Categories
opinion

BOOK REVIEW: 50 Years of CAMRA

The decision by CAMRA to commission a warts-and-all official history by Laura Hadland made something of a statement: it is keen to balance celebration with reflection – and perhaps ready to show its sensitive underbelly to the world.

50 Years of CAMRA (RRP £16.99, 245 pages) will be most interesting to CAMRA members, either nostalgic or curious, and to scholars of British beer history.

It is built around a combination of archive research, with special emphasis on What’s Brewing, the CAMRA newspaper; and interviews with longtime CAMRA members, both in leadership positions and the rank-and-file.

Until now, we’d have said our own Brew Britannia offered the most detailed and balanced account of the early years of CAMRA, but Hadland’s book benefits from the space to zoom in on certain details that we had to summarise.

She also has input from founder member Graham Lees – something we never achieved, despite many grovelling emails.

Before opening the book, we had a particular test in mind: what might she say about the founding date of CAMRA?

Researching Brew Britannia we worked out that the official founding date didn’t tie in with another detail of the story – that the founders read a story in the Mirror about the poor quality of British beer on their way home from the trip to Ireland on which CAMRA was formed.

It’s a minor detail, it doesn’t really matter in terms of the grand narrative, but it is a flaw in what for decades was the accepted origin tale.

In a footnote to Brew Britannia we suggested that the trip must have been a week later than supposed and that the article probably prompted the founding of CAMRA; Hadland, based on new testimony from founder member Michael Hardman, argues otherwise.

What matters to us, really, is that this point is considered at all. It’s a sign of due diligence.

Throughout the book, similar rigour is displayed in terms of pinning down the facts, with reference to original sources and first-hand testimony.

Elsewhere, criticisms of the Campaign, arising both internally and from outside, are clearly set down and thoroughly interrogated.

“With nearly 200,000 members it is not surprising that CAMRA cannot always present a united front”, she writes. What it does present, through this book, is the ability to look at itself with clear eyes.

From institutional sexism to the constant debate over the organisation’s focus (is it ale, pubs, or something else?) and the failure of the CAMRA Revitalisation project, Hadland makes space for thoughtful comments from veterans, newcomers and objective outsiders.

Most talk sense, even if they often contradict each other, giving the sense that the instinct to debate and to compromise are among CAMRA’s strengths, not its weaknesses.

Although clearly and engagingly written, the book isn’t a narrative history to be read from cover-to-cover. Instead, it is arranged around big themes, each chapter or section bouncing the reader back and forth through the decades like a tiddly timelord.

We were particularly pleased to see space given to topics such as the role of women in CAMRA over the years and to a note on the founding of the Lesbian and Gay Real Ale Drinkers Group (LAGRAD) in 1995.

If you’re interested in the history (and future) of CAMRA, you’ll want this on your shelf. Every time you dip into it, you’ll learn some new detail; and as a reference, it will prove invaluable.

We bought our copy from the CAMRA bookshop. It’s also available via, for example, bookshop.org.

Categories
20th Century Pub Beer history Brew Britannia

Brew Britannia: new evidence in the case – CAMRA Branch Bulletin

The monthly newspaper What’s Brewing has been the semi-public face of the Campaign for Real Ale since the early 1970s; but the Branch Bulletin, intended to be private, tells the same story without any PR gloss.

We were lucky enough to come into possession of a near-complete set of these newsletters, sent from CAMRA HQ to local branches, thanks to Sue Hart, a veteran of The Ring and a long-time CAMRA activist.

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks digging and digesting which gave us the urge to go back to our 2014 book, Brew Britannia, and 2017’s 20th Century Pub and fill in some gaps with new information.

Pub preservation

In 20th Century pub, we wrote about the birth of the pub preservation movement as the rhetoric of Christopher Hutt’s 1973 book The Death of the English Pub turned into practical action.

We focused on the Pub Preservation Group and the work of Jenny Greenhalgh, Peter Lerner and crew, from the late 1970s onward, but here’s evidence that the work began in earnest a little earlier.

The earliest of the branch newsletters we have, from May 1975, includes a paper by Mike Dempsey of the East London Branch, a lawyer by profession, setting out what looks like the basis of much of the pub preservation activity that followed.

The paper establishes how the listing system works, how it might apply to pubs and how CAMRA members might go about using the system to prevent brewers (and especially the Big Six) from demolishing or altering pub buildings.

Here’s his concluding argument:

Pyrrhic Victories
The fact that you may have succeeded in having a building included on the statutory list does not mean that your battles are over. The first thing that the owner of the pub will do when he learns of the Secretary of State’s decision is to apply to the local authority for Listed Building Consent to carry out the works which he intended to carry out in the first place. This means that you have got to put in hand the suggestions made in paragraph 4 above, and make sure that representations are submitted to the local Council at the appropriate time. Do not, therefore, be lulled into complacency as a result of your initial successes. You will only have succeeded when the pub reopens for business, unspoiled and preferably serving real beer, but there are, of course, many pubs which are worthy of preservation even if their beer is not. In these cases, the beer will have to be the subject of your next campaign.

Categories
beer festivals Beer history

CAMRA Beer Festival, 1979: The Great Debauch?

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.

Categories
Blogging and writing bristol

Pints West: a mine of information

We’ve found ourselves getting a bit excited when we find a new edition of the local CAMRA magazine, Pints West, in the display holder at The Drapers Arms, because we always learn so damned much.

The latest issue, for autumn 2019, is just out and is a good example of why we like it so much.

First, with #EveryPubInBristol in mind, there’s a comprehensive update on what’s going on with local pubs based on extensive fieldwork from the Bristol Pubs Group. It tells us which pubs have closed, reopened and changed hands, usually before we hear via social media.

We’re fascinated by the fate of The Merchant’s Arms in Stapleton which just sits there with its big, blank, boarded-up facade; Pints West always gives us an update – stalemate, apparently, with the owner determined not to re-open it as a pub despite its ACV status.

But there’s more: we don’t drive (and wouldn’t drive to the pub if we did, obviously) so the pub crawls focused on walking and public transport are always inspiring. This quarter, Vince Murray suggests a couple of trips in South Gloucestershire by bus while Duncan Shine gives a run down of all the pubs along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path. We’re already working out ways to tackle some or all of those on the list.

We were also struck by a piece in the last edition by Robin E Wild on the best value pubs in the area – a positive way to address the fraught issue of the sometimes exclusive price of beer.

In general, there’s an openness about it that shows CAMRA at its best. All breweries are covered with enthusiasm and honesty, regardless of their particular cask-ale credentials. Licensed premises of all kinds get a look in and there are heartening tales of local activism to save apparently doomed pubs.

Now, disclosure, before someone brings it up: in the past, before we moved to Bristol, we publicly rolled our eyes at one of the cartoons in the magazine. It irritated us then and looking back, it’s still irritating. But we haven’t noticed anything like that since.

Anyway, our piece said, we’re off to explore a couple of the pubs mentioned in the most recent edition – and isn’t that what a local CAMRA magazine ought to inspire?

Categories
News

News, nuggets and longreads 22 June 2019: Birmingham, Bottle Shares, Books

Here’s everything that struck us as interesting, amusing or eye-opening in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from Burning Soul to the future of CAMRA.

First, some sad news: Mordue Brewery has gone into administration. Founded in North Shields in 1995, Mordue was best known for its Workie Ticket real ale. The Newcastle Chronicle includes some telling lines from co-founder Garry Fawson:

“We have been looking to get investment over the last 12 months but with no luck. We then put the brewery up for sale and again no serious interest, which was particularly disappointing to Matt and I… If you have won the amount of awards that we have and still no interest in buying the business then we are just lost for words, to be honest… [The] market has changed dramatically. It has shrunk whilst at the same time there are now more breweries than there ever have been before.”

(Via @robsterowski.)


Old sign: B'HAM (Birmingham).

For Pellicle Nicci Peet has produced a profile of Birmingham’s Burning Soul brewery with side notes on the city’s beer scene. You may think you’ve read enough of these origin story pieces to last a lifetime but, seriously, this is a good one:

Chris Small: I used to work for the NHS. The job was fine and I was pretty good at it. It was money and I had a little place in Edgbaston but I had quite a bit of debt and I didn’t really have any savings to make this work, so I sold close to everything. I sold the flat, all the furniture, everything that I had at the time. I had four things: a van, my clothes, my mobile and I had…I’m not sure what else, there was definitely a fourth thing…

Nicci Peet: A brewery?

Chris Small: Half of a brewery!