Tag: books

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What’s so great about the Great British pub? Stokey Lit fest, Sunday 6th June

What’s so great about pubs?

We all know the answer to that one, of course. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have the discussion all over again.

Sunday afternoon will be the culmination of lots of threads. The Beer Widow decided to organise a literary festival when I was reading Hops and Glory at lots of them last summer, and we realized that of all the places that have LitFests, our local manor, Stoke Newington, should have one, because of its rich and multi-layered literary history (Stokey residents invented feminism, sci-fi, horror, even novels, if you allow yourself to go with the flow of local history).

When we agreed that she would go ahead with the idea, I always thought it would be nice to do an event in my local pub. The White Hart has a good function room upstairs that often hosts great comedy nights, and I launched Three Sheets to the Wind there.

But it would be wrong of me to simply do another lot of readings from my books, like I do at other literary festivals. I want to use the occasion, the fact that we’re organizing it, to do something different, creating an event that you won’t get anywhere else.

So we’ve taken the topic of pubs – of locals – and made something special out of it. Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve become increasingly fixated by Orwell’s essay, ‘The Moon Under Water’. 

Orwell with a tea cup.  I bet it’s got beer in it.
So I’m going to kick things off by reading that, instead of my own work. I think that one essay says more about pubs, more effectively, than I’ve been able to do in all the many thousands of words I’ve written about beer and pubs. I want to hold it up to the light, while we sit in the pub, and see if it’s still a useful yardstick to measure the perfect boozer.

Then Tim Bradford tells us what he loves about pubs. Tim is a writer in the vein of people like Stuart Maconie and Andrew Collins – fond memories of growing up, reflections on British culture, a story that works because although it’s personal, its shared by many of us. He’s written about growing up in smalltown England, and of course the pub is a vital component of that. 

As I’ve said before, it’s always interesting to hear someone who is not a beer writer talking about pubs – they spot things the rest of us sometimes miss. The Glasgow Herald says “He comes across as the kind of guy you’d love to have a drink or three with.” So that’s what we’re going to do.
Finally we have an absolute treat from Paul Ewen. If you like pubs, and you live in or around London, and you don’t own a copy of his London Pub Reviews, you’re even more insane than he is. 
They start off as any pub review does, but increasingly descend into surreal madness. I’ve always loved the pub partly because it gives licence to the irreverent, absurdist streak that runs through British culture. Paul is a Kiwi – this streak is foreign to him – but he’s fallen in love with it, warped it and presented it back to us in a way that makes it alien to us too, like a picture that’s run and blurred, a pub on an acid trip. 

I asked Paul if he would come and do one of his reviews on the White Hart, and he has done. Fuck knows what he’s written, what he thinks happened there. I have no idea what he’s going to say. But he will unveil this review during our event – a unique thing – we’ll be sitting in the pub he’s describing, in a review that has never been seen before. Trust me, it’ll be like no other pub review you’ve seen. Steven hall, author of the amazing The Raw Shark texts, says Paul is “A surrealist’s dream, a landlord’s nightmare!” I’m just worried we might get chucked out or even beaten up by the time he’s finished. 
Things will be eased along by free beer – Schiehallion and Bitter & Twisted – kindly donated by Harviestoun Brewery. Buy their beers. They really are rather wonderful. I’m not just saying that because they sponsored the event – I asked them to sponsor the event because of how much I love the beers.

The event kicks off at 3pm on Sunday and tickets are available – until 5pm today – from here, and after that at Stoke Newington Bookshop, the festival information and box office point at the library, and – if there’s any room left – on the door of the venue.

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Three Sheets to the Wind

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…”

St. Andrews

“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.[1] 
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[2], 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.[3]  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.”
“It’s WHAT?!” 
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.[4]  I start to sweat into my suit.[5] 
“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.[6] 
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[7].  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.”
Almost definitely?”
“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.

[1] 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.
[2] Trust me, that’s as much as you want to hear about Andrew the Bad.
[3] Of course, we all still do.  But in the late 1980s the nervousness is because they have posh accents, there are proper curry restaurants, and Steve’s dad does a job that means he has to wear a suit.
[4] Looking back, I’m really not sure why I’m carrying a briefcase.  I think it was a 21st birthday present from my parents, who had by now resigned themselves to the fact that I wasn’t going to come back to work in the carpet factory, and were symbolically showing me that they understood I was now an upper-class twit, or at least a middle-class twat.  But I’m going on holiday.  Apart from my recent sabbatical in the Student Union, I don’t have a job.  But there it is.  I can see it now.  It’s definitely a briefcase.  It probably has 2000AD comics and copies of Melody Maker inside.
[5] I remember why this was though.  I had no idea what people wore on planes.  My only frame of reference was the seventies Airport movie franchise, and in every film the men all wore brown suits.  So a week before the trip, I went to Burton’s and splashed out sixty quid.  Thinking about it, perhaps the briefcase was just a misguided attempt to complete the look.  After all, I had to make a bit of extra effort to compensate for the fact that I’d compromised on collar width and tie kipperness. 
[6]In fact I’m the only person I know ever to have been travelling on a fully paid-for business class ticket and be downgraded to economy on a long-haul flight, which happened to me eleven years later.  There’s karma for you.
[7] Which, for our purposes here, we can refer to as: 1. “Been done”; 2. “Not really sure what the hook is’; 3. “Hmmm…” [uncomfortable silence] and 4.  “A novel you say?  Oh look!  There’s the sales director from Harper Collins!  Hi Jim!” 

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Big week in Pete Brown Beer World

* Long self-indulgent post alert – I beg your forgiveness, but this one’s been years in the making… *

It’s the week of ‘The Beer Trilogy’.  Pan Macmillan have released rejacketed, shiny new editions of my three books.  And it’s also Stoke Newington Literary Festival Week – the event organised by the Beer Widow which, perhaps inevitably, I’m speaking at, and perhaps more inevitably, the event I’ve spent the last month or so working full time co-organising.  I’ve got a bit of a taste for it to tell the truth, though with only four days to go my organisational skills are starting to unravel.

So this week I’m going to do a shameless sales plug for each of the three books – shameless but honest, so you can decide if you need to buy them (again) or not.  And I’m also going to reveal more about my events at the festival.  Somewhat astonishingly, although the session with Tony Benn being interviewed by Suzanne Moore sold out last week, and Stewart Lee reading from Arthur Machen is about to sell out any second now, there are still tickets left for both my events.
So what to talk about first?
Let’s start with this one:

Man Walks into a Pub was my first book.  I’d wanted to write books since I was nine years old.  When I was 25 I won a short story competition run by Time Out.  I thought this would be the first step on the road to literary stardom, that the phone would ring off the hook with agents asking if I had a novel, and I’d reply “Why yes, here’s my coming of age novel about a bloke who went to university in St Andrews and now works in London in an ad agency and fucking hates it.  Totally fictitious obviously.”

The phone didn’t ring.  Worse than that, Time Out cancelled the short story competition and have never run it since.  But I used the laptop I won – my first ever – to finish the novel, flog it until one agent was kind enough to tell me how bad it was instead of giving me polite refusals like all the others, wrote a few short stories that got better and better but remained stubbornly unoriginal, and finally bought a bigger computer, discovered real time strategy games and stopped writing for a couple of years.

Nine years after the Time Out short story, Man Walks into a Pub was published.  Lots of people bought it, and continued to buy it over the years.  At first it had this cover, the idea for which me and Chris came up with in the pub:

That’s me at the bar in the background – that’s how long ago this was.  When I did readings and events and interviews, any women present struggled unsuccessfully to hide their disappointment that I wasn’t the bloke in the foreground.  CAMRA felt this cover was ‘yobbish’ for some reason, when they slated the book, and WHSmith didn’t like it either.  But I did.

Then, when we moved from the posh ‘trade paperback’ edition to the ‘mass market’ paperback, it had this cover, which I hate beyond reason, and snarl at whenever I see it:

The first time I saw it I said, “Hmm, not sure about the rough; when do we see the finished design?”

“This is the finished design,” replied my editor.

“It can’t be.  I could do better myself on PowerPoint.  The image looks like a piece of clip art, for God’s sake,” I said.

“Well WHSmith say they love it and with this cover they’ll order seven thousand copies,” said my editor.

“I love it,” I said, “It’s a fantastic cover.”

And so we went with it, and then Smith’s changed their minds and didn’t take a single copy, and we were stuck with it for six long years.

Not many authors get the chance to do a revised second edition of their books, but you lot kept buying it, and it continues to make a bit of money for Macmillan and a much smaller bit of money – about the price of a cheap holiday – for me each year.  But as time went on, it wasn’t just the shit cover I felt guilty about.

MWIAP narrowly beat Martyn Cornell’s Beer: The Story of the Pint onto the bookshelves (something for which I think Martyn may just about have forgiven me).  They’re two very different books on exactly the same subject and I’d urge you to buy both if you haven’t already done so.  Mine is definitely the easier read.  But one of the reasons for that is that I simply repeated all the tall stories that have been handed down through beer books over the last century or so – everyone says it, they were saying it in that book in 1912, it must be true.  But we live in an age when that’s no longer good enough.  The blogosphere, especially writers like Martyn and Ron Pattinson, pinpoint myths and bullshit and destroy them with forensic analysis.  The start of that – for me at least – was reading Martyn’s book and realising that key parts of mine were inaccurate.

On top of that, the world moved on.  Man Walks into a Pub was finished before Progressive Beer Duty caused an explosion in microbrewing, before most beer fans in Britain were aware of the stunning beers coming out of the States, before the rise of neo-prohibitionism, before beer duty hikes and the smoking ban, before the Licensing Act and the liberalisation of pub opening hours.  It was badly out of date.

Finally, it was my first book – and it was trying too hard to please.  The tone and overall voice of the book was still right, but occasionally the footnotes grated and some of the ‘jokes’ made me wince on rereading them.

So: new cover that pisses all over the previous two and provides an essential addition to any beer fan’s book shelf aside, if you’ve bought/read MWIP before, do you need to buy it again?  Here’s a list of changes.  Depending on your level of interest and sanity, you can decide for yourself:

  • Overall, a general read-through correcting bits that were factually inaccurate, removing the jokes and footnotes that didn’t work, changing bits that were just too gauche or naive.  
  • A new preface to the second edition which expands on the story of how I went from Stella ad man to beer writer, and the thinking behind the new edition.
  • Some newer, more clearly thought-out stuff on the origins of beer and what early beer was like.
  • A completely new section on the origins and history of Porter, which owes a debt of thanks to Messrs Cornell and Pattinson.  And the admission that the most often quoted bit of the first edition – the Meux Brewery disaster – was a load of bollocks.  I’ve tried to atone for this by offering the most detailed, factual account so far of what really happened on that fateful day in 1814.
  • A new section on IPA – a very brief precis of the story in Hops and Glory.
  • A more accurate and expanded version of the origins of Pilsner.
  • A fully updated and revised version of the chapter on CAMRA.  I first gained notoriety with this book by being the first beer writer (that I knew of) to slag off CAMRA in print.  Since then I think I’ve changed and I think CAMRA have changed – for the better in both respects (my recent spats notwithstanding).  I set out to cut down the slagging bit and write a new section on how the organisation has progressed over the last decade.  That part is present and correct.  But I wasn’t quite as successful in cutting down the criticism as I’d hoped.  OK, I admit it, the critical bit is even longer than it was.  But it is balanced by fulsome praise where it is due.  I hope it also comes across that I no longer slag CAMRA as one homogenous organisation: some bits and people do great stuff, other bits and other people do silly stuff.
  • A fully revised and updated version of the chapter about big lager brands.  Gone are the pages of praise for Stella.  I’m not recanting my admiration for the brand of ten years ago, merely documenting its rapid fall from grace, as part of the account of the decade when big lager brewers simply ran out of ideas, and the craft beer revolution took off.
  • A fully revised and updated version of the chapter on the recent history of pubs, taking in the PubCos etc, and all the shit that pubs now face, the impact of licensing reform and so on.
  • Finally, a new last chapter on the rise of neo-prohibitionism.  This is not a rant.  Nor is it a forensic analysis of the bullshit claims of the neopros like I did in January on this blog.  It’s a history of binge drinking as a media and political phenomenon, which demonstrates that the current case against drink is built on a tissue of bad science, political expediency and media bollocks.

Apart from that, large sections of the book – the core story – have not changed.  But only one chapter out of fourteen has had no revisions at all.  I’d say 15-20% of the total text is different.  

The official release date is Friday (4th June), and Amazon is still showing the horrible old cover.  But the new editions are already in my local bookshop and if you look closely, the version on Amazon is the revised edition.  We just need to get the visual changed.

If you haven’t read it before, I really think you should order it right now.

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Books and that

It was a proud day for me yesterday when I found out these had arrived in the warehouse:

The paperback release of Hops and Glory is joined by re-releases of the other too, both with new covers from Neil Gower, the wonderful artist who broke the mould with the Hops and Glory design last year.
As far as text goes, H&G and Three Sheets are unaltered, but Man Walks into a Pub has been extensively rewritten and updated.  I’ll talk more about that in a few weeks – they’re officially released on June 4th.
But anyone living in the North West who wants a copy can be the very first people to get their hands on one!  I’m doing an event at the Southport Food and Drink Festival this Saturday.  Scarisbrick Hotel, Southport, 2pm, I’ll be doing a group tasting of some of the beers from the festival, and trying out a new talk about beer and my adventures through it, drawing from all three books.  I’ll be announcing more festival dates throughout the summer once I’ve got this talk right, but I will have the new books to sell as a special sneak preview.
In other literary news, fans of The Beer Widow may have noticed that she’s been a bit quiet of late.  That’s because she’s organising the first ever Stoke Newington Literary Festival, June 4th-6th, bringing the stars of the literary firmament to our corner of North East London (actually, a lot of them already live here, hence the idea for the event.  
I’m doing two events, each of which will be a little different for me:

Saturday, 2pm: “Eat Your Words”: Niki Segnit, Pete Brown, Alex Rushmer and Ian Kelly
The White Hart

There are only a handful of words that really describe taste and flavour, but collectively we have a seemingly limitless appetite for reading and writing about food and drink.  The author of The Flavour Thesaurus, Britain’s leading beer writer, a Masterchef finalist and the biographer of Anton Careme, the world’s first celebrity chef, discuss their struggle to pin flavour to the page.
Sunday, 3pm: “What’s so great about the Great British Pub?” Pete Brown, Paul Ewen and Tim Bradford
The White Hart
£4 (with free beer)

Beer Writer of the Year Pete Brown hosts an event in his local, The White Hart, getting the beers in and talking to one-man ‘Campaign for Surreal Ale’ Paul Ewen, and local writer and chronicler of small town England Tim Bradford, about what makes the pub such a unique and enduring cornerstone of British culture.  
Very excited about these – My mate Niki has written something that will be essential for anyone who enjoys cooking and wants to move beyond just following recipes, it’ll be cool to meet ‘Food Blogger Alex‘ from this year’s Masterchef, and Ian’s biographies look interesting.  The following day I’m fascinated to see what Paul Ewen is really like after enjoying his book a while back (I reviewed it here) and you’ve got to fall in love with Tim Bradford when you read the Amazon review he got from his mum!  Tickets should be available any second now from here, but in the meantime can be booked by phone (details on the festival website) or bought from the Stoke Newington Bookshop.  
We all take our place well down the running order behind people like Shappi Khorsandi, Phill Jupitus, Danny Kelly, John Hegley, Jeremy Hardy, AC Grayling, Stewart Lee and the legendary Tony Benn.  Come and make a weekend of it!  It promises to be fantastic.  
Check out the festival website for more details on the bill and how to book tickets, and follow @StokeyLitFest on Twitter and on Facebook for up to date news about the line up etc.  Liz has never organised anything like this before and the literary community is amazed at the quality of the line-up she’s managed to pull together for the first year.  But she’s having sleepless nights about the whole thing, so please buy tickets for stuff!

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Well that was nice. What next?

Nearing the end of my four month promotional tour for Hops and Glory, which will no doubt come as a relief to regular readers of my blog.

Yesterday was a good day. I arrived in Nantwich, Cheshire, to speak at the food festival here and help judge CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Cheshire at the beer festival. About an hour before I went on stage, I got an e-mail from my editor with lots of very good news in it.
First, sales of Hops and Glory are about double what I thought they were. In four months, the £14.99 hardback has sold more copies than the £10.99 trade paperback of Three Sheets ever did. This book has been an obsession since the night in the pub when the idea presented itself to me uninvited in December 2006, and will be until my final reading date in a few weeks. It HAD to sell. And it has. Thank you to everyone who has reviewed it, blogged about it, tweeted about it, recommended it, joined the Facebook group for it, booked me to talk about it, and otherwise help promote and sell it. I feel like I’ve got to the top of a mountain I’ve been climbing for three years.
One of the main reasons it has succeeded is the fantastic cover. And the next bit of good news is that the artist responsible for designing it has been commissioned to redo my previous two books. Man Walks into a Pub, now six years in print, has sold an extra 1500 copies this year, which is amazing, but every time I see its horrid sub-powerpoint clip-art cover I wince. In June 2010, the paperback release of H&G will be accompanied by new editions of MWIP and Three Sheets, and they’re going to look stunning as part of a set – my beer trilogy. It also gives me the opportunity to update the text of MWIP – bringing the final chapters on the state and prognosis of British beer and pubs up to date, quietly getting rid of some factual inaccuracies that have been pointed out to me, and deleting a few of the gags and footnotes that are trying a bit too hard. The question is… will I temper the scathing criticism of CAMRA that won the book its initial notoriety, now we’re on more friendly terms?
More good news: some good feedback on H&G from GABF – so North American readers may finally get to see the book after all without the seemingly controversial tactic of buying it from Canadian Amazon.
What next? I’m about to start work on a non-beer book. Feels a but weird but I want to spread my wings and try to achieve recognition as a ‘writer’ (whatever that is) rather than simply a beer writer. Before I get irate comments from beer bloggers, that’s not to dis beer writing or suggest it’s inferior to other forms of writing – it isn’t at all. But it does have a very narrow appeal in the book-purchasing world. I’ve been trying to change that as hard as anyone else who puts fingers to keyboard, if not harder, and I will continue to do so. But there are maybe three or four people on this planet who can make a decent living from writing about beer and nothing else, and I’m not one of them. I’ll continue beer blogging and journalism, and may even have two or three nebulous future beer/drinks ideas gathering traction in my addled head. But changes in personal circumstances mean I will soon be able to afford to write pretty much full time, and I now have to start thinking about all this in terms of career progression, skills development, broadening areas of expertise etc.
Next week (October 5th) sees the launch of the new Cask Report. It’s the third year I’ve written this, the definitive guide to Britain’s cask ale market, written independently with third party research, but paid for by a group of major regional brewers, CAMRA, SIBA, Cask Marque and Family Brewers of Britain. I’m better known for this now in the brewing world than I am for anything else. And there’s some major good news for anyone who loves cask beer, and important new findings for any publican thinking about stocking it.
I’ve got a load of catching up to do on this blog – I’ve spent most of the summer travelling, meeting people, being invited to brew, taste, and judge beer. I’ve been holding some of these pieces back because I’ve been trying to sell them to ‘old media’. I have totally failed in this respect and so will put them on here. I know blogging is ‘supposed’ to be a short-form medium, but I’ve got some longer, 1000-word features that I can’t place anywhere else and I don’t want to waste. If you strongly believe blog entries should only ever be short and sweet, I invite you to completely ignore them when they appear.
And I’ll post the first one just as soon as I get back from day two at Nantwich. Day one was a tough crowd – they didn’t warm to my opening gag about Brazilian prostitutes…

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Book Review: London Pub Reviews

Dunno why, but I’ve been doing one or two pub reviews on here recently, so I thought it was about time I sang the praises of this book.

For a while I’ve been wanting to have a go at doing pub reviews a little differently, trying to evoke the atmosphere and character rather than rigidly evaluating the food and drink selection. After all, ‘atmosphere’ and ‘my kind of place’ are, in survey after survey, the main reasons people give for choosing a particular pub. Paul Ewen, author of the deceptively dull-sounding London Pub Reviews has beaten me to any notion I might have had about reinventing the pub review. If the dull, plodding, workmanlike-yet-practical Good Beer Guide exists at one end of a scale, Ewen, a Kiwi living in London, has pegged out the other extreme.

According to the blurb, ‘although wanting to follow the Kiwi tradition of working in English pubs, he was thwarted by a complete and utter lack of social skills, forcing him to write about them instead’.

And how he writes about them.

His warped vision often nails a pub’s character completely: the Dublin Castle in Camden reminds him of the alien bar in Star Wars, an observation affirmed by “the pierced faces, weird clothes and outrageous hair styles of the Camden locals”.

Each review ends with him being forcibly ejected from the pub. In the Holly Bush in Hampstead, this is precipitated by Liam Gallagher walking in, inspiring our hero to climb on the table and shout “I’M ON STAGE, I’M ON STAGE, I’M ON STAGE NOW!”

In the Jeremy Bentham, a university pub, he approaches the blackboard advertising the day’s specials and begins an impromptu lecture, attempting to keep order by yelling and hurling beer glasses to the floor.

For the first few reviews, you’re wondering if this man, Dom Joly-style, really did go to these pubs and do these things. He was in there, as his descriptions attest, and he does enjoy his real ale. (And the Bentham piece was originally commissioned for The Times Higher Education Supplement by my mate Steve Farrar. When Paul sent Steve the invoice, it included the itemised cost for the smashed glasses.)

But as the book progresses, we take off through the beer glass and into a world that Alice would recognise if she had been a Camden bag lady on a Tennents Superdiet.

In Effra at Brixton, the bar person is working the pumps “like a submarine engine room attendant, darting here and there pulling levers and plugging holes.” Paul’s small round table is “shedding its varnish like skin”, and a sign advertising the daily special – Jerk Chicken – reminds him how often he was called “jerk”, “chicken” and indeed “special” during his formative years.

In the Prince of Wales on Clapham Common, “My table was covered by a strange, grey, cocoon-like coating, as if it were soon to emerge as a more beautiful pub table.”

At the Half Moon in Herne Hill, the flowery pattern on the carpet comes to life, unties his shoelaces and empties out the contents of his satchel (yes, he carries a satchel).

A secret passage at the Eagle in Battersea Park Road leads him to the secret underground lake where custard comes from.

By the time we get to the King’s Head in Tooting, he’s carrying his disembodied head under one arm, which hampers somewhat his attempts to catch the rabbits that infest the pool table, mocking him from the pockets.

All this, and he still makes you want to visit the pubs in question.

The review on the cover, written by Toby Litt (another of my favourite writers) says it all in one brilliant sentence: Ewen has created the ‘Campaign for Surreal Ale’.

Marvellous. Buy this book. Make an unhinged Kiwi bastard happy. He deserves it.