Tomkins and the Public Bar. Ealing Studios and the Saloon Bar.
I’ve pieced together some bio on Alan Tomkins from his own multi-decade columns in the Sunday Dispatch, and a few other (sparse) sources.
The history of the Dispatch is laid out in this Wikipedia article. Its independence ended by merging in 1961 with the Sunday Express, a victim of changing fashion including the siren of television.
In its time the Dispatch had an impressive roster of journalists, people such as Randolph Churchill, Dorothy Crisp, Gordon Beckles, and Ursula Bloom.
Over a dozen are listed in the piece linked, but Tomkins is absent. This is hard to understand, as he had a long career and wrote well, on a wide variety of subjects.
His columns were not quite the gossip genre, as he does not throw names around, but his style had traits of the genre. He wrote what in the heyday of the legacy press was called the city column.
The absence of his name is perhaps down to the ostensibly light content he dealt in. More likely it is a simple omission. His passing must have been recorded in the British press, but I cannot find an example.
He served in the First World War and by his words took a “Mauser bullet” in the chest. He also suffered injuries in an aircraft crash between the wars as an amateur, licensed pilot.
In the last year of the war (Second) he donned uniform as a war correspondent, reporting from the fields and reporting mixed feelings, when demobbed.
He wrote as an upper-middle-class sort of chap, but of his actual background and living circumstances, I can’t say. The Dispatch itself was headquartered in East London.
Today, historiography reflects the increasing influence of social history and columns like Tomkins’ are gold for this.
A perfect example is his column of June 25, 1944 which describes a visit to an unnamed “saloon”, probably in London.
In Britain, unlike the connotation in North America, the saloon bar traditionally was the well-appointed barroom in a public house or hotel. Drinks sold there for a higher price than in the often adjoining, more sparsely outfitted, “public bar”.
Each attracted a different demographic, to use our terminology of today.
I’ll reproduce a first part below, with the remainder in Part IV to follow. The odd-sounding locutions were Tomkins’ own, for comic effect.
This, Dear Reader, is how I happed upon the most important sociological change of the generation, viz. (as they say), the better elements of the saloon bars are drifting into the public ditto, and the worse elements of the public ditto are doing vice-versa.
Three weeks ago, after a lot of forcing on in trying weather, I guided my hot and tired party into an elegant saloon.
Just inside, we staggered in dismay.
Waves of heat smote us, emanating from a noisy, struggling mass. Chaps and dames were four deep at the bar, clamouring for liquor.
“Force on once again.” I cried, leading to an adjoining saloon, even more elegant than the first. Alas, it was even more crowded. There were more women. The cries were more strident. The queues were even deeper.
But hawk-eyed Tomkins glimpsed, through a door behind the bar, a veritable cool haven.
“About turn”, I said to the dismayed party, who obeyed albeit reluctantly.
Officers and other ranks stared in amaze when I halted outside the bar marked “Public.”
“We are not going in here?” said one.
“l am”, I replied sternly. “You can jolly well please yourself”.
So in we went….
The upstairs-downstairs confronted by Tomkins and his clan reflected an old settled pattern in Great Britain. People recognized differences among themselves, of which pub organization was an index, among thousands.
Britain was still a democracy – an important point – but an evolving one. The old system, including the part that was imperial Britain, started to break down during World War II. In part this arose from diverse groups coming together, often quite literally, to win the war.
The tenacity of pub spatial rules is shown by Tomkins’ friends resisting his suggestion to enter the public bar. Even though their patch was overwhelmed and they could get a quick drink paces away, it did not occur to them to do so, until Tomkins insisted.
This is particularly noteworthy as beer was often scarce during the war, with pubs sometimes closed for lack of supply or other stresses.
In connection with an earlier post (this one), our reader Clark drew my attention to British writer Mollie Panter-Downes. In her wartime diary published in 1971 as “London war notes, 1939-1945″, she wrote:
Villagers may not be hungry this summer, but they are likely to be thirsty for their traditional pint at the end of the day’s work. In many rural districts, beer is so scarce already that pubs only open certain days of the week. This is due in part to the labor shortage and second-front traffic priorities and in part to the presence everywhere of troops who cheerfully drink the place dry before the locals can put on their clean corduroys and toddle round to the Dog and Pheasant.
Now that the British have got around to revising their food and clothing habits, it looks as though the nation’s drinking habits, already considerably affected, are in for further alteration. Liquor is not officially rationed, but it often seems as if it might as well be, since shops handling it won’t sell more than a bottle or so a month to a regular customer and won’t sell any at all to others. There are, of course, good reasons for this. Distillation of grain for whisky-making was prohibited last September. Gin, which is manufactured from imported spirits, is in extremely short supply. Wines are scarce, and anyhow are so appallingly expensive that they’re way beyond the average pocket. The demand for beer has accordingly grown, and a glass of it is often hard to come by – especially in country districts whose population has been swelled by evacuated townsfolk and the military. Those who like to drink out usually still can do so, although at prices which range from steep to suicidal.
Despite all this, patrons of a saloon bar would wait four-deep in a hot room for a (possible) drink before buying one in a nonce in the public bar. But finally they did.
The division, public vs. saloon bar, would endure for decades. I saw traces of it myself in 1980s visits to England, but its dominion had started to founder during World War II.*
As to visual traces of the 1940s saloon bar, this must vary inevitably, depending on town and section thereof, and other factors. Still, the scenes in Michael Balcon’s 1940 thriller film Saloon Bar give a good idea.
Alan Tomkins no doubt would have felt at home in the film’s bar, which seems the real thing, Watney’s signs and all.
In one scene the landlord orders an assistant who has made an impertinent remark to go wash glasses “in the public”, if I got the crimped Forties’ accents right.
So that is the more basic bar adjoining, which Tomkins & Co. crashed, in our vernacular. Below is a grab from the film, a barmaid serves a light ale. In lots of scenes handpumps are pulled, too. It was still a pub.
Pictured is Judy Campbell, who had a long, distinguished career on stage and in film. She is the mother of actress and singer Jane Birkin.
To her left a tap appears that may have served Watney’s Red Barrel Ale. Red Barrel signs appear among the Watney’s signage.
Maybe Watney, Combe, Reid & Co. contributed the venue as a film set in exchange for display rights.
We continue with Part IV.
*For home-grown insight on the latter-day significance of public vs. saloon bar, see my recent post The Scotia Bar, Aberdeen. The Scottish context is addressed, specifically.