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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
We've just launched the first ever Beer Marketing Awards - click here for more details!
I'm doing a Masterclass in beer writing with the Guardian in February. Click to find our more.
My latest Publican's Morning Advertiser piece - some pub etiquette tips for Christmas visitors.
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Saturday, 26 May 2007

"The very last thing before I go..."*

Yahoo news story today:

The creators of the online phenomenon "Lonelygirl15" have joined forces with social networking site Bebo to create a British spin-off story that will use brands to help define the characters. The organisers say the project will give advertisers the chance to pitch their products such as clothing or mobile phones at a younger audience who have moved in recent years from traditional media to the Internet.

I've often wanted to say this, and a blog is a good start in being able to do so: can I just apologise, on behalf of the advertising industry, for the fucking bullshit that we create for no other purpose than to instil the brands that we work for in peoples' minds?

Why an apology? Because each time we succeed in planting a brand there, we pollute and degrade your intellect that little bit further.

I think the most frightening thing about the above press release is that the people who wrote it (yeah, "people" -trust me, this was agreed by committee) have absolutely no moral dilemma whatsoever with creating a character that vulnerable teenagers identify with and believe is real, and then using that character as yet another medium to sell meaningless shit that nobody needs - because there aren't enough media around already to do that with, right?

"Lonelygirl15" started life as a series of video diaries posted on YouTube by a 15 year-old girl, talking about her life and the angst she faced. She caught the imaginations of teenage girls across the planet, who saw these posts as a voice they did not have - a real person, speaking their thoughts, when until that point they felt like they were alone.

So when it turned out that the whole thing was fake - "Lonelygirl" was a 21-year-old actress, employed by a couple of twats trying to make their name and fortune - many of "her" followers felt a genuine sense of bereavement - a friend had been revealed as an artificial construct.

Does that remind you of - ooh, I dunno - the horror stories we hear about paedophiles grooming kids in chat rooms, pretending to be 13 year old girls and then turning out to be 40 year-old men?

And then, when the plot is revealed, and YouTube is suddenly deluged with videos from REAL girls talking to their webcams about how hurt, betrayed and deceived they feel (even if you find them insufferable, you have to concede they do really feel this way), how do the perpetrators respond? Do they apologise for the hurt they've caused thousands of vulnerable kids? Course not - they say, "Cool! How can we sell this to the advertisers who already have a stranglehold on these peoples' minds?"

As my sense of disgust with advertising grows (like smokers who become the most vehement anti-smokers, or racists who instantly switch to the Anti-Nazi League and go from beating up "pakis" to beating up the people who use that offensive term) I find this intolerable.

People ask me how I can say this and still be happy promoting beer drinking as a good thing - sniffing for hypocrisy.

But I believe beer drinking is a good thing - statistics show that for the vast, vast majority of people who drink beer, it relaxes them and aids social interaction - and that's something we need more than ever. When you're in a pub, you're not in the shops. In the pub you talk to people, often people you don't know. You make friends. You put the word to rights. The whole ambience is designed to make you feel relaxed, at home, content.

In shops you're alone, insecure, competitive.

That's why the state that loves to turn us into good consumers would rather have us in shops than pubs. You're not much use to the economy if you're happy propping up a bar stool, spending £2.50 an hour for a decent pint, when you could be out buying Product.

With this new development, the guys behind LonelyGirl reveal their game plan. They don't want to fuck children; they just want to harness their purchasing power. They're not paedophiles. But isn't it interesting that they're using exactly the same techniques paedophiles use? When nonces do it, we condemn it unreservedly because it pollutes and deceives young minds. When someone does it in order to sell brands, we hail it as cutting edge marketing.

Does anyone else feel sick or is it just me?

*Lyric from arguably the best Cure song ever

Friday, 25 May 2007

I don't think they have Wi-Fi here...

... so at the end of my first proper week's blogging, I'm going to have to have a week off.

This is Chesil Beach, Dorset, and I'm going here to spend a week in splendid isolation working on my as-yet-unnamed new book. I'll be reading about life in India in the 1830s, the roasting of pale malt, the brewing heyday of Burton-on-Trent and conditions aboard tall ships in the mid-Atlantic, and trying to fashion it all into a witty yet informative compelling narrative that you - yes, you - will hopefully want to rush out and buy some time in 2008.

Beer will be drunk. Peter Matthias' A History of the Brewing Industry 1700-1830 will be fallen asleep on. The dog...

Captain

will be taken for frequent walks, during which I hope to stumble not only on the beach's 18 million pebbles, but also on profound insights into the human condition - perhaps even some that still sound profound when I sober up the following morning.

See you in June...

Idle Beer

"The Idler is a magazine that celebrates freedom, fun, and the fine art of doing nothing," according to the intro in the front of each twice yearly issue.
It's an antidote to modern life, a reminder that we don't have to subsribe to a life that is defined by brands and celebrities, where shopping can be considered an end in itself, where we read newspapers to make ourselves feel anxious, buy goods to make ourselves feel better, running up debt that makes us carry on behaving like good little workers.
OK, so I'm a heavily in debt, anxious workaholic who seeks solace in a constant supply of books, CDs and beer, but that doesn't mean I can't aspire to an idler, freer life, and you can too.
Why not start with the latest issue, which came out at the beginning of May and contains an article from The Idler's new beer correspondent - me! My first idle piece, naturally enough, is on the art of home brewing, and why it's no longer about a kit of syrup from Boots that you stick in the airing cupboard until you're absolutely sure it's dead, before drinking it through gritted teeth and telling each other hey, it's only 10p a pint, before getting the shits for a week.
Available via the link, or commonly found in the humour section of good bookshops

Thursday, 24 May 2007

"Have you ever been to Ireland?"

One of the highlights of my beery way of life is that you get invited to talk about beer in places you would probably otherwise never get to. It doesn't matter whether they’re glamorous or ordinary or something or nothing in between – you just don’t know where you might get some bits of gold.

So last weekend was the Southport Food and Drink Festival and a beer tasting and reading in front of sixty people, one of the biggest crowds I’ve performed in front of – if you can really describe reading some bits out of my book and talking a bit about beer, and drinking some, as performing. Food festival crowds are always big because people are out, their minds are open, they’ll give it a go.

The highlight of the evening was after I read a passage from Three Sheets about my trip to Galway, the story of Billy and Declan and the animal-loving Guinness drinker with no arms. "The story about the armless drinker in Galway is worth the price of the book alone," said the Express in a review which is now proudly splashed across the back of the Three Sheets paperback, and which shows the Express can get it right every now and again.
The story of the animal lover with no arms, and the circumstances under which I heard it, is quite a long passage, and I like to think of it as the most concise possible definition of the Craic (it's about a thousand words long), all humour and zaniness and impromptu music and bars falling silent for solo vocalists, save for the constant hiss of Guinness taps.

The Crane Bar, haunt of the animal lover with no arms


The story got a round of applause all of its own, which has never happened before. It was my finale, so I opened up the floor to questions, and the first one was from a guy near the front, seventyish, who put up his hand and asked, “Have you ever been to Ireland?”

Well, what do you say? The other 59 people in the room were in hysterics, which at least showed they'd been listening. Eventually I managed to say “Yes I have. I have witnesses,” pointing to the rest of the room.

Afterwards, realising his faux pas, he came up to explain. “I didn’t realise you’d actually written the book!” He said. “I thought you were reading someone else’s.”

That’s right, I wanted to say, I’m just a bloke off the street who wandered in (after travelling half way across the country), but I found a really interesting book by this other bloke so I thought I’d just read some bits out to you.

I got invited back to Southport to do my thing at the Comedy Festival later in the year. I hope he's there. I can see a double act in the offing.

Telly appearance in delay shocker!


The good news - they're making the bit on pubs longer than they originally planned, which is nice.

The bad news - that means extra editing time, so I'll now be on telly on Saturday 16th June, not Saturday 26th May. They're also running it then so it's closer to the smoking ban, and a bit more topical.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

That BBC shoot (below) - the blooper reel...

I really wanted my highest profile TV appearance to date to go well. New clobber was pressed and tastefully matched, and I suggested we shoot in the George in Borough High Street, the best surviving example of a galleried coaching inn. I thought it would be atmospheric and quiet.

The landlord made it clear he was blasé about people filming in there and offered no special treatment, so we were in the old bar with one table of drinkers who had been there for the day. In the vast array of drunk words we have at our disposal, any of the graphic sweary ones would have been a good descriptor, but more than any of these they were definitely in their cups.

Filming proved tough – every time we started talking they would raise their voices to talk over us. Eventually the crew’s runner offered to buy them a pint if they’d be quiet while we filmed, and this seemed to go down very well. We made good progress, and were nearing the end of the interview when I started talking about the benign anarchy, the unpredictability, of the pub. It’s the reason in all those jokes, a man, a bear, a piece of tarmac or a lobster always walk into a pub. You could go out for a quiet drink on a Tuesday night and it might turn out to be a night you remember for years. Because in a pub, absolutely anything can happen.

As I said the words “anything can happen”, a deep, sustained bowking noise, like a fifteen second long subaquatic belch, drowned me out. Zina, my interviewer, looked over my shoulder. Her eyes went glassy. "He's throwing up. Into his glass," she whispered.

We were petrified, rooted to our places, waiting to see what would happen next, trying to breathe through our mouths so we didn’t smell the puke and start a circle-jerk of hurling. We tried another take, from the top, and were drowned out by dregs of pukey sputum being dislodged from mouth and nose, and more liquid belches from deep within. And again. Every time I got to “anything can happen”, I was joined by a chorus of Woorgh! Hach! Yuurk. Haaawwch! Haawwch! Youwulloooiiich!

Zina had to go outside. Then, mercifully, we were saved. A horrified barmaid swiftly ejected the group and set about clearing up the carnage. She cleared up everything apart from the puke-filled glass. I didn’t dare turn around, knowing that if I saw it, it would be my turn next. The glass sat alone on its table, exuding a kind of talismanic power, not to mention a rapidly congealing stench.

Eventually the barmaid came back. I didn’t dare turn around to see what she was going to try and do – I have no idea whether she was attempting to get it into a bin bag or a box or something. A part of me was expecting the chunky smash that came next, as the puke-filled glass hit the floor. We couldn’t stand it any longer. The whole crew was in hysterics, not laughing at her, but at the ridiculousness of what happens when you try to shoot a piece about how great pubs are in one of the country's oldest and most beautiful inns.

The waitress didn't see our point of view though. “This is NOT funny! This is HORRIBLE! I really, really do not think you should be laughing!”

We tried to apologise, but it was no use – she pretty much told us to get out, and that was the end of the piece. I wonder if BBC crews can get some kind of campaign medal for delivering a piece against such adversity?

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

A Passage to India - New Book Under Way

I've started work on a third book. It'll be my best one yet, if I can make it work - but that is a very big if.

It started when Three Sheets to to the Wind won the British Guild of Beer Writers Travel Bursary Award just before Christmas. I got a nice cheque inside a rather wonderful tankard, and everyone simply assumed I'd be spending it on a new adventure rather than a quiet weekend away with Liz, my wife, detoxing at some retreat somewhere.

Chris then suggested that Three Sheets was more a list of great beer locations than a travel book per se - what about writing about a great beer journey? But beer doesn't travel well. There aren't really any great beer journeys unless... oh, there is one. Not just a big one; an epic one.

India Pale Ale was developed as a beer style in the heyday of the East India Company, when this private corporation ruled half a continent. Before refrigeration it was too hot to brew in India, and it took about six months for beer exports to get there. The beer was often flat, sour and undrinkable when it arrived. India Pale Ale (IPA) was an attempt to get beer there in decent condition. It was brewed with loads of hops - which act as a natural preservative, high alcohol content - again, alcohol has grat preservative qualities - and was dry-hopped for good measure (fresh hops added to the cask before it is sealed).

It was then sent on a journey through the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Indian Ocean to Calcutta. The constant rolling motion and the temperature fluctuations of up to 30 degrees C didn't ruin IPA like other beers - these conditions matured it in a unique way, so it arrived not just drinkable, but bright and sparkling - perfect for the climate. If you're familiar with this story, you'll know a few more of the details, but not much more. IPA is currently enjoying a bit of a resurgence and people are doing all sorts with it - making it with new styles of hop, pushing up the alcohol content... but no-one has recreated the journey that made the beer what it is.

So I'm having a Burton-on-Trent brewer recreate a beer to the old-style recipe, and we're going to take it by barge from Burton, then by ship, on the old IPA route. Not so much 'Round Ireland with a Fridge' as 'Round the Cape with a Cask.'

It's going to take about three or four months. We might get attacked by pirates. But it's one of those ideas that, once you've had it, you simply have to follow through.

I'll be posting regular updates here thoiughout the journey, and we have some speculative interest from TV, press and radio people.

So it's very exciting. The only problem is finding a boat.

Since the Suez Canal opened in 1869, people don't go this way any more. That's what makes it interesting - but interesting is often just another word for difficult. If you know anyone with a ship who might be interested...

On the telly - Saturday 26th May


The Culture Show phoned. It's a programme on BBC2 that does what it says on the tin - it talks about culture. So you get the divine Lauren Laverne (right) hosting and interviewing bands, Mark Kermode on film, and Zina Saro-Wiwa talking to me about pubs! Why is the British pub unique? Is it in trouble? Why is pub culture so important? Find out on Saturday 26th May at about 7.50pm.

New Edition of Three Sheets to the Wind hits the shops





It's got a new cover - not this one on the left, but I don't have a picture of the new one yet. It's a lot more direct - a lovely deep blue with a big pint on it. It's cheaper - the first edition was what's called the 'trade paperback', which is half way between a paperback and a hardback. This new one is the 'mass-market paperback' and it'll be going for £7.99. It's got some great quotes from newspaper reviews on the back! An ideal Father's day present - it's in the shops on 1st June.

Back in the Blogsphere

Well, that was a feeble attempt at blogging - three posts, then nothing for nine months! First rule of being a writer - you write.

So I'm going to take it a bit more seriously from now on. The life of a beer writer is filled with all sorts of interesting stuff, not all of which ends up as a piece in a magazine or book. From now on it's all going on here, and I mean that most sincerely.

Expect drunken antics, beery eccentrics, and the occasional post about something other than beer.