Well there we are. I’ve set up the direct debit and got my membership number.
This is in some ways a ‘hell freezes over’ moment for me, and there are traces of discomfort around the edges of my decision. But it was the right thing to do.
What’s the big deal? Many of my readers (and friends) simply assume I’m a CAMRA member already, given what I do.
A few words of explanation for people who may have started following me more recently:
Back in the day, when I wrote my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, I earned a bit of notoriety by attacking CAMRA in its pages. I have carried on attacking them – albeit with declining frequency – ever since. With hundreds of beer blogs now, many written by younger, craft beer fans, there’s nothing unusual these days about seeing CAMRA slagged for being out of touch, blinkered, too set in its ways etc. But at the time I wrote MWIAP, in ye olde pre-beer blogging, pre-social media days, you didn’t do that. I was unable to find anything else in print at the time about CAMRA that deviated from the line that cask beer was facing extinction until they came along, and then they arrived, and saved the world.
I was a big real ale fan, but I also drank mainstream lager (there wasn’t much else between them back then.) When I went to CAMRA beer festivals I felt alienated. It came across as a clique – one that I really didn’t want to be part of. There was a sneering, condescending attitude towards people who drank lager – and as I keep saying, calling someone an idiot has never been a great strategy for persuading them round to your point of view. There was that social stereotype of the socially inadequate, visibly outlandish beer nerd, with his big belly, beard, opaque glasses, black socks and sandals, and leather tankard on his belt. I didn’t want anyone to think that just because I was writing about beer, I was one of those people. (Distressingly, in the last ten years I’ve grown to look more similar to this stereotype than I would like. But beards are trendy now. As for the belly, well, I need to so something about that. The rest of it, mercifully, remains at a distance.)
I wanted no part of a world view that denied there was any such thing as good beer that wasn’t real ale. It rankled when lager was unfailingly dismissed as ‘industrial yellow fizz’. I gnashed my teeth whenever I picked up a book with a title like ‘Beers of Britain’, and brands like Carling weren’t even in the index. OK, you might not like big mainstream brands, but saying you were writing about British beer and then pretending 70% of the market simply didn’t exist was childish. Include them and dismiss them as crap in one line if you must, but really… I’d come away from events such as the Great British Beer Festival (not the ‘Great British Real Ale Festival’, note) feeling genuinely angry at the distorted picture it gave of British beer, and the contradictions that riddled CAMRA’s stance on “We’re the campaign for real ale, that’s our name, we can’t support anything else (oh, except if we feel like campaigning for cider, oh and Budvar.)”
I shared many of CAMRA’s beliefs. But I felt I couldn’t sign my name to an organisation that believed real ale was the only beer worth drinking. The emphasis on format and container rankled whenever I thought about it.
So what’s changed? Is this a sell out, a kind of tiny scale inversion of Bob Dylan going electric?
Well, the nerds are still there, and I’m still uncomfortable about people at parties thinking I’m one of them when I tell them what I do. And some of those issues I objected to are arguably more prevalent than ever, now craft beer has expanded beyond real ale to incorporate quality drinks of all shapes, sizes, formats and containers (jeez, even canned beer is good nowadays). And CAMRA still refuses to change its stance on campaigning for real ale, and only real ale (unless they feel like bending the rules for cider, Budvar, etc.) I still have fundamental disagreements with them on major policy directions. I still think they often present an image that’s by turns cheesy, out of date and out of touch, and sometimes pompous and arrogant.
But many things are different now.
I could talk about how CAMRA’s membership has doubled since I started writing about beer, but the number of outlandish nerds hasn’t, about how CAMRA’s membership is broader, younger, more female, more inclusive now.
I could talk about how key figures such as CEO Mike Benner and magazine editor Tom Stainer talk nothing but good sense whenever they open their mouths, or how branch chairmen like Tandleman present a moderate view that, even if I sometimes disagree with, I can see the point of, and how these are all great people to enjoy a beer with.
I could reflect on the fact that 140,000 people represents a very broad church and a huge spread of opinions, that there is no monolithic ‘CAMRA’ to rail against, and that every time I criticise aspects of CAMRA there are many members who agree with me.
I could point out that there is a new rhetoric coming from a senior level, along the lines that a Campaign FOR Real Ale does not mean a Campaign AGAINST Other Beers, that even if CAMRA does not act for other great types of beer, it doesn’t (or rather, shouldn’t) act against them, and that while there are still some dinosaurs with positions of influence within the organisation who don’t reflect this official stance, I am as ‘for’ real ale as I am ‘for’ any other type of craft beer (because real ale is one type of craft beer – of course it is).
I could admit that for the last four or five years I’ve really, really enjoyed the Great British Beer Festival, despite its Gordian knots of logic and bureaucracy.
And I could argue that, as a writer who likes to campaign for great beer when it is being attacked or derided, when pubs are being hammered by successive governments and beer is still, for the most part, either ignored or scapegoated by the press, it’s important to stop playing Judean People’s Popular Front and recognise that what unites us is more important than what divides us. This is what I’ve been preaching at industry conferences and in the trade press for a while now, and my own anti-CAMRA stance is increasingly at odds with what I’m saying.
I could promise to campaign from within, and try to justify my decision by saying that I’ll continue my criticism at conferences and AGMs, where it might have more effect. (But I’m not sure I have the time or the will for that.)
I could say all these things to justify my about-face.
But while I’m not saying any of that is untrue, or not a factor, the real reason I’m joining CAMRA is that being a member is the only bleeedin’ way I can get hold of BEER magazine, which now goes out to members only, and is the only consumer-oriented beer publication in the UK, and pretty much the only publication on beer of any description that I always read cover to cover when I can scrounge a copy from Tom. I give in. I surrender. OK, I’ll join your bloody organisation. Just send me the magazine.