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

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What's new?
Next beer book - now called 'Miracle Brew' - is finished! You can still subscribe to it here.
You can still listen to The Apple Orchard on BBC iPlayer radio
I'm taking the pub on tour - four dates between now and Christmas.
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Thursday, 7 May 2015

The dawn chorus, the apple, and another forthcoming book from me

I've managed to end up working on three new books, with three different publishers. Here's a story about the second of those three.

I've already talked about my new beer book, What Are You Drinking? It's a crowdfunded project with a new type of publisher that I'm doing (a) because it's a really good model for both readers and authors and (b) my ex-editor, who made my first two beer books happen, is leading the project. It's more than 50% funded. If you haven't pledged for it yet and you're kind of intending to, please do - it'll help shorten the gap for those who have already pledged before the book comes out and they get their special copies.

Another reason I'm publishing that book through the crowdfunded model is that, while I've been very lucky so far to have my books published as general non-fiction books by a big mainstream publisher, those kind of publishers don't want any more beer books (at least, not from me) at the moment. They do want me to write more books, but about what they see as broader subjects than beer.

I'm not averse to the idea. While I intend to write about beer as much as I can for the foreseeable future, my ambition was always to be a writer, period. My interests are broader than beer, and they grow as I write more: one of the many great things about beer is that it links you into history, sociology, cultural studies, travel, biology, biochemistry, gastronomy and lots more if you want it to. The luckiest thing about being an author is that every book takes you in a journey of discovery and leaves you in a different place by the time you've finished it.

Two years ago I co-wrote the first ever world guide to cider. It was enormous fun. Along the way I spent time in barns in Somerset working an ancient Norman cider press, in dark orchards in midwinter participating in the ancient rite of Wassail, getting stoned with new friends on the shores of Lake Michigan, and so much more.

The thing about the cider book is that it was my first time writing a coffee table-style book of listings, the basic format to most beer books. There was no room for the kinds of long, narrative passages that made up my first three books. I loved the cider book, and it has done very well. But the best pieces of writing I did while working on it never made it into the book.

These pieces of writing had one more thing in common: while cider ran through them like a golden stream, they weren't necessarily about cider. They were at least as much about cider makers, apples, orchards and orchardists, and the land in which they stood. I've been a city boy for most of my adult life, but my time in orchards allowed something new to take root.

I spend most of my life staring at a screen. It's fine - that will never change. But I need a counter-balance to it - increasingly so, as more of what I see on screen depresses me. I need an escape, and I feel drawn ever more strongly to a world of trees and fields, orchards and hills. When I'm there, it resets everything, reconnects me with reality, slows down the rhythms of life to a normal pace, recharges my batteries and feeds my soul. The need is getting bad - so bad that I've even become a convert to gardening, tending my own twenty-foot plot and trying to coax it into some semblance of nature's beauty and bounty. (As I write, I'm missing the fern I planted in a shady corner three weeks ago, and wondering how it's doing.)

Drawing all this together, I realised there was a book to be written about the humble apple - about its power, its symbolism, that fact that, hiding in plain sight, pretending to be utterly normal and inconsequential, it's actually one of the most powerful totems we have.

So I put together a synopsis for a book that tells the story of the apple in both the real and the mythical world. In the real world, it's the story of a fruit that originated in Kazakhstan that is now as French as Camembert, as English as the Archers and as American as mom's apple pie. In the mythical world, it's the forbidden fruit of Eden (even though the Bible never says it is), a mainstay of Greek and Nordic myth, a key character in the legend of King Arthur, and the centre of the action in countless fairy tales.

Often, when you're around apples, the real world and the mythical world still meet.

Last week I visited Herefordshire to help celebrate their Blossomtime festival. At this time of year, it's a magical place. One of the things I'll be doing in the book is to try and put some of the pictures I took, and they thoughts and feelings they inspired, into words.

At this time of year, the Marcle Ridge is frosted with apple blossom wherever you look. And the rainbow was a nice touch.

On the morning of 1st May, we climbed May Hill in Gloucestershire to greet the sun. 

Northwest, 5.30am 

We had to get up at 4am to be up there in time, and the sun rose at about 5.35 am. There were around 300 people up there, and I quickly realised that this wasn't just some quaint local custom: we were in fact celebrating the ancient Celtic festival of Beltain.

This did, inevitably, mean that Morris dancers were involved.

I'll be discussing Morris dancers in some detail in the book.

The most annoying thing about the Morris as that they danced all through the actual sunrise, completely ignored it, didn't comment on it at all. They actually stood between the crowd and the sunrise. They seemed to think we'd got out of bed in the middle of the night and walked up a steep fucking hill in the freezing fucking cold, to watch them, rather than the sun.

Luckily, this year at least, the sun upstaged them.

Even if it did benefit from a handy bit of lens flare.

I spent the rest of the weekend learning about orchards, the cycle of the seasons, and the rhythms of natural life. Orchards are of course a sometimes uneasy compromise between natural order and and human meddling, but right now they just look amazing.

Whether we're talking traditional 'standard' trees... 


Or more modern, more engineered 'dwarf' or 'bush' trees...
Each has its own incredible beauty, and as the blossom falls from pollenated blooms, we see the tiny, young fruit having 'set', which will now start to grow into apples.

Baby Cider

The wonderful timing of this event means that May Day and the celebration of the blossom, the returning of life after the dead of winter, coincides with the previous year's cider being ready if it has been fermented traditionally over the winter. I was asked to hand out the awards in the local cider and perry competition, and many of the ciders on display had only been tapped and drawn from the fermenter over the previous 24 hours. Some of it benefited from being young, fresh and vivacious. Others showed promise, but will clearly benefit from a little more time, a little more maturity. I'm already learning that apples and apple trees have an incredible amount in common with humans.

And that's what the book is really about. Provisionally titled 'Comfort Me: the apple and us', it's not (just) a biological history of apples and orchards; it's the story of us, told through the fruit we hold more dear than any other.

It has been commissioned by Penguin, and will be published under their Particular Books imprint towards the end of 2016 or early 2017. Between now and then, I've got me wellies and me hiking boots on, and I'll be getting in touch with my Pagan side.

Was heil!

4 comments:

Bill said...

For £500 you'll come to the US and have a drink at my local? I'm almost tempted to spend the money.

Phil said...

All made up, you know. Not apples, and not the equinox, and not the sun - but Beltane? Celtic religious practice died out on this island a very long time ago. Almost all modern Morris is madey-uppy, too; those tattercoats don't look at all Gloucester to me.

The sun's real enough, though, and the equinox, and the apples; and people.

Mark Kardwell said...

Sounds great. In fact, sounds like some of my favourite parts of Ian Marchant's great THE LONGEST CRAWL.

Beer in a Bottle said...

I take it you're not a great fan of the good old-fashioned morris dancer then? :-) I've witnessed these in action a number of times and have to say that although you can't help be drawn in to watch along with the rest of the crowd, it really does seem an odd thing for grown men to be doing. The only saving grace I can find is that they often seem be rewarded by free cider or beer so maybe there IS a valid reason for doing it.