Jonathan Schofield doesn't want to go back to the 70s
We've tweaked and re-published this article about the 1975 Manchester Pub Guide before our Wednesday review of Mathew Curtis' brand new book Manchester's Best Beer, Pubs and Bars (£16.99) published by CAMRA. Things have changed.
'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,' wrote LP Hartley in the novel The Go-Between. Good line. But if that's the case the recent past is another planet completely.
Twenty or thirty years on nothing seems as crazily dated as the fashions and hairstyles we experienced in our earlier lives. TV programmes look amateurish, cars cheap, even furniture styles seem ludicrous. Could we really have loved those things? Bought them? Behaved like that?
The pubs and bars seem alternately plastic-bright or run-down and the food generally appears to be horrible
Our drinking and eating habits and the places we went to are even more hilariously odd. This was proved one evening, a decade ago or more, when lounging over three or four pints with friends in the Briton's Protection, along came the landlady Gwen.
“Hey Jonathan,” she said. “I found these upstairs and thought you’d like them.”
She handed me a couple of old guidebooks to the city.
One of the books was The Manchester Pub Guide from 1975. It was a gem. Many pub and beer guides can be fact-driven, very earnest with page after page about ale. You could almost call them sober.
The Manchester Pub Guide is nothing like that. It is a book of wit, a perfect guidebook, that paints pictures as well as relaying facts. The wit extends to one of the authors, James Varley, who is described as ‘pleasantly divided into four rooms offering a wide variety of entertainment.’ The Bierkeller pub is reviewed in German which when translated reveals there nothing in the slightest German about it.
What the book reveals is that 1975 was a very, very odd place. The pubs and bars seem alternately plastic-bright or run-down and the food generally appears to be horrible – ‘you name it and chips’ is how the book describes the Nag’s Head grub.
There are a lot more pubs in 1975 Manchester but far less bars than in present Manchester. Whole areas such as Spinningfields are, for obvious reasons, barren of boozers – while others such as Ancoats appear to be thriving, but on the brink of that great inner-city crash of the 80s.
There are glorious looking pubs such as the Oxford on Oxford Road, where an estate agent presently sits, and there are grotesque boozers such as the 70s tat architecture of The Boardroom, where the custom ‘can be split roughly into two groups: young city centre groovers, and middle aged persons checking the place out.’
The classic pubs we know today all seem to have had good reputations back then; The Britons, The Pev, The Circus, The Castle. Thomas’s is criticised for early closing and poor drinks selection but is praised for its looks and conviviality.
Some pubs have yet to reveal their qualities.
The Marble Arch is a pub ‘where the interest almost ceases on entry’ and is described as the sort of place ‘that is very good if you want to watch TV.’ The amazing interior of tile, mosaic and glazed brick under the ‘paper, paint and plastic’ had yet to be rediscovered.
Some strange person in the 60s or early seventies had covered up the whole of that splendid interior. Why cover such an extravagant past?
This wasn't limited to pubs, there seemed a powerful desire across the board to cover site specific and rich interiors with chipboard on the walls, carpet tiles on the floors and fibreboard doors? Think of all the elegant fireplaces across the country that were ripped out.
The past, as previously stated, is a foreign country.
Pubs now long gone in the 1975 guide include Tommy Ducks where the advice is ‘Beware of falling ceiling decoration, presumably donated by customers of the fairer sex. The picture of the interesting barmaid besides the bar has prompted numerous returns but as yet to no avail.’ Female customers left their underwear, which was then stuck to the ceiling of Tommy Ducks. Why they did that is unclear. Read the true story about the pub's equally mysterious overnight demolition here.
The whole pub scene appears misogynistic to present day eyes. There are gentlemen-only bars, topless bars and strip clubs galore.
For instance, there's the Playground on Oxford Road: ‘A new disco pub. The visitor may well be diverted before reaching the bar by the male crowds surrounding the dance floor. There the lunchtime topless go-go dancer goes through her routine every fourth or fifth record. In the evening she is demoted to the basement Edwardian Bar where the all-pervading disco music, complete with mid-Atlantic disc jockey, numbs the mind. Her performance is confined to a small platform. She even suffers the indignity of operating her own spotlight.’
The entry for the Manchester Arms, subsequently demolished to allow the tramlines into Victoria Station, is an eye-opener.
‘There are nightly and free stripshows. Amidst bright green lights, a series of ladies perform to an attentive audience of itinerant Scotsmen, sweaty middle-aged gentlemen and British Rail porters. Those of a somewhat nervous disposition should beware of the first room on the right, where mine host appears 90 per cent topless (where does one put one’s eyes?). There’s a choice of pool and football tables, together with a fruit machine, which has been known to smoulder.’
Strippers aside, the worst name of 1975 goes to a Great Ancoats Street bar. Somebody somewhere in marketing had thought it clever to open a place called The Desert. Upstairs there was ‘an Italian restaurant which offers Escalope of Veal Elizabeth.’ That seems a recipe as lost in time as The Desert. It was so convincingly empty the authors suggest all it misses is a ‘lorry load of sand.’
Some elements to pub life 48 years ago seem strangely fabulous in retrospect. The Oxford Road Station Bar sold ‘draft Bovril.’ Genius.
The Manchester Pub Guide makes for an amusing read although none of it seems like a world you could miss too much. Punk is about to happen and if Freddie Mercury and Queen are your thing then you're in for a treat. Fondue parties are probably everywhere – the rest, from design to food to economic outlook seem on the slide. The beer, in particular, is generally horrible. Whitbread Big Head Trophy Bitter, anyone, 'the pint that thinks it's a quart'? But tastes like dishwater.
The Manchester city centre of today seems ten times better aside from retail, which is probabaly five times worse. Oh and those zero-hour contracts we have now and far less manufacturing. And, and, and...
Still with booze and food, give me the city's current variety and range any day.
Those 1970s eh? UK population 56m, now 68m, global population 4bn, now 8bn. And don't read the Wikipedia listing for the events of 1975. It'll be all too familiar.
So let's fade to beige: stroll down to The Playground, see what the bird on stage looks like. Maybe we'll bump into Gene Hunt from Life on Mars, knocking back some fizzy lager.
Let's make a night of it in Manchester's pubs.
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