Charles Duff Eulogises the English Pub – Part I

The Appeal of Authentic Community

How could Ulster-born Charles Duff write the engaging passages he did on Irish and English pubs in the 1950s? I discussed the Irish observations here. His English notes are set out in his book England and English (1954), which I’ll discuss presently.

By “how could he”, I mean, given the 19th-century and Edwardian stance on the evils or at best dubious value of public houses, how could a sophisticated writer such as Duff expatiate benignly c.1950?

Just to be clear about 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 hundreds I could offer, take Charles Black, another, but earlier, guide book writer. In 1861 in a guide to England’s southeastern counties he refers to “public houses” and “beer shops” in a way to associate them with “squalid” and “miry” districts.

He certainly does not recommend a pub to visit, or with rare exceptions note approvingly details of pub history or its other attractions – and never the beer! See 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 – and had a higher status at the time than the alehouse turned beer house turned public house. See Boak and Bailey’s 2017 study, 20th Century Pub, pp. 1119, for a conspectus of the terms pub, tavern, and inn viewed historically.

In this respect too I am speaking, not about learned historical studies of taverns, inns, pubs, or beer, or trade or legal treatments (i.e., for a specialized audience), but of writing meant for a broad readership.

Popular history and guidebooks are perfect examples of general interest writing. Both 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 world-views such as Charles Black’s. Jennings chronicles the Victorian rise of the notion of “respectability” both in middle class and working class populations.

This entailed a deep mistrust of the public house, itself founded on a concern that excess alcohol use invited dissipation, violence, and family dissolution.

The pub’s parlous status in public opinion contributed to a long-term decline in the number of pubs in 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. It arose to palliate what was seen as the very same “respectability” problem. As Jennings explains, the club concept ensured that strangers and passers-by could be kept out and the level of peace and civility desired by initiates, preserved.

The 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 fact of London being blitzed probably helped this trend along: the civilian’s counterpart to the trench soldier’s rum keg of WW I*).

The second war also expanded use of pubs by women, otherwise quite limited before. See again Boak and Bailey on these topics.

Then too, mores evolve. Public morality after WW I had undergone significant changes due to the onset of industrial capitalism, modern warfare and its profound social toll, and mass entertainment such as film, radio, and finally television.

This is the general background – to simplify a complex topic – against which Charles Duff wrote indulgently of pubs in the mid-1950s. Duff wasn’t the first person to write this way, to be sure. Fellow Irishman Maurice Gorham wrote 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 popular writings portrayed the pub, quotidian as it seemed to some and quasi-licit as many still viewed it (especially the Church), as a valid subject for popular interest. Notably, this writing eschewed the moral overtones that characterized pub commentary in the 1800s.

Clearly a new tone had 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 visited the pubs he wrote about as “an ordinary customer”.

Is that what we have then to explain how Gorham, Duff et al. could write about pubs in a way very different to Victorians – in a way quite similar, in fact, to today?

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 the bright line from the Victorian period. The argument would run that by 1939 the public house was fundamentally different in Dublin, London, Edinburgh, New York, and Toronto, say, to each country’s pubs in country, town, and village.

For one thing, patronizing a pub was hardly an anonymous matter in the country, vs. the increasingly anonymous city. Modern transport made it easier to have a quick one, as simply the large number of bars in the biggest cities did.

In this way of looking at it, the pub in country and town remained a male redoubt, of continued working class/artisan/farmer patronage, while the big city pub became a different institution: frequented by a greater variety of social classes, offering a choice of meals at least at daytime, and increasingly open to women.

The widening urban-rural divide was probably a factor, with the others noted, in the “moral” normalization of the pub, but as a vital factor seems simplistic. There is continual movement from province to metropole, and the other way ’round, then and now.

Many people live in bedroom suburbs but work in large cities, so have a hand in both worlds. Commuter suburbs were well-established by the 1930s. Anyway, national social and cultural traits – Britishness in this case – evolve over centuries and don’t turn on a dime.

Finding 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” 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.

Clarke is Associate Professor of 20th century British literature and critical theory at University of North Carolina. He holds both doctoral and undergraduate degrees from Oxford University (and is, I am almost certain, English-born).

Clarke argues that a group of mid-1900s writers, to whom we must add Gorham and Duff in my view, idealized the pub, indeed created “myths and fantasies”. It beckoned to them as an alternative to the fragmented, self-interested existence modern capitalism demands of its (successful) participants. The writers he profiled posited a desirable working class community exemplified by the everyman’s pub, a quality the middle classes had tragically lost.

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.

Clarke explains, by discussing various interwar fictional representations of the pub, how protagonists and by extension the authors (especially Orwell) sought this community to counter the anomie of middle class living and a competitive economic environment. He explains they were continually disappointed, not so much by the sought-after community being illusory, but by its exclusion of those foreign to its codes and manners.

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, and I say that knowing something of Orwell’s, Duff’s, and Gorham’s general careers. Orwell and Duff in particular exhibited an anti-fascist spirit and independence of thinking that reflected some sympathy with left-wing ideals. It led them to consider persons and resorts not typical of their social class, but arguably some romanticization set in.

Clarke recounts episodes how Orwell comported himself in the worker’s pub, always insisting for example on the darkest beer, yet never really fitting in. Clarke states for example Orwell was never called by his first name in any pub he frequented (Eric, his real Christian name, or George, a pseudonym).

Clarke considers the social research group Mass Observation and their publications on the pub to be actuated by the same motives as the writers he profiles.

Orwell yearned for a sense of community he viewed as declining in Britain. In 1943 he reviewed the book The pub and the People issued by Mass Observation, and recorded his view that people were withdrawing from community due to the drug-like blandishments of modern entertainments.

Orwell’s The Moon Under Water posits the ideal pub, which we can take he never encountered in reality and represents for him an acme of the community experience.

Viz. now Charles Duff, one thinks of his preference for the Irish working man’s pub vs. the more inhibited environment and fancy decor of pubs with a posher clientele. This fits Clarke’s thesis even though Clarke does not consider Duff or Maurice Gorham – he does however cite Ernest Selley’s book. Clarke was concerned with a different kind of literature but I consider that early consumer writing on beer and pubs illustrates his thesis well.

Of course as for any theory, limitations suggest themselves. At the end of the day, it is mother wit that a glass of beer with friends or equable companions, in informal surroundings, can be a pleasant diversion from the frazzles of modern life.

Also, artists and writers typically are not big earners and regardless of social class, will 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 explaining the novel attraction of the pub to a small group of influential, mid-20th century writers and journalists. By implication again this helps us understand how modern consumer beer and pub writing arose, and in turn why the pub became newly popular in quarters that viewed it balefully a mere generation or two before.**

In Geoff P. Hunt’s and S. Saterlee’s “The Pub, the Village and the People”, a paper published in 1986 in the journal Human Organization, the authors wrote:

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, both academics, then quote beer critic Michael Jackson (1942-2007), who wrote in his 1976 The English Pub that the pub is unique because “it is an organic part of the growth of English life”.

(Not a bad tribute to a popular writer who left school at 16).

By 1986, pub appreciation had evidently gained a permanent, general audience. The pub had entered a different phase: one of modern leisure pursuit. The pub, whatever the reality of its stock-in-trade and whatever view one took 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 has provided a key explanation how the latter two could write what they did, when they did.

N.B. In Hunt’s and Saterlee’s article they 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, as late as 30 years ago, a murmur surely of the old establishment disapproval of the public house.

Now, on to Duff and the English pub in 1954. In Part II to come.

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.




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