A few Beer and Pubs items that, for various reasons - often because they were either excessively critical of CAMRA or just too politically incorrect - never made it into the pages of "Opening Times"
The idea that late-night bus services help reduce drunk driving is another pious canard
"Opening Times" recently reported the reinstatement of a late-night bus service that enabled people from Macclesfield to enjoy an evening's drinking in Leek. That's entirely laudable if there is sufficient demand to make it viable, but I sincerely hope that my council tax is not being wasted on subsidising it.
There's good reason to subsidise bus services to provide essential transport for schoolchildren, workers, shoppers and hospital visitors. But going to the pub - come off it! There are plenty of decent pubs in both Macclesfield and Leek and it's no real hardship if the citizens of one town can't go and have a few drinks in the other.
Ah yes, you might say, but surely providing late-night bus services helps cut down drink-driving. But would the people who are travelling from Macclesfield to Leek on the bus really get in their cars, make the same trip, and have a skinful, if the bus didn't run? Of course they wouldn't - they'd either stay at home or go to a nearer pub that they could reach either on foot or by a local bus service. In the real world, nobody makes a direct choice between going to the pub on the bus and going out in their car and drinking to excess.
There's little difference in the overall level of drink-drive offences between urban and rural areas, in terms of the number of licence holders, and most offenders are caught within one mile of their home. This strongly suggests that there is no direct link between the availability of public transport and the incidence of drink-drive offending. In the mid-1960s, compared with today, there were probably far more people who would use the bus or train to go out to the pub. But, at the same time, drink-driving was much more prevalent.
The factors that lead people to drink to excess before driving are to do with an individual's perception of risk, responsibility and the chances of getting caught, and the way society in general views the offence. But whether or not there's a late-night bus really has nothing whatsoever to do with it.
Have rising property prices and declining trade doomed the rural pub to extinction?
In some areas, the closure of rural pubs has become a major problem. It is estimated that, across the country, six are closing every week. Interestingly, though, in the rural areas nearest to Stockport, namely Cheshire and the High Peak district of Derbyshire, this phenomenon has hardly happened at all. I can only think of a handful of pubs that have closed, and more often than not these have been run-down pubs just off the centres of the smaller towns, rather than ones in villages or wholly rural locations.
One of the key factors in this is property prices. In areas within commuting distance of London, a pub that may fetch £200,000 as a going concern can often sell for twice that as a private residence. In Berkshire or Hertfordshire, the village pub will also often be an attractive cottage-style property, whereas in Cheshire it is more often than not a free-standing, purpose-built Victorian or Edwardian edifice that is much less appealing as a private dwelling.
Cheshire has also overall seen a considerable increase in population, so that, apart from the extreme south-west of the county, every pub probably now has a lot more people living within a catchment area of six or seven miles radius than it used to. The proportion of people who go to pubs might have fallen, but there's still enough of them to keep virtually all the existing pubs in business.
Another factor is that there are greatly increased expectations of the business of a pub. In the early years of this century, the licensee of the average rural pub probably had another full-time job, while his wife ran a smallholding, so the pub was something of a sideline and did not have to provide a full-time living to two people. It would not surprise me if the typical "failing" country pub is not actually turning over considerably more, adjusted for inflation, than it was a hundred years ago.
People often talk about the decline of rural pubs being due to some generalised statement that people just don't go to pubs any more. But the continued survival of virtually all of the non-urban pubs in Cheshire underlines the fact that the key factors driving pub closures are property prices and rural depopulation, not the lack of appeal of pubs as such. Despite the undeniable effect of drink-driving crackdowns, there can still be a good trade for well-run pubs in locations outside urban areas, so long as there are enough people living within a few miles' travelling distance.
Has CAMRA lost its radical edge and become part of the establishment?
It's very common for campaigning organisations to start off as being highly militant, but eventually become part of the Establishment and be supplanted by newer and more radical bodies. The Automobile Association, for example, began because drivers did not feel that the RAC was doing enough to defend their interests, but eventually became far more interested in selling books and insurance than in standing up for its members' rights. It has now sold itself to a commercial organisation, leaving campaigning to younger, fresher groups, in particular the Association of British Drivers.
Many members feel that much the same has happened to CAMRA, and this is certainly borne out by the feeble and gentlemanly response of the national leadership to the nitrokeg threat, and by their backtracking and equivocation on the issue of full measures. At the same time the organisation is bogged down in an obscure debate about cask breathers which nobody outside it, and few inside, could care less about, and which is the equivalent of arguing over the best type of coal to use on the Titanic.
CAMRA could also do much more to stick up for the interests of moderate drinkers - whether or not they drink real ale - against the misleading propaganda of anti-alcohol lobbyists, and to debunk exaggerated health scares about the dangers of alcohol. There is a need for a drinkers' equivalent of FOREST - the organisation that campaigns for smokers' rights - which is a rôle that CAMRA only fulfils to a very limited extent.
Regular followers of the Curmudgeon column will know that I'm no fan of beer-spotting, but I know that many of the spotters have become disenchanted with CAMRA and see it as a fuddy-duddy organisation that does not stand up for their interests. Might some of the more radical spotters' organisations be in a sense the provisional wing of the real ale movement?
One man's lethal dose of alcohol is another's slight hangover - so how can licensees know which is which?
Last month, a couple of Portsmouth licensees were charged with manslaughter after a man collapsed and died following a heavy drinking session in their pub. Now, I don't know the full circumstances, and it may be that they were egging on an obviously drunk man to take part in drinking games. But, assuming that did not happen, this case has very worrying implications.
How on earth can licensees be expected to know the potential consequences of the amount of alcohol consumed by every one of their customers? We may not approve, but we all know that drinking sessions which involve consuming at least twenty units of alcohol (that is ten pints of ordinary bitter, or seven pints of premium lager) take place in most town centres every Friday and Saturday night. To an inexperienced or frail drinker, that could prove fatal, but the people who do it end up with nothing more than a thick head the following morning. If licensees had to tell heavy drinkers to stop at five pints, they'd just move on to another pub. And how can you keep track of the alcohol intake of a group of lads on a pub-crawl?
Some people appear drunk after consuming relatively little; others can drink two or three times as much and scarcely seem affected. There must also be plenty of people about who have health problems that mean that a particular dose of alcohol, which would have no lasting ill-effects in most of the population, and might not even be enough to make them appear drunk, could just prove fatal. There is no way licensees can be expected to be aware of this. Obviously licensees should not serve people who are falling-down drunk, but beyond this it's difficult to see what they can do to prevent their customers drinking what might prove, to them personally, lethal quantities.
If this case succeeds, and licensees have to start keeping a much closer eye on the total amount of alcohol their customers consume, the only effect will be that it will increasingly drive problem drinkers, precisely the kind of people where the atmosphere of a pub may provide some kind of control, into unlicensed drinking clubs where no such constraints apply. A fundamental principle of all kinds of regulation is that if you bear down too hard on the legal sector, it will encourage people to move outside the scope of regulation altogether, thus defeating the whole object.
Postscript: The case actually came to court in June 2000 - see Curmudgeon News. The licensees were acquitted because the judge ruled that they did not owe a duty of care to their customers. In fact, they had been egging on an already drunk man to consume a cocktail of spirits from a pint glass, and so the case does not set the worrying precedent that I feared.
Is CAMRA's concentration on beer festivals a dangerous distraction?
Earlier this year, a correspondent to "Opening Times" was very scathing on the subject of beer festivals. Now, it may seem downright curmudgeonly to say so when the Stockport Festival is almost upon us, but he had a point. Beer festivals are vastly overrated. They're crowded and sweaty, there's nowhere to sit, the food's terrible, there's deafening music that can't be to the taste of more than a handful of people in the hall, and most of the time the beer is warm and flat. It's not my idea of a good time, or good drinking. Personally, I'd much prefer to sit on a comfortable bench in a cosy pub, with a pint of cool beer pumped straight from the cellar, listening to the sound of conversation.
It's doubtful whether festivals even constitute effective campaigning. The conditions in which the beer is kept do not show real ale at its best, or anywhere near it. They may even encourage people who go to the festival but don't drink real ale regularly to dismiss it as tepid malty glop rather than the cool, bright, sharp, refreshing liquid it should be. The choice of beers is likely to be mostly brews so obscure that you'll never see them outside specialist alehouses, so the event doesn't connect with people's everyday drinking. Many festivals have become spotters' meccas which ignore the interests of the general drinking public.
Despite all that, it is argued that CAMRA recruits large numbers of members at beer festivals. Maybe so, but they often sign up for a reduced rate after they've had a few drinks, and the rate of renewal is much lower than for members recruited by other means, so much so that CAMRA has now withdrawn any national incentive for members signed up at festivals.
Many CAMRA members devote most of their energies to organising and working at beer festivals, when their time might be better spent campaigning on the frontline in pubs, or in lobbying government and MPs. I don't deny that a lot of people enjoy beer festivals, but have they assumed such importance in CAMRA's activities that they are becoming a dangerous distraction from its central objectives in the wider world?
Should CAMRA be fighting for bland, weak beer?
Would you want to man the barricades in defence of bland, weak beer? Probably not. But isn't that more or less what CAMRA is doing in campaigning for mild?
In the 1950s, mild outsold bitter in most of the country. It appealed both to manual workers who needed to replace fluid lost through sweating, and to maiden aunts and others who wanted an inoffensive, unchallenging drop of beer. In today's beer market, these requirements are met by standard lagers, and the number of heavy manual workers is of course far fewer. Mild has lost its natural constituency. It's a pity, but it's a fact of life.
The beer market is increasingly polarising between those who want an undemanding, mass-market product - who will go for standard lagers, nitrokegs or designer bottles - and those who look for something with distinctiveness and character. The latter will choose full-flavoured premium bitters, stouts and porters, speciality beers and high-quality imports from Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic. They are unlikely to choose mild. You can see this very clearly by standing at the bar of any multi-beer free house and watching what customers order. Although some milds are distinctive and tasty, many others, including some of the most widely-available examples, are disappointingly thin and characterless.
In response to health concerns, there is much talk of people cutting down their alcohol intake, which might be thought to benefit lower-strength beers. In general, though, this involves drinking "less but better", consuming smaller quantities of premium products, not changing to drinks with a lower alcoholic content. In fact, there has been a marked increase in the average strength of beer consumed. Twenty-five years ago it was virtually impossible to find any beers stronger than 4%. Now it can sometimes be difficult to find anything weaker than that.
In the long run, mild has no future as a low-strength, low-price beer. Its customers will slowly die off, and so will it, apart from possibly in the West Midlands where it remains a cultural talisman. If mild is to survive at all, it has to be repositioned as a darker and richer alternative to hoppy bitters, which is their equivalent in strength and perceived value. To a large extent, this is what Banks's have done with their "Original", which is the only beer of the style that still commands a following outside of ageing locals and beer enthusiasts. It is one thing to give enthusiastic support to distinctive beers of all styles, but it is something else entirely to flog dead horses.
If CAMRA members won't speak up for real ale where it is under threat, nobody will
There are plenty of people who bemoan the decline of Christian values, but never set foot in church, or who complain about the state of English cricket without ever going to a county match. Those who decry the nitrokeg tide sweeping across their local pubs while spotting the latest mulberry and cinnamon porter in a multi-beer alehouse miles from their home are engaged in a similar kind of hypocrisy. Every CAMRA activist, and indeed everyone who is interested in real ale, must ask themselves whether they're really bothered if availability declines to a handful of specialist outlets, so long as they can still get hold of it somewhere in reasonable choice and quality. As the advert used to say, "it's worth passing a few pubs for". If you wouldn't mind that too much, then the advance of nitro won't worry you unduly. But, if it does bother you, then you have to think carefully about the best way to fight the trend.
There is a widespread feeling that, over the last few years, CAMRA has paid too much attention to the rare and exotic in the beer world, and tended to ignore and even disparage beers that are widely available. This has not in itself caused the spread of nitrokeg, but it has meant that it has not been opposed as vigorously as it might have been. To counterattack, it is essential to hold up, as examples of real ales worth drinking, beers that the average drinker might actually be able to get hold of. If someone asks you to recommend a good beer, and you name some one-off brew from a distant micro brewery that was available at the Beer House for two days a month ago, then that person is going to lose interest and go back to John Smith's Extra Smooth.
Around here, CAMRA members generally have little problem in recommending the products of our local independent brewers, Holts, Hydes, Lees and Robinsons, while pointing out that they are not kept in tip-top condition in every pub. But if CAMRA members are serious about spreading the real ale message they must also be prepared to speak up for the well-known, nationally distributed brands such as Landlord, Pedigree, 6X, London Pride and the rest, which ordinary people are likely to have heard of and may be the only real ales they ever encounter in pubs they go in.
This is not to say that CAMRA should champion poor-quality beers, or be prepared to tolerate bad cellarmanship. But if CAMRA members spread the message that few if any widely available real ales are really worth drinking anyway, then they really can't grumble if loads of pubs stop selling the stuff and go over to nitrokeg.
CAMRA members must also be prepared to say unequivocally that even the national brewers' mass-market real ales - Tetleys, Boddingtons or even Websters - are, if kept well (which is a big if), markedly better than any nitrokeg. There's a pub I know, typical of many, where Tetley Bitter is the only real ale, and the smooth version has now been introduced in competition with it. If you can't give the regulars a convincing reason why they should choose the cask Tetleys rather than the smooth, then how can you argue that real ale should continue to be available in that pub at all?
The argument that one good pint is better than ten mediocre ones has its supporters. But I suspect that anyone who believes that, inside the fat man of widespread but variable real ale availability, there is a thin man of quality, commitment and choice trying to get out is deluding himself. Rather than going on a healthy diet, the patient may turn out to be suffering from fatal anorexia. The nitrokeg tide may be on the cusp at the moment, and the response of CAMRA members may be a critical factor in affecting which way it turns.
How the media fail to represent the way millions lawfully go to the pub
Every day on television, you witness representations of illegal activities, many of which carry long prison sentences, such as the abuse of under-age children, or dealing in hard drugs, with little or no hint of moral disapproval. Yet there is something which is entirely lawful, practised every week by millions of people, and not, in any meaningful sense of the word, dangerous, yet which is never depicted without a ludicrously exaggerated and indeed downright dishonest demonstration of the potential adverse consequences. Yes, it's going to the pub in your car and having a couple of pints. The way this is portrayed is about as realistic as if everyone on television who smoked a cigarette immediately fell down dead. If television drama is supposed to show gritty real life, then why doesn't it show real life as real people live it? How, for example, in the real life "Emmerdale", do most of the customers of the Woolpack get there?