There probably isn’t enough of Ian Nairn on beer to warrant the publication of Nairn on Beer, but it’s not far off – his interest did border on obsessive.
These are highlights from a couple of pieces he wrote for the Sunday Times in the 1970s in addition to his most famous essay on the subject, ‘The Best Beers of our Lives’, published in 1974.
First, there’s a review from 1976: when Richard Boston’s book Beer & Skittles came out that year, who was better placed to assess it for the Sunday Times than Nairn?
One of the first bits of paid beer writing we did was a shared profile of Nairn and Boston for the Campaign for Real Ale’s BEER magazine back in 2013, as part of the regular ‘Real Ale Heroes’ strand. Both men played their part in the rise of CAMRA and had similarly large brains though Boston was a hippyish left-winger and Nairn an ‘anarcho-Tory’. As founder member of CAMRA Michael Hardman put it, ‘It was perfect. Boston appealed to the socialists, Nairn to the capitalists.’
Political differences aside, Nairn’s review of Boston’s ‘delightful book’ appeared on 8 August 1976 and, with only brief sideswipe about mixed metaphors, was blazingly positive:
I know enough about beer and pubs to recognise just how much information has been ingested, digested and then distilled. Easy, easy, in the football chant. Just you try it. I am at the moment reading some of P.G. Wodehouse for the n’th time; the style is quite different, but the process is the same. Limpid simplicity meets hard work… In other words this is a literary masterpiece.
It also acts as a useful footnote to Nairn’s original 1974 article. CAMRA, of which he was an early champion, has, he says, ‘built up to a quiet revolution’ and Beer & Skittles ‘is a kind of mid-term report’:
The big brewers have climbed on the bandwagon, brewing real beer – mostly too strong and expensive – to replace with purblind hindsight the ordinary beer that they killed of 10 years ago. CAMRA has predictably bred beer snobs, mostly in and around London, but the movement’s direction is sound and there are enough people north of Watford to keep the movement sane.
(This north-south divide argument was echoed, 40 years on, by the Pub Curmudgeon in a comment on yesterday’s Nairn post.)
Prompted by Boston’s mention of King & Barnes bitter with a low original gravity of 1035 (about 3.7% ABV) Nairn’s final observation is typically sharp, and an early example of the now common ‘I don’t drink to get drunk’ rhetoric:
That’s the whole point. Beer is for sustained enjoyment, not a short cut to oblivion. If you want that, get some industrial alcohol out of the medicine chest, and don’t get offensively plastered in my local.
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The second piece from which we’re going to give you a few choice shavings is from 9 July 1978 and again involves Richard Boston: he wrote the feature, ‘The Charm of the Country Pub’, while Nairn provided a B‑side back-up piece entitled ‘No Village Should Be Without One’. Nairn asks:
[Why] is it that only England and Germany, in my experience, have real country pubs, not transplanted urban bars? Good beer, for one thing. There are parts of Bavaria where every other village seems to have its own brewery, and two of the best beers in England come from the heart of the Cotswolds – Donnington and Hook Norton… In both countries, the pub is the village. You may end up stoned, but that isn’t the object of the exercise. Close the village pub, and you close the village, which is what Watney’s found a few years ago in Norfolk.
He also mentions Adnam’s [sic] as ‘another splendid pint’. He goes on to argue that planners need to provide stimulus for country pubs:
If they don’t, the country pub will become a museum-piece, dependent on weekend tourists and holiday-makers – the motorway cafe in a prettier setting. The English pub depends on a steady balance, not famine-or-flood. This balance can no longer occur naturally; it has to be helped.
We could probably have pasted some of this as a comment on last week’s post about casual drinkers and no-one would have questioned it.
After a bit of rambling prose about Home Counties villages – he was losing his edge by the late 1970s in large part because of his dependence on alcohol – he names one final country pub: the Glynne Arms, AKA The Crooked House, near Dudley, which is famously wonky because of subsidence. He packs a lot into this final couple of paragraphs:
You get there down a track, through a kind of jungle, between Dudley and Gornalwood. Geese peck at your on the way in; you might as well be in the middle of Mexico. The beer – Bank’s of Wolverhampton – is good… The world turned upside-down? – or an unexpected sanity? Sanity, for me. Wildness in the middle of the densest of urban Britain.
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We’re done with Nairn but not quite done with the 1970s Sunday Times: next up, Bill Urquart and the founding of the microbrewery movement.