Pubs in novels: The Vodi, John Braine, 1959

John Braine’s 1959 novel The Vodi is set in a fictional northern town where every other conversation takes place over a beer, or in a pub.

Of particular interest is the portrayal of a large, modern pub – a theme you might remember comes up in another social realist novel from the same year, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar.

Braine’s treatment is succinct and direct:

[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 liked 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.

Pubs in general are presented as a kind of erotic playground, all flirtatious barmaids and “goers” – frustrated wives, lonely war widows and other women no better than they should be. It’s no wonder, then, that the (angry) young men in the book practically live there, talking endlessly about sexual adventures, ambitions and the relative attractions of the women they know.

A black and white image of a roadhouse type pub.
The Three Tuns at Mirfield, ‘A Famous Yorkshire Roadhouse’. SOURCE: A Second Look at Mirfield.

As for older people, though, Braine also gives notes on the lads’ parents’ drinking habits. Here’s a bit about the protagonist’s family:

[Dick’s] father [preferred] the Liberal Club (one pint of mixed, one large Lamb’s navy rum, every evening at nine-twenty precisely, except Wednesday and Sunday) and his mother rarely touched alcohol at all, much less visited a pub.

(‘Mixed’ is a blend of mild-and-bitter.)

There’s also a surprising amount of drinking at home, given the idea sometimes conveyed in commentary that this is a new and disturbing phenomenon threatening pubs.

Dick and his father share bottles of Family Ale after they’ve done the weekly accounts for the shop, and Mr Coverack, Dick’s best friend Tom’s Dad, is an expert pourer of bottled Tetley’s Bitter:

He opened another bottle of beer and filled his glass with his usual competence; none frothed over and there was exactly the right amount of head on it to make it immediately drinkable. Tom had once commented to Dick with some bitterness on this trait of his father’s. “My Old Man,” he said, “can do any little thing you can mention, from mending a switch to pouring a glass of beer, like a professional. It’s the big things, the important things, he messes up.”

There is even a brief description of a specific beer – quite unusual in fiction generally. It’s in a passage set in a pub which is filling up with the evening crowd, developing a warm atmosphere and buzz:

The sun was setting now; the faces at the far side of the room glimmered palely, the faces nearest the fire were dramatically lit in red and black, the bitter in the tankard of the old man at the table next to Dick’s was changed from straw-yellow to near-amber sown with glittering specks of gold; when the girl, bringing in Tom’s round, switched on the light there was an element of annoyance in the glances directed for a split-second towards her; the transition from an atmosphere as cosy as a Victorian ballad had been too abrupt and the room seemed, during that transition, drab and mean.

Straw-yellow is interesting with the history of northern beer in mind but this passage is also a reminder of the importance of light in both the mood of a pub and the appearance of any given beer.

We won’t go through every pint, bottle and saloon bar in the book, but take our word for it, there are plenty – further evidence that acknowledging the pubs existence of pubs was a key factor in giving post-war British fiction its sense of startling realism.

For more on inter-war pubs, roadhouses and the post-war response to them, check out our book 20th Century Pub.

J.B. Priestley in Bradford, on Sunday, in the rain

In his travelogue English Journey, published in 1934 but based on observations made in the autumn of 1933, the writer J.B. Priestley unknowingly foretells the fate of the public house.

We’ve been dipping in and out of this book, with H.V. Morton’s In Search of England as a companion piece, for about a year now. It lends itself to dipping, each chapter covering a different part of the country and complete as standalone essays.

In ‘To the West Riding’, Priestley lands in Bradford on Sunday evening as heavy drizzle falls, and is all but begged by locals not to go into the town centre: ‘“But there isn’t anything,” they almost screamed.’

He finds the warning accurate: there’s a Salvation Army band playing, a couple of cafés shutting up, and some shop window displays to look at, while young people ‘promenade’ – that is, walk up and down in the rain.

Ever since I can remember, elderly citizens have been protesting against this practice of promenading on Sunday nights. They have always been disgusted by the sight of young people monkey-parading in this fashion. It is, however, the same elderly citizens who have seen to it that nearly all doors leading out of the street shall be locked against these young people. They cannot listen to plays or music, cannot see films, cannot even sit in big pleasant rooms and look at one another; so they walk up and down the street… They have, of course, to get on with their mating, whatever elderly persons may think…

Priestley’s pub crawl is depressing. He finds the first one he visits very quiet with ‘five or six hobbledehoys drinking glasses of bitter’ and bothering the barmaid. ‘Nothing wrong with the place’, he writes, ‘except that it was dull and stupid.’

Pub #2 is busy with young men and ‘women of the town’:

This is not an attack on the place; I have not the least desire to see it closed… [but] cannot see why playgoing, listening to music, watching films, even dancing, should be considered so much worse – or at least more secular – than boozing with prostitutes.

The third pub is the liveliest, large and crowded, with some ‘little coloured lights in the lounge’.

That was all; nothing else, not even reasonable comfort; but it was enough, and every table, every seat was taken. Fifteen shillings’ worth of coloured lamps: this was gaiety, this was life; and so the place was selling beer, stout, port, as fast as it could serve them, to patrons of both sexes. I do not think any of these people – and they were mostly young, pairs of boys, pairs of girls; with here and there an older couple – could really be said to be really enjoying themselves; but at least they could look at one another, giggle a bit, talk when they found something to say, and admire the carnival splendour of the coloured electric lights.

Priestley’s conclusion is that it would be better for supposedly religious towns to permit the breaking of the Sabbath if it meant ‘a choice between monkey-parading and dubious pubs’.

It strikes us that what he has landed on, in analysing one Sunday night in one town, is a diagnosis of the whole problem with pubs: they were the default for many people not necessarily because they were lovely, but for lack of any alternative.

As houses got better and bigger, more people stayed at home. As opening hours relaxed and the range of businesses in towns broadened (coffee shops, snack bars), pubs ceased to be the only option.

Their monopoly came to an end.

For more on pubs, including prostitution, fighting, spitting and riots, do check out our book 20th Century Pub. For more on Bradford pubs in particular hunt down Paul Jenning’s The Public House in Bradford 1770-1970, published in 1995. Main image above adapted from one supplied by Bradford Libraries on Flickr.

Only Watney’s could be so bold

Can you see spot what drew us to the tatty old postcard of Main Street, Haworth, West Yorkshire, from the 1960s, reproduced above?

That’s right – it’s the advertisement for Watney’s, neatly camouflaged against the brick wall to the left, above a yellow enamel sign advertising St Bruno tobacco.

This particular Watney’s ad campaign ran from as early as 1937, as explained by Ron Pattinson here, along with details of why this design was so successful. Ron also provides a lovely image of the poster which we’ve taken the liberty of nicking:

What we want is Watneys
SOURCE: Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

The really interesting thing about the postcard, though, is that this poster should have appeared in Yorkshire, 200 miles from the brewery’s home in London.

In the 1960s, Watney’s grew and took over regional breweries around the UK. It took over Beverley Brothers of Wakefield in 1967 and began investing in Webster’s of Halifax at around the same time, taking it over completely in 1972.

So the poster in the postcard is a symbol of the arrival of national brands, and of the homogenisation of beer that triggered the founding of the Campaign for Real Ale in the 1970s.

But it’s not all one-sided: if you look closely, you might be able to pick out a small enamel sign advertising Tetley’s next to the Watney’s poster. That, too, would become a national brand, taking a taste of Yorkshire to the rest of the country.

Saddleworth Pub Carpets, 1966

Graham Turner’s fascinating 1967 book The North Country paints portraits of towns and cities from Wigan to Durham, often stopping off in pubs and clubs on the way.

You might remember us quoting from it before, on the subject of Pakistani migrants attempting to integrate into pub life in Bradford in the 1960s.

The rather less politically charged extract below, from a chapter called ‘Over the Top’ about Saddleworth Moor, grabbed our attention for a couple of reasons.

No group of people in the valley are in more demand than the members of the Boarshurst Silver Band. George Gibson, a large, enormously jovial man with a great red face who plays the ‘basso profundo’ and also teaches brass in the local schools, reckons to be out either playing or teaching ‘very near every night’… [He] said over a pint at the King William [that] finding players was not any particular problem – “you find me twenty-four instruments and I’ll find you twenty-four kids”. The King William, incidentally, is one of the pubs in Saddleworth which has treated itself to wall-to-wall carpeting, an extravagance which [local character] John Kenworthy thinks has changed them from forums of discussion into mere drinking places. At one end of the bar were a group of the men we had been drinking with the night before at the Gentleman’s [Club], now deeply engrossed in a catholic selection of racing papers. At the other were half a dozen men in overalls.

So:

  1. Carpets were seen as taking pubs downmarket, somehow? Making them more frivolous?
  2. A reminder that pub carpets aren’t a great old tradition – they’re a relatively new development.
  3. And, carpets aside, a reminder of how class segregation can happen even without physical boundaries.

In case you’re wondering, by the way, the William IV is still there, and still trading as a pub.

Passing Thoughts on Yorkshire Beer

Collage: Yorkshire Beer.

We spent a few days in Yorkshire last week (Leeds-Harrogate-York) and reached a couple of tentative conclusions.

1. Timothy Taylor Landlord, like Bass, and probably like many other beers, can be so different as to be unrecognisable from one pub to the next. We’re not saying it’s an inconsistent product but that it has a lot of potential for change depending on how it’s handled by pubs. We had pints that were bone dry and stony, and others that were sweet and nectar-like — older and younger respectively we assume. We almost always enjoy it but there seems to be a real sweet spot where it becomes a little less cloying and gains a sort of peach-like flavour without completely drying out. Expert opinion welcome below, of course. In the meantime, we’ll keep testing our findings when we can.

2. We might have finally zeroed in on the essence of Yorkshire bitter. Tetley*, Black Sheep and Taylor’s Boltmaker, as well as looking more alike in the glass than we recall, all had the same challenging, hot, rubber-band tang. We’ve noticed it before in Boltmaker but honestly just thought it was on the turn. But there it was again in multiple pints of Boltmaker, in different pubs, even in different cities, and in multiple pints of the others, too. It’s most pronounced in Boltmaker (Jessica likes it, Ray finds it too much) and gentlest in the current incarnation of Tetley (Ray likes it, Jessica finds it rather bland) but definitely the same thing. This is where our technical tasting skills let us down, unfortunately. Is this maybe what people mean by ‘sulphurous’? Again, expert suggestions welcome.

* No longer brewed in Yorkshire, we know.

3. Northern pale-n-hoppy beer is more to our taste than London or Bristol takes on the same style, on the whole. We knew this already, really, but this trip confirmed it. Without wanting to seem dogmatic about clarity (we’re not) beers from breweries such as Northern Monk, Rooster’s and Ossett were perfectly clear with a lightness and dryness that made them impossible to drink in anything less than great hearty gulps. Even with plenty of flavour and aroma there’s a certain delicacy there — perfect engineering. We did find ourselves wondering if perhaps we’ve grown to prefer sparklers for this style because (per this post for $2+ Patreon subscribers) the notorious widget has a capacity for rounding off hard edges and smoothing out flaws. ‘Don’t @ us’, as the kids say.