Beer and Skittles

crowned with hops


“Give me a pig’s foot and a bucket of beer!”

I never really came to terms with pubs or felt at home there: I rarely saw the point of the places. The forced hectic jollity or the maudlin gloom – the solitary drinker in the corner – jars on me. l am like a reluctant animal as it is hauled into the vet’s waiting room, scraping its protesting claws across the lino. My great uncle Frank – architect and surveyor – was a noted pre-war designer of Midlands pubs and cinemas. He and aunty Doll were always at the centre of a noisy glittering saloon bar crowd: the piano, comic songs, dubious jokes, chaff and a kind of obligatory leaden flirtation. Doll and Frank’s twin daughters, meanwhile, sat for hours in the car drinking Vimto through straws and sharing a bag of crisps.

Twenty-five years later things hadn’t changed much. Us kids were still on the Vimto. That was a strange drink, not nearly as sweet as in its modern manifestation and with much more bite. It was said to be made from unripe black cherries and it stung the nose with acid aeration. I loved the contrast between this deep purple liquid and the greasy fatty smell and texture of Tudor crisps which left oily salty smears on car upholstery and clothes. In the late 1950’s pubs seemed to be thronged throughout their limited opening hours. Children were sometimes grudgingly allowed indoors – if they sat quiet and if their parents were “known” – but they were in practice far more likely to be penned up in the garden or car park. Dogs had a better chance of hospitality.

If you did get to go inside, it was all a thick expansive fug of raw perfume, pipe tobacco, stale beer and cigarette smoke. Now, fresh clean beer has a most attractive smell: in the days when I had hair, I used to rinse it in beer or buy that lovely thick shampoo that was sold in miniature yellow plastic barrels. Fresh beer is fragrant and clean, golden and summery, smooth and clear like the sun on a hay field. Wild hops – spicy and yeasty – used to grow down the lane at home.  When we took holidays at Southwold one of the great delights of the place was the all-pervading fragrance of the Adnams brewery blended with sea air, June roses and fried fish.

But old-style pubs usually had a particular sinister reek especially noticeable in those labyrinthine back passages – stacked with crates of empties¤¤ – which led to the ‘jug & bottle’, clattering vending machines, pay phones and the usual offices. An oppressive, feral smell it was, suggestive of tom cat, sweat, wee wee and mouldering ale slops. Sometimes I used to wonder whether Mine Host had not been right through with a mop and bucket of Lysol spliced with Double Diamond. The damp floor tiles, the tables and the sticky settles felt as though they’d been rinsed in Manns or Greene King, as the ancient Greeks are said to have scrubbed the furniture with salt water and bunches of mint. Establishments with a cosy open fire fared better: the logs and coals burned off the evil air. The warmth dissolved some of the institutional dreariness, and the slight sense of menace.

I remember city pubs where the smell of fags and ale went right through to your vest and knickers¤ – and stayed there. And I do dislike visiting cafes, restaurants or any hostelry where you are obliged to launder your entire wardrobe after half an hour inside. Ironically, the No Smoking rule seems to have made things worse. Proprietors have become very dilatory in airing their establishments being evidently under the illusion that cigarettes are the sole source of unwanted odour.

But modern pubs are greatly changed from those of half a century ago. Whereas children were once unwelcome or merely tolerated, they now appear to run the places. Up-turned boxes give them a bit of extra height behind the bar. I have to say, I only venture in at the occasional lunch time and then it seems to me that drinking has been more or less phased out: mineral water and fruit juices are the most popular beverages of the day. The customers’ attention is now concentrated principally on food, with everyone sitting up to his own blond-wood table and minding his own business. That vague sense of threat has drained away with the wine and spirits. There is nothing scary about scampi and chips, or baked cod with quinoa. Establishments that were glorified cow sheds in my dad’s heyday now have the atmosphere of dainty tea rooms. Pubs are less scary but less lively too. There is a certain dullness and conformity. However, swings and roundabouts no doubt.

” Beer At Home Means Davenports. Cheers!”


¤ as the Shiseido sales ladies used to say – more agreeably –  of the deliciously woody 1992 Feminite des Bois perfume:

“the scent comes billowing up from the wash bowl when you rinse through…”

¤¤ all that money you could recoup on returning the bottles: especially empty soda siphons.