The Last Landlady – An English Memoir by Laura Thompson. The grandmother and the pub

 

This is an English Memoir, as it states in the subtitle. No where else could a character like Violet, the last landlady of the book, exist, nowhere else could the pub exist, and nowhere else could Thompson view her youthful memories of “public houses” in such a way. This is the story, though not told in a straight narrative, rather a collection of impressions, of a woman, only truly alive on the stage of her pub, and it is also the story of a now lost institution. The pub as described in this well written memoir cannot really exist in England, or indeed Britain of the twenty first century. That may well be seen as a good thing; the smoking ban has stopped the fug of dangerous fumes from the patrons, the drink drive ban has prevented many, fortunately, testing how far they can push an alcohol tolerance. Many of the pub regulars will probably live longer as a result. Also potential pub goers have changed; they want a drink, but not necessarily of the traditional beer or spirits as before, they want food which is often the main reason for going into the building. This book recalls the atmosphere, the air of a stage which is controlled by the personality of a redoubtable woman, the feeling of being part of a quasi-religious community. The sounds, smells, the tastes of a pub in the middle of the twentieth century is vibrantly reproduced in this book which recalls a beloved grandmother through the perspective of her pub. It also gives a warm portrait of the growth and development of ale houses, taverns, inns and public houses in Britain, not only in numbers but in the reaction to them in the literature of the streets, in the novels of Patrick Hamilton and Graham Greene which aimed to describe the true nature of pub goers. This is an unusual book, warm and regretful of past glories, but also realistic in terms of how life has moved on. I am grateful for the opportunity to read and review this well written book.

 

The book is divided into three sections; a memoir of a grandmother, one of the first women to get a full licence of a public house in her own right, a section dealing with the differences and developments of inns, taverns and public houses through the centuries with especial concentration on the twentieth century, and an explanation of the decline of the British pub as they are closed and changed beyond recognition. Thompson is a realist; she understands that her grandmother was unique and without her and those who understood the pub trade things would change. She also understands that society has changed, with competition for people’s time and money, with changing demands for family venues with good food. She is saddened by it, and the growth of the chains which offer fixed prices for standard menus. 

 

This is an honest book which looks at an institution which is in the background of so many novels, television programmes and indeed people’s lives. While the “Village Pub” is a necessary construct of fictional British life, this book documents lovingly the reality of how it has changed, with the loss of characters like Violet. It is in some ways a family history, in other ways a social history, but it undoubtedly provides a moving testament to a lost institution. 

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