Davey Jones, the Man Behind the Real Ale Twats

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.

A panel from the strip about Christmas pubgoers.

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.

"One does yearn for the days when womenfolk were not permitted in pubs."

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.

Hipsters in the pub.

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.

They Have Beards, Don’t They?

Beardo and Mojo beers from Robinson's.
SOURCE: Robinson’s/Beer Today

Yesterday news broke of yet another traditional brewery, this time Robinson’s, launching pointedly craft-style beers outside the main range. Like several others that have preceded it, this sub-brand featured perhaps the obvious signifier of 21st Century hipsterness: facial hair.

Our reac­tion to this was to think it was a bit obvi­ous rather than to be annoyed by it but many oth­ers were.

Why? Well, for one thing, there are the gen­er­al prob­lems that come with estab­lished brew­ery craft sub-brands: the sense of des­per­a­tion, the cringe-induc­ing self-con­scious­ness (‘How do you do, fel­low kids?’ as the pop­u­lar meme has it), and also one thing that real­ly does both­er us: the fear that this is an attempt to trick peo­ple into buy­ing what will turn out to be lit­tle more than bog stan­dard bit­ter. That’s a wheeze that will work once but prob­a­bly not twice, and can feel like a breach of the con­tract between brew­er and cus­tomer.

(But we haven’t tried these beers and who knows, maybe they will live up to the promise of ‘craft­ness’ that the pack­ag­ing makes.)

This kind of exer­cise also sug­gests to us that some­one up on high thinks craft beer is a fun­da­men­tal­ly super­fi­cial trend – that it is pri­mar­i­ly about appear­ance and image rather than the qual­i­ty of the prod­uct.

We also won­der if this par­tic­u­lar approach betrays some­thing more – actu­al dis­dain for craft beer drinkers. Not only are they super­fi­cial, it seems to say, but they’re vain: if they see a pic­ture of them­selves on the label, or per­haps of the per­son they want to be, they won’t be able to resist it.

Even if none of that both­ers you, you might feel that this approach has become a bit hack­neyed, like skulls and faux-graf­fi­ti. A case might be made for con­tract-brew­ers Flat Cap hav­ing start­ed this back in 2012 we reck­on this spate of hip­ster­sploita­tion real­ly start­ed with Bath Ales’ craft off­shoot Beerd back in 2013, which we don’t recall caus­ing much annoy­ance – per­haps a bit of eye-rolling?

Beerd Brewery pumpclips from 2013.
SOURCE: @beerdbeers on Twit­ter (29/05/2013)

Char­lie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager turned up in 2015 and seemed to rile peo­ple more, per­haps because the gulf between the stuffy par­ent com­pa­ny (Charles Wells) and the aspi­ra­tions of the sub-brand seemed wider, even though the rela­tion­ship itself was more trans­par­ent. The design, too, is more overt – not just a beard, which could mean any­thing, but also tat­toos. And just call me ‘Char­lie’? Sheesh. By all accounts (we haven’t tried it) the beer isn’t great either so that’s a full house of annoy­ances.

Charlie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager.
SOURCE: Charles Wells.

Lat­er in the same year York­shire brew­ery Black Sheep came out with Path­mak­er which has sev­er­al pos­i­tive things going for it. First, that’s sup­posed to be a por­trait of brew­ery founder Paul Theak­ston on the label rather than a lazy car­i­ca­ture of a 21st Cen­tu­ry hip­ster – that’s a first-time-round real ale beard! Sec­ond­ly, it’s actu­al­ly a pret­ty great illus­tra­tion into which some­one has clear­ly put a bit of thought and effort, unlike the effort above which looks like it was doo­dled on an iPad.

Pathmaker poster 2015.
SOURCE: Black Sheep.

But, still, that’s prob­a­bly two beard-based sub-brands too many, and we sus­pect there are oth­er exam­ples we haven’t noticed or have for­got­ten about. (Let us know below and we’ll add them.) And that’s before we even get to the bona fide craft brew­eries with beards on their labels, of which there are many.

Any­way, if we were a big­ger and/or estab­lished brew­ery try­ing to impress younger drinkers, this is not how we’d do it. What we’d do is pay up-and-com­ing design­ers to cre­ate some­thing gen­uine­ly inter­est­ing and gen­uine­ly orig­i­nal – some­thing which style-con­scious drinkers might actu­al­ly find visu­al­ly appeal­ing in its own right, even if we didn’t get it our­selves. Labels are only a tiny part of the equa­tion but it is prob­a­bly best, on bal­ance, if they’re not patro­n­is­ing or insult­ing.

Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 1: Middle Class Real Ale

This post contains hits upon a few of our favourite themes in relatively few words: Ian Nairn, class, and the similarities between real ale culture and post-2005 craft beer.

In 1974 the archi­tec­tur­al and cul­tur­al com­men­ta­tor Ian Nairn wrote an influ­en­tial arti­cle in the Sun­day Times which was reck­oned at the time to have been part­ly respon­si­ble for the sud­den leap in mem­ber­ship of the then young Cam­paign for Real Ale. That sto­ry is cov­ered in Brew Bri­tan­nia, Chap­ter Three, ‘CAMRA Ram­pant’ and the orig­i­nal arti­cle, we are assured, is going to be includ­ed in Adri­an Tierney-Jones’s upcom­ing anthol­o­gy of beer writ­ing. (Dis­clo­sure: it will also include some­thing by us.) Here’s a sam­ple, though, to give an idea of Nairn’s angle:

[To] extin­guish a local flavour, which is what has hap­pened a hun­dred times in the last ten years, is like abol­ish­ing the Beau­jo­lais: after all it’s red and alco­holic, might as well make it in Euroc­i­ty to an agreed Com­mon Mar­ket recipe. The prof­its would be enor­mous, and the peas­ants wouldn’t know the dif­fer­ence… but the peas­ants are fight­ing back.

But here’s some­thing we hadn’t seen until recent­ly: the response from read­ers of the Sun­day Times pub­lished a week lat­er, on 7 July 1974. First, there’s an angry pub­li­can, Eddie John­son of Chip­ping Ongar, say­ing some­thing that, with a few changes, could be a com­ment on 21st Cen­tu­ry craft beer cul­ture:

Once more the voice of the mid­dle class is raised in right­eous indig­na­tion and is busi­ly telling the work­ing class what to drink… Would it sur­prise Ian Nairn to know that many years ago, when keg was first intro­duced and sold side by side with draught beer from the wood, keg was a run­away best sell­er? I worked in the Lon­don docks at the time, and 27 out of 30 dock­er bit­ter drinkers switched to keg… You see beer is a work­ing man’s drink… It’s not to be spo­ken or writ­ten of in trendy, man­nered lan­guage. It can’t be appre­ci­at­ed sipped out of half-pint dim­ple mugs by the chaps in their beards and jeans after a hard day’s sit­ting down the office.

This is part of a con­ver­sa­tion that goes round in cir­cles based large­ly on asser­tions: the thing I like, that was trendy 15 years ago, is hum­ble, hon­est and straight­for­ward; the thing they like, that’s just become trendy, is a symp­tom of snob­bery and a sym­bol of elit­ism.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 1: Mid­dle Class Real Ale”

The CAMRA beard stereotype

A good ques­tion from Barm on Twit­ter yes­ter­day:

1974: a report on beer strength in The Guardian from 2 April makes point­ed ref­er­ence to Michael Hard­man as ‘the beard­ed 27-year-old jour­nal­ist who found­ed CAMRA’.

1979: famous beard-wear­er David Bel­lamy opens the Great British Beer Fes­ti­val and The Guardian cov­er­age makes much of the num­ber of beards in atten­dance, with a CAMRA spokesman clar­i­fy­ing that, con­trary to appear­ances, the clean-shaven are wel­come. The Dai­ly Mir­ror report from Alexan­dra Palace says ‘the con­nois­seurs imbibed through their beards – there was enough facial hair to stuff a thou­sand tap-room stools’. (The stereo­type is devel­op­ing, but there are actu­al peo­ple with actu­al beards being referred to here.)

1982: The Guardian’s cov­er­age of the launch of The Good Beer Guide men­tions ‘peo­ple with bel­ly laughs and bushy beards’. (The stereo­type now in the abstract, ful­ly devel­oped, and sounds rather like a myth­i­cal, Fal­staffi­an Lord of the Beers.)

Based on what we’ve found so far, we reck­on GBBF 1979 is to blame. More alter­nate his­to­ry: per­haps if John­ny Mor­ris had opened it instead of Bel­lamy, the stereo­type would be that all CAMRA mem­bers wear zoo-keeper’s hats?