The ‘Real Ale Twats’ strip first appeared in the adult comic Viz in 2001 and has a cult following among beer enthusiasts, because they recognise in it either themselves, or The Enemy.
We’re long-time Viz subscribers and spent a bit of time researching the RATs, as they are abbreviated, when we were writing Brew Britannia. A couple of people had suggested to us that the RATs might be the source of the popular stereotype of the bearded CAMRA member, assuming incorrectly (as did we) that it had first appeared as far back as the 1980s. That proved to be a dead end for the book but gave us a fresh appreciation for the strip, especially on those occasions when it felt as if the author was eavesdropping on beer social media.
Then, when we happened to connect via Twitter with its creator, Viz veteran Davey Jones, earlier this year, we took the opportunity to ask him some questions about how the strip came to be, and the source of its often painfully accurate observations.
The following Q&A was conducted by back-and-forth of emails with some light editing for clarity and flow.
* * *
What prompted the idea of the Real Ale Twats? Was there some specific incident or person you had in mind?
I’ve always been a fan of the band Half Man Half Biscuit and they had done a song called ‘CAMRA Man’ which made me want to draw a strip along those lines. It’s got lyrics like “Weekend vintage car show, Dr Who aficionado” and so on.
Also I’ve spent quite a lot of time in pubs and the characters are sort of composites of types that I encountered. There was a bloke who used to come into my local in Newcastle who had a big beard and a beret and always seemed to be carrying several shoulder bags. He may not even have been a real ale enthusiast – I don’t think I ever heard him speak – but he had the right look, so I drew him. Probably very unfairly.
How did the editorial team react to the idea when you pitched it?
Back then I was part of the editorial team – there were five of us at the time, I think. I’ve since gone back to being a freelancer, working on my own. But in 2001 we were sat around in someone’s back garden, trying to come up with ideas, and I mentioned wanting to do this strip about real ale drinkers. As we were chatting about it, Simon Donald, who did the Sid the Sexist strip, started talking in this stupid ‘stout yeoman of the bar’ voice – “Hither barlord, a foaming tankard of your finest” and all that, and that seemed to fit.
The first strip involved the three characters going to a pub called The Murderer’s Arms by mistake, and ends with the main character getting a pint glass shoved in his face. Which is something that happens quite often in Viz cartoons.
How does a strip typically come together? How do you go about finding the seed for a story?
I just try to think of a pub-related theme that I haven’t done yet – vaping, or pub grub, or whatever. I enjoy doing ones that are vaguely autobiographical, or at least are exaggerations of thoughts that I’ve had myself. For instance, I’ve caught myself inwardly grumbling about all the people who only go to the pub over Christmas, crowding the place out and not knowing the correct rules of behaviour at the bar. So I got a couple of strips out of that, with the Twats pontificating about “amateur drinkers” and so on. It can be quite satisfying to make fun of yourself, especially if you’re the only one who knows that you’re making fun of yourself.
That’s interesting. It makes it seem a bit less ‘mean’, for want of a better word.
Yes, I do regard myself as being a bit of a Twat. It takes one to know one, to some extent.
But what about real ale – have you ever been a CAMRA member yourself?
I never got round to joining CAMRA. I don’t know why. I love pubs. When I was younger I spent a lot of time sitting in pubs on my own, and there’s nothing quite like it. You just sit there drifting from thought to thought, and tuning in and out of conversations going on around you, as the drink settles in. As I’ve got older I do less solitary drinking, but sometimes think I should go back to it a bit more, because you get to observe all these weird social dynamics and power games going on around the bar. All the boasting and one-upmanship. When you’re having a sociable drink with friends, you tend to miss all that, probably because you’re doing all those things yourself.
I drink real ale and like it, but I’m not knowledgeable about it. If it’s about 4 to 4.5 percent, and got ‘summer’ or ‘blonde’ or ‘golden’ in the name, I’ll probably give it a go. But by the time I get home, I’ll have forgotten what I was drinking. Having said that, my favourite beer is Wye Valley Brewery’s Butty Bach. I’m from Hereford, where Wye Valley Brewery is based, and whenever I go back to visit family I’ll have a few pints of that. Part of the reason they’re my favourite is that they sent me a free box of their HPA when I mentioned them in a RATs strip. I also like Wylam Brewery who are based in the North East, and who once sent a couple of crates of their assorted beers to the Viz office.
One of our local pubs in Bristol, a fairly down-to-earth place that doesn’t tend to have real ale on offer, has one of your RAT strips pinned on the wall, and that’s something we’ve seen a few times up and down the country. It feels a bit like a warning to us, or perhaps just an expression of frustration on the part of publicans. How do you feel about that kind of thing?
Yeah, I’ve occasionally seen them pinned up in pubs. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign that they hate real ale enthusiasts. I’ve never worked behind a bar, but I imagine it’s a job that often involves putting up with bores. Not all pub bores are real ale bores of course, by any means. But the main RAT character with the beard is definitely a bore, and I quite often have him holding forth to the bar staff, because they’re a captive audience. And as you say it must get quite frustrating to be subjected to someone’s pompous opinions for hours. But in general the strips are intended as a fairly affectionate piss-take, so I hope they’re pinned up in the same spirit.
What has been the feedback from readers over the years?
Readers will sometimes send in pictures of lookalikes who they’ve spotted in the pub. Some of them are, er, quite remarkable.
And CAMRA members? Have you ever received any complaints?
I don’t think CAMRA has ever complained, as far as I know. The Real Ale Twats are doubtless CAMRA members but they’re not really supposed to be representative. They’re stereotypes of a certain kind of pub-goer, really.
On a related note, what do you make of the number of real life real ale drinkers who identify themselves as Real Ale Twats?
It’s quite odd. I recently became aware of a Real Ale Twats group on Facebook, which has thousands of members. Which felt strange. I don’t suppose they’re all familiar with the Viz cartoon, but if they’re happy to laugh at themselves that’s probably a good thing. I think.
In recent years it’s felt as if the strip has fallen into sync with ideas around ‘mansplaining’ and the latent sexism of a certain type of know-all bloke. How consciously have you set out to make that kind of point?
It was never a conscious attempt to make a point, I don’t think. The characters just lend themselves to those attitudes. The types of people the RATs are based on are ones I’d see in the pub, a bit socially inept, coming out every night and making ham-fisted attempts at flirting with the barmaid. I’d imagine that a lot of women who do bar work can feel their hearts sink when they see a particular regular coming in through the door – someone who is going to spend the whole night on a barstool regaling them with witty banter, and spraying crisp crumbs in their face. And blokes going on and on about their divorces – “Best thing that ever happened to me!” repeated over and over throughout the evening. I think the RATs are scared of women but try to cover that up with bravado, which is fuelled by booze. A bit like Sid the Sexist in that respect, come to think of it.
Do you still think, in 2018, that real ale drinkers are a target worth satirising? Is there any chance of the RATs morphing into the Craft Beer Twats at any point, for example?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if the beardy, pot-bellied stereotype is a bit outdated. Maybe it is. Viz has always dealt with quite broadly-drawn stereotypes, but the characters somehow develop lives and personalities of their own. To some extent it becomes more about the characters than about satire. So as long as you keep thinking of situations to put them in, you keep drawing the strips. Actually there was a strip a few years ago which had the RATs looking down their noses at craft beer-drinking hipsters. I think it ended with the RATs starting up a ‘Campaign for Real Real Ale Campaigners’ or something.
Of all the RAT strips you’ve produced over the years are there any you think stand up particularly well?
I think my personal favourite was one where the RATs set off to their local, talking about the wide range of fascinating characters you meet in the pub, and then there’s a big picture of the pub interior and all the customers look, and talk, just like the Twats. The reason I like that one is that I spent quite a long time on the drawing and was quite pleased with how it turned out. Which doesn’t always happen.
Have you ever thought about a Real Ale Twats book? We suspect all of us beer bores would buy it.
Yeah, I’d like the idea of doing a collected book, but all the copyright belongs to Viz and the publishers, so it would be up to them, really. (I retired from the editorial six years ago, and went back to being freelance). I’m not sure there’d be enough material to justify a book just yet. But cheers for the vote of confidence.
* * *
You can read ‘The Real Ale Twats’ in Viz on an irregular basis, in the Christmas annuals, and there is a sample on the official website. Images in this post were supplied by Davey Jones.