It’s the weekend of the folk festival. Held every Whitsun, wedded in association to high hopes that the sun will sling itself high and shine on assorted revellers and beer drinkers. Beer drinkers? This is also the weekend of the town’s annual beer festival, carnivalesque in its devotion to the enjoyment and contemplation of the national drink — an array of ales ranging from the elegant and sprightly to strong, heady draughts. Amarillo, is this the way to? No, I’m afraid it’s not. But it is the name of a hop with which that beer over there is powerfully seasoned. Like a pint of the usual? Yes, but there’s more than the usual on display this weekend.
Here they come, down the street, a rag tag army of Morris men, be-whiskered musicians, guitars slung on their backs bandolier-like, shoulder to shoulder with clog-dancers, clacking and shucking into town. Here they come proceeding over the bridge, tattered banners waving in the wind, flapping and slapping, drunken harlequins and jesters, bent and disarrayed at the front of the column, swaying and gesturing to the townsfolk, while the sound of the drum at the back of the column, solemn, funereal, will signify the start of a weekend of neo-bacchanalian fun. And in company with these lost battalions in the search for fun will be John Barleycorn, whose own music is the splash and dash of a beer in the glass, the slight sparkle of carbonation, the whisper on the wind. A pale glass of sunshine or a more brooding darker slab of something stronger? Beer, beer, beer — the town goes mad for beer.
Beer runs through our society with the sureness and fluency of a river making its way to the sea. It oils the wheels of discourse, provides the currency for the exchange of ideas, and helps like-minded souls link arms and celebrate the sense of being alive. Beer comes with us, an invited guest, on our many journeys through life. The passage of exams: time for a pint; the game won and the team on top: time for a pint; the new child born and a new life begun: time for a pint; return from the battlefield, salute to fallen comrades: time for a pint. Servicemen and woman flying home from Afghanistan see a beer thrust into their hands as soon as they board the flight. Beer: it’s a simple way of saying thank you.
Beer in the pub, the public house, the British pub, with which at 16 I fell in love, he said. Sit in a venerable pub, its age paged on the sheets of history; who was in here on VE night? What were they drinking? I was in a pub in Bath on the day England won the rugby world cup, he continued, eager to please, a pint of Pitchfork in his hand. Voices ebbed and flowed, the excitement of triumph — two Australian women strolled in, rueful smiles. ‘Have a beer with us,’ came the cry. A sense of commiseration and companionship waved throughout the room. Beer as the unifier of nations.
Back in the town, those in the know are told, several times over, memories prodded, just in case they forgot, that Kipling is already on at the bar of the pub nearest the bridge from whence the capering came. Wild Swan and Jaipur are ready and waiting in the wings as well, for their weekend beer festival fun. Then there’s Wherry, Woodforde’s that is, named after the Parson who put on paper every dish and glass that passed and swayed in front of him, both provision and porter. Proper Job, 5AM Saint, O8, Old Hooky. Beer, beer, beer — the town will be going mad for beer.
And early in the evening see the beer fans creep down the high street, seemingly unwilling students of ale, Shakespeare’s reluctant schoolboy, snail-like and yet excited, eager to see what Kipling has in store for them. ‘It’s garbage,’ sneers Robbie, at the end of the bar, a pint of Common or Garden Ale to hand, his usual draught, his daily tipple, all said with somewhat of a large tongue in cheek. ‘It’s not beer,’ he growls, low Devon burr, like the sound of warthog snuffling in the mud, ‘you’re only pretending to like it.’
Behind the bar, up pops Connor, jack in the box, jack o’ the green — ‘cider’s my thing, but I’ll give it a go, smells like lychees, fresh mango’ — agrees that he enjoyed it, while I, the eponymous I, take my glass outside for proper study; like a wraith Robbie suddenly appears on another table, fag in hand, Common or Garden swirling in the glass like one of those fairground attractions that whirl around and around under its devotees spill their guts with visceral loathing.
On another table, a jester sits, resting after jesting, twirling a small baton in his left hand, a grey pewter tankard in the other. Lifts it up, the tankard that is, toasts the two of us. ‘Wrong, you can’t go wrong with Old Hooky. Where I live, where I live, this is on all the time, love it, love it love it love it.’ A man dressed as a jester pretends to go out of control on Old Hooky, foot on sturdy wooden table, face like a walnut, mouth in a tangle.
For me, at last it’s time for Kipling, a beer that pouts and blows kisses at me, crooks its little finger and draws me in. Ah here it is. Luscious and luminescent in the glass, orange-amber, swaying and sashaying across the palate, Carmen Miranda with a bowl of tropical fruit on her head doing a rumba, lychees, melon and passion fruit. South Pacific Pale Ale it said on the pump clip, sums it up in a funny sort of way; there is nothing like a dame transfigured into a glass. But lo, time passes and the beer passes into glasses as the people come and go. Beer, beer, beer.
Beer’s moments echo down the centuries: John Barleycorn journeyed with the blessed martyr Thomas a Beckett, a man of Kent, a man of ale, when he went to the French, barrels of ale in train, good clear ale. Centuries went by and John Barleycorn sat in the Tabard Inn, to the south of the Thames, on the road to Kent, the noise of a crowd, pilgrims all, Canterbury bound. He was the man who sat with fat Jack Falstaff in the taverns of Cheapside, ear cocked to his tales of valour and derring-do, ale in hand, sack to follow. Pot-valiant he was, the victor of many a battle he declared, a man made braver by ale, though some around did talk about beer, a potation flavoured with a noxious weed, the hop. And there he was with Good Queen Bess, strong ale her first love (before Essex perhaps?), ale as strong as the men that broke the Armada.
In peace and war John Barleycorn was there. He saw the muddy sun rise itself with a sense of hesitation over the broken and bloody place of Marston Moor, filled with the tattered debris of the old King’s men, men never to speak again, never to love again, never to drink beer again, awry on the ground. Some say John Barleycorn died in the squares of Waterloo, drowned in the mud of the Somme, was downed in the air over Kent, and is down and out in the mean streets of Nowheretown where the shutters come down on a ghostly host of pubs. But I know he lives yet.
And at the pub, the jester jests, beer in hand — and all about people laugh, talk, sing and dance. Beer the accompaniment to their lives. The japes and jollities that roll along with beer in its passage through our lives. Beer: the wine of the country. Beer: the soul of the country. Beer: the song of the country (‘Or why was Burton built on Trent?’). As long as the tales are told John Barleycorn lives.
This was my entry for the recent Bombardier beer writing competition and I’m merely following in the footsteps of Zak Avery who has posted his entry here — the winner, Milton Crawford, was announced several weeks ago and you can read his excellent work here.