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Liquid research

David Douglass reviews Mike Pentelow and Peter Arkell’s ‘A pub crawl through history: the ultimate boozers’ Who’s who’ Janus, 2010, pp368, £16.99


This is the most amusing, interesting and informative view of history I have come across. Told through the pub signs of Britain, it is recalled through their characters and names. Trivia has never been so fascinating! As the title suggests, this is a pub crawl with a mission; it is boozing after knowledge and the authors have embarked upon their quest with dedication.

Two hundred pubs are selected, each one visited and its wares sampled, as Pentelow and Arkell discover the history that lies behind those signs and names. Customers and bar folk, landlords and landladies are in a number of cases engaged in the discourse of research. Many a local knows the story of the pub, knows the history of the sign and the character it depicts; still others hold surprising ongoing connections to the figure on the swinging board outside, and demonstrate deep local connections between past and present - myth, legend and fact.

Here we have heroes and heroines, the great and good, the poor and the lowly, engineers, highwaymen, pirates, wise women, kings and pretender kings, politicians, prostitutes, courtesans, revolutionaries, wartime heroes, sportsmen, poets, artists, authors, diarists and musicians. There are performers of all sorts, from all manner of platforms: from stage to parliament, from shipyard slip to flickering movie screen. Figures from the sea and maritime legend, the authors and preachers of tracts, religions and philosophies. Leaders of revolts and resistance from near and far.

The authors have trekked across these islands from north to south, from Ireland to the Channel Isles, from Scotland to the industrial Midlands. They even go as far as Germany and the USA, in search of locally based heroes who staked their claim to fame in distant lands.

This book is not for the coffee table. No, it is for the car glove compartment, for the ‘What to do and where to go’ information stack. It is a drinking historian’s map and compass, guaranteed to keep you chuntering over your beer and happily engaged for many a year. It might also end up as an untimely tribute to the fast-vanishing local - the country pub, the street corner pub, hubs of countless communities through decades and centuries. They are now falling faster than the trees of the Amazon, and if the recession deepens, and the war on drink and weekend binges begun by New Labour continues, many others are destined to follow them.

This book, an essential publication for social historians, is, perhaps not surprisingly, written by two revolutionary socialists. Mike Pentelow is a long-time progressive journalist and member of the NUJ for 40-plus years. He recently authored Norfolk red: the life of Wilf Page, countryside communist (Lawrence and Wishart, 2009). As for Peter Arkell, he has been a radical photographer since 1970 and was well known during the miners’ 1984-85 Great Strike for his fearless journalism alongside Ray Rising at the hot spots of our picketing operations. They produced the dynamic photo history Unfinished business.

The authors are to be congratulated for this unique take on history and for telling their stories in such a novel and thought-provoking fashion.