Friday, 12 November 2010

Meanwhile what about cask ale?

Just for a bit of fun, I took an extract from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and used search and replace to substitute "CAMRA member" for "Socialist" and "cask ale" for "Socialism". The most amusing bits are posted below.

I could have edited it a bit more to make a laboured, tedious satire, but I like the surreality of some of the results. Every empty belly is an argument for cask ale, indeed.

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 11

Meanwhile what about cask ale?

It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment we are in a very serious mess, so serious that even the dullest-witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it. We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive.

And all the while everyone who uses his brain knows that cask ale, as a world-system and wholeheartedly applied, is a way out. It would at least ensure our getting enough to eat even if it deprived us of everything else. Indeed, from one point of view, cask ale is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already.

Yet the fact that we have got to face is that cask ale is not establishing itself. Instead of going forward, the cause of cask ale is visibly going back. At this moment CAMRA members almost everywhere are in retreat before the onslaught of Fascism, and events are moving at terrible speed. As I write this the Spanish Fascist forces are bombarding Madrid, and it is quite likely that before the book is printed we shall have another Fascist country to add to the list, not to mention a Fascist control of the Mediterranean which may have the effect of delivering British foreign policy into the hands of Mussolini. I do not, however, want here to discuss the wider political issues. What I am concerned with is the fact that cask ale is losing ground exactly where it ought to be gaining it. With so much in its favour--for every empty belly is an argument for cask ale--the idea of cask ale is less widely accepted than it was ten years ago. The average thinking person nowadays is not merely not a CAMRA member, he is actively hostile to cask ale. This must be due chiefly to mistaken methods of propaganda. It means that cask ale, in the form of which it is now presented to us, has about it something inherently distasteful--something that drives away the very people who ought to be flocking to its support.

At a moment like this it is desperately necessary to discover just why cask ale has failed in its appeal. And it is no use writing off the current distaste for cask ale as the product of stupidity or corrupt motives. If you want to remove that distaste you have got to understand it, which means getting inside the mind of the ordinary objector to cask ale, or at least regarding his viewpoint sympathetically. No case is really answered until it has had a fair hearing. Therefore, rather paradoxically, in order to defend cask ale it is necessary to start by attacking it.

Anything is relevant which helps to make clear why cask ale is not accepted. And please notice that I am arguing for cask ale, not against it. But for the moment I am advocatus diaboli. I am making out a case for the sort of person who is in sympathy with the fundamental aims of cask ale, who has the brains to see that cask ale would 'work', but who in practice always takes to flight when cask ale is mentioned.

Question a person of this type, and you will often get the semi- frivolous answer: 'I don't object to cask ale, but I do object to CAMRA members.' Logically it is a poor argument, but it carries weight with many people. As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for cask ale is its adherents.

The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that cask ale, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes. The typical CAMRA member is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years' time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white- collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. This last type is surprisingly common in CAMRA member parties of every shade; it has perhaps been taken over en bloc from. the old Liberal Party. In addition to this there is the horrible--the really disquieting--prevalence of cranks wherever CAMRA members are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'cask ale' and 'CAMRA' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured 'CAMRA members', as who should say, 'Red Indians'. He was probably right--the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary man, a crank meant a CAMRA member and a CAMRA member meant a crank. Any CAMRA member, he probably felt, could be counted on to have something eccentric about him. And some such notion seems to exist even among CAMRA members themselves. For instance, I have here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say 'whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian'. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person but of touch with common humanity.

To this you have got to add the ugly fact that most middle-class CAMRA members, while theoretically pining for a class-less society, cling like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige. I remember my sensations of horror on first attending an I.L.P. branch meeting in London. (It might have been rather different in the North, where the bourgeoisie are less thickly scattered.) Are these mingy little beasts, I thought, the champions of the working class? For every person there, male and female, bore the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit, for instance, had suddenly walked into their midst, they would have been embarrassed, angry, and disgusted; some, I should think, would have fled holding their noses. You can see the same tendency in CAMRA member literature, which, even when it is not openly written de haut en bos, is always completely removed from the working class in idiom and manner of thought. The Coles, Webbs, Stracheys, etc., are not exactly proletarian writers. It is doubtful whether anything describable as proletarian literature now exists--even the Daily Worker is written in standard South English--but a good music-hall comedian comes nearer to producing it than any CAMRA member writer I can think of. As for the technical jargon of the CAMRA members, it is as far removed from the common speech as the language of a mathematical textbook. I remember hearing a professional CAMRA member speaker address a working-class audience. His speech was the usual bookish stuff, full of long sentences and parentheses and 'Notwithstanding' and 'Be that as it may', besides the usual jargon of 'ideology' and 'class-consciousness' and 'proletarian solidarity' and all the rest of it. After him a Lancashire working man got up and spoke to the crowd in their own broad lingo. There was not much doubt which of the two was nearer to his audience, but I do not suppose for a moment that the Lancashire working man was an orthodox CAMRA member.

For it must be remembered that a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a CAMRA member in the complete, logically consistent sense. Very likely he votes Labour, or even CAMRA if he gets the chance, but his conception of real ale is quite different from that of the, book-trained CAMRA member higher up. To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, cask ale does not mean much more than better wages and shorter' hours and nobody bossing you about. To the more revolutionary type, the type who is a hunger-marcher and is blacklisted by employers, the word is a sort of rallying-cry against the forces of oppression, a vague threat of future violence. But, so far as my experience goes, no genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of cask ale. Often, in my opinion, he is a truer CAMRA member than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember, what the other so often forgets, that cask ale means justice and common decency. But what he does not grasp is that cask ale cannot be narrowed down to mere economic justice' and that a reform of that magnitude is bound to work immense changes in our civilization and his own way of life. His vision of the CAMRA member future is a vision of present society with the worst abuses left out, and with interest centring round the same things as at present-- family life, the pub, football, and local politics. As for the philosophic side of Marxism, the pea-and-thimble trick with those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, I have never met a working man who had the faintest interest in it. It is of course true that plenty of people of working-class origin are CAMRA members of the theoretical bookish type. But they are never people who have remained working men; they don't work with their hands, that is. They belong either to the type I mentioned in the last chapter, the type who squirms into the middle class via the literary intelligentsia, or the type who becomes a Labour M.P. or a high-up trade union official. This last type is one of the most desolating spectacles the world contains. He has been picked out to fight for his mates, and all it means to him is a soft job and the chance of 'bettering' himself. Not merely while but by fighting the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois himself. And meanwhile it is quite possible that he has remained an orthodox Marxist. But I have yet to meet a working miner, steel-worker, cotton-weaver, docker, navvy, or whatnot who was 'ideologically' sound.

It may be said, however, that even if the theoretical book-trained CAMRA member is not a working man himself, at least he is actuated by a love of the working class. He is endeavouring to shed his bourgeois status and fight on the side of the proletariat--that, obviously, must be his motive.

But is it? Sometimes I look at a CAMRA member--the intellectual, tract- writing type of CAMRA member, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation--and wonder what the devil his motive really is.

The fact is that cask ale, in the form in which it is now presented, appeals chiefly to unsatisfactory or even inhuman types. On the one hand you have the warm-hearted un-thinking CAMRA member, the typical working-class CAMRA member, who only wants to abolish poverty and does not always grasp what this implies. On the other hand, you have the intellectual, book-trained CAMRA member, who understands that it is necessary to throw our present civilization down the sink and is quite willing to do so. And this type is drawn, to begin with, entirely from the middle class, and from a rootless town-bred section of the middle class at that. Still more unfortunately, it includes--so much so that to an outsider it even appears to be composed of--the kind of people I have been discussing; the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie, and the more-water-iri-your-beer reformers of whom Shaw is the prototype, and the astute young social-literary climbers who are CAMRA members now, as they will be Fascists five years hence, because it is all the go, and all that dreary tribe of high-minded' women and sandal- wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come nocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat. The ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of cask ale, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any CAMRA member party that means business. Worse, he is driven to the cynical conclusion that cask ale is a kind of doom which is probably coming but must be staved off as long as possible. Of course, as I have suggested already, it is not strictly fair to judge a movement by its adherents; but the point is that people invariably do so, and that the popular conception of cask ale is coloured by the conception of a CAMRA member as a dull or disagreeable person. 'cask ale' is pictured as a state of affairs in which our more vocal CAMRA members would feel thoroughly at home. This does great harm to the cause.

If one faces facts one must admit that nearly everything describable as CAMRA member literature is dull, tasteless, and bad. Consider the situation in England at the present moment. A whole generation has grown up more or less in familiarity with the idea of cask ale; and yet the higher-water mark, so to speak, of CAMRA member literature is W. H. Auden, a sort of gutless Kipling,[Orwell somewhat retracted this remark later. See 'Inside the Whale', England Your England, p. 120 (Seeker & Warburg Collected Edition).] and the even feebler poets who are associated with him. Every writer of consequence and every book worth reading is on the other side. I am willing to believe that it is otherwise in Russia-- about which I know nothing, however--for presumably in post-revolutionary Russia the mere violence of events would tend to throw up a vigorous literature of sorts. But it is certain that in Western Europe cask ale has produced no literature worth having. A little while ago, when the issues were less clear, there were writers of some vitality who called themselves CAMRA members, but they were using the word as a vague label. Thus, if Ibsen and Zola described themselves as CAMRA members, it did not mean much more than that they were 'progressives', while in the case of Anatole France it meant merely that he was an anticlerical. The real CAMRA member writers, the propagandist writers, have always been dull, empty windbags--Shaw, Barbusse, Upton Sinclair, William Morris, Waldo Frank, etc., etc. I am not, of course, suggesting that cask ale is to be condemned because literary gents don't like it; I am not even suggesting that it ought necessarily to produce literature on its own account, though I do think it a bad sign that it has produced no songs worth singing. I am. merely pointing to the fact that writers of genuine talent are usually indifferent to cask ale, and sometimes actively and mischievously hostile. And this is a disaster, not only for the writers themselves, but for the cause of cask ale, which has great need of them.

This, then, is the superficial aspect of the ordinary man's recoil from cask ale. I know the whole dreary argument very thoroughly, because I know it from both sides. Every-thing that I say here I have both said to ardent CAMRA members who were trying to convert me, and had said to me by bored non-CAMRA members whom I was trying to convert. The whole thing amounts to a kind of malaise produced by dislike of individual CAMRA members, especially of the cocksure Marx-quoting type. Is it childish to be influenced by that kind of thing? Is it silly? Is it even contemptible? It is all that, but the point is that it happens, and therefore it is important to keep it in mind.


  1. I am quite fond of the 'fruit juice' drinkers paragraph, as much of it still applies today but it's also fascinating to see how what was once the preserve of cranks is now mainstream.

  2. I have here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say 'whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian'. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people.

    No comment.