Disappointingly I never discovered this sort of thing the first time I went to a CAMRA festival
The second part of my love letter to CAMRA concerns beer festivals and was in part inspired by this tweet regarding a private run festival charging £50 entry, piss takingly asking people to work it for nowt as that appears the business model of festivals, free labour and the profits going god knows where.
Beer festivals are to my mind 90% of what the national treasure known as CAMRA appear to be about. Sure they do other stuff, but basically it’s a beer festival club of running them, working them or getting pissed at them. The other 10% is about convincing you not to be a punter and get pissed at one but to come along and work for nowt at one. Should you choose to do so they’d rather you didn’t get pissed at it, or so I gather.
The first time I ever heard of CAMRA I was 19 years old. I had been playing a game called “dart” in a shit hole pub in the northeast town of Saltburn after figuring out how to ride the local trains during the day without a ticket. The game of dart is similar to darts in all respects except you play it when the dumpy pub you are wasting an afternoon in does not have 3 darts as two of them have been lost in violent incidents, so you play dart with 1 dart. On the suggestion of my housemate we got the train back to Middlesbrough to go to the town hall and visit a beer festival. Different from his usual suggestion of a trip to the bookies. He never suggested we go to college and attend the course we had enrolled in which was a degree in business started out of a desire not to get a job but a realisation that such a certificate might come in when the day arrived that I had to grow up and get one, and not really having much of an interest in anything apart from lasses and drinking it appeared a course that might make me suitable for employment in a few years. My suggestions tended to involve playing the arcade game Outrun or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the arcade down by the seafront and seeing if there were any jailbait teenage girls bunking off school to chat up.
Middlesbrough town hall was not to my distant recollection a particularly salubrious venue but I think the cost of entry was 50p and the beer prices slightly below pub prices. I have no recollection of how many beers they had on though it would have been more than most pubs which tended to be two. Bitter or lager. Vaux bitter or XXXX lager, if my memory serves. At this “festival” there was no lager, just lots of different bitter, some of it 9% and run by something called CAMRA. Spelt different from a device used to take photographs. CAMRA appeared to be a bunch old fellas who fitted what I didn’t know at the time was a stereotype but nevertheless appeared quite friendly if a little over enthusiastic about the bitter. It wasn’t the beards or sandals I remember but the waistcoat fishing jackets with lots of pockets and badges that had me wondering why anyone needed so many pockets or indeed badges. It was an age before the mobile phone so your keys and wallet were all you needed a pocket for and as I was skint most of the time, usually just the keys. I was young and naive enough to talk to people back then and talked to a few of these CAMRA types. As I said, I though them friendly, helpful sorts if a bit obsessed by the bitter so to speak. I mean, it’s only a pint of bitter which you only drink really because it’s cheaper than lager, I thought. It’s not a religion, though had you asked me about religion you’d have got a similar response of not understanding why people make a fuss about that either. They asked us to join but at the time there were no spoons tokens as there were no spoons. At least not everywhere like there is now. We said we’d think about it which really meant no.
As a festival it wasn’t much of an actual festival. There was no Ferris wheel, dodgems, candy floss, clowns, hot dogs or general gaiety. It was just a dark room full of barrels of beer and people pottering around drinking them and talking about how one bitter was apparently different from another. A little ernest, really. I got stuck in with my newly acquired half pint tankard and whilst I had my free programme I had no idea what I was drinking or what to drink. Luckily they had the ABVs on the grog so I could work out the best bang per buck which was the 9% stuff which tasted a bit sweet and sickly and took a bit of perseverance to get used to. But persevere I did and stuck in was what I got.
In a short period of time I was truly plastered and upon waking the next morning found I had acquired a new festival t shirt, slightly soiled the Middlesbrough FC replica shirt I was still wearing and had kept the half pint tankard which was stuck to the carpet by my bed next to a half-eaten box of KFC. My hangover was hellish and I had no idea how I’d gotten home or even leaving the festival. I remember starting a conga near a band playing folk music which stretched to about 20 odd people but not much after that so I must have had fun. I’ve never started a conga since nor done that before but I have joined a conga and as a matter of principle I always like to join a conga out of respect for the person who thought it a good idea to start one. I think that important. If someone has the balls to start one, I should have the balls to support it. I do not like to think of a person failing in an attempt to start a conga and I think it is that fear of failure is why I have never started one since. Still, I always join one.
I found my housemate sipping tea and in a similar green state in the living room watching The Rockford Files on afternoon telly with the sound off and subtitles on. Our conversation was conducted in a whisper. He remembered a little more than me including the fact that we had left the festival in good spirits but been thrown out of and barred from the KFC. It was not our fault he insisted, just a misunderstanding and had occurred after I got my food and he was waiting for his. Apparently some other customers had objected to our dishevelled slurring state and upon being politely asked to leave he had demanded his “fucking chicken” and told them to “fuck the fucking fuck off” There had been some pushing and he had dropped and broken his souvenir glass. We were not apparently welcome back at Middlesbrough’s finest establishment of southern fried franchise battery farm produced chicken and would henceforth have to procure our drunk or stoned munchies via an unfranchised independent chicken outlet.
Of more concern he felt he had blown it with a lass he liked that saw the kerfuffle from across the street. As she had repeatedly been uninterested in the SU bar we regularly drank in because it was cheap and had bands on I thought it an unlikely bet anyway and no real loss as I sipped my sweat tea and read what Jim Rockford was saying on the telly. I had no idea of the world I had discovered nor that one day that world would be my world and I would be a part of it. It would be a couple of years until I next encountered CAMRA in the city of Leicester and discovered that beer was so much more than piss fuel. It was a hobby, a way of life. At least to some, though not yet me. CAMRA would always be there on that journey, doing its thing in the background as I grew from boy to man and in the next episode the love letter continues as I meet them again to stand in a room full of different types of bitter and get inappropriately pissed on it and embarrass a sweet natured girl I had convinced to go out with me. As for the festival glass. It stayed with me for many years and travelled with me to many parts of Europe to be used to drink many things but was dropped and broken 6 months ago on my kitchen floor. A little bit of me died that day for death is not a singular event but a series of little events, most of which we do not notice. I noticed my own mortality that day and had to drink my Vimto cordial out of a more recent beard club glass from one of Tandlemans beardy piss ups