Sunday 25 February 2024

A couple more books at bedtime

Despite claiming that I would finish reading the 18th Century, classic novel, The History of Tom Jones on last autumn's Mediterranean cruise, I never managed to complete the book. My excuses were, there were too many other distractions, alongside complaints from Mrs PBT’s, that having my face stuck in a book, was being antisocial. I didn't actually finish the 800 or so page novel until the Christmas-New Year break, but instead of getting stuck into the next rather lengthy volume on my reading list, Cask, the Real Story of Britain’s Unique Beer Culture, by Des de Moor, I decided to leave Des’s magnum opus until I’d finished another beer related book, that found its way into my Christmas stocking.

The Local – A History of the English Pub, does exactly what its title suggests. Written by historian Paul Jennings, the book traces the history of the English pub, and looks at how it evolved from the humble alehouse and more opulent coaching inn, of the 18th Century, the back-street beer houses and dazzling, brightly lit gin palaces of the 19thCentury, into the wide variety of different drinking establishments that we enjoy today.

Paul Jennings is a history tutor at the University of Bradford and has been writing, lecturing, and broadcasting on the subjects of the pub and drink for over twenty years.  It’s no surprise then that the book is quite academic in nature, and packed full of historical facts, figures, plus anecdotes. One reviewer thought there were perhaps a few too many statistics in places, but to my mind, at least, they not only reinforce certain points but also help illustrate the development of the English pub from its humble beginnings into the key role it plays in today's multi-million-pound "hospitality sector."

The book covers all aspects of pub life, including the effects of controlling and policing the licensed trade, political interference plus the effects that major world events have had on this uniquely English contribution to the world of drinking. The First World War is probably the most significant and dramatic of these, certainly in terms of its effects on both drinking culture and the pub itself. It also had long lasting effects, as repressive restrictions on pub opening times, and other legislation affecting the sale and consumption of drink, lasted far longer after 1918, when the guns fell silent in. It was to be almost a further eight decades before publicans were allowed to welcome customers onto their premises throughout the day, without the requirement for a compulsory, mid-afternoon break.

The pub has been the heart and soul of English life for centuries, but how has this unique institution changed over the past 300 years? Covering all aspects of pub life, Paul Jennings’s history covers pubs in cities and rural areas, seaports, and industrial towns. It identifies trends and discusses architectural and internal design, the brewing and distilling industries, and the cultural significance of drink in society. The book also looks at activities associated with public houses, ranging from music and games to opening times and how they have affected anti-social behaviour. The Local is a must-read for every self-respecting pub-goer, from casual drinker to beer enthusiast, from architectural connoisseur to regular drinker, looking for company over few shared pints.

According to the Historical Association, this very readable account is the result of twenty years of diligent research and benefits from the sense of quiet humour of the author, and what the academics describe as a “little gem," of a book is available from your local bookshop, or from that well-known purveyor named after a South American river. As The Local is an academic work, rather than a straight forward ordinary volume, it should be noted there are a further 48 pages of reference notes at the end of the book. These provide a link for those who want to follow up on any of the books, pamphlets, notes, newspaper reports etc, highlighted in the text, where the author wishes to make a point, or reinforce one.

Given the publication dates of these references, I suspect many are out of date, but are no doubt held somewhere under lock and key, or gathering dust on the shelf of a tucked away library, awaiting for some historian or researcher to come along and turn their pages. Veteran writers, Boak & Bailey, spring to mind, or perhaps even someone like the author of the next book on my list, award-winning beer writer – Des de Moor.

Des’s, book is next on my list, and I have already started on "Cask, the Real Story of Britain’s Unique Beer Culture". This detailed and well-illustrated 300-page, publication is an attempt to explore the influence this uniquely British product has had on British Beer culture and the English pub. Cask, unfortunately no longer enjoys the same priority among beer connoisseurs and brewers that it once did, and there are worrying signs of a further decline in its fortunes. Des sets out to introduce cask beer to a new generation, explaining why it is still important, what distinguishes it from other beer formats, and what it can add to the drinkers enjoyment of beer.

The book examines the history of cask in detail, explores why it has survived and takes a close look at the way some of the leading producers make it today. At the same time, Des attempts to dispense with the numerous myths surrounding this type of beer which, for many years CAMRA has described as the "Pinnacle of the brewers art." It looks like I am in for an interesting read!



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