CAMRA Beer Festival, 1979: The Great Debauch?

Alexandra Palace 1979

Part of the reason for keeping up a blog and presence on social media is that the ongoing conversation draws new information out of the woodwork, such as the late Nigel Graves’ note on the 1979 Great British Beer Festival.

Nigel Graves was born in 1955 and died in 2004, at the age of 49. In 2014, his friend, Tim Sedgwick-Jell, edited an anthology of his writing as something by which friends and family might remember him.

As it happens, Tim reads our blog (or, at least, subscribes to the newsletter) and recently got in touch to ask if we’d like a copy of Far Be It From Me to be Hyperbolic because pubs, beer and beer festivals were frequent topics for Nigel’s writing. (If he’d lived a little longer, might he have started a beer blog?)

The bulk of his notes on beer and pubs are in one chapter – snippets, diary entries, letters and so on.

There’s a fiery letter to Wetherspoon corporate HQ, for example, sent in July 2000 after he was told he couldn’t bring his children into the Temeraire in Saffron Walden:

I believe your company was originally established to provide a type of pub modelled on that in George Orwell’s essay ‘The Moon Under Water’ and I know that several of your early pubs were given this name… Perhaps you would like to consider the following passage from this essay:

“The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden… Up at one end of the garden there are swings a chute for the children…”

For balance, in another piece he acknowledges that the general relaxation of the rules on kids in pubs then underway was great when you were with the kids, but less so when you wanted a session with “the lads”.

The extract that really grabbed our attention, though, was a diary entry written when Nigel was around 24 years old, giving an account of the 1979 CAMRA Great British Festival:

I actually went to the CAMRA organised Great London Beer Festival a few weeks ago. The usual unfriendly interior of the Alexandra Palace was as unalluring as ever, but had the added drawback of being cram-packed full of drunken wallies behaving as if they’d never tasted beer before in their lives, and demonstrating just about every [unattractive] male characteristic imaginable. Because of the tube-train conditions, it was impossible to sample any interesting new brews, or real cider, so I spent the evening drinking Ansells (wow, thrill!), avoiding steaming pools of puke an dodging spotty adolescents reeling around in search of the Gents. Great – I might as well have spent an evening in The Carpenters, or almost any other pub for that matter.

We like this because, as with the original CAMRA national festival in 1975, the official PR (necessary to gain a licence, of course) had it that the festival would consist of well-behaved connoisseurs gathering to sample beers in moderation. Pools of puke was not part of the image.

How many more valuable first-hand, contemporary accounts of key moments in British beer history are locked away in diaries, letters and company newsletters?

Or, worse, how many such accounts were taken to the tip or burned a week after the funeral?

Main image derived from a photo by Nicolas Lysandrou via Unsplash.

7 thoughts on “CAMRA Beer Festival, 1979: The Great Debauch?”

  1. I’ve kept a diary for 50 years, the entries being written the day after the day in question. Next time I venture in the loft, I’ll have a look at what I wrote about 1970s and 1980s beer festivals.

    I guess my writings will be more about the characters that I went with, rather than the event itself – that was my style at the time.

    But let’s see!

  2. I’m pretty certain I attended that festival. Was it the one before the fire at Alexandra Palace, and the one where Terry Jones poured a pint of beer over himself?

    If so, I don’t recall it being that debauched. What is slightly more worrying is the fact I was born the same year as Nigel Graves.

    1. Paul – Terry Jones was at 1977, the first one to call itself the GBBF. Not sure about the fire but CAMRA’s official history says 1984 was skipped in the wake of one.

      1. Ray, I was definitely at the 1977 event, but missed Terry Jones’s stunt, as I think that took place as part of the (unofficial) festival opening ceremony.

  3. I went to the 1979 Festival,the fire happened in 1980,I can recall that,whilst the atmosphere was much livelier than the same festival in more recent years people were well behaved and there was little if any,vomit about. The amount of people trying to climb on to the last bus from the festival was staggering

    1. john, the festival was held under canvas, the year of the fire. It was an “interesting” event, and the toilet facilities left much to be desired!

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