theory of ours: that the prevalence and presentation of pubs in literature tells us all we need to know about their social status. In 19th century novels, they’re lawless but joyful; then, as the 20th century approaches, they become wretched hives of scum and villainy – where characters go to get further down on their luck, or to get up to no good. Respectable writers don’t depict pubs at all. Then, later in the 20th century, perhaps as a result of the democratising effects of World War II, they begin to creep into ordinary novels as the settings for ordinary interactions between ordinary people. They become socially acceptable, their ubiquity in reality finally reflected in writing. But, again, this theory is a work in progress.
Speaking of villainy, Joseph Conrad deserves a mention here for his depiction of the Silenus, a German beer hall in London, which we cited in Gambrinus Waltz, our monograph on this very subject:
Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall. Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer… An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity. The din it raised was deafening. When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.The Secret Agent, 1902, Chapter 4
P.G. Wodehouse didn’t often depict pubs but the odd one does appear, as a place for his comic toffs to interact with inscrutable oafs. There is also, however, The Angler’s Rest. Here’s a sample:
In a mixed assemblage like the little group of serious thinkers which gathers nightly in the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest it is hardly to be expected that there will invariably prevail an unbroken harmony. We are all men of spirit: and when men of spirit, with opinions of their own, get together, disputes are bound to arise. Frequently, therefore, even in this peaceful haven, you will hear voices raised, tables banged, and tenor Permit-me-to-inform-you-sir’s competing with baritone And-jolly- well-permit -me- to-inform-yous. I have known fists to be shaken and on one occasion the word ‘fat-head’ to be used.‘The Man Who Gave up Smoking’, 1929
At this point, someone will mention Patrick Hamilton, whose novels of London life revolve around pubs. Honestly, we’ve only read one between us – Hangover Square, which Jess read in 2019, and found utterly bleak. We don’t have a quote at hand.
Post-war ‘angry young men’ novels (one of Ray’s specialist subjects) are a particularly rich seam of pub descriptions, often laden with class significance. In Room at the Top, for example, pubs are a grim reminder of what our socially mobile ‘hero’ is struggling to leave behind:
“Do you know, when I come into this pub, I don’t even have to order? They automatically issue a pint of wallop. And if I come in with someone else I point at them and nod twice if it’s bitter… Lovely, lovely ale… the mainstay of the industrial North, the bulwark of the British Constitution. If the Dufton pubs closed for just one day, there wouldn’t be a virgin or an unbroken window left by ten o’clock.”
Another John Braine novel, The Vodi, from 1959, has multiple pubs, all carefully described:
[He] didn’t like the Lord Relton very much. It was a fake-Tudor road-house with a huge car park; even its name was rather phoney, an attempt to identify it with the village of Relton to which, geographically at least, it belonged. But, unlike the Frumenty, unlike even the Ten Dancers or the Blue Lion at Silbridge, the Lord Relton belonged nowhere; it would have been just as much at home in any other place in England. It even smelled like nowhere; it had a smell he’d never encountered anywhere else, undoubtedly clean, and even antiseptic, but also disturbingly sensual, like the flesh of a woman who takes all the deodorants the advertisements recommend.
Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, also from 1959, gives us this portrait of an interwar estate pub:
There was a windy, rubber-tiled hallway where the children squatted, eating potato crisps and waiting for their mothers. Two frosted-glass doors, embossed with the brewery trademark, led off it, one into the public bar and one into the saloon…
The men who say [in the public bar] were refugees from the warm terrace-end pubs that had been pulled down; they sat around drinking mild and calling to each other across the room as though nothing had changed… The few items in the New House that gave it anything like the feel of a pub — the dartboard, the cribbage markers, the scratched blind-box, and the pokerwork sign that said IYBMADIBYO, if you buy me a drink I’ll buy you one — were all part of the same portable world, as if they had been wheeled here in prams in the flight from the old things.
(We’ve just noticed that clue to WYBMADIITY.)
There are also pubs to be found in the wonderful world of murder mystery. In fact, this lesser-known whodunnit is set entirely in a pub:
Lounge bar it was called, but it was not a place of thick carpets and potted palms. The bar, the stools, and the table tops were of plain dark-brown wood. The tables had strong iron legs, and they were bolted to the composition floor. The pictures on the walls were girlie advertisements for champagne cider and similar drinks. The four beer pumps had blue-and-white handles. But the place was clean and the girlie pictures were attractive, and on the shelves behind the bar was a bright display of bottles which promised drinks for the most exacting connoisseur of spirits and liqueurs.The Pub Crawler, Maurice Procter, 1956
In an edition of our monthly newsletter from a year or so ago, Jess observed that the Inspector Wexford novels of Ruth Rendell (a great writer, not just a great crime novelist) tell the story of the development of the English pub as they progress over the course of decades. This is from 1967’s A New Lease of Death:
The Olive and Dove is the best hostelry in Kingsmarkham that can properly be called an hotel. By a stretch of the imagination the Queen’s Head might be described as an inn, but the Dragon and the Crusader cannot claim to be more than pubs. The Olive, as locals invariably call it, is situated in the High Street at the Stowerton end of Kingsmarkham, facing the exquisite Georgian residence of Mr Missal, the Stowerton car dealer. It is partly Georgian itself, but it is a hybrid structure with lingering relics of Tudor and a wing that claims to be pre-Tudor. In every respect it conforms to what nice middle-class people mean when they talk about a ‘nice hotel. There are always three waiters, the chambermaids are staid and often elderly, the bath water is hot, the food as well as can be expected and the A.A. Guide has given it two stars.
There are hundreds more pubs in hundreds more novel – these are just some that seem especially vivid or important to us. Are there any real corkers you think we’ve missed? If so, comment below.
In the meantime, Robin also asked about poems, so we’ll finish with a line from Adrian Henri’s ‘Liverpool Poems’ published in The Mersey Sound in 1967:
Note for a definition of optimism:
A man trying the door of Yates Wine Lodge
At quarter past four in the afternoon.