Political discussions invariably involve a pint on the side, writes Alastair Gilmour.
A year this month, we wave goodbye to the European Union. Depending on our political persuasion, we’ll either be weeping into tapas, French fries and Belgian beer or wrapping up cosily in a Union Jack, patting Bullseye on the head while delving into fish and chips and drinking golden, sparkling lager.
Obviously it’s all a bit confusing – not least that fish and chips, the most British of British meals, was an Italian invention and golden lager was first created in 1842 Bohemia. But let’s not argue.
This year also marks the centenary of women being allowed to vote, a momentous decision being celebrated loud and clear – although that right was initially only granted to those over 30 who owned property.
So, we’re looking at politics through the bottom of a glass – via pubs and beer – which is infinitely preferable to getting our political fix from BBC Parliament. In common with all half-decent media outlets, we’re attempting to strike a balance. However, given that the very essence of pubs is the wide availability of alcohol, our balance is generally the subject of some scrutiny.
TO MARK the Representation of the Peoples Act of 1918, a Blaydon constituency Labour Party event was hosted by the Great North Eastern Brewing Company (GNEBC) at its tap room in Dunston, Gateshead, where an enthusiastic crowd from all corners of Tyneside were treated to some brilliant hospitality and an illuminating talk by local historian Anthony Atkinson on the life and times of Ellen Wilkinson. The brewery makes sure her name lives on through Red Ellen (4.3% abv), an appropriately coloured and uncompromising American red craft ale.
Great North Eastern Brewing Company’s other beers include Westoe IPA, Joblings Swinging Gibbet and the highly popular Rivet Catcher.
Ellen Cicely Wilkinson was born in Manchester in 1891 and became a Labour Party politician, serving as minister of education from July 1945 until her death in 1947. Earlier in her career, as MP for Jarrow, she became a national figure playing a prominent role in the 1936 Jarrow March to London to petition for the right to work.
A modern-day Red Ellen (photo Peter Skelton)
Ellen Wilkinson had embraced socialism at an early age and she developed into a firebrand, working-class hero, a suffragette, trade unionist and a lifelong protestor at injustice. She was elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924, and following a subsequent defeat there she became a prolific journalist and writer before returning to Parliament as Jarrow's MP in 1935. Red Ellen’s arrival in the House of Commons attracted considerable press comment, much of it related to her bright red hair and her vividly coloured clothes. The Woman's Leader magazine described her as a “vigorous, uncompromising feminist and an exceedingly tenacious, forcible and hard-headed politician”. Today, the Red Ellen labelling reflects this tenacity.
BEER and politics have always been inseperable. In 2006 while prime minister, Tony Blair invited French president Jacques Chirac to dinner at The County Hotel in Aycliffe Village in County Durham. While Mr Chirac opted for a pint of Kronenbourg lager, Mr T eagerly set about his Marston Moor Brewers’ Pride Bitter – apparently before he had given it time to settle. So what, we’ve all done it.
Some politicians knew the form at an early age. While still at Oxford University, Bob Hawke, former prime minister of Australia, entered the Guinness Book of Records for drinking a yard of ale in 12 seconds. And, one of the best spokesmen Czech beer could ever have had was former president (and former poet and playwright) Vaclav Havel who delighted in guiding visiting politicians around Prague’s pubs. There are photographs in bars with him and the likes of Bill Clinton having a jolly good swig and – Havel, at least – having a jolly good time. According to Radio Prague, he once bunked off an official function in America to drink beer before heading for a John Cale rock concert. One of his plays – the one-act Audience – is based on the period in 1974 that he spent as a labourer in the Krakonos brewery in East Bohemia. Its most repeated stage direction is “Maltster opens another bottle...”
Today we still have a Czech influence – or not – through Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged passing of secrets to diplomat Jan Sarkocy (which has been proved in all quarters to be nonsense).
Boris Yeltsin, former president of the USSR, once conducted an orchestra following a champagne lunch, though as this took place in Berlin, perhaps a beer or two were also involved. Admittedly, we use the word “conducted” fairly loosely – Boris seized a conductor’s baton to direct an oompah band, grabbed a microphone and began singing.
In 1994, he also slept off the effects of a seven-hour flight – comforted by vodka – during a refuelling stop at Shannon Airport and missed his appointment with Taoiseach Albert Reynolds.
Then there was ex-PM David Cameron in 2016 entertaining Chinese president Xi Jinping at The Plough at Cadsden, a 16th-century Buckinghamshire pub where they sealed their countries’ “golden” friendship over a pint of Greene King IPA.
BUT whichever way we think, March 2018 marks the 12-month countdown to the withdrawal of the UK from the EU – Brexit. One of the movement’s most vigorous and vocal supporters is Tim Martin, founder of the 980-strong JD Wetherspoon chain of pubs. During the EU Referendum he distributed 500,00 anti-EU beermats and continues the rhetoric in the company’s quarterly magazine – and on various television and radio discussions.
Warnings have been issued that food and drink prices could rise sharply at the end of a Brexit transition period with the British Retail Consortium stating that the price of beef and cheese could increase by 30%. Tim Martin, however, claims the Wetherspoons pub meals would decrease by 3.9p per portion and the cost of a pint by nearly a penny if World Trade Organisation rules were then to apply.
We’re left wondering if Wetherspoons will stock Brexit Premium Export Lager (4.6% abv). This pale-coloured beer, brewed using Styrian Goldings hops and a Swiss lager yeast, starts off in the glass in fine fettle with an aroma of malt and fruit which extends into the palate. This quickly disappears – as does the bubbly head – and develops nothing of any note, finishing dull and uninteresting, which is not a very good thing to say about any beer and is sadly what the Brexit negotiations have descended into.
ON A more positive note, a spark of revolution illuminates Firebrick Brewery’s background. Its first beer, Blaydon Brick, was the nickname of Joseph Cowen, the radical 19th Century politician closely associated with his father’s brick business.
Joseph Cowen was at various times a journalist, owner of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, MP, theatre owner and supporter of Irish and Italian revolutionaries. He also campaigned against slavery, for miners’ welfare, and equality for women.
In homage, Firebrick Brewery has developed gluten-free Giuseppe Lager (4.3% abv) named in honour of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the great hero of the Italian Unification movement and a revolutionary who stayed with Cowen in 1854 at Stella Hall in Blaydon. Cowen gave Garibaldi a golden sword inscribed: “Presented to General Garibaldi by the People of Tyneside, Friends of European Freedom”. Canny Cowen had put a penny on the Chronicle to pay for it.
Prosecco Socialists Dave Rotheray, left, Eleanor McEvoy and Mike Greaves
WHEN The Beautiful South’s David Rotheray decided his creative streak had run dry in 2013, he chilled a while then opened a pub in his hometown Hull called The People’s Republic – a lifelong dream. Songs began to take shape in his mind through long shifts behind the bar as pub patrons began divulging their life stories.
“Everybody has met the resident delusional storyteller in their local pub,” he says. “When you’re the barman it’s different though – you get a more intense version with extra chapters. I don’t know whether it’s because they think you’re an idiot, or because they figure you’re getting paid to stand and listen.”
Energised once more, David picked up his guitar and got together with long-time friends Eleanor McEvoy and Mike Greaves with a debut album, Songs From Behind Bars, due out in April. With tracks such as The Man Who Faked His Own Life and The Night May Still Be Young (But I Am Not), it might not be intensely political but again, we’ve all been there.
The Red House micropub, Chopwell, Gateshead
THE Red House micropub in Chopwell, Gateshead, has an unusual past with the clue in the name. Rumour has it that the former baby goods shop was – long before that – the headquarters of the local Communist party.
It’s not such a fanciful notion for a village dubbed Little Moscow due to its residents’ left-leaning politics and the fact that several of its streets are named after Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Friedrich Engels. There was even a football team playing in the Northern Alliance League called Chopwell Soviets.
The Red House, open since just before Christmas and owned by accomplished home-brewer Joe McNestry, is a very tidy, neat-as-ninepence pub with an overwhelming all-embracing comfort – a place where one feels at one with the world. Old Chopwell is celebrated in framed photographs while a couple of vintage theatre posters add a splash of colour and layer of intrigue.
Lovely feature square bay windows are ideal for bench-style seating, while the bar counter is one of the lowest we’ve ever stood at which makes life much easier on the other side, says Joe McNestry, particularly when his wife takes her shift behind the bar. The cask beer range is ever-evolving with the likes of Old Potting Shed Amber Gold, McCall’s Best Bitter and Allendale Wolf on handpull, while keg offerings are Great North Eastern Brewing Co Rivet Catcher, Allendale Adder Lager, Cullercoats Phoenix and Thistly Cross cider, plus a fridge stocked primarily with soft drinks and a beer range limited only by space. A small range of whiskies and gins sell particularly well, too.
“It’s amazing how people in the village have come out and supported us,” says Joe. “Some of them haven’t seen each other in decades because they preferred to stay at home, but the pub has made a big difference to their social lives.”
Perhaps you can’t judge a book by its cover, but there might be an argument for judging a pub by the contents of its bookshelves. The Red House scores highly in this debate, with (at random on its shelves) Margrave Of The Marshes – John Peel’s autobiography; My Life by Fidel Castro; How Music Works by David Byrne, and Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion – written in 1993, but still the best book ever on the subject.
There’s a saying that pubs and politics don’t mix, much in the way that sport and politics don’t either. But you can’t get away from it – beer and pubs and politics make companionable bedfellows. But they also say you shouldn’t take arguments to bed. Oh well.
*This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Cheers North East magazine (www.cheersnortheast.co.uk)