One of the country’s most articulate and entertaining writers talks to Alastair Gilmour about beer, bikes and Belgium.
Harry Pearson makes a salient point over a couple of pints in The Heart of Northumberland pub in Hexham. He has just published his latest book – The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman – about bike racing in Flanders, the northern half of Belgium, and says he’s covered the subject so often that most people assume he’s been a professional cyclist himself.
“Not so,” he says, just perceptively recalling the last painful time he was in the saddle. “If you read reports on football or golf you wouldn’t expect the writer to be playing as well.”
Harry, originally from Middlesbrough but settled for years in Hexham, has written 800 columns for The Guardian and ten best-selling books; a couple on cricket, one on dog walking, North country fairs, Belgium and the Belgians, and The Far Corner (“a mazy dribble through North East football”) which has been named by The Times and The Observer as one of the 50 greatest sports books of all time. His hobby is clockwork toys.
“Cycling is wildly popular in Flanders,” he says. “It’s part of the psyche, producing five times as many professional riders as Italy or Spain. “The Tour de France lasts for 25 days, but Flanders is big enough only for a major one-day race. In fact, the Tour of Flanders is just over six hours long.”
He reels of the rugged, hard men of Belgian racing – Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck (The Beast in the book’s title), Johan Museeuw, Frans Verbeeck (the Flying Milkman), Tom Boonen and Rik Van Looy (The Emperor) – along with favourite Belgian beers such as Chimay, Affligem Tripel and De Koninck.
Harry Pearson’s books are meticulously researched and admirably leg-worked. You can feel the rain dribbling under his collar, taste the frites from a chip van, and hear dogs barking.
“The smell of a freshly opened bottle of beer is the smell of my country”, wrote Belgian author and Maigret creator Georges Simenon. But, Harry adds, “the defining sound of the nation is bicycle tyres on wet roads”.
“My interest in cycling started with my friend Steve Marshall who was big into it. His dad was actually a brewer at Scottish & Newcastle. He always said he started off as a brewer and ended up as a chemist because the beers became all mass-produced.
“Steve said, ‘Why don’t we go out to Belgium for a few days and watch some of the one-day races?’. But we had find something to do in between, so we would go into all these bars and cafes. I had been in a bookshop a couple of days before and got a couple of Camra guides to Belgium by Tim Webb – he’s a really, really, great writer who you can read and don’t have to have an interest in beer.
“We found a really cheap hotel and discovered that Tim had written about a bar just round the corner. A lot of people new to Belgium underestimated the strength of the beers, but the barman gave us a lot of advice, saying, ‘No, you don’t start with that one, start with his one’ and so on. We hired bikes and went to breweries, beering and biking our way around Flanders.
“There were a lot of real finds. For example, Ninove is a suburb of Brussels whose only significance is the finish of the Tour of Flanders and the home of Slag lager, the worst-named beer in the world were it not for Leroy brewery’s Pomperschitter.
“Flemings are northeners. They like ale and chips and complaining… like all northerners they nurse a sense of grievance against the south.
“I think people get confused with the strength of Belgian beers because they expect blonde beers to be lighter in strength than brown beers, but it’s invariably the other way round.
(You’ve only got to ask any Newcastle United supporter who followed their team to Bruges in 2012 in the Europa League.)
In one of his previous books, A Tall Man In A Low Land, Harry found out about a brewery near Liege but when he got there discovered it was just a suburban house.
He says: “I knocked on the door to ask if I could look around the brewery and the guy said his son would be back from school in half-an-hour. He was a teenager brewing in his dad’s garage. The beer was brilliant and he had it in all these supermarkets like Mamouet with labels stuck on at all angles.
“Belgians have been home-brewing like that for centuries. It’s a very parochial country where supermarkets stock loads of local beers – you wouldn’t get that in Waitrose.
“We were once asked ‘why are you here?’ and we said we were on holiday. Then we were asked ‘why, because Belgium is so boring’. Just at that moment, two nuns went past on a tandem. He saw us looking astonished and said, ‘oh, that’s normal’.”
In The Heart of Northumberland, we switch from First & Last Equinox to Almasty Session IPA, for no reason other than a counter-full of handpulls required attention. We reminisce about Harp Lager and when Greene King IPA was a superb beer.
And I never got round to asking about clockwork toys.
*The Beast, The Emperor And The Milkman, A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands, by Harry Pearson is published by Bloomsbury (h/b £18.99).
The Good Beer Guide to Belgium by Tim Webb and Joe Stange (Camra Books, £14.99).