The Appeal of Authentic Community
How could Ulster-born Charles Duff write on Irish and English pubs in the engaging way he did in the 1950s? I discussed his Irish observations here. His English notes are set out in his book England and English (1954), which I’ll discuss below.
By “how could he” I mean, given the 19th century and Edwardian stances on the evils or at best dubious value of public houses, how could a sophisticated writer expatiate brightly c.1950?
Consider how the general culture viewed pubs into the mid-1900s. Scholar David Gutzke wrote in 1994, in “Gender, Class, and Public Drinking in Britain During the First World War”:
By the early Victorian period … inns and pubs lost not only their respectable clientele but their own respectability. Their limited but loyal clientele was primarily working class in composition, supplemented by a small, lower middle-class contingent.
As a contemporary illustration of this view, one of many I could offer, take Charles Black, an earlier, guide book writer. In an 1861 survey of England’s southeastern counties he refers to public houses and “beer shops” as characteristic of “squalid” and “miry” districts.
He recommends not a single pub to visit. Occasionally he notes approvingly a detail of pub history or makes another point of interest, but never mentions the beer, a sina qua non of the pub. See e.g. p. 644.
True, Black speaks of the inn differently but we must remember the inn was what the name suggests – it offered accommodation to travellers. Hence, it was a necessity for the traveller, Black’s prime audience. The inn therefore had a higher status than the alehouse turned beer house turned public house. (See Boak and Bailey’s 2017 study, 20th Century Pub, pp. 11–19, for a conspectus of the terms pub, tavern, and inn, viewed historically).
In this respect, too, I am speaking not of learned or historical studies of taverns, inns, pubs, and beer, or trade or legal manuals for a specialized audience, but writing meant for a broad readership. Popular history and guidebooks are perfect examples, and Duff and Black excelled in these genres.
In his 2016 A History of Drink and the English, 1500-2000 Paul Jennings explains the wellsprings of views such as Charles Black’s. Jennings chronicles the Victorian rise of the notion of respectability, both in middle class and working class populations. The idea entailed a deep mistrust of the public house founded on a concern that excess alcohol use invited dissipation, violence, and family break-up.
The pub’s equivocal, at best, standing in public opinion contributed to a long-term decline in the number of pubs by the 1900s. This was exacerbated by the sharp price increases and reduced quality of beer during WW I.
Even the pubs’ natural constituency, working people, devised another communal drinking option: the workingmens’ clubs. They arose to address what was seen as the same “respectability” problem. As Jennings explains, the club concept ensured that strangers and passers-by could be kept out and a level of peace and civility maintained that evidently was outside the capability of the typical public house.
The club trend was partly arrested by the “pub improvement” scheme of the inter-war years, to which both brewers and social planners were committed, and by WW II itself. In contrast to WW I, WW II was viewed as justifying the reasonable use of pubs. The blitzing of London probably helped this trend along, the civilian’s counterpart to the rum keg of WW I trenches.* The second war also expanded use of pubs by women. See again Boak and Bailey on these topics.
Then too, mores simply evolve. Public morality after WW I had undergone significant changes due to the onset of industrial capitalism, the profound social toll of modern warfare, and the effects of film, radio, and finally television.
This is the general background, to simplify a complex topic, to Charles Duff’s benign view of pubs in the mid-1950s. Duff wasn’t the first person to write this way, to be sure. Fellow Irishman Maurice Gorham authored, in 1939, The Local, a book-length study of the London pub in all its diversity from soup to nuts. Briton Ernest Selley in 1927 wrote The English Public House as it Is. One thinks too of George Orwell’s famous 1946 reverie on the ideal pub, The Moon Under Water.
These influential writings portrayed the pub, quotidian as it seemed to some but quasi-licit still for many, especially the Church, as a valid subject for popular interest. Notably, this new coverage eschewed the heavy moral overtones of pub commentary in the later 1800s.
Hence, a new tone entered public discourse. In a Spectator review of Selley’s book the reviewer wrote that before Selley “no one …had made a comprehensive survey of English public-houses”. The reviewer pointed out the popular nature of Selley’s inquiry – that he wrote about pubs as “an ordinary customer”.
Is this, then, what we have to explain how Gorham, Duff et al. could write about pubs in a way quite different to the Victorians – in a way rather similar to today, in fact? I felt it wasn’t that simple, but had difficulty identifying the key missing factor(s).
At first I thought that 20th-century London, and modern urbanization in general, marked a bright line from the Victorian period. The argument would run that by 1939 the public house was fundamentally different in Dublin, London, Edinburgh, and New York to the pub as known in rural enclaves. For one thing, patronizing a pub was hardly an anonymous act en province, as against the fragmented, increasingly anonymous city.
In this way of looking at it, the pub of country vales remained a male redoubt, with continued working class/artisan/farmer patronage, while the big city bar became a different institution, frequented as it was by a variety of social classes, offering meals at least in daytime, and increasingly open to women.
The urban-rural divide was probably a factor, with the others noted, in the “moral” re-evaluation of the pub, yet there has always been continual movement from province to metropole, in both directions. Many live in bedroom suburbs but work in large cities, and so have a hand in both worlds. Commuter suburbs were well-established by the 1930s. Anyway, national social and cultural traits evolve over centuries and don’t turn on a dime.
Enter Ben Clarke’s 2012 article, “‘The Poor Man’s Club’: The Middle Classes, the Public House, and the Idea of Community in the Nineteen-Thirties”. It provided the flash of insight I needed.
The article was published in the University of Manitoba’s journal Mosaic: an Interdisciplinary Critical Journal. It is behind a paywall at this time but is available on JSTOR for those who have access.
Ben Clarke is Associate Professor of 20th-century British literature and critical theory at the University of North Carolina. He holds both doctoral and undergraduate degrees from Oxford University and almost certainly was raised in Britain.
Clarke argues that a group of mid-1900s writers idealized the pub, indeed created “myths and fantasies” around it. The pub beckoned to them as an alternative to what they perceived as the relentless individualism modern capitalism favours. These writers posited a desirable community of workers and artists as exemplified by their pub, a quality the middle classes had tragically lost by the mid-1900s.
Clarke writes (p.40):
For many middle-class writers and intellectuals in the nineteen-thirties, such as George Orwell and those who worked for the radical social research organization Mass-Observation, the pub seemed to provide a point of contact with the class which, Marx and Engels famously insisted in the “manifesto of the Communist Party”, “holds the future in its hands” (10), a place to, as Cecil Day argued in his “Letter to a Young Revolutionary”, investigate the “temper of the people”. (41). At least as importantly, it promised entrance to communities that offered a positive alternative to fragmented, anonymous middle-class life under advanced capitalism … It was the site of independent working class organizations from political groups to saving clubs, but also of less formal relationships sustained though communal practices, from singing to the buying of rounds, which reinforced broader solidarities. In a society which, Marx and Engels insisted, recognizes “no other bond between one man and another than naked self-interest, unfeeling ‘hard cash’” (3), public houses seemed to support authentic communities that could not be reduced to expressions of rational self-interest, though in practice access to them often depended upon having at least the price of a drink. In order to focus on this social function, writers challenged images of the pub as the site of drunkenness, dissipation, and violence that had gathered force in the late nineteenth century and persisted into twentieth.
The Abstract to Clarke’s article puts the argument this way:
[Clarke’s] … essay analyzes the ways in which interwar writers such as Hamilton, Hampson, Massingham, Orwell, and those involved with Mass-Observation rewrote Victorian ideas of pubs as the products of personal failure, figuring them instead as communal centres. It explores images of the public house as a refuge from advanced capitalism and the social functions it actually served.
In discussing interwar fictional representations of the pub Clarke shows how the authors’ protagonists and, by extension, the writers (including George Orwell) sought this community. They did so to counter what they saw as the anomie of middle class life, centred as it was on competitive economic performance.
Clarke explains these artists nonetheless were continually disappointed in this quest. This was not so much because the public house did not provide the sought-after community but because the writers could not negotiate the codes and manners of the coteries they admired.
Clarke also makes the point that cohesive-seeming pubs were as much a part of capitalist organization as a response to it, a “negotiated” position in the system, he calls it.
These are superb insights on his part. Orwell and Duff in particular exhibited an anti-fascist spirit and independence of mind that reflected some sympathy with left-wing ideals. It led them to empathize with persons and resorts not typical of their social class, but arguably some romanticization set in.
Clarke recounts examples of Orwell comporting himself in the worker’s pub, always ordering for example the darkest beer, a supposed worker favourite, yet he never really fit in. Clarke states for example that Orwell was never called by his first name in the pub, either Eric, his real Christian name, or George, a pseudonym. He was Mr. Orwell or Sir…
Clarke considers the influential social-research group Mass Observation and its books on the pub to be actuated by the same motives as the writers he profiles.
Certainly, Orwell yearned for a greater sense of community, which he viewed as declining in Britain. In 1943 he reviewed the book The pub and the People issued by Mass Observation, and noted that people were withdrawing from community due to the drug-like blandishments of modern entertainments.
Orwell’s 1946 essay The Moon Under Water posits the ideal pub. The reality was rather otherwise as he well implied but his ideal represented an acme of the community experience. Of course too his famousnovels 1984 and Animal Farm posit examples of false community, of community exploited by cynical, false messiahs.
In regard to Charles Duff, one thinks of his expressed preference for the Irish working man’s pub vs. the more inhibited, soigné pubs with posh clienteles. This fits in with Clarke’s thesis even though Clarke does not mention Duff or Maurice Gorham (he does however cite Ernest Selley’s book).
Clarke was concerned mainly with a different kind of literature but mid-1900s consumer writing on beer and pubs illustrates his thesis well.
Of course as for any theory, some limitations suggest themselves. it is mother wit that a glass of beer with friends or equable companions, in informal, pleasant surroundings, can be a welcome diversion from the frazzles of modern life. Also, artists and writers typically are not big earners and regardless of social class seek diversion in establishments they can afford.
One thinks of Sigmund Freud’s dictum (apocryphal?) that sometimes a good cigar is just a cigar.
Still, Ben Clarke goes a long way to explain the novel attraction of the pub to a small group of influential 20th century writers and journalists. By implication this helps us understand how modern consumer beer and pub writing emerged.**
Geoff P. Hunt and S. Saterlee wrote “The Pub, the Village and the People”, an academic paper published in 1986 in the journal Human Organization. The authors stated:
This notion of the centrality of the English pub has been shared by many popular writers who have written at length on such topics as pub signs, pub entertainment, pub food, pub beer and pub architecture. In discussing these diverse aspects, many writers have noted the uniqueness and peculiarity of this English institution.
Hunt and Saterlee then quote beer critic Michael Jackson (1942-2007), a journalist turned beer writer who left school at 16. Jackson wrote in his 1976 The English Pub that the pub is unique because “it is an organic part of the growth of English life”.
By 1986 pub appreciation had evidently gained a permanent, general British audience. The pub had entered a different phase: that of modern leisure pursuit. The pub, whatever the reality of its stock-in-trade and whatever view one takes of its net contribution to society, became, and remains, respectable.
But looking back to writers such as George Orwell and the others considered by Ben Clarke, and as well in my estimation Charles Duff and Maurice Gorham, Clarke provides a key explanation how the latter could write what they did, when they did.
Finally, Hunt and Saterlee write with self-deprecation:
… in spite of the pub’s long tradition as an important component of social life in England, it would appear that contemporary social science research in Britain has to a large extent neglected to investigate its present role. This lack of interest both by sociology and anthropology is even more surprising, given the interest in community studies in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s and the development of leisure studies as an important area of investigation in the 1970s.
Whatever the reasons are for this neglect – and one writer has even suggested that one of the reasons may be that sociologists, like temperance men, are seldom pub-goers – we are nevertheless left with a tiny collection of social science literature which deals with the pub and its role within the community.
We see here, I think, as late as 30 years ago, a murmur of the old establishment disapproval of the public house.
Now, on to Duff and the English pub in 1954. See Part II.
Note re article extracts: the quotations above are drawn from the articles identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Extracts are used for educational and historical purposes and as fair comment. All feedback welcomed.
*See a contemporary, journalistic validation of this view, discussed here.
**I don’t claim that selling even tens of thousands of books worked a social revolution of itself. Yet, it is good to remember Shelley’s dictum that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Gorham and Duff, and Orwell and the other writers profiled by Clarke, portrayed the familiar old pub, at least at its best, as an inviting resort for all – in a word an institution. Those who read the books, or reviews of the books, would have been influenced accordingly, or they “told their friends”. The huge influence a Michael Jackson had on the early years of the modern beer revival was an analogue for his time. Put differently, successful writers punch above their weight, in such matters as countless others.