Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Beer And Skittles

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 26, 2015

It’s not all beer and skittles they say, and when they say that, they mean that it’s not the easy life one might think or hope it would be.

Politics sometimes has a way of using colorful idioms to make a point and so it was on January 4, 1960 when Frank Macomber’s story appeared in the Lodi News Sentinel.  He shared the tales of woe that come with a Congressman’s life, including the chores of answering mail from constituents.  The article was entitled, “A Congressman’s Life Isn’t Always Beer And Skittles.”

It was back on February 6, 1931 that comic Hollywood actor Buster Keaton found himself the main topic of discussion in Mollie Merrick’s column that related the goings on in Hollywood for the rest of America to read.  Mollie Merrick related the story of “Kathleen Key, brilliant brunette beauty, who landed one on Buster Keaton’s jaw and wrecked his dressing room” the previous day “over a little discussion about money.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with who Kathleen Key was, she played the role of Tirzah in the 1925 movie, “Ben Hur.”

Kathleen Key

Kathleen Key

Buster claimed it all happened shortly after he gave the actress a check in the presence of two witnesses:  Cliff Edwards and Clarence Locan.  Buster Keaton said the check had been made out for $5,000 but that the actress demanded an additional $20,000. However, the check was supposed to originally be for $500 and was a bet between the actress and the comedian with regards to the actress losing 20 pounds in 10 days.

In the end, he claimed that he tore up the check and that the actress manhandled him “something awful” while the witnesses “left in a hurry.”  Mollie Merrick covered a lot of details in her story, and ended with this paragraph.

Perhaps there’ll be another check written.  There generally is when a movie star gets into trouble.  It’s the easiest way to straighten things out.  And may I add here that the movie folk often pay through the nose rather than have a scandal.  Being famous isn’t all beer and skittles.

Buster Keaton, at the time, was married to Natalie Talmadge, the youngest (according to Mollie Merrick at the time) of the very famous Talmadge sisters.

Life wasn’t all beer and skittles for Sinclair Lewis (February 7, 1885 – January 10, 1951) on that same date according to the Spokane Daily Chronicle.  The newspaper ran a story out of London (England) that reported that Sinclair Lewis was inundated with mail from strangers demanding money from him but not because he owed money.  They demanded it from him because they were under the mistaken belief that as a Nobel prize winner, he was loaded with cash.  The article began very simply with this sentence:

Life is not all beer and skittles even for the winner of the Nobel prize in literature, Sinclair Lewis is beginning to find out.

It would seem that February 1931 had more than a few news articles alluding to beer and skittles!

It was in the Spring of 1876 through to the Spring of 1877 that letters under the heading of “Uppingham By The Sea” were published in The Times newspaper.  On January 27, 1878 the letters by John Huntley Skrine (3 April 1848 – 8 May 1923) were published as a book under the title, “Uppingham by the Sea: A Narrative of the Year at Borth.”  It was in Chapter IX titled, “The First Term: Making History” that the nature of skittles was clearly stated which helps to explain why beer or ale was associated with the game.

It was too narrow to be used, as was hoped, for games; unless, indeed, we had turned it into a skittle-alley.  But then skittles is a game of low connections.

A game of low connections?  Oh my!  And so, beer and skittles or ale and skittles was a pastime indulged in that required little more than an interest in playing the game and imbibing beer or ale.

In the book “Nature and Human Nature” by Thomas Chandler Haliburton (17 December 1796 – 27 August 1865) — who was also the author of “Sam Slick the Clock Maker” and other popular books of the era — published in New York City by Stringer and Townsend in 1855, the idiom appeared twice within sentences of each other in Chapter II entitled, “Clippers and Steamers.”

“It seemeth hard, Tom,” said Bill, tryin’ to comfor him — “it seemeth hard; but I’m an older man nor you be, Tom, the matter of several years;” and he gave his trowsers a twitch.  (“You know they don’t wear galluses, though a gallus holds them up sometimes,”) shifted his quid, gave his nor-wester a pull over his forehead, and looked solemncholly, “and my experience, Tom, is, that this life ain’t all beer and skittles.”

And just a bit further in this chapter:

“This life aint all beer and skittles.”  Many a time since I heard that anecdote — and I heard it in Kew Gardens, of all places in the world — when I am disappointed sadly I say that saw over, and console myself with it.

Jumping back to the turn of that century, in 1800, Volume Five of the “Queensland Agricultural Journal” included a comment from a correspondent of the “Agricultural Gazette” of New South Wales.   It would seem that beer and skittles was part of the lexicon down under as well.  The correspondent reported in part:

Now, a small farmer who clears £150 per annum may be classed amongst the happy men of the earth.  He calls no man master.  He lives comfortably, pays no rent, pays his way, has a healthy if laborious life, and takes his occasional holiday with his family without asking anyone’s permission.  Of course, farming is not all “beer and skittles.”

It was a well-known idiom, and appeared ten years earlier in the book “Letters On Education” by Catharine Macaulay.  Published in 1790, a letter is included in the book that reads thusly:

You will spare the rod at the peril of the boy’s soul; spare the lollipops and no harm is done.  Notice, I beg you, that what is at stake is the foundation view of all life.  We can hardly conceive the beautiful freedom from prejudice with which a child starts on living.  He is really prepared to believe that life is not all beer and skittles, though he hopes of course that it may prove to be.  Leave him alone and he will try to make it such.

It was in the account by William Hutton (30 September 1723 – 20 September 1815) of Birmingham which he published in 1781 that the activities of the “humbler class” were described as “completely suited to the lowest of tempers” and of “low amusement.” (The commentary sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it?)  These included, according to William Hutton, “skittles and ale.”

Cards and the visit are linked together, nor is the billiard table totally forsaken. One man amuses himself in amassing a fortune, and another in dissolving one.

About thirty-six of the inhabitants keep carriages for their own private use; and near fifty have country houses. The relaxations of the humbler class, are fives, quoits, skittles, and ale.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of skittles and ale or beer and skittles that retains the spirit of the idiom.  However, it was used easily to describe society in 1781 in Birmingham and since the game of skittles was well-known as early 1635, it’s reasonable to venture a guess that by 1700, ale and skittles — also known as beer and skittles by some — were considered inseparable by most in society.

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