20th Century Pub: From Beer House to Booze Bunker by Jessica Boak & Ray Bailey (The Homewood Press, paperback, 256 pages. Out now and available here)
Review by Ben McCormick
As a callow and hugely impressionable 16-year-old, I accompanied five older boys on a pub crawl in my hometown of Oldham for one of the group’s 18th birthday celebrations. Our mission was to sample the town’s best boozers’ specialities. These included Guinness at the One and Three and Oldham Brewery bitter at the Abbey Inn alongside more esoteric selections such as flaming sambuccas at The Greaves and a jug (four pints) of Beck’s at the bizarrely named Zolly Boshers. And a ‘blob’ – an infamous concoction consisting of Australian white wine, sugar, lemon juice and hot water. This was a drink peculiar to Yates’s Wine Lodge, which I discover more than 30 years later was a pub chain invented in Oldham. It appears I was drinking in the country’s first.
This nugget of information comes from a gem of a book by beer bloggers Boak & Bailey (who have appeared on these pages before) on one of my favourite subjects: pubs. Anyone who knows me will be aware that I’ve more than a passing interest in them — and not just because I often find it difficult to pass them. I’m currently writing a book about them and I’ve put in an awful lot of research. So have the authors of this, though clearly of the more scholarly kind.
Tracing the history and changing fortunes of these institutions from the turn of the last century to the present day, 20th Century Pub tackles the thorny question of what it is to be a pub, before marvelling at the many different shapes and sizes they have taken over the years. Each chapter covers a distinct type, from the inns, taverns and ale houses of the pre-World War I period and the ‘improved’ between the wars boozers to the theme pubs, Irish bars, gastropubs and branded behemoths of the later 20th century. It’s from this latter chapter that I discover, amid a wider discussion of Brexit fruitcake Tim Martin’s Wetherspoon’s chain, the origins of Yates’s Wine Lodge.
The authors’ enthusiasm for their subject matter is evident as they detail history, culture, social change, architecture, attitude and anecdote. And they back up their thorough academic research with some clearly welcome first-hand practical field trips to the hostelries that bookend each chapter. And in so doing, they elevate the book from what could have been an overly nerdy exercise and make it far more enjoyable, despite the fact that, in many cases, the places they visit are not as glorious as they once were.
Decline is a theme that’s explored throughout. Pubs, we learn, are under attack from legislators, revenue collectors, the temperance movement, supermarkets, developers, PubCos and changing lifestyles. They are closing at an alarming rate, but on the evidence of the later chapters in this book, there is hope too, with changes in licensing and community laws signalling potential salvation. These pages, which feature one of my local boozers The Ivy House and the micropub phenomenon, provide an uplifting ending to a book that doesn’t become obsessed by closures, which tends to dog other books on the subject.
There’s some fascinating detail here as well. Such as Carlisle’s pubs being under state control from the first world war till the early 1970s. Or that the Queen didn’t go to a pub for 39 years. That the poet Sir John Betjeman once led a campaign to save the Black Friar pub in, err, Blackfriars from demolition. That TV funnyman Graham Norton was once a waiter at The Eagle in Farringdon.
Or that, to my absolute delight, Oldham was the birthplace of more than just the tubular bandage.