On writing…

Alec Latham

The context:

I am in awe of some beer writers and they’re as varied and personal as the beer styles they scribe about. What I love is that writing about beer has become such a widespread phenomenon that the bar is constantly being raised. Unfortunately, this also means that there’s ever more competition to beat and to judge your own abilities by. 

On July 14th this year, I’ll have been in full time employment for twenty years since plunging in at eighteen – unfortunately my job has nothing to do with beer or writing. It was seeing this anniversary hove into view at the end of 2014 that spurred me to finally start writing and I’ve been keeping it up ever since. I used to be good at writing back in school so hoped I could still churn a readable paragraph. I was thrilled to get published by Hop & Barley in my capacity as an essay writer and later by doing Moor Beer taste comparisons. I’ll also be published in CAMRA’s beer magazine later in the year. 

I should make something quite clear right at this point – I don’t really know what I’m doing but I care deeply about the fact I’m doing it. I stopped going to school at fifteen and my highest qualification is my driving licence. I crave to be better at writing. I want it to be as beautiful as Kernel brewery’s Biere de Saison. I hope my passion goes some way to making up for my lack of training.

The field:

There’s plenty to consider if you want to write for an audience. First and foremost, how do readers even know you exist? Assuming the audience gets as far as seeing what you’ve written as a website link, how do you actually hold its attention? I apply this to how I read others’ work. What I read on the computer is different to what I’ll read on a smart phone because of the format.  Longer posts will suffer on a phone screen as they’re forced into a narrower vertical channel but be under no doubt – the smartphone is now the primary vector for written articles.

Des De Moor writes about beer but also about walking and I will stay with him through a 5000 word post even though (pun completely intended) it’s a trek. But I still need to wait until I get back home and fire up the computer for him. 

Short posts of several paragraphs are more likely to be read from start to finish so I can easily manage pub curmudgeon whilst standing at a bar. Personally, I like to write substantial posts because there’s a lot I want to get down. Retrospectively, I hope I learn a tiny lesson each time.

I’d like it if someone was suggesting ways I might improve this short post right now. What I need is someone to tell me when only I find something I’ve written funny or when I’m rambling, going off on a pointless tangent, splitting paragraphs apart or misguidedly forcing others together. I need to know what the reader thinks and at what point I cease to be original, make sense or merit its attention.

The solution:

I don’t believe I’m alone in wanting this kind of feedback as us writers want to be read and remembered. We want to improve our game. This is why I’ve set up a London-based group through the website Meetup called The London Beer Writers. It’s been a slow start but if you are London-based or London-centric (I live in St Albans) and would like constructive feedback about your writing, please join it – it’s completely free.

It works like this: We meet up in a quiet pub with a good beer range and bring our written work on laptops or printed out. However many there are, we offer our work in a circular way round the table so if there were four of us, we’d take the member’s work from the left and give ours to the right. We’d then repeat this so everyone’s work had been seen by every other member. Each time we’d make notes about what we think (constructively of course) and when everybody’s read everyone else’s work, we offer our feedback to the writers one by one. This way we can get a better insight into our strengths and weaknesses and exploit and address them respectively. 

If our thoughts are dry, I’ll supply a paper with little questions to get some responses coming. Above all, I’d like to help you and learn from you. So how about it?

After that, we relax with a few beers. It is after all what motivates us 😉

Albion: the first days of July

From behind the tree line, a red kite ascends with the heat. Its blazing orange wings and tail twist to knead the thermals’ contours. It hangs in slow motion above the canopy and then, in silence, drifts diagonally like flotsam on a tide. Below, tiny red UFOs hover and alight on the white umbels of cow parsley: Soldier beetles are mating in their own tiny canopies. It’s summertime in Hertfordshire.

In the park, a large human male with bleached white legs plods along with all the confidence of a man who’s had his trousers stolen. He wears new sandals from TK Maxx. His partner accompanies him, studying his expression. 
“So what should we do then?” she asks with arms firmly crossed. It’s a summer’s day after all, the possibilities are manifold. The Neanderthal feigns racking his brain but she reads it out for him.
“You just want to go to the pub don’t you?”
The man falls even more silent. Memories of wanting to jump back into the pool as a young boy are blinding all rational thought.

Summertime in England doesn’t just mean exposed flesh and a few weeks of warmth, it heralds a change in a town’s acoustics. This is achieved by pubs simply leaving front doors wide open. During the other three seasons, the babble of conversation can be heard but stays locked within the pub’s walls only briefly breaking cover when a door heaves open to unload a punter. Otherwise to passers-by, it’s like Radio Luxembourg with the dial set at one. In the summer the noise ambushes the lazy streets – outbursts from an invisible crowd bayonet the peace: Sonic irruption.

I walk past the Six Bells on a sweltering day. A Sid James-esque laugh booms out from the open doorway and I immediately know who’s inside – it’s not his usual local. I can picture his stance, the way he holds his head and grabs the bar like it’s a railing on a heaving ship. I can even see the mischief and the spittle glistening on his grin.

It’s amazing what else you can see. You don’t actually have to be there, you just need to let your sensors reach out. There is zen in this.

I pass the White Swan and a cry erupts out of the door and windows like lava. An emergency consultation in my head identifies it as a goal being scored. England must have scored, but wait – this pub’s the Irish pub. Maybe it’s Ireland that just scored. I walk on. Moments later, I hear the same throat-rending scream almost cause two other pubs to collapse. Wingbeats chop the air as pigeons scatter upwards. Now I know that England have scored and I don’t just know when they score but when they get close. The customers’ eyes are my eyes. I hear pained exclamations wailed in perfect chorus. Even though my sight can’t pierce the brick, I can see their hands rammed against their temples as if to stop their heads from coming apart. The other side has just scored against them. Downy pigeon feathers fall slowly back to earth.

On the inside in the comparative dark and cool of the snug, a man with leather skin tries to master his sea legs. He gains on the bar. The publican he was expecting to speak to isn’t there or is hiding – a young woman’s serving instead. Two identical hands are raised – each holding aloft a trembling index finger. He squints so that they merge back into the one.
“Tell…tell Justin ‘e’s a good man.” He draws breath anew as if a powerful tagline is about to follow. 
“Tell ‘im from me ‘e’s a good man…. and you’re a good man too.” For a second, the lucky member of bar staff toys with finding a compliment in that. That second evaporates. With what might’ve been a flourish in a soberer dimension, he turns and sways like an worn MFI bookshelf towards the bright rectangle of outdoors. His head and shoulders are red and smouldering. The union jack shorts and white Nike socks give him the air of a toddler taking his first steps and then he’s gone – enveloped by the light. A moment later a sound like sizzling bacon can be heard. The barmaid goes back to staring at her smartphone.

Teen males walk around bare chested – their sweaters looped back over their heads so the sleeves bounce on their shoulders like wobbly antennae. CAMRA veterans wipe the perspiration from their foreheads and look around to check who’s watching before eyeing up the corporate lager taps.

It’s the annual St Michaels Village folk festival. The pubs disgorge themselves – they turn inside out spewing the drinkers onto the road. The streets become the public bar and inside is transformed into outside. The Rose & Crown has raised the standard of Britishdom by holding an ice cream van hostage in its own car park. Men and women in straw hats and bondage gear charge at each other and smash sticks. Obscure little gaggles demonstrate their ethnic group’s traditional dancing inability. Alcohol is served in the grounds of both the parish church and the primary school.

A man with a white beard and a paunch edges through the throng with bells strapped to his ankles. In his left hand is a pint of bitter and a clashing stick, in his right a ninety nine with a flake. He looks from one to the other realising he hasn’t thought this through. His blouse inflates for a moment as a breeze picks up. The ice cream runs down his wrist and a dollop hits his wooden clog with a splat. In summertime in England, this display of sartorial mental illness becomes the most normal thing, and I for one feel reassured.

Mass Observation 113: 02.07.16

On Saturday I took notes in a local for the Mass Observation Study hosted by Boak & Bailey. This visit took place from around 6pm to 8pm in the Mermaid, St Albans.

There’s around 30 customers in the pub when I arrive though it does steadily decline over my two hour stay. Most folk are over the age of fifty. The gender distribution at the busiest peak is 24 male and 6 female. The general dress is jeans and a shirt or T-shirt. Most people are British Caucasian though there are also British Asian. Beards amongst the men are rare – it’s generally clean shaven faces and heads. I discern three couples in the throng. The youngest – who look like they’re in their early thirties – sit next to each other on a settle scrolling through something on their smartphone. Whatever they’re viewing keeps making them laugh. Two men are playing darts. Most people are standing or sitting around the bar chatting. I see one man outside smoking.

The inside of the Mermaid has a stripped wooden floor. The bar is also wooden and horseshoe-shaped. Dimpled pint mugs and German Krugs hang glinting over the taps. There is a slate six-beer tasting flight hanging on the wall. The main decorative hangings are of old Worthington, Hammerton (not the new Islington brewery but its familial ancestor), Guinness, Maryport and Holt brewery mirrors. There are also depictions of the pub’s eponym – mermaids as well as framed photographs of David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. There’s also an historic Blaeu wall map. Last but not least, there’s a mounted document issued by Oakham Ales to pubs that stock their beer – the Oakademy of Excellence certificate. 

The furniture is comprised of wooden stools around the bar’s arc that are paired with coat hooks under the bar’s lip. In the lounge are wooden settles with heavy iron tables, small stools and several soft-topped seats chased into the large window recesses. There are also oblong communal tables that can easily accommodate eight people. There’s a couple of carpeted areas – one has a communal table and one contains a bookshelf, fruit machine and dartboard. Just below ceiling height, the pub also boasts rows of both archaic and modern beer bottles and drinking vessels on a narrow shelf. I spot some bottles bearing candidates from the British 1992 election (John Major and Paddy Ashdown are represented, though I can’t see Neil Kinnock) . The pub has outside seating both in front and behind. During my stay I watch people out front but can’t report on anybody in the back garden which contains picnic tables and a pagoda with astroturf.

The pub has one small television. It was showing the Tennis when I entered but went on to show football – Italy v Germany in the European cup. 70s soul music is playing in the background until the football match starts. Media wise, there is also a huge range of regional CAMRA publications from across Britain and a table with a newspaper/magazine rack. The Times, the Guardian and Private Eye are all tucked into it.

There is a lot here to drink. On cask is Citra by Oakham Ales, Slippery Jack by Brandon Brewery, Queen Bee by Slater’s Brewery, Fabric by Ashover Brewery, Cotswold Way by Wickwar Brewing, Booze Hound by Gun Dog Ales and Stowford Press Cider by Westons. On keg dispense there is Pilsner Urquell, Old Rosie, Guinness, Carling, Stella Artois, Amstel and Bitburger. Behind the bar is a wide range of bottled Belgian beers. The cider range here is huge, best covered by an image:

With regards to what the punters are actually drinking, two of the cask ales are a stout and a dark ale so I can tell that few people are drinking them (though I have them both). The most popular beer is the Citra; it’s also the house beer that’s permanently on. Stella Artois goblets are also in evidence, then the choice seems to be cider and both red and white wine. One woman has a branded glass of Pisner Urquell too.

Apart from crisps, nobody’s eating. Cold tapas style dishes are available but this is by no means a food pub.

The topics of conversation I hear aren’t entirely impartial as someone notices me perching at the end of the bar and asks my opinions on the CAMRA revitalisation project; a consultation will soon be happening in St Albans. With the barman joining in, this debate then segues surreally into a conversation about how Nicola Sturgeon looks like Jimmy Krankie. This is because one of us shows a photo they took in an airport of them standing next to the first minister of Scotland. The barman once saw Father (Ian) Krankie in Dartmouth. 

There is some referendum banter across the bar about which side bullshat the most. Another thing I hear (without being involved) is “why is the England team so shit?” Two people debate whether Portugal or Wales will win the European cup. I also hear Michael Gove’s name mentioned but can’t hear whether the talk’s for or against him. The barman brings up the death today of writer and comedian Caroline Aherne and I also hear him ask an older patron if he was around in the 1960s and whether he knows why the Who song My Generation is sung with an enforced stutter.

A couple of details to end on: there is a Mermaid pub T-shirt worn by staff with the following slogan printed on the back: “The Mermaid: Always giving you head the way you like it” In the gents, a ceramic demijohn has been rigged up to make it seem like it’s integral to the urinal’s plumbing system. A Carlsberg label has been affixed to it.

Mass Observation 113: 27.06.16

The Boot, St Albans

The tapered blue and gold flags hanging from the bar represent St Albans.

I first read about mass observation when I read Austerity Britain by David Kynaston. People were interviewed following the end of the Second World War as Britain tried to pick up and move on from were it left off five years previously. 60 years on, beer writers Boak and Bailey are hosting a mass observation about pubs 

I’m very happy to share an intimate little slice of St Albans.

The Boot has 19 taps – 9 cask and 10 keg. On cask are:

Over the Bar – Tring Brewery (Herts)
1 – XT Brewery (Bucks)
Mr Squirrel – Red Squirrel Brewery (Herts)
A.P.A – Mad Squirrel Brewery (the craftier side of Red Squirrel Brewery)
Tribute – St Austell Brewery (Cornwall)
Golden Ale – The Three Brewers of St Albans (Herts)
JHB – Oakham Ales (Cambs)
Landlord – Timothy Taylor (W Yorks)
Old Rosie Cider – Westons (Heref)

On keg are Fosters Lager, Guinness, Peroni, Aspalls Cider, Addlestones Cider, Vedett, Estrella, Becks, Meantime Pale Ale and Stella Artois.

The majority of drink being consumed is from the cask range. Most of the beers on tap are golden in appearance and it’s difficult to know which was which though JHB and Tribute are popular and they’re always on. The golden hoppy range has been influenced by the hot weather. Otherwise the most prominent drinks seem to be Stella Artois (as it’s served in its distinctive branded goblet) and glasses of Pimm’s.

There are about 40 customers and virtually all are watching England v Iceland in the Euros on one of the two televisions. The only ones not involved are one man at the bar with his back to the room, one man sat at a table reading from his smartphone and me. I get a few puzzled looks when I discreetly take pictures.

The pub has a bare wooden floor and a low ceiling with vertical black-washed timber supports. Because it’s situated in the middle of Market Place in the town centre, it has no beer garden but a few wooden chairs outside for the smokers. There are none during the match but about ten people go out during the interval in shifts so as not to lose their seats. I don’t see any vapers among them.

Just visible in the photo above are some of the pictures of music stars like the Beatles. There is a particular emphasis on Bob Dylan. The pub’s ageing chocolate Labrador (not present as time of observing) is named Dylan after him. There are also historical prints – one can just be seen to the left of the monitor above. The pub claims to be a battlefield pub. The first battle of The War of the Roses from the 15th century is depicted next to a plaque. Another memorable thing about this pub is on the wall above the urinal in the gents: it displays covers from satirical institution Private Eye. Half of them are changed regularly to keep up with current events but a few are black and white and go back to Margaret Thatcher’s time in office.

The Boot doesn’t have a Pool table, jukebox or dartboard but it does have a collection of boardgames heaped in a corner I’ve never seen played.

The match pretty much did for conversation but during half time the punters became reacquainted with their smartphones and all their faces lit up. I did hear one question: “As ‘e resigned yet?” That’s all I got but I’m absolutely certain it was about the current leader of the Labour party (at the time of writing) Mr Jeremy Corbyn. This is in relation to Britain voting to leave the EU in a referendum and the whole shadow cabinet resigning under his leadership. England went on to suffer defeat against Iceland (I wasn’t still in the pub at that point) so I don’t believe it was about England manager Roy Hodgson who later resigned.

Fade to Black

Left Hand Brewing Fade to Black (bottle 8.5%)

The bottle suggests serving this in a goblet so I do – it’s a Brakspears Triple goblet. That rare Oxfordshire triple has tragically just been discontinued by Marstons, U.K. 

The beer in the glass is obsidian black with a tight vanilla-hued head. Little rivulets of carbonation ascend up the glass. It smells like the black chocolate chunks in Battenberg cake or in Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream: those nuggets of thick full cocoa sticky sponge. When you breathe in the vapours, it recharges that chocolate cake glory across the palate. The mouthfeel is malty like liquid porridge; it’s like a food – a nourishing grain broth. There’s also a tubery starchy dimension but it’s not forward. There’s even a fruity edge like blueberries. 

Despite its strong character, the beer balances itself out and is drinkable for 8.5% The malt and luxurious flavour carry the alcohol and each other very well. No pungent ethanol comes through.

Oxymoron Smackdown

My first ever black IPA was a pint of Raven by Thornbridge Brewery at the Cask & Kitchen in Pimlico in about 2009 (the beer’s now been renamed Wild Raven). At the time, it seemed so aggressive I wasn’t sure I could handle it. The experience charged out in two conflicting directions: it had the bitter stimulating funk of ground coffee but equally the fluorescent citrusy notes of American hops – an addition that was becoming increasingly popular in Britain. Since then, I’ve had black IPAs across the range from around 3.5% to 10%. The style constitutes a core beer for most breweries now. 

Not everyone likes black IPAs nor the oxymoron in the name (Black India Pale Ale – both black AND pale) but it’s a beer I hunt down and that experience in 2009 wouldn’t be anywhere near as challenging now. That shock to the palate has been subsumed and habitualised. Black IPAs also suit both cask and keg dispense.

Buxton Brewery Imperial Black (bottle conditioned 7.5%)

A high rocky beige froth builds up when you hoy this in the glass. The colour’s darkest brown and opaque fooling you into thinking it’s black at first glance. The aroma is grassy hoppy like a spray of orange zest. On the dive it’s tangy and carbonated but mellifluous. It’s both roasted and sharp – vending machine plastic cup coffee from the malt and hoarse dryness from the hops. It’s actually quite spicy too like there’s a trace of black or red pepper in it (as far as I’m aware there isn’t). The strongest impression I get is of that citrus fruit mist that gushes from under the thumbnail when peeling a naval orange. The body’s not thick or sticky either but quite sloshy.

Bacchus here likes to raise the wrist too although the glass he wields looks like it would spill too easily for any serious downage. What does the look in his eyes reflect? It looks like he’s daring you to comment about what’s on his head. Maybe I discern indifference, or is it emptiness? If it’s the latter, perhaps it’s because there were no black IPAs when he was around at the end of the 16th century. With some gorgeous roasted malt and zesty hops, he might break into more of a smile. I’d take him out for a black IPA if he agreed to stop flaunting his man boob in public. 

The real reason I’m showing you him is because Caravaggio’s most famous is the poster boy for the birrifico (brewery) of our second beer; it’s his image on the bottle crown. The brewery’s website is beautiful too – beer, food and sun porn. This particular beer is listed in its “avanguardia” section.

Microbirrifico Opperbacco Deep Underground (bottle conditioned 7.1%)

I’m already annoyed because when I look at the bottle shape and artwork on the label, it reminds me that we rarely indulge in such aesthetic indulgences here. Why? Italy is new to the beer scene but the Italians immediately associate the craft with pleasure as much as they do their wine and food. The design of the bottle makes you want to nurse its sensuous curves in your hands but maybe that’s just the birra talking. When emptied, the bottle could grace a row of objets d’arts for posterity on a ceiling beam. There’s also a plastic seal under the crown that allows the bottle to be sealed again after opening. That won’t be necessary today. 

The beer decants like black treacle with trills of carbonation streaming up the glass sides. The high khaki head seems like velvet. The aroma is of treacle, molasses and a hint of liquorice. The taste then propels you the other way: though there’s a burnt Demerera sugar bitterness, it’s starchy and dry like an unsweetened water biscuit. I do get a cherry note too like a Ricola sucking sweet. The mouthfeel isn’t as thick as the look and nose would suggest – it sloshes silkily around the tongue. The palate and aroma also conjure a sawdusty edge like a workshop haze. It’s lovely, complex and grown up. The impression I’m left with is of a beer that, despite being 7.1% is actually light and dainty.

Odell Brewing Mountain Standard (bottle 9.5%)

My knowledge of American Geography is limited but when I think of Colorado – Odell’s home state – I think of craft brewing and mountains. This bottle label checks both.

Of all three beers so far it’s the most powerful on the nose. As I placed the glass on the bookshelf for the photo my nostrils were assaulted by an unctuous fog of limes, black Opal fruits and liquorice strings. It’s actually stronger than that, it verges on tar. If I shut my eyes, I can imagine distant roads being resurfaced and just catching it on the wind. However that sounds, the aroma is utterly appealing.

The beer is darkest walnut in colour rather than black. The head is the same light brown as you’d find on a macchiato and it’s thick and elastic. In the hatch, the body is highly carbonated but still viscous. You sip it and it buzzes on the tongue. The taste is of blackest full cocoa chocolate and and it desiccates the palate.

Aroma and dryness are what dominate in this ale. American breweries excel in making beers that are hoppy and heavy but still carbonated. It’s the kind of beer us Brits are trying desperately to emulate.

All three beers show how brewing is turning into an art form across the world including places where beer has never traditionally been the tradition. On that note, I’m declaring Deeper Underground by Opperbacco from Teramo the winner here. It has crafted a heavy beer that simultaneously manages to push new flavours and levity into a black IPA.
Check out some other vertical tastings:

The People vs the Needle

The Cowpox Tragedy by George Cruikshank, 1812

Every year in the local authority I work for, an email circulates which leads to the same debate. As we approach winter, the front-line staff are offered the flu jab and the discussion about whether it works and whether it’s worth it is repeated. Stephen Fry (or someone who can do his voice) advises us to get the jab on a radio advert and we trust uncle Stephen when it comes to facts. We just don’t trust the local authority as much. 

We are a contradictory populace: Seeing an image of a UN health worker offering a kind face to a wide-eyed child in Gambia about to be vaccinated kindles a warmth inside us. Silver mucous strips below the infant’s nose denote that tears have been shed through fear but the epidemic is about to be foiled by our intervention. It stirs up notions of charity, of progress, of parental protection, of kinship across nations and of hope. Yet when vaccination reaches out to the children here in the West we suspect ulterior motives and conspiracy. Non-establishment “experts” suddenly appear. Why this change in dynamics?

Vaccination: Medicine and the Masses at the London Hunterian Museum isn’t just an historic exhibition as it’s still relevant today. The friction and trust – or lack thereof is still alive and well, or as the introduction puts it: ‘the changing relationships between the medical profession, the state, individual patients and the wider public’. 

Vaccination followed on the heels of inoculation – a practice that goes back further than I realised. Inoculation gives you a tiny dose of the illness you want to avoid. It’s counterintuitive but was used centuries ago in the Ottoman Empire: pus from the blister of a moderate sufferer was scooped out and spread over an open cut of someone yet to contract the illness making their symptoms moderate in turn. This practice was brought to Western Europe in 1721 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – a skilled writer and anthropologist whose work merits its own museum. 

The person credited with vaccination – using a different illness to protect against a worse one – was country Doctor Edward Jenner. He noted that sufferers of the much less deleterious cowpox didn’t get afflicted by the oft deathly smallpox. The ‘vacc’ in vaccination relates to the Latin for cow – similar to Vache in French. Under glass there is part of a manuscript to Edward Jenner’s “Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of Variolae Vaccinae” (as it was then called). On display there’s a painting of Edward Jenner by William Say where the subject flicks through illustrations of smallpox lesions.

During the 18th century, smallpox killed up to 60 million people. In Britain in 1840, inoculation was made illegal (plenty of parents now throw chicken pox parties which is inoculation) and vaccination was provided free of charge by the state. After 1853 it became mandatory for all children to be vaccinated against smallpox within four months of birth. Carrying out compulsory vaccinations required a vast administrative machinery which included the registration of all vaccinations – a level of bureaucracy hitherto unknown to the British public.

The National Anti-Vaccination League was established in Britain in 1896 and was still publishing up until 1957. The feelings of some sectors of the public are amply demonstrated by a copy of The Cowpox Tragedy by George Cruikshank from 1812. In this undoubted work of art, the coat of arms at the top features Edward Jenner opposite a donkey decapitating a cow on an altar with a scythe. He’s also depicted as the sun shining down on a funeral procession crested by a sacred calf.

In Leicester, a dummy of Edward Jenner was hanged and beheaded by a violent crowd. Despite there being no evidence for it, it was believed that vaccination could cause cancer, syphilis, meningitis and pneumonia. An image was published by James Burns (who swore by spirituality and phrenology) that represents the state as police and doctors literally “coming for the children”. Compulsory vaccination was eventually abolished in 1907. 

Demonstration in Toronto, Canada courtesy of the Toronto archive

Looking back, the evidence that the smallpox vaccination saved the lives of millions seems irrefutable: in 1977 smallpox was declared eradicated making it the first, and so far, only human disease to be completely eliminated globally.

On display are some of the disturbing photos of patients with smallpox – especially the children. Suspended in preservative liquid, there is half a child’s face bearing the disease’s lesions; it’s painful to look at yet you’re drawn to it. You can see an original vaccination form from around 1853 and there’s a collection of lancets splayed out like the wing cases of exotic coleoptera from the Natural History Museum. A case from 1901 containing actual phials of tuberculosis that belonged to physician Robert Koch is mounted near the exit. 

You can’t help but itch in this exhibition.

As a soundtrack, a government sponsored film called Surprise Attack from 1951 is broadcast on a screen in the background. It’s about an outbreak of smallpox spread by a girl who contracts the disease off a rag doll. It’s reminiscent of a black and white episode of The Twighlight Zone; eerie orchestral overtures bolster the sense of impending dread.

The benefit of science is that it’s demonstrable and based on research and evidence. The problem with the masses is that they’re unlikely to follow scientific research and condensations aren’t always possible. Those that do understand the conclusion didn’t simply skip to it – they need to understand each successive step on its trajectory. For the unlearned, science appears supernatural. People that can demystify it to laypeople should be cherished.

We have recently seen the possible eradication of polio stopped in its tracks after fears in Pakistan that it was an American/Zionist plot to weaken Muslims or render them sterile. Even Robert De Nero has courted controversy at his Tribeca Film Festival. He was about to screen a film by ex-British Doctor Andrew Wakefield that claims the MMR vaccine causes autism. The distrust is still very real.

If I could have seen something more in this exhibition, it would’ve been to see the MPs’ input at the time. This was an age where many members of Parliament were also members of the Royal Society and much more informed scientifically than the poor of the parish they represented. Who among them tried to gain the electorate’s trust and which found it too daunting – preferring instead to echo the hue and cry against state incursion to safeguard their own seats? Maybe that’s a whole other exhibition in itself.

The Hunterian Museum has many human cadavers on display. This time however, it goes deeper than the sinews and muscles splayed out in jars to our very core – it exposes the viscera of our group mentality. We are the exhibits here. It’s restricted to one small packed room – the Qvist gallery with its red and white motif – the surgeon’s colours. Despite its dwarfism, you can easily lose yourself in it as I did. 

Capturing the Moment: William Henry Fox Talbot

In a small dark square on the wall is an image of a little girl. Her hands are neatly placed over the lap of her pale dress. She looks stage right – not engaging with, but keeping still for the portrait-taker. I study it closely to see whether I can discern a father’s dotage for this beautiful little girl or whether it’s merely duty: assisting the patriarch in the furthering of science. Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder. Ela was 11 years old when this calotype was taken in 1843. She wouldn’t have known the moment would be captured for strangers to scrutinise 173 years later in a museum, though the woman she became may have realised its significance. She died in 1893.

Photography didn’t come about by virgin birth. The Camera Obscura was commonplace amongst  the learned as was the Camera Lucida – a device that projected an image through a lens onto paper whereupon it was traced by hand. It was invented by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807 and William Talbot just didn’t have the knack. Sitting beside lake Como in Italy, he tried to render the image being beamed onto the paper but found his efforts woeful. He thought that there had to be a better way. If he’d been adept, things might’ve been different.

Talbot officially invented the calotype in 1840. The process enabled multiple images to be made from the original calotype as other papers could be pressed against the material to get the chemicals printed onto them – little different to the potato prints taught in primary schools today.

One of the first images by Talbot you will see is of a latticed window from his own Lacock Abbey Estate in Dorset. It’s credited as being his original calotype from 1835 that he took using a modified Camera Obscura. He understood how an image’s capture might be accentuated by combining a small image-sized back frame with large aperture lens at the front. He used a microscope and objective telescope lens (the large outer lens) respectively to burn the silver salts he’d coated the photo plate with. He went on to experiment with silver nitrate which had a stronger and quicker reaction to being struck by light. The latticed window is now a faded violet ghost of simple geometry but a perfect photo of a window nonetheless. Doubtless, the strong contrast between the daylight pouring through the panes in 1835’s blistering summer, and the dark interior of the room refined it. It’s haunting.

The 1900s was a time when capturing images without brushes or pastels was not seen as an art but necromancy. It was an age in which scientists, philosophers and scholars were also the landed gentry and members of parliament with multiple-barrel names. Talbot stood as a Liberal MP and devoted his time between philosophy, science, photography (though it wasn’t known as such then) and Whig politics. He would later study archaeology – especially Assyriology.

The medium had been explored earlier by people like Thomas Wedgwood. It’s fascinating to see how a personal travail can lead towards genuine science. Though this exhibition is about Talbot, it’s also about such notables as Frederick Herschel, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) had trained as an architect and worked as a stage designer for the Paris Opera. He designed panoramic backdrops & dioramas. His interest in taking photographic images came from his passion for finding better ways of capturing light in paintings as well as making perspective more realistic. He can be credited with the first immortalised images – Daguerrotypes. They were sharper but faded quickly. He was, as we shall see, also open to accusation.

The exhibition makes clear that many people were travelling in the same direction and as is the case in science, everything is connected. It was the chemists (more formerly referred to as alchemists – the search for the process of turning base metals to gold) who discovered light-sensitive chemicals. The innovation of the textile loom (Joseph-Marie Jacquard 1801) used punched card that would come to make reproduced postcards possible. Pioneering work on electrical discharge carried out in Germany and Holland would go on to inform flash photography with portable Leiden Jars. The last was demonstrated to the Royal Society by Talbot too. I’m aware that the camera in my smart phone uses none of the technology pioneered during this period but the microcomputers within required the work of another Royal Society contemporary – Charles Babbage – grandfather of computers to put us on this road. The images inside my phone have no physical mass yet still exist. I don’t fully understand it myself. 

Some of the wondrous items on display include Camera Obscuras, a Camera Lucida and a Solar Microscope – this last was used to project things like fleas onto a large screen and was used as a carnival attraction. People would queue up for this in droves. Science was a freak show!

There are tangents in this offering that go off in amusing or interesting directions: Hippolyte Bayard was a French scientist who possibly pioneered permanent images before Daguerre. Daguerre allegedly advised Bayard to delay announcing his discovery to the French Academy of Sciences just so he could beat him to it. Bayard resorted to using the process by taking a self portrait of himself as a bare chested drowned man and accused Daguerre of being responsible for his decay with an accompanying “j’accuse” dirge (Bayard actually lived for a further 47 years). John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-1882) made nature photographs with stuffed animals. To anyone with copies of Audubon prints or some of the first bird field guides, renderings of stuffed wildlife with legs akimbo, hair erect and bulging glass eye deathstares will be familiar with what he started. There’s also a photo of the construction of Nelson’s column from 1844 on display and Reverend George Wilson Bridges’ pictures of the Great Sphinx of Giza in 1851 when its mane was like a bob – the tumbling sideburns were added later.

The majority of the subjects Talbot took however, remind me of our own modern efforts insofar as they’re mundane and one-dimensional like the straight study of Balliol College in Oxford. Apart from road resurfacing and the odd burglar alarm, Balliol looks exactly the same now. Its only interest is the age. Our modern snaps can be just as unimaginative. Photography as a creative art would come later. At the same time, it makes me feel closer to him as my own efforts are often underwhelming.

What would become an amateur pastime for millions in the ensuing decades and centuries, this exhibition puts the discipline of photography where it actually started: gentleman’s scientific endeavour (I’m afraid women were overlooked). The art as we recognise it now, whether it be the close humane renderings of Steve McCurry, capturing character like Annie Leibovitz, grasping the drama of situations like Don McCullin or even the atmospheric magic of landscape caught by Michael Kenna, has a much humbler origin – a great grandparent. Here, it’s unearthed in Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the London Science Museum.

This exhibition currently makes an apology for the thumping and drilling coming from the floor above. It isn’t Crossrail gone off on a catastrophic detour but the Mathematics Centre designed by the late Zaha Hadid in construction so we can easily forgive for what we will soon receive.

With a gift aid donation, it’s just £8 for adults – fantastic value for four rooms of groundbreaking images and an understanding of the origins of an art available to everyone but easily taken for granted. Oh, and of course – photography’s not allowed!

Albion: the last days of May

The swifts have been arcing across the blue vault with their shrill screams for a while now. A prelude to Summer is temporarily passing through St Albans. Thunder and lightning had been forecast for Saturday but never followed up on their threat. 

This bank holiday weekend saw a modest splurge of seasonal events – only some of which I managed to attend. This short post documents enough to give just a flavour of St Albans at the end of this May.

The Craft & Cleaver hosted a small tap takeover to commemorate its first anniversary. I’ve seen tap takeovers by specific breweries or ones that represent areas like Scotland or Wales. This one reflected not even London but a district within it, in fact just Druid Street and Enid Street in Bermondsey. At the same time though, it showcased a modern phenomenon – a slice of pop brewing culture as that’s what the infamous mile is. It didn’t take all the breweries along it but arguably picked the most innovative ones: Brew By Numbers, Kernel (even if they can’t spell it) and Anspach & Hobday. I therefore slake my thirst with Triple C – cool American-inspired hoppy beer by the latter. Bizarrely, the gleaming metal & artificial light seems more natural than the crimson dusk outside. 

Walking through the park with the dog the next day, it’s shimmering and charged. The atmosphere is devoured like a sorbet. The haze lends a violet lustre to the usual tan boughs of horse chestnut and a platinum edge to blades of grass. The colours are like oil on canvas and the sprays of wild buttercups and daisies pierce it like backlit pinholes in its fabric. Copper Beech canopies are unreal, alien – photoshopped incongruously against the blue sky. Their purple burns on the retina like the acid of mezzotint. The air itself is intoxicated. It’s the buzzing sheen of heat and long shadows like this that crystallise memories of Summer for perpetuity.

The visit to the Craft & Cleaver was the sole endeavour indoors. The other haunts will take place outdoors in the greatest thing Britain has given the civilised world: the beer garden.

The first is at the Lower Red Lion where the garden has been re-landscaped for Summer. I go alone for a soft drink. Alas, the homemade lemonade is no longer on so I settle for a corporate one with a clash of ice cubes and a lemon wedge. The bead of condensation trailing down the glass reflects the sweat on my temple. The Lower Red Lion has injected fresh blood into the Union Jack by offering tea & cake in the afternoon during the summer. It’s like being British squared.

The beer garden represents a tunnel dug through my life. It started being excavated back when all the action happened under the picnic tables rather than above them. Those were the days of lime cordial, dandelion & burdock and the Topper, the Dandy or Beano. It runs under where I took my first sips of woody bitter when it needed to be ordered by my dad or uncle. 

Our iconic 3-piece tables that come into their own in Summer see and hear everything. The wood absorbs more spirit than beer maturing in Glenlivet casks but it’s of a different kind: when folk get together around them, it’s like people getting into a rowing boat – the structure leans and rocks as bottoms plonk themselves in and the conversation and eye contact is intense. The planks ferry you through time – several hours can pass in the space of 15 minutes with the sustenance of ale. Before the conversation started going off in a multitude of tangents, the sun was baking you but now you’re shivering in the night pretending you’re not. You never bring a coat. 

Whatever happens in the world, as long as there are beer gardens, things will be okay.

I have rarely drunk cider but was drawn towards it this year as the Mermaid hosted over fifty with a cider festival. It’s not the fizzy Woodpecker or Strongbow that I remember (though some still are), but a drink whose bouquet and taste make it very difficult for this seasoned beer drinker to describe. The process isn’t familiar – it doesn’t reveal hops front of shop and malt after the swallow. It’s a different creature altogether. I need a new lexicon but the following is an attempt at my favourite. It’s pressed in Baldock, North Hertfordshire: 

Apple Cottage. Filthy Tramp Juice (6.7 ABV):

This nectar’s the colour of brandy crossed with pink lady apples. It’s crystal clear with a vague farmyard/hay aroma. There’s no carbonation but it glows like a lightbulb on the palate. It starts with that sharp tang you get when you bite into apple flesh. Only through stealth does the alcohol make itself known as your cheeks start to flush red. It’s so rosy and floral when it’s sloshed around the tongue. So smooth and gentle yet blood-warming and tingly.

One thing I recall about cider that hasn’t changed is how potentially dangerous it is – it slips down like fruit juice (which it obviously is with the addition of microfauna conducting an orgy). A perry I had before the Filthy Tramp Juice I almost downed in one forgetting it contained alcohol.

Finally, the White Hart Tap. It knows how to hold a beer festival and is an expert sourcer. The pub rotates its beers and pays attention when they are well received. It was the first to acknowledge the talent behind casks of Magic Rock and Cloudwater. The range of beer on stillage in the garden marquee (25 at a time) shows beers from all over the UK but also demonstrates how the British palate has changed with regards to its ale. Out of them, only five self-identify as bitters but even they’ve been elevated by new world hops. There was even a Belgian Dubbel brewed by one of the pub regulars in aid of a local Alzheimers charity. The pub brews its own ale represented with the rest here on gravity; they encompass a liquorice-infused strong dark ale, a strong IPA, a pale ale and a single varietal: Mosaic.

Mosaic is an enigma to me. I can’t reliably identify hops but this particular one seems especially adept at disguise. I’ve had it as a single varietal before and it’s reminded me of blackcurrant or red berries or Bramling Cross or even cork but it’s also come across a bit like this one – dry grapefruit. Very Citra-esque. How come it varies so much?

The evening gloamed as I ended up discussing beer with some of CAMRA’s 1970s veterans and we touched on the sensitive issues of the Revitalisation Project (4 people around the table, 4 different opinions) and the EU referendum thereby breaking at least one pub rule about politics. Fortunately, religion didn’t rear its head to break a second. Nobody got hurt. By a happier consensus, the beer of the festival was Mallinson’s Hop Slap from West Yorkshire – a beer that smells like a fruit salad and drinks with an easy abandon – the balmy night definitely helped influence that decision. I’d run the White Hart Tap’s strong dark ale a close runner-up.

There were other events and festivals I didn’t get round to visiting but this little quad represents a decent snapshot of Verulamium at the end of May. Bring on the main Summer!

Rhineland Blood

A recent visit to my local beer shop led to me buy a trio of Kölschs. Kölsch is simply German for Cologne-ish – from Cologne – the biggest town in North Rhine-Westphalia. The beer’s brewed with top-fermenting (obergärig) yeast and is then lagered in a cool Keller to reach maturity. It’s traditionally served in a cylindrical glass called a Stange. I find them clean and fruity. I’ve only just caught up with them.

The Braufactum beer (middle) doesn’t bear the name Kölsch because it’s not from Cologne. It seems to have taken an Italianate name form, possibly influenced by the craft brewing culture in Italy, which alludes to the city it’s inspired by but doesn’t hail from. It’s gone from Frankfurt to Cologne via Milan and then been imported into Britain.

None of these beers are bottle conditioned – a process that would actually ruin their beauty. Instead get them as close as possible to the bottling date. 

Braufactum Colonia 5.5%

It pours a light vanilla gold with a white elastic sputum. The liquid’s completely clear and glowing – delicious just to gaze at. On the nose there’s sugar and Weetabix with a distant note of vanilla. The carbonation brings the beer alive on the palate. On the taste, decaying apple skins and hints of unripe banana. There’s a touch of butterscotch and white grape too yet it’s also clean and cleansing like lemon. Lasting impression – light carbonation with vanilla sponge and bananas with a honey edge. There’s no bitterness whatsoever but it’s still mature. One criticism – a tiny bit watery due to lacking some body.

The reason our first beer doesn’t call itself a Kölsch is because that term is protected by the Kölsch Konvention and has PGI – Protected Geographic Indication. It can’t be brewed outside a 50km radius of the city. The law binds all member states of the EU but how its PGI is policed or applied isn’t clear. British breweries tend to label their takes as Koln or Cologne beers to avoid saying Kölsch so as not to Kontravene the Konvention (although Canopy Brewing does). However some brewers within the EU candidly call it the K word: Bevog is an Austrian brewery from just over the border. Their naming their beer Kölsch can’t have slipped under Cologne’s radar but I’m not aware of any legal action.

the flag of Cologne

One thing that strikes me about the image of bottles at the top is the amount of blood red involved. The Früh offering on the right half-replicates Cologne’s flag and is where the primary colour comes from. The three crowns are supposed to represent the Magi – the three Biblical wise men. Their remains were brought to the church on Ursulaplatz from Milan by the holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa in the 12th century. 

The other aspect of the town’s flag – the odd little squiggles – are supposed to be ermine tails which in turn represent virgins. The legend is that Saint Ursula (originally from around Aberystwyth!) was to be married to her foreign fiancé in the fourth or fifth century. She decided to go on a kind of gap year pilgrimage beforehand with a retinue of 11,000 virgins. It sounds like the plot from a tacky 1970’s Italian exploitation flick but wait – instead she and her fellow inter railers got massacred by the Huns on their way to Rome!

Reissdorf Kölsch 4.8%

A platinum beer – very light verging on water golden. It boasts a high white craggy head and runes appear around the inside of the glass from the lacing. The aroma’s of wheat and honey. It’s tangy but mellow with a crystal clear sparkling carbonation. On the palate, yellow apples, golden treacle, sweet conference pears and elderflower. It’s clean again. All these flavours are wedded together in a beautiful consistency. 

a white whippet looks on in bemusement

This is a 15th Century painting by Hans Memling of Saint Ursula standing in front of an archer. He’s taking studious aim at point blank and she’s raising her right palm as if to say “I’m fine, thanks”. The 11,000 virgins may in fact have been just eleven – the number increase might be down an inscription misinterpretation which would make it more likely as an event. Hildegard of Bingen (not far from Cologne) composed chants in honour of Ursula. Our Hild is also one of the first to describe the female orgasm and used to write about and brew beer too! 

In London, St Mary Axe in the city is named after a church dedicated to Saint Ursula and Saint Mary – the axe in question one of the alleged Huns’ murder weapons. It seems the church is convinced that the only venerable women are virgins. If you’re a female, it doesn’t matter what you do, it don’t want to know you unless your cherry’s intact. The church of St Mary Axe stood roughly where the Craft Beer Company in EC3 now trades and it’s in that chain I first had Tzara – Thornbridge Brewery’s keg offering of Kölsch! Coincidence? Yes!

The reason the church building is no longer there is because of a trade deal we had with Germany in the 1940s whereby they’d drop off bombs on our cities in exchange for many of our own being delivered to theirs. There used to be 40 breweries in Cologne but virtually all of them decided to discontinue and collapse at this time. Breweries in London copied this vogue.

Früh Kölsch 4.8%

Such clarity again! It’s a clear lens-perfect vanilla pale – more clarified than the glass it’s served in! The smell is gorgeous – honeysuckle, vanilla sponge and sweet cider, possibly the best smelling beer ever. The perfect gentle charge of carbonation that spreads the liquid across the palate – this is obviously a Kölsch strength and has been characteristic in all three bottles. The beer seeps in like osmosis – practically inhaled. The word delicate isn’t delicate enough to describe its levity but it still has body and nourishment. Its Brandy sweetness is balanced to a tee by its fruity sharpness – even a little dry tartness. Ends on a dryish finish but not astringently so. It’s the most far-reaching of the three. It’s liquid springtime. 

The style’s become one of my favourites and is that rarest of beers: one both me and my wife love. It’s not a complex or challenging beer style but one that elevates you towards a ray in the clouds. It can equal the fruit hit from the chopped flesh in a Pimms glass in a way which is subtle but hits the perfect note and amplifies down the glass. It’s available all year around but is particularly suited to spring and summer.

Früh Kölsch definitely wins this taste-off even with its stiff competition. In some bars in Cologne it’s served directly from an oak barrel and soaks up some of its woody flavours too. I’m looking at the Eurostar’s website now………