Book Review: ‘The Gravediggers Arms’ by Charlie Mackle

While at a British Guild of Beer Writers summer party, I indulged in various conversations to see if there was any other ‘pub fiction’ out there to hang my #pubfiction hashtag onto. After a good number of chats, and I daresay, ales, I finally found one. Michael Clarke told me about a book written by his fellow-member of the Aylesbury CAMRA group, Charlie Mackle. It was not originally meant to be a book, but was a series of short stories that were published in the Aylesbury CAMRA monthly magazine, Swan Supping, and these were later collated together into ‘The Gravediggers Arms’ book. I thanked Mike for the tip, ordered a copy from Amazon, then promised to write a review. So here it is.

‘The Gravediggers Arms’ is not only the title of the book, but also the name of the pub in which all of the proceedings are based. In some ways this could be viewed as contender for the worst pub in the world. Falling apart, unclean to scientifically challenging levels, and frequented by regulars with an unhealthy reliance on the beers purveyed within these walls, this is the pub where we follow the adventures of its landlords and clientele in each chapter. And what beers we find there! Much of what is sold between these four walls is brewed on-premises and, for increasingly obvious reasons, are not likely to be widely available in the country as a whole any time soon. The names, as well as their ingredients, do little to add to their marketing potential, but do provide amusement to the reader, such as Fit Shaced, Undescended Gonad and Ring of Fire, the latter being a particularly ominously-named effort, and not only for the chilli added to the brew at the last-minute.

So, this is not meant to be a realistic look at the daily life of a local pub. This, after, all is a place where the CAMRA LocAle groups have paramilitary wings, and that’s not true, right? No, it is more a fantasy pub that has all the aspects of pub-life ramped up to the max. Which is no criticism. What the book manages to do is still reveal aspects we recognise from our own locals from within these exaggerations, as we read about the mad goings-on within The Gravediggers. From the ales that are strange beyond imagination but still sell to the enthusiastic locals, the real ale tickers, who have to drink everything out there at least once, to the sparsely populated Lounge area, where to local toffs occasionally visit, at great expense.

And you also can’t help but root for James and Mazz, our two heroes who run this place. James ends up in charge by being pressured into it by devious local businessmen and through lack of anything better to do, but it is Mazz, who has to look for an alternative career to that of being a mime artist, who finds that she has a particular talent for running this place. It is rarely smooth running though. The pub relies heavily on its few local regulars, who seem to be there more than the staff, and so the place is constantly trying to reinvent itself, trying the latest zeitgeist in the quest for success, or survival at least. Many of these schemes, in fact all of these, are doomed to failure, such as the fad for not banning mobile phones but actually only allowing conversation on mobile phones. They may not be natural business people, but at least they give it a go!

The tone is light and humorous, but the stories are not merely drunken fun however. Each new chapter usually looks at a contemporary issue (at least contemporary when it first appeared in Swan Supping) through the prism of The Gravediggers, and often highlights targets of the author’s ire. Politicians (national and local), celebrities and toffs are all  regular subjects of ridicule, but Mr. Mackle perhaps saves his largest criticism for the big breweries and the disappointing fare that they force upon the pub-going public. This is most clear from the almost-carefully named beers they offer, such as ‘Blandweiser‘, or ‘Yellowe Queen‘, which are seen as a fate worse than even the most gruesome of James’ latest experiments.

There are occasional moments of poignancy too if you care to look for them. Like the chapter written on the hundredth anniversary of Work War 1. The locals find an old photo in the walls of the pub, hidden away for years. I confess myself that I like to see old photos in pubs, and have written about them too, so I was particularly moved when we see that this photo is of a bunch of Gravediggers regulars in 1914, just before they headed off to war. We then discover that only two of them came back. “The rest of ’ems just names on the memorial”, one of our old regulars sadly reminds us.

The book’s stories do get steadily more extreme towards the end, but for me the book’s strengths lie where the tales remain just within the realms of a pub that the reader may recognise. But for all the madness within these four walls, it is clear that the real madness resides outside of them. So, the worst pub in the world? Maybe not after all. It is at least one you can’t help going back to, in the pages of this book. 

Mazz and James sum it up best themselves while musing about the universe, looking up at the stars from the vantage point of the pub garden. “Just to think,” Mazz says. “Out there in the infinite vastness of space there must be countless pubs, and there will be one just like The Gravediggers.” James replies, “I know the universe is big, but it can’t be that big!”  With our pub-universe getting smaller every month, this book serves as a reminder to celebrate these strange and unique places in our own towns and villages while we still can.

Cheers Charlie

You can find this book on Amazon here.

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