Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year.
Aslan and Gandalf go for a pint
How often do you walk into a pub mentally dwelling on things like wizards and talking lions? Be honest now. If you need help with this, try stepping over the threshold of Oxford’s Eagle and Child, because it was a favourite watering-hole of close friends JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.
Disappointingly, there’s nothing obviously magical about the Eagle and Child – though it does offer a captivating pint of local Brakspear’s for a paranormally reasonable price, and the barmaid is enchanting. It has been a pub since 1650 and, before that, had a role in the Civil War (1642-49), when Oxford was the Royalist capital of England and the building was either used as a pay-house or a playhouse, depending on the source of your typo. Its name comes from the arms of the Earl of Derby, the Stanley family, who I assume had some connection with it back in the foggy mists of time. The Eagle and Child’s long history has, however, been subordinated to the lure of its more recent fantastic literary connections.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) and Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) were the two better-known members of the Inklings, an informal group of British literary buffs, most of them academics. The Inklings – a nicely ambiguous moniker, I think – met to discuss their works and ideas, normally in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College, most Thursday evenings from the late 1930s until the 1950s. On Tuesday lunchtimes, they gathered in the Rabbit Room, the landlord’s former sitting room, at the Eagle and Child – a tradition apparently maintained until the early 1960s. Presumably, they did what all enlightened men have done since time out of mind; they quaffed ale and solved problems, real and imagined. Lewis recalled, “Many a golden session in front of a blazing fire, with a pint close to hand.” During the Second World War, when thirsty American troops occasionally resulted in the beer running out, the Inklings would take themselves off to other hostelries, such as the King’s Arms or the Mitre. When the Eagle and Child was refurbished in 1962, the Inklings apparently switched allegiance to the Lamb and Flag across the road. Both the Lamb and Flag and the Eagle and Child (which the Inklings nicknamed, the Bird and Baby), are owned by St. John’s College
The Rabbit Room used to be at the back of the pub – there’s an extension now, so the room is more or less in the middle, with two, cosy, panelled rooms at the front. I sat there, supping my Brakspear, trying to picture these giants of the written word sitting across the table nattering away about their books and beliefs. Occasionally, one would briefly display unscholarly passion to make a particular point. I wondered what, if any, inspiration they got from the pub – or the beer. I read that Tollers, as his friends called him, was once so inebriated that he imagined goblins were trying to steal his wedding ring; but that sounds too good to be true. Was Tolkien in the Bird and Baby when he dreamt up the massive eagles of Middle Earth who, amongst other things, rescued the good guys in the nick of time? Did he see Hobbits on the way home? I was pretty sure I did. Was Gandalf modelled on a colleague at Merton?
I couldn’t see anything of Narnia in the bustle around me but, peering into my beer, found myself back at primary school on a dark, wet, winter’s day with Mrs McGillivray reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to a spellbound class. The images of Lantern Waste and Mr Tumnus’ shocking disappearance are powerful, even after all those years. Wonderful, wonderful stories.
Probably, of course, the Bird and Baby was simply exactly what we said at the start; a favourite watering-hole for close friends. There is something undeniably cosy, conversational and blokeish about the place; I liked it very much. Over at the next table, two young men were earnestly, very audibly, mellifluously and without any apparent embarrassment, discussing their sex lives.
“Well, I’d like to go back this summer. There’s this girl I met.”
“Oh; did you, er..?”
“No. Oh, no. We were both with other people, so it was a bit awkward. But we text and I think we probably…”
I happily dragged myself back to reality.
Pippin: “What’s that?”
Merry: “This, my friend, is a pint.”
Pippin: “It comes in pints? I’m getting one.”
By the way, it was not unknown for Inspector Morse, creator of Colin Dexter (or maybe it was the other way round) to partake of a pint at the Eagle and Child as well.
Lamb and Flag, Oxford, Tolkien, Lewis, Thomas Hardy
Given the close proximity of the Lamb and Flag across the road, it seemed rude not to pop over and sup a pint or two there, while I was in the neighbourhood. The Lamb and Flag appears to be a relatively modern establishment, having been an alehouse only since about 1695. It is named for the emblems of St John the Baptist, the patron saint of tailors and the Merchant Taylors’ Company of London, whose Master, Sir Thomas White, founded St John’s College in 1555. The pub’s profits help fund DPhil scholarships at the College, which made me feel much better about ordering more beer.
If anything, the Lamb and Flag seemed to be more of a drinker’s pub than the Eagle and Child. It served a wonderful pint of Palmer’s (a Bridport brewer) and in 2016 was voted the best pub in Oxford by members of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale). Tolkien, Lewis & Co would have been in good literary company, because the story goes that Thomas Hardy largely wrote his last novel, Jude the Obscure, there. This is not a book I know, though based on the synopsis I have just read it strikes me as being a thoroughly depressing yarn; enough to turn a chap to drink.
©Mike Biles Images.2019
A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.
About the book
Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?
A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.
What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?
Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.
A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading
One of the recent reviews for the book
I took my time reading this one because I loved the way the author wove the facts into a highly enjoyable narrative. What amazed me was how the author could start at pre-historic times and carry the reader forward to present day in such a brief book, yet cover the essentials and connect the complicated factors behind so much of that history.
The touches of a Bill Bryson wit was just enough to amuse me while I pondered the reality of “One Damned War After Another” It was a book I looked forward to returning to each night.
I’m keeping this one on my kindle so I can refer to the amazing Timeline included at the end of the book.
Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK
And on Amazon US: Amazon US
Follow Mike on : Goodreads
About Mike Biles
Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.
Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives
Website home page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinterest – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/
What a wonderful way to absorb the atmosphere created over the centuries by literary giants chatting amongst themselves. That beer does look good.. thanks to Mike for another wonderful glimpse into Britain’s history.
Join Mike again next week for another glimpse into the history, people and places in Britain.