Social history has always fascinated me. I still harbour a simmering resentment to the well meaning 6th Form tutor who persuaded me that taking History as a third A Level option was a bad idea. Too many essay subjects apparently. Still one of my biggest regrets.
But I digress…
However, the point is any chance I get to read history, particualrly the nitty gritty of social history, then I take it. Over the years I have come to realise that the way the key events of history affect the ‘ordinary’ people is often more interesting and more poignant than the events themselves. And it is always particularly interesting for me to see how these events have affected women.
So when Anne Cater got in touch and invited me on to the tour for Laura Thompson’s book The Last Landlady I jumped at the chance.
Published on 6th September by Unbound, this is at first glance the story of Laura’s Grandmother, Violet , ‘Vi’ to her regulars, who was the first woman in England to be given a publican’s licence in her own name.
This is a memoir of the truest kind. There is no delving into the hidden past of Vi’s life, just a simple and often powerful remembering of the author’s formidable Grandmother
“For although I am nostalgic for her – something she would have liked but not really understood – I have no desire to research her. I simply present her, as she presented herself to me, as I remember her at the pub.”Pg 42 – The Last Landlady – Laura Thompson
Born and raised in a such an establishment, Vi embodied the atmosphere and appeal of the traditional British Pub. Having served in her father’s London pub, keeping spirits up during the Blitz, indeed providing safe haven in the pub’s cellars as the bombs began to fall, Vi was denied the pub’s licence upon her father’s death. It was simply not the done thing to hand such a privilege to a divorced single mother.
When she finally persuaded the brewery to grant her a licence it was of a somewhat run down establishment in the rural home counties. Vi turned that pub into the hub of the community. A place which welcomed all, but was run on certain unspoken but ‘known’ rules; the etiquette of the local pub. It was a place that provided local information, possibly gossip, often solice, understanding and comfort, and importantly company.
Vi is remembered and therefore portrayed as a woman in her element. In complete charge of her domain, she is tolerant, understanding and welcoming. Described by her granddaughter as ‘classless’ she had the ability to become whatever her patrons needed her to be, whilst retaining her identity and her authority.
Her beliefs and politics were what we would now describe as ‘liberal’, tolerate of minority groups long before most of society caught up. There is a beautiful story about her lending ‘Lot and Lil’, a homosexual couple who frequented her father’s pub during the war years, her black velvet dresses to wear for parties. Similarly she takes well respected regulars out to the car park and goes ‘coldly berserk’ after they begin whispering loudly and judgementally in corners about a mixed race couple.
Her relationship with alcohol is complex. Quite clearly she worships it, describing the perfect gin as ‘bloody beautiful’ and building her whole livelihood around it’s selling and consumption. But crucially she respects it. She is tolerate of those who drink and get drunk but finds a ‘bad drunk’ distasteful. She would, for example, frown upon those punters if today who drink to excess before a night out, preloading at home before setting off into town. For Vi alcohol is something to be savoured, enjoyed and an experience to be shared, not something to be guzzled and later regretted.
But for all of it’s focus on the formidable Violet this book is more than a memoir. Through her Grandmother’s story and, indeed, her own role within it, Laura Thompson looks at the changing face, role and status of the ‘Pub’ within our society, examining the factors behind it’s ever evolving nature.
Thompson looks back with intelligence and insight into the history of brewing from the Middle Ages and beyond. She charts the role of women, who were once at the forefront of brewing and serving ale, working from home in the original cottage industry. Landladies, in one form or another, were historically common place, important and accepted. It was ‘the determined force of religion’ which sought to moderate, regulate and curtail the sale of alcohol that undermined and practically halted the involvement of women within the industry.
Thompson looks in detail that the many incantations and variations of the pub through the centuries, providing a comprehensive social history that brings us bang up to date with the family, theme and gastro pubs of today.
This is a unique, compelling and entertaining read. Without a doubt it is one woman’s tribute to her Grandmother, cherised and admired, but it is so much more than that. It is also an insightful account of the role of the ‘pub’, ever evolving, throughout British History.
About the Author…
Laura Thompson won the Somerset Maugham award with her first book The Dogs, and wrote two books about horse racing while living in Newmarket. Her biographical study of Nancy Mitford, Life in a Cold Climate (2003) was followed by a major biography of Agatha Christie. A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan was published in 2014 and her 2015 book Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters was recently sold to television. She lives in Richmond.
And there is more…
For more information and reviews of this fascinating book check out the other Fanta bloggers on The Last Landlady tour listed below.