The landlord in the Prince of Wales was an unprepossessing figure: pot-bellied in an ancient acrylic pullover with a pattern like poor reception on a black-and-white television. True, it was mid-afternoon and there was no one in except two regulars who had become his doppelgangers, so long had these three weird brothers sat together, swilling gassy lager and taking surreptitious hits on their vapes. At least, I assumed this was the case as I sashayed up to the bar, absorbing the immemorial atmosphere: the ghosts of vomit past, the fumes of liquor present, and the never-to-be-encountered spirit of a happy future.
In our 60s – all of us, which was why I felt quite so aggrieved: I examined the labels on the pumps: besides an ale called Frisky Hare or some such hogwash, the only bitter available was the ubiquitous, eponymous Landlord,
from the Yorkshire family-run brewery Timothy Taylor. It’s a reasonable enough bread-juice, served properly – but the question was: was it? I bearded Le Patron: “Is the Landlord chilled?”
“Oh, yes,” he replied, “everything in the cellar is.”
A deal-breaker, then – I scanned the glass-fronted coolers behind the bar. “Have you got any bottled London Pride that isn’t chilled?”
“As I said,” he looked at me as if I were a card-carrying simpleton, “everything in the cellar is chilled.”
It’s an ironic enough reversal: it’s me who should be chilled rather than the beer – for I am the Rip Van Winkle of contemporary bitter-drinking. But I’m not remotely chilled following my long period of suspended animation – on the contrary: I’m very bitter indeed. I stopped drinking beer around 1999, and resumed two or three years ago after a near-20-year hiatus. Obviously, I’d taken little interest in brewing during this period, and scarcely ventured inside a pub – what would be the point? So, upon awakening from this stupefaction of not being stupefied, I was as appalled as Van Winkle to find that a revolution had taken place, and the world I’d once known was no more.
Of course, I knew about chilling beers other than lagers – the 1980s and 90s wouldn’t have been as matte black as they were if it weren’t for the heavy marketing of frigid Guinness. But during my beer-free years this coldness had crept throughout the collective British cellar – like some especially mundane effect – lacquering casks and bottles with condensation. Now, not only were most of the beers on tap alien to my palate – what with their ‘notes’ of anything from citrus to chocolate – but they were all, whether IPAs, old ales, stouts, bitters or lagers – served in a glacial condition.
Was it – I wondered as I stood waiting for my pint of Landlord to warm up – just one of the many consequences of the climate emergency? Had Britons
taken to consuming colder and colder beer because the world was hotting up around them? Or was it some sort of instinctive revulsion against tradition – a change for the sake of changing alone. Whichever the case, as
I talked to beer-drinkers young and old I realised the horrible truth: they didn’t realise how radically things had altered. For them, clearly, the hoppy revolution had occurred sufficiently incrementally for them not really to notice – a kind of creeping normalcy as the tawny fluid trickled into their absorbent minds.
Which was why the landlord in the Prince of Wales talked to me as if I were a cretin – as does just about everyone else I broach the subject with. I confess, I’m equally bemused – I never thought I’d become the sort of ageing geezer who’d dwell on John Major’s 1993 Tory Party conference speech, wherein he wrongly predicted that: “Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the
country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers, and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’.”
The mist and the shadows and the ’burbs and the sentimentality about dogs may well endure, but only 30 years on Anglican churchgoers – whether unmarried female cyclists or not – have evaporated, along with the warm beer and Pools coupons. When my father was dying in the late 1990s in Canberra, Australia – a country soused in icy lager, to which he’d foolishly emigrated two decades previously – he bemoaned his removal from the Sussex of his boyhood: “If only I were in the lee of the Downs once more,” he croaked “downing a warm pint of Harvey’s bitter…” But it was too late, he expired a day or so later, his sad little fridge full of cans of Emu Export, while outside the kookaburras cackled unmercifully in the gum trees.