My second book is the difficult middle child of the beer trilogy.
At the time of writing this post, Hops and Glory is number 3 in Amazon’s beer books, Man Walks into a Pub number 7, and Three Sheets number 39. That’s pretty typical of the relationship between the three.
It’s simply never had the same level of commercial success or beery acclaim of the other two, and so I start to think of it as being not as good as the other two.
But it is.
I re-read it recently expecting to be embarrassed by it, and I wasn’t. It is by some way the funniest book I’ve written so far. It hangs together as a concept. It has a broad appeal way beyond beer geeks, yet hopefully still manages to teach the geek a new thing or two.
The true story behind Three Sheets was varnished a little for the book. My editor decided the first draft of the first chapter set the wrong tone, and I think he was right: a conversation between publisher and writer along the lines of ‘why don’t you write a travel book?’ doesn’t really set the right tone in the book itself. But that conversation did happen, so I’ve decided to publish the first draft of the first chapter – something only me, my former editor and the Beer Widow have read before now – which I’ll cut and paste below.
Just before I do that, if you don’t know the book, the premise is as follows. After writing Man Walks into a Pub, a history of beer in Britain, it kind of made sense to do an international comparison of beer drinking. There are two ways I describe the book, depending on who I’m talking to: the laddish way and the cultural studies way. Both are equally true.
The laddish way is that I wanted to go on the world’s biggest pub crawl. I drank in over 300 bars in 26 cities in 13 different countries. As a self confessed ‘crap traveller’, most of the humour comes at my own expense. You’d never believe the person who struggles to negotiate getting on a bus just outside Dublin is the same person who took a barrel of beer on a three month sea voyage to India.
The cultural studies description is that it’s a search for the meaning of beer. I was struck by the beer drinking moment, the significance of it, the uniqueness of it compared to other drinks. Also, I was writing at a time when binge drinking hysteria took off in Britain, when everyone in the media was making a simple, causal link between the availability and consumption of beer, and anti-social behaviour among people who had been drinking. This didn’t make sense if you consider that there are many countries that drink more than the UK but don’t seem to share our problems of anti-social behaviour. So I wanted to see if there was such a thing as a universal ‘meaning of beer’, or whether drinking culture is shaped more by national cultural traits and characteristics.
Practising what sociologists euphemistically call ‘participant observation research’, I attempted to drink how the locals drink in each country I visited, and discovered that the answer is a bit of both.
There is a universal meaning of beer. The deep rhythms and meanings of beer drinking – the fellowship, bonding and democracy it represents – are both universal and timeless.
But the way in which we drink – the styles of beer, where we drink it, how and it what servings – are culturally determined by the country in question.
In an age of globalisation, many of these local traits are disappearing as cultures homogenise. In places like Japan, Spain and China, I felt like this was a ‘last chance to see’ type book as global giants invaded.
People who have read the book have really enjoyed it. I even get letters and emails from people who use it as a travel guide in some of the cities I visited. So if you haven’t given it a go yet – and the sales figures suggest you haven’t – please give it a try!
Here’s that never-seen-before original opening, rightly deleted from the book. It’s more travelly than beery, in fact it’s hardly beery at all. Hope you enjoy it. I’ll break it up with some of the photos from my travels.
One: “Well, I’ve been to Blackpool a fair few times, I can tell you…”
“Tell me. Do you trAAARGHvel?”
The word echoes off the walls, those capital letters really giving it some force. The speaker curls his mouth around the word, performing a passionate verbal cunnilingus that really shouldn’t be seen or heard in public. His lips are wet, and I swear his eyes glaze and unfocus as he barks it.
He’s been at it fairly constantly since we arrived four days ago, at the start of Fresher’s Week. I’ve ignored him until now, having very little to say to a braying, ginger Sloane Ranger. But he won’t go away. Every night after dinner he sits there in the corner of the hall of the residence common room, telling stories about how crap the buses are in Afghanistan, how charming the natives in Pakistan, how amAAAYZing the sunsets in Goa. And every night, the gaggle of first-year girls surrounding him grows larger. After three nights talking to cumbersome blokes studying chemistry and a strange little man called Simon Dresner who describes himself as a “Sherlock Holmes enthusiast” (yes, in those exact words), and who the porters keep trying to throw out because they think he’s a child from the local school, it’s become clear to me that the only way I’m going to meet any of these rosy-cheeked, fresh-faced girls is by joining them in Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller’s orbit. So here I am, hovering on the fringes of his audience, when he interrupts an anecdote about a gourd to subject me to the full honk.
“Tell me. Do you trAAARGHvel?”
Of course, he already knows the answer. He can see it in my eyes. His apparent attempt to include me in the conversation is really no more than a strategy to keep me out. And what’s this “tell me” at the front all about? For Morrissey’s sake: only chat show hosts, people in TV programmes like Crossroads and Howard’s Way and utter twats start a sentence with “tell me.”
Do I travel? I’m eighteen years old and in my first term at university. And it’s 1986: A-levels are difficult, gap years are a privilege not a right, and we can remember when it was all fields around here. Oh, and I’ve just finished growing up in Barnsley, a Yorkshire town whose residents are unlikely to be famous for their spirit of adventure any time soon.
I have hammered my student railcard over the summer, but I’ve got just enough sense to realise that’s not what the Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller means. I’ve never even been on a plane, unless you count the time we got to fly in a glider when I was in scouts. And that was in North Yorkshire. When I was thirteen I went by bus to France on an exchange scheme, and lived for three weeks in Pas de Calais with Bruno, who managed to embody every negative stereotype the British have of the French before I even knew what they were. I’ll admit I earned a bit of kudos back at school by bringing back the news that the French had toilets called pissoirs, a fantastic triumph because I said ‘piss’ in French class and the teacher had to congratulate me. But apart from that, I’ve never been abroad in my life. I’m in Scotland now, and apart from Bruno’s house it’s as far away as I’ve ever been from the place I called home until a few days ago. I don’t even have a passport.
They like their beer REALLY cold in Sydney
Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller knows all this of course. I’ve never met him before, but he can tell. And he knows I’m trying to muscle in on his action. He’s counting on me saying something like “Travel? Well, I’ve been to Blackpool a fair few times, I can tell you.” But I’m determined that he will not humiliate me in front of the rosy-cheeked girls.
In this one question, I learn my first lesson at university: never trust a Second Year who comes back “to help out” during Fresher’s Week. They’re after one thing. They didn’t get it when it was their turn, so they’re using their extra experience to steal it from you now. But this realisation has come too late. “No, I don’t travel,” I smile back. You smug cock, I add telepathically.
For a second, the girls acknowledge my existence. But it’s all calculated. Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller looks at me with disappointment, a little sympathy, a smidgen of disgust, a soupcon of loathing. Apart from anything else, he’s placed my accent. A moment later I will cease to exist, not just for him, but for the whole group. “ANYway, as I was saying, these gourds…”
I wander off into the hallway, to gaze – again – at the notice board crammed with appeals from an array of societies that are desperate for me to join them. Three days later, Steve From Luton, who dresses all in black and never goes to dinner or sits in the common room afterwards, hears The Smiths moaning from my room while he’s walking past. He pops his head around the door and we start talking about music. Pretty soon, Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller is forgotten along with the cumbersome medics (though sadly Simon Dresner endures for the next four years), and the rosy-cheeked girls are dropped in favour of the whey-faced indie chicks. And that’s the end of my interest in travelling.
An ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ moment in Barcelona
A lot happens in my next few years at St. Andrews University. I become lead singer of the uni’s only punk cabaret band (with Luton Steve on rhythm guitar, The Other Steve on bass, Andrew the Bad on drums
, and Iain ‘Bonker’ Jameson, who used to jam with Wet Wet Wet before they were famous, our secret-if-rather-unstable weapon on lead guitar.) I run for office in the Student’s Union, and win because no-one can really be that bothered about standing against me, seeing how I seem to want it so much. I get to know Nicholas Parsons so well that he feels unembarrassed about me seeing him in his underpants. And after putting my Bono-at-Live-Aid mullet out of its abject misery, I even start to enjoy some success with girls of both the rosy-cheeked and whey-faced-indie-chick variety.
But the travel situation never changes. I get nervous going to Luton to visit Steve.
Many of my new middle-class friends enrol with BUNAC and jet off to be handlers at North American summer camps, or inter-rail across Europe. Back in Barnsley, my non-uni mates (who are now working and driving cars) start going on Club 18-30 holidays. They come back with stories of the exoticism of the food, the beer, the women and, especially, the contents of their arses. Meanwhile, I spend summers back home in a village where pit closures have removed not only most of the jobs, but also the whole point
of the community existing, and get deservedly laughed at in Barnsley Job Centre when I ask if there are any summer jobs for students. Or I stay in St. Andrews, becoming more deeply involved in the Union and working behind the bar in our favourite pub, the Niblick, my skinny frame blissfully unaware of the impact this will ultimately have.
And all the time, at the back of my mind, there’s this assumption that people who Travel can do so because they have skills that I don’t yet possess. Skills like being able to start conversations with people you don’t know. Skills like being able to walk into a travel agent’s. I really don’t think I’m scared of flying or anything – I’d dearly love to fly. What I’m scared of is being rumbled as the gauche, nervous bumpkin from Barnsley I’ll always remain. Travel simply doesn’t make it onto my agenda.
Four years later I eventually get my first passport. I’m going out with a girl from Canada, and it’s serious. I’m going to spend six weeks of the summer living with her family. She’s already gone home, so I’m going to buy a plane ticket on my own, go to Heathrow on my own (via Luton, obviously – you have to take these things one step at a time) and get on a Boeing 747 and travel six thousand miles. On my own. I’ve just turned twenty two years old. How brave am I?
Listen, they know why this makes us snigger.
“I’m sorry, this flight is full.”
Thinking back to this incident, trying to recreate it, I find it impossible to re-inhabit my twenty two year-old self. Instead I see myself from a third-person perspective. I’m looking down from the ceiling of Heathrow Terminal Four at a wet-behind-the-ears student wearing a cheap Burton suit and a bleached blond flat-top haircut. His face crumples. He’s trying to look stern and angry, but the smart money is on him bursting into tears. Perhaps at the time I had left my body, as people do when they’re close to death.
My briefcase clatters to the floor.
I start to sweat into my suit.
“I’m sorry sir, but it is policy that we overbook these flights, and sometimes when we’re very busy, seats are over-allocated.”
This makes no sense at all. I’m here precisely two and a half hours before check-in, as requested. I’ve bought and paid for my ticket (well, my Dad has). Jill will be waiting for me at Vancouver airport. (Not yet obviously, but by the time this plane lands. I hope.) I have to be able to get on it.
“So what we’ll have to do is upgrade you to Business Class,” finishes the check-in lady.
I’m back in my body with a bump. Obviously I’ve never heard of this practice before, but I like it. On my first ever proper flight, I am a transatlantic Business Class traveller.
Later, people will tell me that however unlikely it sounds, it was probably the suit that did it. Sometimes they do have to upgrade people, and they choose those who look the part. The main reason for this – I know now – is so that upgrades are not too obvious and insulting to the people who’ve paid several thousand pounds to sit in Business Class legitimately.
“I got upgraded!” I say to the two middle-aged businessmen sitting next to me, as we taxi out to the runway. “My first ever flight and I’m in Business Class! I’ve never even been on a plane before! Have I fastened this seatbelt properly? Oh look – socks and a toothbrush! Do you have to pay for these? NO? Fantastic! Ooh yes, a glass of wine please. No, not champagne, I couldn’t afford – what, that’s free as well? Oh, go on then! Yeah, through the student travel service I got this ticket for three hundred and fifty quid. Well, my Dad lent me the money. And I’m in Business Class! Sitting next to real Businessmen! This is the first time I’ve ever flown you know. Upgraded just like that! Can you believe it? Yes, I know I’m very lucky. Yep, I certainly do appreciate it. What? You want to watch the film now so you have to put on your headphones? Oh, okay then. That’s strange; the film on my set doesn’t seem to have started yet…”
I don’t know who those guys were, but to this day I have never been upgraded again.
Look, it’s true (Oktoberfest)
Over the next ten years I do start to earn a few air miles. A few more trips to Canada, two honeymoons (don’t ask), three package holidays and a smattering of business trips later, my passport has some stamps in its pages. But I never compete in the destination point-scoring of my work colleagues. I never holiday in places like Guatemala or Mauritius, or even Ibiza. I never trek. I never backpack. I never eat anything I can’t pronounce.
I certainly never Travel like my friend Allan, who after graduating does Peace Studies in America during the first Gulf War, almost dies of the irony, and recuperates by going to Central America to teach English, where huge floods wipe his village clean away, and he has to climb trees when he wants to go to the toilet, finding a comfortable branch at a safe height from which to do his business.
I never Travel like my friend Alastair, who starts at St. Andrews after spending a year in Pakistan. The habit of haggling over everything from big scarves to the price of a pint doesn’t endear him to the local barmen, and he achieves the dubious fame of being regarded as tight even by his fellow Scots. After graduation he goes to teach English in Cairo. Three years later, the day he leaves his apartment to return home, he’s clearing out his room and realises that if he’d had his bed where his wardrobe was, he’d have woken up to a view of the pyramids every morning.
No. All my travel is strictly lower case, safely looked after either by holiday reps or office PAs. Holidays are full of transfers to and from the airport, all-inclusive deals and vouchers that need to be given to nice people in slightly patronising uniforms. Business travel means someone else doing all the booking, then giving me envelopes stuffed with tickets, currency and detailed itineraries.
This is my secret. A decade and a bit after university, I’ve been to America and Africa and Hong Kong, and I count myself very lucky to have done so. But by today’s standards, I am a Crap Traveller. I hear they don’t even let you into university these days unless you’ve caught dysentery in Phuket or planted mango trees in Kerala. Small children chide me for my naivety about the world and tell me I need to get out more. I remain the same ingénue the honking Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller saw straight through nearly twenty years ago. And nothing will change that.
Night out down Shanghai
“You should write a travel book, you know.”
If we listed all the possible things Jason, my editor, could have said to me, I hope you now realise that this particular sentence would rank some way below “You’ve won a Pulitzer”.
We’re having lunch together, celebrating the end of hostilities on my first book, Man Walks into a Pub
, a ‘sociable history’ of beer. I’ve finally written it and rewritten it to his satisfaction, it’s printed, and it’s ‘selling in’ to book shops better than we dared hope. It will never cause J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown any sleepless nights, but it looks like the publishers won’t lose money on it. And that means they’ll entertain the idea of me writing another book for them. We’re talking about what this book could be, and I’m wondering if this travel nonsense is just a desperate attempt to change the subject from the various ideas I just finished proposing
. But looking at Jason now, I realise he’s been thinking about this seriously.
He’s nodding and chewing thoughtfully, oblivious to my incredulity. I try to frame a response, but it takes a while.
“Umm… why?” I eventually manage.
“Well. Travel writing is really hot just now. Not guidebooks, you know, proper travel writing. Stuff that’s engaging and funny. You’d be good at that”
“You need a twist,” he continues. “You can’t just write a straight destination guide. There’s got to be a hook. An angle. And, well, beer seems like a good angle. It fits. And no-one else has done it.”
Suddenly it makes sense. I start to get that upgrade feeling again. I need to choose my next words very carefully. “So… you’re saying that you will pay for me to go around the world drinking beer and writing about it?”
“No. Of course not.”
“What I’m saying is, if you pay for yourself to go around the world drinking beer, or get someone else to pay you to do it, we’ll almost definitely publish the result.”
“Go away. Think of an angle.”
“Around the world in eighty pints?”
“No. Something interesting.”
“Perhaps you could get a TV company to pay for you to go round and do a programme off the back of it.”
“Excellent idea! Do you have any contacts we could talk to about that?”
The day I fell in love with America.
A few weeks later, I resign from my job without another to go to, so I can divide my time between working freelance and taking unpaid time off to focus on finding the hook. I phone my Mum and tell her the news: I’m going to be a travel writer. She’s silent for a few seconds.
“Are you sure about this, luv?” she asks eventually.
I’m perfectly capable of doing this myself without any help from him, as I will shortly demonstrate in tonight’s three-legged pub crawl.