real ale

Life on the margins

From the 1974 CAMRA Good Beer Guide.

One of the best things about old books is finding inserts — scribbled notes, bus tickets, clippings — and annotations.

Recently, Boak’s uncle very kindly let us borrow several early editions of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. They are well used and, like many copies of the GBG we’ve seen, feature ‘ticks’ against the names of pubs and breweries in Biro ink. There are also numerous scraps of paper containing detailed handwritten updates — a sign, perhaps, of the speed with which new breweries and ‘real ale’ pubs were appearing between editions in the mid- to late seventies?

The annotation pictured above, from the 1974 GBG, caught our eye, though, because it tells a story in three words: LIKE THE PLAGUE.

This was the first commercial edition of the GBG which, at the last minute, was censored by its publishers, Waddington’s, who feared a legal challenge from Watney’s. After some angry exchanges, CAMRA agreed to rewrite the text to read ‘at all costs’, but, clearly, members on the ground were annoyed at the idea of being bullied by the loathed Red Empire, and some preferred the text as intended.

The word PUKE written across the entire entry is Uncle’s own contribution, and is a fair summary of how ‘serious drinkers’ felt about Watney’s at the time.

11 replies on “Life on the margins”

I wrote to Heineken, in all seriousness, asking what price they would consider selling the unused Watneys brand for. (Tracking the mergers & Takeovers I think they must own it). They never replied.

With Taylor Walker coming back to life as a pub chain a couple of years back, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Watney’s return at some point as an ‘iconic brand’. They’d get tons of coverage.

Watneys would have been at their Satanic worst in 1974 so it’s unsurprising that a CAMRA member would have written that in the margins. I’m thankful I never got to try it but I did get to try John Bull Kegged bitter and that was well worth avoiding like the plague!

Glyn –
Watney’s Star Light keg was 18p a pint in the student union when I first went to college in 1975, and that’s what I would pay for it now.

I’ve got an early CAMRA guide to Devon which is fascinating, it’s full of notes, comments etc, such as ‘nice enough place, cold’ about one pub, Yuk against Whitbread, slight sweet vinegar against Courage Best Bitter and ‘bit primitive but friendly’ for another pub that I really love. It’s a bit like get a political tract from the 1640s or a Bible from the Reformation or something…

I’ve annotated all my copies of the Good Beer Guide (and I’ve got the complete set!). The annotation is mainly in the form of underlining which pubs I’ve visited and beers I’ve sampled. A bit sad perhaps, but it does personalise them. It is also helpful as one gets older, and the memory isn’t quite as good as it once was!

I met a friend last night who was an early CAMRA member and has more information about the ‘Plague Edition’. The full run was printed and delivered to CAMRA HQ before being withdrawn by Waddington. My friend was one of the volunteers who helped load the lorry to take them back to Yorkshire for replacement – probaly a complete new print run. However, one box fell off the back of the lorry, as it were, with what he estimates were about 50 copies. The people there pocketed one (?) each and presumably the rest went elsewhere in CAMRA. He still has his. I know a founder member of East London branch also had one, but he died some years ago – I’m sure his collection went to a good home, but I don’t know where that was.

So there are genuine ‘Plague Editions’ around. Note that some years ago CAMRA reprinted the 74 GBG for an anniversary (25 years? not sure) in a limited edition – it clearly says on the inside front cover that it’s not an original, but if offered a 74 guide then you should check.

Delighted that you’ve printed my “editting” of the ’74 guide.
I was 18 at the time and had never tasted anything from Watneys beyond their fizzy pop, so was pleased to reinstate the original comment and superimpose my own.
Their standard bitter was “Special” and about as (poor-to-) nondescript as the other Big 6 products. “Red Barrel”, later just “Red” was malty and had slightly more character than some of its competition (which ain’t saying much – DD, Tavern keg, Tankard….yeeugh). As for “Star Light” – taste-free maiden’s water for which I wouldn’t pay even 18p (now).
To be fair, they brought in “Fined Bitter” and then some more revivals that weren’t haf bad, but they’ll always be the archetype of what CAMRA loathed and fought against.

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