Bits We Underlined In… A Year at the Peacock, 1964

BOOK COVER: A Year at the Peacock

There was a rash of memoirs by publicans in the mid-20th century and Tommy Layton’s A Year at the Peacock is a classic example, full of detail, riven with snobbery, and ending in unhappiness.

Paul Bailey (no relation) tipped us off to this one a few years ago but we only recently acquired a copy and set about it with the highlighter pen.

Layton (born in 1910) was a restaurateur, wine merchant and drinks writer generally described using words such as “irascible”, “eccentric” or “quirky”. His self-portrayal in this book conveys that bad-tempered eccentricity, exhibiting a remarkably objective view of his own rather sour personality.

The book tells the story of how he came to take on a pub in Kent, having first noticed its potential while passing through on the way to France on a wine-related mission. In his first conversation with the incumbent publican Layton gleans some interesting nuggets of information about beer,  a subject about which he is initially quite ignorant:

“Whose beer do you take?” I continued.

“Fremlins. The hop-pickers like it far the best,” he said.

“Hop-pickers?” I replied. “I thought they were all in Kent.”

“You are in Kent here,” he said. “The boundary is a bit funny round here.”

Then he loosened up a bit and gave me a fat, pleasant smile. “Cor! You should have seen the crowds here on the lawns before they started installing the hop-picking machinery. Hundred upon hundreds of them, all drinking pints as fast as you could pour it out. Why, we had to take over a huge shed which has been specially licensed as an overflow service.”

Layton eventually bought the pub, despite grim warnings from Mr Christopher, the outgoing publican (“You take practically nothing here in the winter, and precious little more in the summer.”) and set about rejuvenating the old inn.

Tommy Layton
Tommy Layton

A string of odd discoveries follow: the pub sold foul-smelling vinegar and paraffin by the jug from casks stored in the cellar next to the beer; there was no bar, only  a hatch, so the person serving had to stand for their entire shift; and the cellar froze in winter, but became a furnace in summer.

As in the fictionalised memoir We Keep a Pub a large part of Layton’s book is taken up with portraits of publicans — in this case, the temporary managers he hires to do the actual day-to-day work of running the pub, via an agency. Shepherd is his clear favourite:

[He was] a thin middle-aged man who to the inn at once, and the inn seemed to fit him to perfection. Beer was to him what wine is to me; a hobby, a livelihood, and a darned good drink. Before inquiring about his accommodation, or food arrangements, and quite unaffectedly and in such a way one could not take offence, he went straight to the beer casks, pulled out the spigots, pulled himself a glass of beer, held it up to the light and savoured it. An extraordinarily pleasant smile lit up his face as the bitter got his approval. He then did the same with the mild , and again he was happy.

Shepherd patiently corrects all of Layton’s mistakes, such as using optics designed for dispensing fruit cordials to hop-pickers’ children for spirits so that every measure was by default a double. He also educates Layton on the benefits of different methods of dispense, starting with a dissection of “Beer from the Wood” served direct from casks on the bar:

“It tastes much flatter, and the beer doesn’t retain its head,” said Shepherd.

Actually, the nauseating white froth which appears on the top of a glass of ale is supposed to appeal to the beer-drinking populace and professional brewers talk about ‘collar retention’.

By and large Shepherd was right; the advantages of below-ground cellars for beer in wooden casks, in contradistinction to the trouble-free beer dispensers in metal drums under pressure, are irrefutable…

Among the advantages Layton mentions is that “There is no contamination due to pipe smoke” — not something we’d ever considered given the smoke-free days we live in.

If further confirmation was required that cask ale could sometimes be a grotty product, Layton provides it in his account of the overspill bowl which catches drippings from reused glasses that customers insist must be filled right to the brim ever time:

[Overspilled] beer from fifty different mouths… is more often than note left in the bar all night and goes back into the casks for consumption the next day. I do not exaggerate: this is what is happening all over Britain, and is a practice that the Ministry of Health… is trying to stop by forcing publicans to adopt a lined measure so that the beer does not come up to the rim of the glass.

When he later has a falling out with Shepherd it is over his mishandling of a recently treated cask: “I’d just topped that cask up with yesterday’s spillings… and they would have settled down nicely. Now they are all churned up.”

Layton, hygienically minded and no lover of cask ale, is fairly warm towards convenient, clean keg bitters:

The beer in these containers is brewed to appeal to the younger generation; it is crisper and less oily than the cask stuff, and there are some who disapprove of it strongly. My friend Brian Fox, of the Victory Inn, Arundel, fumes with indignation at the thought of any free Mine Host stocking such swipes. But he is wrong; tastes change.

Elsewhere in the book you can enjoy Layton expressing his disdain for northerners and their disgusting cooking — “It may be all right up north… but down here we wouldn’t throw it to the pigs” — and revolutionising the pancake; if we’d read it sooner we might have cited it in the section of 20th Century Pub on the development of the gastropub.

After snottily ordering around a succession of managers, treating them more like his personal servants than skilled agency staff, and ending up with worse and weirder characters each time.

Eventually, he has something of a breakdown:

The truth was that the Peacock Inn, Iden Green was wearing my nerves raw. I became aware of this when I drove up to the inn and realized that I had been sitting in the driving-seat for some minutes summoning up the willpower to get out and enter the house.

Seemingly out of nowhere, but perhaps an oblique reflection of his mental state, one of the final chapters is an account of a tour of the sites of Nazi concentration camps on the Continent.

It isn’t a great book. Layton isn’t a great writer. The structure is episodic, digressive, and repetitive. But, still, if you want a snapshot of life in a country pub in the early 1960s, here it is, from bottles of brown ale to “segments of gherkin” on the bar on Sunday afternoon.

Our copy cost a fiver and will no doubt prove a useful addition to the Arthur Millard Memorial Library.

Bits We Underlined In Whitbread Way No. 13, 1979

"Ideal Suit in Lager" -- a hand with playing cards depicting lager brands.
Detail from the cover of Whitbread Way No. 13.

Whitbread Way was a magazine published by the mega-brewery for the education of its licensees. This issue from the summer of 1979 is all about lager and pub grub.

Actually, we had to work out the date from various clues — for some reason, it isn’t given anywhere in the publication — so don’t quote us on it. The magazine is glossy and professional looking, in that boring trade-mag way.

It starts with a news round-up by Graham Kemp which betrays some political bias in the wake of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister:

There is undoubtedly a groundswell of opinion towards a more pragmatic, commercial approach to life in Britain… The mood of the country over the past decade has been to go for the highest possibly incomes without considering where the money is to come from or what we have to earn nationally to sustain our present standard of living.

What goes around comes around and all that. This statement comes in the context of pressure from the Price Commission which wanted to keep beer prices down to avoid consumer discontent. ‘Prices ought to go down even costs go up’, says Mr Kemp sarcastically, oddly presaging last week’s Cloudwater blog post. What goes around… Oh, we’ve done that one.

Three men raising pints over a video recorder.
Licensee William Garside of the Dog & Partridge, Ashton-under-Lyne, is presented with the Phillips N1700 video recorder he won in a magazine competition.

The first substantial feature, by John Firman, is fascinating and if we’d got round to reading this earlier might have informed our big piece on lager louts. It is entitled ‘Violence — is it necessary?’ and concerns the stalling of what they refer to as the Ban the Thug Bill. It was proposed by Conservative MP Anthony Grant and was intended to ban convicted ‘hooligans’ from entering pubs for up to two years at a time. Violence in pubs was felt to be on the rise and damaging the trade, as supported by quotes from interviews with licensees. Again, the article is openly political: the last government, Firman asserts, didn’t like to do anything and so blocked Grant’s bill, but he expresses a hope that the new Conservative government might be more open to the idea. (They were; the bill passed in 1980.) It’s interesting with hindsight that nowhere in this discussion was lager mentioned, but then…

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Bits We Underlined in… The London Spy, 1971

Cover of the 1971 edition of The London Spy. (Bright red, peering eye.)

This ‘discreet guide to the city’s pleasures’ naturally contains lots of details on pubs and beer, not only in the section on drinking but also scattered throughout.

It was edited by Robert Allen and Quentin Guirdham and was a follow up to a 1966 edition edited by Hunter Davies with the slightly different title of The New London Spy, which we wrote about years ago.

In general, the 1971 edition is more sex-obsessed than the 1966 and, by modern standards, pretty obnoxious in places. There’s an entire chapter advising blokes on how to ‘pull’, for example, which is supposed to be cheeky but now just reads as incredibly creepy. Conning your way into halls of residence for young women and stalking around the corridors harassing anyone you bump into is one particularly sociopathic suggestion. There are fewer contributors than in 1966 but some big names still appear, not least Sir John Betjeman and Bruce Chatwin.

Anyway, let’s dive in.

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Bits we Underlined In… How To Run a Pub, 1969

Cover of book with illustration by Tim Jaques.

This 130-page hardback was written by Tony White of Evening Standard Pub Guide fame and acts as an interesting companion piece to Peggy Mullis’s similar how-to guide.

The style is breezy and fairly witty — think Len Deighton — but is a product of its time: it is addressed entirely to men, women are a problem to be dealt with, and the language around race might shock some modern readers.

The book opens with the now customary attempt to put off wide-eyed idealists by shattering their ‘pipe-dream’. This also provides a helpful glimpse into the Ideal Pub as it was viewed 1969:

You are the genial landlord of a small timbered country inn where the warm August sun is miraculously reflected in the burnished horse-brasses and marmalade pans… There you are, your elbows propped on the scrubbed wood counter, swapping war stories with the quality in the Saloon and gentle bawdry with the locals in the Public, pausing now and again to draw a pint of amber-coloured bitter into a pewter tankard… At your side, your devoted lady wife… serenely dispenses, with a pair of white plastic tongs, plump, smoking, home-made pasties… Somewhere in the not-so-far-off distance can be heard the clonk of leather on willow.

White’s next question is a good one: given the difficulty of running a pub in reality, why does anyone bother? He finds several reasons the most interesting of which is the idea that being a publican is one of few careers you can start later in life — a thought which still finds an echo in the words of Micropub guru Martyn Hillier almost 50 years on.

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Bits We Underlined in… Surrey Pubs, 1965

Months later than its companion pieces here are the highlights from Surrey Pubs by Richard Keeble, published in 1965.

This is weird: we thought we’d written about all of these Batsford guides but it turns out that, though we annotated the book with 800 Post It notes, and even wrote most of the post, we never actually published it. Perhaps Sussex Pubs confused us. Anyway, better late than never…

Beer from the WoodSeveral pubs are mentioned as serving beer from the wood, such as The Whyte Harte and Bletchingley, Ye Olde Six Bells at Horley, the Jolly Farmer at Horne and the Swan at Thames Ditton, which had the best of all: Bass from the wood.

Drummond Arms, Albury – Proto-craft-beer-bar: ‘There is a choice of forty-seven different bottled beers and there are some outstanding wines on the list.’ The draught beer list included Friary Meux ‘Treble Gold’, a pale ale that perhaps bolsters the argument for ‘golden ale’ having existed as a vague idea long before Exmoor and Hop Back crystallised and marketed the concept.

Plough Inn, Bletchingley‘The landlord here… is a qualified optician… [Ask him] to show your how to play “shutterbox”, a game he brought to this district.’ (Shut the Box?)

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Bits We Underlined in… Kent Pubs, 1966

This is the last of the 1960s Batsford pub guides we’ve be digesting over the last few months and it’s a good one.

Unlike some of his colleagues on this project, D.B. Tubbs (Douglas Burnell ‘Bunny’ Tubbs?) attempts some humour in his writing, apparently inspired by Alan Reeve-Jones’s first entry, London Pubs, from 1962. Where Reeve-Jones featured his fictional Commander Xerxes McGill in every other entry (frankly, rather tediously), Tubbs has an equally fictional tome of pub lore, Hogmanay’s  Etymology of the Bar (unpublished). He also uses some interesting turns of phrase, a couple of which we might nick, e.g.:

  • Beermanship — to be brushed up on in any pub with a choice of draught bitter.
  • Neo — self-consciously modern pub design or decor.
  • Loungery — when Neo goes bad.
  • Oldworlderye — e.g. a buffet bar described as ‘Ye Snackerie’.
  • Hinterlanders — people from the outer edges of London.
  • Wooden bitter/wooden beer — beer from the wood, AKA traditional draught, AKA ‘real ale’.

And if you can finish this book and not find yourself thirsting for a pint of his favourite bitter from Tomson & Wooton of Ramsgate, 1634-1968, ‘with a real bitter tang’, then you’ve got a stronger will than either of us. (Their X India sounds interesting, too.)

Preface — ‘[Some pubs] have been left out for reasons that you would understand if you had been there with me. Sometimes it was the beer, sometimes the welcome and occasionally the quote food unquote.’

Crown & Sceptre, Acol — ‘[The landlord] has adopted a parrot… This polychromatic bird lies on its back, crosses his (or her) legs to order, and can pick up a beer bottle with his (or her) beak.’

Walnut Tree, Aldington — ‘The pub has an almost untouched example of a medieval kitchen.’ The pub website today has no mention of an historic kitchen.

Malta Inn, Allington Lock — ‘The beer is served not from the wood but from the bottom of the cask by “by computer”.’ No further elaboration is given but we assume he means they used electric pumps.

Blue Bell, Beltring — ‘A Fremlins house opposite Whitbread’s main farm… There is still a good deal of knees-up-Mother-Brown but far fewer hop picking customers than there used to be because machines don’t drink. At one time the landlord used to shut the public bar, fill a bath with beer and pass the pints out through the window.’ Somewhat reminiscent scenes can be seen at the Blue Anchor in Helston on Flora Day when beer is served direct from the cask at the door of the cellar via plastic pipe.

The Old Cellars, Tenterden, as drawn by Alan F. Turner.
The Old Cellars, Tenterden, as drawn by Alan F. Turner for Kent Pubs.

Woodman’s Arms, Bodsham — ‘The landlord, Mr Bob Harvey… understands beer. Eight years ago, when he first arrived, a retired publican friend said: “The secret of keeping beer and ale, my lad, is to order it in advance so it can lay for two weeks before you tap it.” This hint he has taken ever since…. Only one brew is stocked so that it is always in condition… If you want a testimonial as the Romany regular called Bill. He drinks 22 pints of bitter every Saturday night then bicycles soberly home.’

Prince Louis, Dover — ‘The walls are fastened together at present by pictures, photographs, postcards, pennants, pistols, lifebuoys, model ships and aeroplanes, cartridges, tracts, beer-mats and incendiary bombs, nailed, pinned, screwed, glued and otherwise attached, rather in the fashion of Dirty Dick’s.’ Dirty Dick’s is arguably the original ‘collection pub’, a precursor of the 20th century theme pub.

George, Egerton — ‘in winter mulled ale’. A living tradition in this part of the world, or a bit of affected ‘oldworlderye’? (Also at the Smugglers Inn, Herne.)

Vigo, Fairseat — ‘Do you play Daddlums?’ Googles Daddlums; no. ‘If so, you may be running short of opportunities because there aren’t many Kentish pubs where it is still played; if not, start at the Vigo.’ Bad news: though the link above says the Vigo still has its Daddlums table… it is now closed pending a planning decision to turn it into a private house.

King’s Head, Crafty Green — ‘Having been a tea and rubber planter in Ceylon Mr R.E. Jackson makes a speciality of Ceylon curries, which are cooked by his wife with spices specially imported from Ceylon and vegetables in season from Bombay.’ Yet another curry pub — this, it turns out, may have been ‘a thing’.

Bell, Ivychurch — ‘and fried chicken on Saturday nights’. So this wasn’t something introduced to pubs by trend-chasers in the last decade or so?

Three Horseshoes, Lower Hardres — ‘Grills and a good dish called Beef fondue… a good gobble.’ Has fondue made a comeback in hip pubs yet, or is still 70s Dinner Party naff?

George & Dragon, Speldhurst — ‘How about that drink, though? Star (Eastbourne) light mild and old ale; Fremlins’ Three Star Bitter, Worthington on draught. By pressure Flowers’ Keg, Whitbread Tankard, Watney’s Red Barrel, Double Diamond, and draught Guinness, plus Tuborg lager. Two draught ciders, four draught sherries, six malt whiskies…’ And so on. A quick glance at a couple of 1970s editions of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide suggests it didn’t retain its reputation as a beer destination.

Northfield House, Speldhurst — ‘The mild and bitter are well kept, and served straight from the wood, and if you don’t know the difference that makes you shouldn’t be drinking draught beer at all.’ Oof! A hard line, that.

Hole in the Wall, Tunbridge Wells — ‘[A] very special case, being not an ordinary pub but the back room of Mr Allman’s tobacconist’s shop. It used in Vic. times to be called “The Central Cigar Divan”, and still has its mahogany and black leather divans and a brass gas-jet lighter on the wall for gentlemen wishing to partake of the weed.’ (a) Central Cigar Divan — hipster bar name! (b) Not that type of weed. (c) Sounds fascinating but… it’s gone.

Pepperbox, Ulcombe — ‘Inns with an unusual name are often good.’ Discuss, 12 pts.

Victoria, Wye — ‘[In] the beer-drinking contest at the Victoria… the brisker drinkers achieve a four-second pint, and acrobatic frolics are to be seen with a double-decker counterbalanced beer mug mounted in gimbals.’ Responsible drinking! We’re struggling to picture this steampunk-sounding contraption.

Hooden Horse [sic], Wickhambreaux — ‘One of the regulars is a one-eyed swan named Nelson who lives down the road. It is quite respectable to see him, even after a long session.’ A friend of Lucifer the alcoholic donkey, perhaps? And who was asking a few years ago about the origins of the phrase ‘session beer’?

Bits We Underlined In… Sussex Pubs, 1966

We’re reading every page of every one of those Batsford pub guides. This time, it’s Rodney L. Walkerley’s Sussex Pubs published in 1966.

The Victory, Arundel: ‘In addition to the ales and stouts there is a surprising assembly of genuine continental lagers…’ This would be notable even today, especially outside major cities.

The Castle Inn, Bodiam: We knew that Guinness owned a pub — just the one — but had no idea where, and had never got round to Googling. But here it is, right next to the brewery’s own UK hop farm‘After the First World War it was leased to Lord Curzon and later, by the National Trust, to Trust Houses… and then to the Guinness company, who possibly wanted to discover if running a pub was as good for them as their advertising assures us their stout is for the consumer.’

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