We were discussing beer. It is a cheerful subject so I made an appropriate point. In recent years, the quality of civic life in Britain has steadily deteriorated. Change has become synonymous with decay. But there is one delightful exception. In southern England these days, it is almost impossible to find a bad pint of beer. Matters may be different in other parts of the United Kingdom. From my limited experience, we Scots are not good at beer. It is something that is only drunk to eke out the whisky. North of the Tweed, bitter is known as ‘heavy’, which is a fair description and not an encouraging one. In the north of England, too, beer is often excessively sweet. As for Wales, I believe that there is a brew called sheepshag, in which the hops are mixed with mistletoe, but we should leave the west Celts to their… bardic… rituals.
No: ethnic condescension should not lead us to conceal the truth. Decent pints come almost exclusively from the southern parts of the Heptarchy. Hoppy, alkaline hints of flint and limestone, subtle, flavoursome, pleasantly light and discreetly strong: this is the sort of beer Tolkien’s gaffers would have saluted as a proper 1420.
Yet 40 years ago, many beer drinkers were being fobbed off with a gassy, chemicalised, insipid product, popular with idle publicans because it was easy to keep. That stopped, and the credit belongs to a Trotskyite. Roger Protz, as amiable a revolutionary as ever held aloft a banner, ran Camra: the campaign for real ale. He was as triumphantly successful over beer as he was an abject failure in politics.
Who would have thought that 40 years on, the campaign for real Trotskyism would have taken over Labour? But the comparison is appropriate. The Blairites lost because they too were offering a gaseous, pasteurised, tasteless liquid, the creature of dishonest marketing, incapable of satisfying an honest man’s political thirst. What will happen next? Those who wish this country well, and will therefore support the Tories as soon as they become worth supporting, should applaud Mr Protz’s younger Trotskyite colleagues. With a bit of luck, especially once abetted by a bit of Tory competence, they will render Labour unelectable for the next 15 years.
Beer talk led on to poetry in general and Housman in particular: the laureate of beer-drinking. ‘And malt does more than Milton can/ To justify God’s ways to man.’ But there is a problem. Housman at his best is a profound stoic. ‘The troubles of our proud and angry dust/ are from eternity and shall not fail.’ ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose/ To live and shame the land from which we sprung./ Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;/ But young men think it is, and we were young.’ ‘The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.’ Those are great lines.
But when he moves on to ale, all grandeur is lost. We are no longer listening to the plangency of the ‘Last Post’ played over a corpse-strewn battlefield, with a Caspar David Friedrich moon intensifying the melancholy. The bugle gives way to the belching and bellowing of a pub full of ploughboys, their raucous disturbance frustrating any attempt to join in the moon’s slow expurgation of the sky. At his finest, Housman is an exemplar of intellectual rigour; a poet whom Milton would have respected. At his worst, there is a falling away into sentimentality: far too much mawkishness about lads and cans of ale.
That said, the poor fellow found it impossible to find answers in the heavens or easy companionship — let alone love — on earth. So perhaps we should not blame him for seeking consolation in the simple pleasures of Wenlock Edge’s equivalent of the gaffers of the shire, and summon a refill in order to raise a glass to his shade.