After setting his latest novel in an English pub, Richard Francis drops in on his favourite literary drinking dens, from the Tabard in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn
His latest novel, The Old Spring, out this month, tells the story of a day in the life of an English pub. He chooses his top 10 literary drinking dens.
1. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)
Chaucer spends the night at the Tabard in Southwark before setting off on his pilgrimage to Canterbury. A company of nine-and-twenty sundry folk join him, and by the time the sun goes down, he has a good idea of what makes each of them tick. The landlord is a large man, bold of speech, who suggests the pilgrims have a story-telling competition on their way; he will go with them and be their judge. The pub scenario is already in place: plenty of wine, convivial company, proactive landlord, telling of tales.
2. Henry lV, Parts One and Two, by William Shakespeare (late 1590s)
The Boar’s Head tavern is a rougher dive altogether, frequented by Falstaff and his gang of reprobates. The landlady, Mistress Quickly, has a clear philosophy: “I will bar no honest man in my house, nor no cheater; but I do not love swaggering.” Falstaff’s bar tab is a sight to behold, “but one half penny-worth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!” Prince Hal exclaims. He himself frequents the place so he can get to know his subjects – “When I am king of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap,” adding: “They call drinking deep, dyeing scarlet.”
3. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens (1864-5)
Another redoubtable landlady, Miss Abbey Potterson of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Limehouse (giving upon the river), reigns “supreme upon her throne, the Bar”, and is more than a match for the villainous Rogue Riderhood. She serves delectable “Purl, Flip, and Dog’s Nose”, but can draw the line when she has to. “I am the law here, my man,” she tells a protesting customer, “and I’ll soon convince you of that, if you doubt it at all.” But later in the novel she takes care of Jenny Wren, combining, as a good landlady should, a firm hand and a warm heart.
4. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy (1874)
Two watering holes for the price of one here. The first is not a pub exactly but the front room belonging to a maltster – Hardy’s nod towards the proto-pubs of medieval England, where the village brewer (often a woman) sold her wares to the locals in her own cottage. “‘Tis gape and swaller with us,” Warren tells Gabriel Oak frankly, offering him a two-handled tall mug called a “God-forgive-me”. Later in the novel Joseph Poorgrass parks the hearse he is driving outside the Buck’s Head Inn, and succumbs to temptation inside even though he has to admit “I’ve been drinky once this month already”.
5. The History of Mr Polly, by HG Wells (1910)
The aptly named Potwell Inn is situated in pleasant countryside by a river. It has a “sun-blistered green bench and tables … shapely white windows” and a “row of upshooting hollyhock plants”. Mr Polly admires the setting but his principal interest is “Provinder … Cold sirloin for choice. And nutbrown brew and wheaten bread”. Finally, he has arrived at utopia after a series of travails, which include what he describes in his abrupt way as “Bit of Arson”. The landlady takes this confession in her stride: “So long as you haven’t the habit,” she tells him. Her “plumpness was firm and pink and wholesome”, and her “jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about the feet of an Assumptioning Madonna”.
6. The Waste Land by TS Eliot (1922)
EastEnders meets the avant garde in the second section of Eliot’s poem, where a cockney woman tells of the woes of her friend Lil, while in the background an impatient landlord keeps calling out “Hurry up please it’s time”. Lil is only 31 but has lost all her teeth because of taking abortion pills. We are just getting to the point of the story – Sunday lunch, a hot gammon, the narrator invited to join Lil and her husband Albert – when the landlord finally succeeds in clearing them out. The tone is lifted as the farewells modulate into Ophelia’s words from Hamlet: “Good night, ladies, good night sweet ladies, good night, good night.”
7. The Mulliner Stories of PG Wodehouse (from 1927 onwards)
The Angler’s Rest is presided over by Miss Postlethwaite, the “courteous and efficient barmaid” who is addicted to going to the cinema (awkward hobby for a barmaid) where she raptly watches the sort of films that feature mad professors trying to turn girls into lobsters. The conversation in the bar tends to be similarly wide-ranging: “In our little circle I have known an argument on the Final Destination of the Soul to change inside forty seconds into one concerning the best method of preserving the juiciness of bacon fat.” Mr Mulliner, tale-teller extraordinaire, presides, though most of the regulars are known simply by the name of their favourite tipple: a Pint of Bitter, a Lemon Sour, a Small Bass, and so on.
8. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton (1929, 1932, 1934)
The three novels that make up Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky probably constitute the most exhaustive and profound study of pub culture ever made. In the Midnight Bell, a pub on the Euston Road, we encounter every type of drunkenness: “talking drunk and confidential drunk and laughing drunk and leering drunk and secretive drunk and dignified drunk”. Ella the barmaid, “bright and pert and neat”, copes with the boozers and the bores, and is the recipient of “half the confidences, half the jokes, half the leers”. She’s in love with the self-destructive Bob, who in turn falls for the prostitute Jenny when she fatefully comes into the saloon bar for a gin and pop.
9. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (1936)
When the coach driver hears young Mary Yellan is on her way to Jamaica Inn, he is stunned. “That’s no place for a girl. You must have made a mistake, surely.” She perseveres, however, as does her author, becoming one of the few women writers to give sustained treatment to a pub. The driver was right: Jamaica Inn is a hellish establishment, standing bleak and alone in the rain and mist of the rough moorland. Hardly a local then, but it gets its regulars of a Saturday night. “They say the shouting and the singing can be heard as far down as the farms below Roughtor,” the gorilla-like landlord Joss Merlyn tells Mary. Still, he can handle it. “They’re all afraid of me,” he explains, adding “My father was hanged at Exeter”, rather as though it’s an item on his CV.
10. Last Orders by Graham Swift (1996)
We end where we began, with a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Actually, the destination is Margate pier, where a group of regulars from the Coach and Horses in Bermondsey is heading with the ashes of their friend Jack Arthur Dodds, who asked to be buried at sea, or at least at the seaside. But the journey takes in Canterbury en route, where the travellers are impressed that the cathedral is 14 centuries old, six more than in Chaucer’s day. The Coach is a daft name for a pub “when it aint ever moved”, one of its regulars joked at the outset; but by the end of the novel these pilgrims have covered plenty of ground, like so many of their literary predecessors.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/08/richard-francis-top-10-pubs-literature