Sometimes I just enjoy them, other times I'm deeply envious of them. I can savour the wonderful lyricism of, say, Arundhati Roy without even thinking about my writing because it’s so different from anything I would ever do. But one writer I wish I could simply be is George Orwell. I will never, in all my days, be one hundredth of the writer he was, but he shared many of my ideas and beliefs about the world at large and about how to write in particular.
I quote him several times in Man Walks into a Pub because it's a book I wish he had written before me. But then, he didn't need to - being Orwell, he said everything worth saying about the pub in a short essay, The Moon Under Water. (Arguably the only truly unforgivable thing Wetherspoons have ever done is appropriate that name.) As a piece of writing it is simple perfection. If I'm feeling sentimental and it's one of those evenings where I've made the fatal transition from beer to whisky, I can literally read it and weep.
But I'm wandering off the point - something Orwell would never do. And going on too much. Ditto.
The reason I brought up Orwell was that he also once wrote:
We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres around things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the “nice cup of tea”... It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above.
But one hobbyist Orwell never had the dubious pleasure of encountering was the beer ticker.
Hobbyists today are nerdy, and the only areas it’s socially acceptable for blokes to be nerdy about are cars and football. If you can name every player in England’s unsuccessful 1970 World Cup side, or talk knowledgably about the engineering perfection of a Maserati, you’ll get admiring nods from other blokes, and even women will roll their eyes with an affectionate “ah, you guys” shrug.
But thanks to the hoary CAMRA socks-and-sandals stereotype, claim an interest in beer and blokes and women alike will start to edge away and make excuses.
It’s fascinating how contextual this stereotype is. For about two years now I’ve worn a beard and long hair. If I’m working in an ad agency, people think this makes me look cool – they simply assume I’m one of the creatives.
But in the beer world, the exact same look is increasingly uncool – people tell me I’m “starting to look like a CAMRA member”. With CAMRA’s membership having doubled in the last ten years, the average CAMRA member increasingly looks no different from anyone else. But they don’t mean that. They mean I look like the stereotypical CAMRA member.The beer ticker. And whatever your views on that, it’s not meant as a compliment.
Within the beer world, tickers are the people even the saddest geeks can look down on. Adult life is merely the school playground writ large, and tickers are the snivelling, emphysemic, half-blind larvae that the most bullied kids in the school – the fat kids and the ones with sellotaped national health glasses and Oxfam clothes – turn on with joy when they realise there is in fact someone one rung below them.
We all recognize that part of our interest in beer is driven by a nerdish tendency, and that’s not something we like in ourselves. And when we find that someone is inarguably more nerdish than we, they become an outlet for all the pisstaking and antipathy we’ve ever received. It was the tickers those people were suspicious of, or bored of, or regarded with pity and condescension – not us. We merely channel their disdain to its rightful target.
Except now someone has gone and made a film about them.
Surely that’s just not fair. It should be a film about the broader appreciation of beer. It should be a film about how great beer is and why more people should take an interest in it. Surely if you focus on the tickers no one will go and see it? And those who do will simply have their prejudices about beer nerds reinforced?
The thing is, if you’re a filmmaker who’s keen to shine a light on little-known, entertaining and intriguing corners of the British psyche, tickers are – say it – pretty interesting.
Phil Parkin is an independent filmmaker who lives in Sheffield. One day he was drinking in the wonderful Hillsborough Hotel. There’s a brewery in the cellar, where the phenomenally talented and hugely underrated brewer Stuart Ross pretty much does as he pleases and makes it up as he goes along, continually creating new beers. And every week, the tickers descend. Sheffield competes with Derby for the title of ticker centre of the universe – some of the biggest names in ticking are regulars at the Hillsborough and the nearby Fat Cat and Kelham Island Tavern. As soon as Phil had asked what they were doing and had it explained to him, he had his next project.
Phil’s method of filmmaking is what social anthropologists call ‘participant observation’. He lived among them, like that woman out of Gorillas in the Mist, becoming accepted by the tribe.
What emerges is a warm, funny, and amazingly non-judgmental portrait of a hobby Orwell would have been quite proud of – perhaps even indulged in. The principles are explained with disarming simplicity ‘you find a beer, you drink it, you tick it’. What could be easier?
And rather than coming across as unbearable nerds, the characters do make fascinating viewing. Mick the Tick – the man who allegedly invented the hobby and gave it its name thanks to its easy alliteration – is a deeply likeable character, like a cuddly, benign bear. The Beer Widow has a special designation for people she has fallen in love with and wants to protect from the world and care for. She talks about keeping them in a special luxurious room in the cellar wrapped in cotton wool and feeding them biscuits and soup. So far we’ve got Bill Bailey, the band Lamb, and psychologist and thinker Eckhart Tolle down there. Mick the Tick is the latest recruit.
Dave Unpronouncable is deeply fascinating – a natural in front of the camera, articulate, intelligent and surprisingly normal looking – at least for the first half of the film – but there are clearly kinks and complications to his character.There’s a story going on with him through the making of the film that we never quite get to the bottom of.
Brian the Champ – the king of the tickers – is probably the closest to what we would imagine a ticker to be, but he has a wife who indulges him and a pleasant suburban house, and you share his excitement as he sets off for the Great British Beer Festival to mark a momentous tick in his book.
I have to declare an interest in that I met Phil several times while the film was being made, and he’s become a mate. I provided him with a lot of the historical context, and pop up in the film showing him round the Museum in Burton.
One time we met in the Rake, and he seemed to be taking a long time sending a text message. I became suspicious.“You’re ticking aren’t you? You’ve gone native. You've become one of them.” This was ticking 2.0, ticking invisibly, with minimal risk of losing your social status.
This brings me to my only criticism of the film - the definition of its narrative. Phil spends as much time in front of the camera as behind it, and very charming he is too. The film is his personal journey into the world of ticking (which I was fortunate to witness). That’s a great construct, but the arc of Phil’s journey doesn’t quite make it on film. It’s as if he can’t really decide whether this is a story about him or about the tickers he meets. There’s no real exploration of his motivation for doing it, or what he was trying to discover or prove, other than that it's a great topic to make a film about.
But as I said to Phil after watching an early cut – it made me thirsty, and it made me want to spend more time in Sheffield, and it made me proud of my involvement in the beer world.
And it made me think differently about tickers. I won’t be starting any time soon – despite the fact that, apparently, I’m starting to look like one – but the tickers featured in this film at least are not the Aspergers stereotypes other beer enthusiasts enjoy looking down on.
You can find out more about the film and watch a trailer here. I’m not sure whether or not it will recruit more people to the cause of great beer, and some will see it as a missed opportunity for that. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about beer – not really – it’s about people. And in that respect, it is a very successful film indeed.
And anyway – it’s got a bright, young, ambitious filmmaker all passionate about the beer world. Who knows what he’ll do next?
There's a public screening of the film at the Showroom in Sheffield at 8pm on 15th December. Tickets are available through the Showroom box office.