Whenever the issue of pub opening hours in the UK arises – as it is due to do today, with a new Home Office initiative on exending licensing laws – I am reminded of my long-departed Granny Butcher. A Black Country working woman to the roots of her vulgar tongue and dirty fingernails, my grandmother would often regale us with stories of working in the fields, which would invariably begin with a visit to the pub at six in the morning, for a ‘snifter’ before the potato or fruit-picking began. This, of course was before the First World War broke out, provoking the authorities to introduce licensing hours in order to ensure that munitions and other workers turned up at a reasonable time in the morning, rather than turning over at cock-crow and going back to sodden sleep.
Under the Defence Of The Realm Act, restrictions were draconian. Almost 24 hours-a-day opening was abruptly cut back to ten hours, with closing time before 10pm. The Licensing Act of 1921 set this in stone until the late 1980s – one of the biggest obstacles that England had for most of the last century to any claims about being an advanced civilisation. To be sure, Gran and her mates – a formidable mob, even in their dotage, which I witnessed from behind bar stools – found ways around the battened pub door. Home brewing was one of the favourites. My father recalls beginning work as a bread roundsman in the early 1930s, and being cajoled by every housewife on the round to taste her brew. “’Goo on, ‘ave a sup of our ale, me luvver. It’s a lot better’n ‘ers next dooer’. I’d be drunk by the end of the first street,’ he relates, bright-eyed with the memory.
One of my own abiding memories of the old girl is visiting her after a heart attack had confined her to bed. She was living with an aunt at the time. I went up the stairs in trepidation, wondering if she was still alive, only to find her propped up in bed, reading the Wolverhampton Express & Star, with a bottle of milk stout to hand. At my tremulous enquiry as to her health, she peered over the newspaper and her bi-focals and growled, “I’ve told ‘em to put the bloody assurance policies away. I ay gonna die yet”. And nor did she, lasting another two or three years before finally ‘giving it neck’, as the local expression goes.
But her feats live on in family mythology. She could have taught a thing or two to the famous warring grannies from across the Midlands, in Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie. Having lost her husband in the mid-1930s to the first dangerous driving accident in the village, she learned every trick in the book in order to not simply survive, but to ensure that her nine kids did as well. Any new or unsuspecting face to peer around the door of the snug in the pub across the street from her cottage would be greeted with, “Oh, this nice gentleman will buy me a drink, I’m sure”. And invariably, they did. In later years, she managed to get four of her sons to pay for the same load of coal. Her biggest regret after her heart attack was having to move from the family cottage, and seeing a police station built on the site. This cop-shop became infamous years later as the venue for the tawdry plot that put the Bridgewater Four behind bars.
Now, after years of opposition, the Association of Chief Police Officers is welcoming the move to greater pub-opening freedom. About time too, as anyone who has experienced Europe’s civilised drinking laws has long appreciated. Inevitably, Granny Butcher had a view on that too, although her biggest problem during her only time on the Continent was the absence of milk stout. When the First World War broke out, she immediately enlisted as a nurse in France. Ploughing through the Somme in ambulances, she always kept a bottle of whisky beside her. “For the injured, of course”. Of course, Gran!