Not much time to blog at the moment – sorry about that. Too much paid writing (although there’s never too much paid writing) and helping the Beer Widow organise this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival.
Biggest apology goes to the Milton Crawford, winner of the Oxford Brookes/Bombardier Beer Writing Competition. I announced that he was the winner a month ago, and haven’t yet published his excellent winning piece, so I must do so now.
There are two reasons for the delay: about 75% of the blame is for me because I’m too busy and disorganised. 25% is because I was waiting to see if we could get the essay published first in a national newspaper or magazine. Charles Campion was looking after this. He’s infinitely more well-connected than I am, way more charming and much more respected. Yet even he met with a brick wall when trying to persuade people to publish something about beer. One food and drink magazine even went so far as to say, “We like it, it’s a very well written piece, but we do not publish features on beer, we just do wine.” How a food and drink magazine can say this categorically about any food and drink – how it can be not just an attitude or preference, but a publishing policy decision – is beyond me. But that rant is for another post.
I’m proud that I can publish here a piece of writing you can’t see in the national press – they don’t deserve it.
Congrats again, Milton.
‘You’re drinking that like water,’ I said with a laugh as I stood at the bar and watched my friend George glug the top half of his deep auburn pint in one indulgent guzzle. A shaft of low sunlight caught his glass as it reached the horizontal in front of his mouth. There was a flash of red and gold. I watched his throat work hard, swallowing the liquid in rhythmical gulps, before he placed his glass down on the bar with emphasis and gave a long gasp of satisfaction. The liquid in the glass slopped about slightly like a gentle swell in the English Channel on a serene summer’s day.
‘It’s funny you should say that,’ he said, once he had sucked some air into his lungs. ‘A friend of mine was remarking just the other day how in medieval times every man in this country drank beer instead of water because the water could not be trusted. I knew that already, in fact, but what surprised me was the amount that they drank.’
He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and swept his long blonde ringlets from his forehead. His hair was damp and darkened around his temples as he tucked the dry ringlets behind his ears. It was the first really warm day of the year and as the sun dipped and cast long shadows across the stone-flagged floor, and the air outside began to cool slightly, it remained warm and sticky inside our village pub. There was a hum of conversation from around the low-ceilinged room and the cries of playing children and barking dogs shimmered in on the warm air. George placed his large, rough hands on the edge of the bar and leaned his weight slightly against them as though he was trying to move the bar backwards an inch or two. He was a stonemason with powerful arms and shoulders and I believed that if he tried he probably could move the bar if he really wanted to. The landlord – a tall, slim fellow with a long neck and glasses – leaned his right forearm on top of the pumps and listened. George liked to tell a story.
‘A man would be drinking beer from when he woke in the morning to when he went to bed at night. He’d have half-a-pint for breakfast, a couple of pints through the morning, three or four in the afternoon, when he was hot from working, and then, in the evening, another three or four with his friends.’
‘Sounds like old Roger,’ chimed in the landlord with a chuckle, ‘he’d be in ‘ere every day for a breakfast pint if I let him in.’
George looked directly into the sun and took another gulp from his glass.
‘Nine pints,’ he said, turning to us again with his face that looked like it too had been roughly chiselled from stone. ‘That was what the average medieval man drank every day of his life. I suppose that would be quite weak ale, but you must admit, that’s a fair amount of beer. When my friend told me that, I tried to think what the life of a stonemason might have been like in the middle ages. I certainly wouldn’t fancy cutting stone – and especially not lifting it – after a few pints.
‘I often think of those times when I’m on the marshes at the edge of the village and I gaze across to the city. The cathedral spire is staggering to us now. But just think what it must have been like to the people who lived when it was built. Those people would only have seen one or two storey buildings their whole lives, and then this spire – this one-hundred and twenty-metre pinnacle of stone – pierces the sky and aims up to heaven like an enormous javelin. Can you imagine how awestruck those people must have been?
‘The main body of the cathedral took thirty-eight years to build. That’s a man’s entire working life now and back then, by the time he’d finished, he wouldn’t just be ready to retire, he’d be just about ready to die!’
George laughed and lifted his glass once more, draining it entirely.
‘You fancy another?’ he asked me.
I supped up.
‘I’ll get these,’ I said. The landlord soundlessly picked up our glasses and pulled back on the hand pump. I heard the ale hit the bottom of the glass and froth slightly.
‘Imagine if I had been told,’ continued George, ‘when I was an apprentice in my late teens, that I would be working on the same building for my entire life. I’d be about halfway through it right now. Of course, you’d be proud of playing a part in such a towering achievement as a cathedral, but I’m glad I have the variety of work that I do. You see, there’s plenty of differences between how people lived then and how they live now; a lot of similarities, too, but a lot more differences.’
The two fresh pints were served to us and we both took greedy mouthfuls of the cool ale.
‘One of the main differences, I think,’ George said, ‘is that there was more of what you’d call a community then. For one thing, people didn’t have cars or much other form of transport. They couldn’t drive off somewhere when they felt like it. They were stuck in their village and they had to get along with the people who lived around them. There was also no such thing as television or cinema or radio or the internet. What did people have for entertainment? Each other, of course; and beer!
‘When I imagine how the villagers worked back then, I think of how the fields would have been full of people having to dig the earth by hand. All the time they would have talked to each other as they worked. At the site of the cathedral there would have been hundreds of them working together with no mechanical noise other than the sound of hammers and chisels. The stonemasons would have been chiselling and chatting away at the same time. Conversation gets drowned out these days. On building sites there is the constant din of machinery. In the fields, there is no need for lots of people, because the farmer has his tractor and chemicals to do all the work for him. Instead of talking to each other we turn on the TV. We call people our “friends” on the internet but they’re people we haven’t seen or spoken to for twenty years.
‘But there are still places that you can go to feel part of a community. I’m not a religious man but I’ve heard that church-goers live longer because they have the feeling of belonging. “Churches are social glue” someone said to me once. Well, I like to think the same of pubs and I reckon someone should do a study on the positive health effects of going to the pub. All you hear about is bad things about drinking but for me the pub is the only place I can go to tell a story and hear other people tell stories. It gives me an opportunity for companionship. It’s a place where I feel the warmth of my fellow men – and women – rather than watching on the news about another murder or atrocity or war.
‘For this reason I say that beer is as essential to me as water. But it’s not really the beer itself. Of course I love drinking, but I value above that the social element of going to the pub. Human beings need all kinds of nourishment. We need food, sleep and shelter. But we also need to feel part of something that is bigger than us. We scoff at the middle ages. We laugh at how ignorant and filthy the people must have been then. But just think: that cathedral is still standing and how many buildings that are being built now will still be standing in eight hundred years’ time? We can learn a lot from them if we stop and think about it a little.’
‘Like how to drink nine pints every day?’ asked the landlord.
‘Well,’ said George, with a poker-face, ‘at least I can feel happy when I leave here, having drunk four or five, maybe, that I’ve got a comfortable bed to lie in whereas medieval man probably had to drink nine pints just so he could get to sleep on his straw mattress!’
The landlord laughed and George smiled once more. And as the dying sun sent its red-orange glow through the stone mullioned windows of the pub for the final time, his face was illuminated and looked to me at that instant like a westward facing sea cliff when the sun seems to falter slightly, then finally dips below the horizon.