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.
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.