Thursday, 9 October 2008

Why I'm Not a Member of CAMRA

As I've pointed out before, the real ale rhetoric and mythology emanating from CAMRA and its members invokes the image of the "working man" (a namby-pambyism for the "working class") in its efforts to tug at the heart-strings and gain sentimental special-case treatment.

If real ale is "traditionally the drink of the working man" then surely my hometown of Barrow-in-Furness is swimming in it. The town has been declared "the most working-class place in the UK" by the website

I hate to be the one to shatter the working man/real ale myth: I can report the most working-class town in the UK is a swamp of alcopops, smoothflow, megalager and megacider.

Casual perusal of town centre pubs (see picture) on a Friday or Saturday night reveals the "working man" drinking smoothflow, megalager, megacider and alcopops. Sometimes, on special occasions, in the same glass with a shot of Blue Bols for added luminosity under the UV.

The Duke of Edinburgh Hotel, The Cross Keys and the Ambrose deserve honourable mentions for stubbornly persisting in attempting to sell a variety of cask ales despite indifference from the population of 70,000.

The Duke of Edinburgh opened its bar in November 2006 with eight handpumped lines. Their market research had shown that Barrow had far fewer real ale outlets than would be expected in a town of its size. As outsiders, from Lancaster, their conclusion was "lots of uncatered-for demand, we'll do lots of real ale, we'll be on a winner." It was not to be. Although, after a slow start, the bar is now popular as it brings a much-needed touch of city-bar atmosphere to the town, sales of real-ale are disappointing. Sales of the house lager and bottles of Pinot Grigio drive the business. Admirably, there is a no-alcopops rule despite rampant demand.

What's going on?

It's not metaphysical. It's not beyond understanding. As a habitual chatter-with-anybody beer-loving pub-goer I've been working out who drinks what and why for twenty years.

Here's my explanation: Poor people – let’s avoid euphemisms – don't like to be choosy. In the culture of places like Barrow, being choosy is frowned upon. Being discriminating is being a snob – and being a snob is a very bad thing. To be choosy necessitates rejecting something on offer. In a culture defined by hard graft and low pay, rejecting something (particularly food, and including drinks) for the subjective reason of taste is very bad form. Children are brought up with the mealtime fillip "you make sure you finish that: your dad's been hard at work all week to pay for that.” Swirling and sniffing your beer is met with “get it down your neck, you ponce.” I know.

My late grandmother always defended her use of cheap margarine rather than butter with the stern declaration "it tastes just the same". She always bought the cheapest, instant coffee because "it all comes from the same factory anyway". Having been born the youngest of twelve in what can only be described as a slum, she devoted her life to convincing herself that expenditure for flavour was wasteful – because there are no different flavours. My mother is not quite as bad, but almost.

Although the paradox persists that tastier beer is frequently cheaper than bland beer, it is bland predictable beer that most prefer. Seeking out beer for the sole reason of flavour is wrong, even immoral.

Messages such as those about craftsmanship, food miles, sustainability, wholesomeness, tradition and locality are largely lost on this demographic. Cajoling the “working man” into a reverence for heritage and tradition is to force him to look to the past, but the past is a bleak place. The criteria for choosing beer are, as they have always been, the four Ps – peers, palatability, predictability and price.

Part of the CAMRA romanticised belief system is that in a golden age of cask ale, the “working man” was savouring his pint of cask ale and caring deeply and knowledgeably about it. In CAMRA’s Marxist perspective, this simple affordable pleasure has been rudely stolen by exploitative mega-brewer fat-cat capitalists using brainwashing by marketing and advertising to sell over-priced industrialised swill to the lumpen masses. Swashbuckling CAMRA will overthrow this mendacious ruling class and reunite the grateful working man with his real ale! The phrase “real ale revolution” isn’t used in ignorance of the political connotation of the expression.

Suggested evidence for this alleged golden era is that the older working class generation often tells us – “we were choosy about our beer, we went to the pubs where it was good, and we were always on the lookout for a bad pint”. A presumption is made that seeking out a good pint demonstrates connoisseurship: it doesn’t. When more consistent keg beer arrived it lifted the burden of an irksome chore. Members of my extended family are still baffled by my preference for “poncey” cask ale while supping their vapid Boddingtons and Tetleys Smooth.

I bought my first pint at the age of fourteen in the Peacock Inn, Cavendish Street, Barrow-in-Furness. It was a Saturday lunchtime and the morning overtime shift workers from the shipyard filled the pub. I just asked for “a pint of bitter”; I think it was Tetley’s; I was just emulating my dad while trying not to be noticed. “I tried selling cask ale but gave up a year ago. The lads round here didn’t like the taste. They just stick with Carling and John Smiths,” the landlord told me recently. Nearby, the Blue Lamp, a Thwaites pub, sells no cask ale. It tried. It gave up.

I went to my first CAMRA beer festival when I was nineteen-year-old shipyard apprentice. I enjoyed some of the beer but I wasn’t inspired to join the organisation. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. But CAMRA hasn’t gone away and twenty-two years later I’ve finally worked out the big reason (there are others) why I haven’t felt motivated to join despite being a keen cask ale drinker:

CAMRA patronises the working class by implying they can’t make an informed decision.

I know that many CAMRA members will vocally proclaim their working-classness as if that counters my argument and demonstrates the working classness of cask ale but it must be remembered they are a small minority. If all CAMRA members accounted for all real ale consumed, they would be getting through 19.5 pints each, every day (figures from The Intelligent Choice: The Definitive guide to the Cask Ale Market 2008-9 and CAMRA’s current membership of 94,585). If anything, CAMRA's Marxist rhetoric has only proved useful as recruitment tool for the organisation. I don't believe it has been remotely useful in boosting the interests of craft brewers at the expense of macro-brewers. All it does is fuel the dedication of the most vocal and active of CAMRA's membership.

I look forward to your comments (but I’m ducking for cover.)


Ale Louse said...

The CAMRA hierarchy here are mostly ex-uni grads with degrees from monied backgrounds and see real ale, like wine, as elitist. It's gone the same way as football I'm afraid. Those things once frowned upon by social-climbers 20-30 years ago are now strangely ok.

The Woolpack Inn said...

Don't duck Jeff. Good piece.

I'm a CAMRA member, been an apprentice, drunk in Whitehaven, which is similar to Barrow: my mother, god bless her soul, sounds like yours and was one of 9.

I'm lucky though, my family, many of whom are from Barrow, mostly like real ale. I think despite the post war hardship that necessitated stinginess, seeded appreciation of quality grew through the generations.

When we talk to our customers, those that are not CAMRA members are not for the same reasons as you. CAMRA gives out an old fashioned and political view that is at odds with many real ale consumers.

However, I know many real ale drinkers, who amongst others are plumbers, joiners, socialists, doctors, electrical engineers, solicitors, capitalists, toolmakers, anarchists, nurses, teachers, builders, liberals, cleaners, football supporters.......... and they all have one thing in common - they are nice people to drink beer with.

Real ale is rightly classless. Now all we, CAMRA that is, need to do is make ourselves classless. (I'm not a CAMRA spokes person, just a member with a view)

Tandleman said...

Nice piece Jeff, but I don't know why you think CAMRA has a romanticised view of cask ale as a working class drink. Everyone, including CAMRA, knows cask isn't drunk by the working class to any great degree any more. Everything CAMRA puts out, including the Intelligent choice, emphasises that publicans should stock cask ale because it attracts the more affluent drinker.

It probably was the case that CAMRA saw it your way once, but no more. When the big brewers switched massively to keg, that was something that CAMRA tried to tackle in the language of the day. I would say that not everyone who is or was working class, saw their beer then in the patronising such lowest common denominator terms you describe. I am sure a lot don't now, but the world has moved on, as has CAMRA.

You are out of date Jeff, but it was a good piece, though you really need to examine more carefully what CAMRA is doing now. Some of it may be wrong, but little of it is wrong in the way you suggest.

Jeff Pickthall said...

I've lost count of number of times I've encountered "drink of the working man" rhetoric. The biggest source of it is the most vocal of the grass-roots membership, though Protz is not averse to it.

The Woolpack Inn said...

I'm starting to get confused...

check out skull splitter gives Carmichael a headache

This article by Kerron Cross seems to be saying that real ale is NOT for the working classes and only for the rich.

You only need to be intelligent to understand about real ale. I know lots of intelligent but financially challenged people. I also know many rich stupid people.

So Jeff, it would be interesting to see what you think of this given your previous thoughts on beer names....(do I need to duck now?)

I am told Roger Protz is a nice guy. He originally started off I believe as a left wing journalist and I do agree this flavours his writing about beer and pubs too much. Roger, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a significant mouthpiece for CAMRA.

Boak said...

Interesting piece. I've never thought of CAMRA as being a particularly class-based organisation -- maybe they don't market themselves like that down here.

Tandleman said...

Or anywhere Boak! As I said. Out of date stuff even if underneath Protz is still a leftie! That's a red herring - (no pun intended)

The Woolpack Inn said...

Are you calling Roger Protz a fish?

Maybe Boak and Tandleman are right. It might be that the image of CAMRA that Jeff and I have, and many others, is out of date. But if that's the case then maybe more needs to be done to give a more positive cosmopolitan impression.

Or may be after running a business for 5 years my views are turning right wing - much to the disgust of the 16 year old self that was a lefty when he left school.

Jeff Pickthall said...

When I started writing the piece I included a bit on the Marxist perspective providing a useful rallying-cry in the dark days of the '70s but the more time goes on the less useful it becomes. I decided it was tangent too far. Perhaps I'll give it its own post sometime,

FYI, this is worth a look -

The Woolpack Inn said...

Well the original piece has caused me to create a new blog......

I think I've put my mind at rest now ;-)

Anonymous said...

As a member I've never thought of CAMRA as being working class. Real ale tends to be a middle class sport. Although if you take the view that anyone that doesn't own the means of production is working class then a large proportion of us are working class.

CAMRA does need a bit of a shake up in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

As an outsider (an American) CAMRA doesn't appears to have focused its romantized view of cask ale as a working class vision but more globally. I see it being portrayed as the great unifier - back in the day everyone drank ale and avoiding the cold fizzy stuff because they had more taste and were British. Warm flat beer unified the UK nations and classes (I know cellar temp and lower carbonation as opposed to flat and warm). This goes hand in hand with the notion of the pub as a British institution. They seem to go hand and hand. You can't have cask ale without the pub or the pub without cask (in the CAMRA view) and the two together brought everyone together.

You touch on the interesting topic of price and how although cask is generally cheaper the working class avoid due to it being pouncey. That seems to be a case of the working class ignoring value for image which is at odds with some of your examples. Is it because what a person drinks strikes more at their self image than coffee brand or whether they eat butter or a substitute?

Interesting point.

Anonymous said...

You raise some very important points, Jeff. Camra was founded by middle-class chaps who raged against the advance of keg bitter, but failed to notice their working-class contemporaries were rushing to drink keg lager - and those young working-class drinkers didn't care that the new lagers were more expensive, even then, than cask ale, they were easy to drink, consistent, separated them from their fathers and grandfathers and gave them solidarity with their mates.

It would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on the idea that Camra had any sort of left-wing agenda - despite Protz the Trotz being appointed GBG editor, many of the early campaigners were Tories. What it did have, however, was an agenda that believed cask ale ought to be ubiquitous - despite, even in the early 1970s, 20 years of evidence that too many pubs had no idea how to look after it properly, and no real demand for it. It's the failure to make cask ale MORE exclusive, MORE expensive, that has probably been Camra's biggest mistake.

As to why the working class in the British Isles (I include Ireland in this) seem to have such a poor appreciation of good food and drink, especialy compared to Mediterranean countries, my best guess is that we should blame the early arrival of the Industrial Revolution, which removed people like my own ancestors (Cambridgeshire agricultural workers) from the land and stuck them in towens and cities where good food simply wasn't available ...

Whorst said...

Nice article, not much to dispute. I've always found most CAMRA members to be rude, and lacking in social graces. I've dealt with them on and off for 20 years. They seem to have much in common with Trekkies. Fat and bearded appears to be the protocol, with unusual footwear. I'm sure they're not all like that, but there sure the hell is a lot of them.

Jeff Pickthall said...

Thanks for your comment Martyn. Strangely enough, I was re-reading, or rather re-studying, The Story of the Pint when my Blackberry pinged with your comment!

I realise that CAMRA doesn't have a political agenda. It just seems to me that CAMRA's little-put-upon-brewer versus big-cynical-brewer view chimes with the far left perspective and the two have become intertwined.

In my mind (as yet) I'm drafting a piece on the differences between CAMRA's official utterances and the messages from the membership in local newsletters, local media and, increasingly, the internet. Both play a role in the wider perception of cask ale and, necessarily, its marketability. It is largely exposure to local branch and individual member rhetoric that forms my view of an underlying Marxist perspective, not that that has been deliberately engineered by anyone, rather it is self-replicating and self-reinforcing in a memetic sense.

Tandleman said...

"It is largely exposure to local branch and individual member rhetoric that forms my view of an underlying Marxist perspective, not that that has been deliberately engineered by anyone, rather it is self-replicating and self-reinforcing in a memetic sense."

It seems to me, wherever you have been visiting or reading to hear this Marxist nonsense, it is you that has taken on some sort of shite (in a memetic sense) and become convinced it is real. Anyone who has been to a CAMRA meeting more than once knows that getting anyone to agree to anything is rather difficult, let alone to impose a Marxist agenda, particularly as most regular meeting attenders, even in Barrow, are anything but.

If you don't know that there is a divergence between what CAMRA does nationally and what it thinks locally, it is because you aren't a member. To some extent, CAMRA nationally, lobbies and CAMRA,locally,campaigns.

As for what people write, me included, unless you have some context, you would be wise simply to regard it as what it is. Opinion. Like yours, only not as right wing.

The Woolpack Inn said...

Well I can't help feeling that this is getting a little out of hand. I thought Jeff actually conceded a little there. Or am I missing the point.

I think it's true that some people perceive CAMRA as left wing and some people perceive it as elitist.

What certainly is true is that many Real Ale drinkers have a negative view of CAMRA and that cannot be good for the campaign or real ale. I think Jeff’s original piece brought out some of those views. If much of it is in Jeff’s mind, rather than reality, then I can say it’s in other peoples minds as well. I know because I’m told so in the pub.

I do agree with Tandleman however; I found that after becoming more involved with CAMRA I got to realise that underneath it's an organisation with around 80,000 decent people in it, whatever their opinions are.

You’ll not change them from the outside, Jeff!!

Jeff Pickthall said...

It's interesting that zythophile notes "It's the failure to make cask ale MORE exclusive, MORE expensive, that has probably been Camra's biggest mistake."

This is exactly what I've been saying for years: it is this that is regularly countered with loud proclamations of the "drink of the working man" shibboleth.

Look Away Now said...

The industrial revolution, and a generation who grew up with rationing (that's what happens when cold island nations have huge wars), certainly stunted our food culture. But I wouldn't use that depressing fact to criticise CAMRA's campaigns as in some way hypocritical. If their pronouncements in the 70's were Marxist in tone, big deal - everyone was in the Judean People's Front in those days. But I don't see any evidence of it in their current literature - just a slightly geeky love of a nice drink, and a small-c conservative hand-wringing at the loss of small breweries.

I'm more pissed off about the bizarre 'unacceptably short pint' tirades that just alienate barmen and punters alike.

Anonymous said...

An interesting article, but flawed, I feel, because the concept of the old three tier class system as personified by Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker and John Cleese in that famous TW3 sketch no longer applies.

Who is working class? Who is middle class? The boundaries have been blurred, and a new class which is outside that traditional system has emerged.

There's now a large non-working class, a much bigger working class, and a tiny toff class.

Some of the New Working Class like real ale, some don't, but they are the target democratic of Camra, and of every other pressure group and organisation from the Ramblers' Association to UKIP because they are the people with the money and education to care about things outside their day to day existence.

The cliche of the non-working class is the Chav, and seeking out a traditional pub that hand pumps glorious pints of Scruttock's Old Original (or going on a country hike, or giving a monkey's about the Euro, or whatever) hardly fits with that image. Supping pints of Carling or tumblers of icy Magners certainly does because, like a soverign ring or an Adidas tracksuit, it's an easily identifiable, branded, tribe-acceptable accessory.

So, if real ale doesn't work in Barrow, maybe it's because not enough people do either.

Boak said...

Sam Tana - your last sentence made me laugh out loud (in a good way)

IF we're going to generalise (and it's a big big if), in my experience CAMRA members tend to be those who think of themselves as working class, although most are in fairly comfortable middle class pursuits. A large number of civil servants and council workers, for example.

But I am generalising.

Also, Jeff P wrote:

"it just seems to me that CAMRA's little-put-upon-brewer versus big-cynical-brewer view chimes with the far left perspective and the two have become intertwined."

I think this rhetoric is just as likely to chime with conservatives (small c?) as the far left. Which is what makes CAMRA such a fascinating and many-headed beast.

Zak Avery said...

What a fascinating dicussion.

Jeff, I'm not sure that I agree with your assertion that CAMRA (at any level) portrays real ale as the "drink of the working man". You might have encountered it, but does that make it a CAMRA viewpoint? You might as well say that CAMRA are racist or xenophobic because of the stupid T-shirts that you can buy at the GBBF.

I'd like to suggest that, on the whole, it's a mistake to try and characterise a whole organisation by looking at its individual members.

Whilst it's true that CAMRA has a pseudo-political structure, that doesn't mean that there are any overt left- or right-leaning politics involved in any of it.

I joined CAMRA last year, as I felt that without their campaigning, the current landscape of British (English?) brewing would be very different. Overall, I think that nationally, CAMRA do a great job. However, I have to admit that I'm slightly dismayed by the whole "Full Pint" campaign - are people too frightened to just politely ask for a top up?

I sympathise with your familial assertion that you are a ponce, Jeff. I think you have to have a basic interest in good food to "get" real ale. I also think that it's a very English (and perhaps classless) thing to make do with second best, and to think that anyone who voices dissent is a troublemaker.

Anonymous said...

Quote :

"It's interesting that zythophile notes "It's the failure to make cask ale MORE exclusive, MORE expensive, that has probably been Camra's biggest mistake."

Indeed that's interesting and indeed promoting decent, tasty beer as accompaniment to decent, tasty food, is the order of the day in both European Countries where development of micros has been the most spectacular, namely Italy and Denmark.
Here, clearly Danske Olenthusiaster have been doing their homework

Yet indeed, Jeff, your view is still the same as in the days of UFDRA newsgroup : tarring CAMRA as a whole because you've come across a few obnoxious and vocla rank-and-file members.
My day job happens to be at a largeish NGO that's been around since the 70s and there's a fact I have to deal with every day : many grassroots militants just have not registered the changes to the line pursued, domains of work or methods of action and still think and act just like they did when they were young militants back in the 80s. It is a problem all militant organisations who've been around for more than 20 years eventually have to face.

So indeed there can be severe discrepancies between what those old hands proclaim to the world at grassroots level and what the actual line of the organisation is.

Cheers !

Laurent Mousson
aka The Submarine Captain

Tim said...

Finally an action group is available for the working class drinker - CAMEL.