Slowly we are waking up to the fact that we have in southern England an almost unique eco-system comparable for its natural wonder with any on Earth, and to the fact that for the last fifty years we have been destroying it.
[Recently] I attended a conference in Stockbridge convened by Mr George Hollingberry MP and attended by many people who care about chalk stream conservation. Almost 100 river keepers, conservationists, representatives from rivers trusts, wildlife trusts, and major NGOs such as WWF and the Wild Trout Trust crammed into the standing-room only bar at the Grosvenor Hotel – home to the oldest chalk stream angling club in England. We listened to impassioned speeches my Mr Hollingberry himself and Mr Martin Salter MP. And I’m sure, if he could have been there, we would have heard similar rousing sentiments from Mr Richard Benyon MP too. He – along with a growing crowd of MPs whose constituencies lie on chalk – also cares about the fate of these rivers.
We listened also to speeches from representatives of DEFRA, the Environment Agency, (but unfortunately not from OFWAT): less rousing, more familiar. Frighteningly, frustratingly familiar. Now is not the time for haste, we heard, now is the time for considered, patient deliberation. Oh Lord, spare us that charter for sitting on your hands. The day was a strange mix of invigorating can do-ism and enervating Orwellian double-speak.
But, we came away with the idea for getting expert minds together, and composing a Chalk Stream Charter – a list of policy demands for the Government. As I explain below … this could be a great initiative. Or it could be what feels like a great initiative, but is in fact another meeting standing in for actually doing something. I didn’t get my chance at a question in the brief Q and A held at the end and so wrote a letter to Mr Hollingberry afterwards, and have copied the gist of it below.
There is ONE roadblock to saving our chalk streams: OFWAT
Dear Mr Hollingberry,
thank you for organising Monday’s conference. I hope something really positive can come out of it.
Firstly, I for one will happily do whatever I can to help you draw up this Chalk Stream Charter: you can count me in. The charter was Tony Juniper’s idea and it was the big idea that came out of the summit. At times like this he said, when the process seems to have stalled, you need to up the ante with a campaign.
But the not inconsiderable media might of WWF has been waging just such a campaign for the past five or six years: it has been called Rivers on the Edge. Several of the MPs involved on Monday were at the launch in London years ago. Other MPs have attended meetings on the beleaguered chalk streams of Hertfordshire, or have been taken to banks of the River Itchen and been persuaded of the need to preserve this global heritage. The English chalk stream as our rain forest, our melting ice-cap, was a slogan I wrote for the campaign at its outset. Long before WWF started Richard Slocock was campaigning for the River Piddle. David Stimpson and his friends on the River Beane have been campaigning for decades. So have the those who love the Driffield Beck in Yorkshire, the Darenth in Kent, the Mimram in Herts. The chalk streams around London have been on the edge of death since the 1960s.
But the representative from DEFRA carefully and patiently explained to us how government was going to avoid kicking the can down the road by … kicking it down the road. It was frustrating to listen to. We needed more time, he said, to get it right.
People have known the solution since the start of the problem. How much more time do we need? Mark Lloyd from The Angling Trust was right. It does sound like we are whistling while Rome burns.
Maybe an extra something can be brought into the mix with this Charter, something that will catalyse actual, lasting change. But yesterday’s conclusion felt eerily like the point in Life of Brian when the Judean People’s Front, forced to the point of action, conclude that they all need another meeting.
On Monday, more or less all the questions expressed symptoms on a local scale of the same BIG problem that exists on a national scale. But the meeting closed without actually nailing it to the ground.
The problem is that chalk aquifer water is free.
The solution is to make it expensive.
It is as simple as that.
Only when OFWAT clears the way for this will we save our chalk streams. Abstractors have to develop alternative sources. These are eminently possible: reservoirs, river mouths etc. But right now chalk water is uphill, clean and free, whilst other sources are downhill and dirty or otherwise expensive. Somehow this price gradient has to be tipped the other way.
And so we are waiting for OFWAT who currently do not have a remit to protect chalk streams. That is the road-block.
It is not a matter of more campaigning by the passionate few. It is not a matter of carrying public opinion. It is not a matter of dilly dallying under the guise of ‘getting it right’. It is a matter of political will. MPs such as yourself and Mr Walker, and Mr Benyon and Mr Salter must win this argument with the regulator.
If we need a Chalk Stream Charter to help carry the debate, then let’s draw one up. If we can get every River and Wildlife Trust, every NGO, and thousands of signatures behind one statement and you can apply the weight of that and of your political persuasion to one point on the rock in the road that is OFWAT, then maybe we can get it to move. But it is vital that this Charter builds on what has come before and doesn’t just reinvent the wheel … or become a proxy for the action we already know we need.
Ben Street is an art historian, lecturer, museum educator, writer and curator. He is the co-director of the Sluice Art Fair, writes regular pieces on contemporary art for Art Review, and has written numerous catalogue essays for museums and galleries in Vienna, Istanbul, Antwerp, Dublin and New York.
Ahead of this week’s alcohol-themed Faber Social, which has as its centrepiece a screening of Maxy Bianco’s documentary on The Can House, Ben puts forward the case that ‘outsider’ art – often derided and seen as ‘lesser’ than gallery-fixated ‘insider’ art – is just as significant and worthy of our attention.
Ben Street writes …
It’s been said that the distinction between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ art – between, let’s say, the sort of art you might see on the walls or floors of a white-walled, grey-floored gallery space, and the sort you might see decorating the exterior of a suburban house, or encrusted on a dashboard – is a difference of cultures. The ‘insider’ (trained, therefore knowing) makes work that anticipates acceptance through combinations of pre-existing ideas or images: the world knows what it is about to receive. The ‘outsider’ (untrained, therefore guileless) makes work for ‘a culture of one’, answering to internal, not external, imperatives. Discard the niceties of location, audience and intent, though – treat the work, that is, as a thing in the world – and these easy binaries fall away.
When Surrealist artists made the pilgrimage to the postman Ferdinand Cheval’s DIY palace in Hauterives, a small village far away from the Parisian nucleus, their astonishment was born, in part, of insecurity: how could an untrained man (not even an ‘artist’, by his or anyone’s reckoning) have created, alone, a masterpiece of avant-garde architecture? Everything they sweated to induce in their art – symbolic density, formal spontaneity, psychological earnestness – seemed to spring, unprompted, from this curious postman’s simple act of collecting and organising discarded objects found by the side of the road.
So, too, with The Can House, a council house in Hartlepool covered in complex patterns of thousands of emptied Foster’s beer cans. The formal obsessiveness, fascination with the discarded, wry humour and implicit social critique of the project resonate, like an admonishment, in the current art context of mannerist self-absorption and market dominance. The Can House, like Cheval’s Ideal Palace before it, provides a corrective to the current role of artistic practice in the wider society: this thing does what art was always meant to do, and, like the Surrealists before us, their monocles popping out in embarrassed surprise, we know it when we see it.
— Ben Street, 25th January 2012
On Tuesday the 29th, the Faber Social is all about Beer – a celebration of booze and booziness after the long, cold weeks of what has for many been an abstemious January. To say I am looking forward to it is an understatement.
But what about the morning of the 30th?
As surely as night follows day, an evening determinedly in your cups is certain to be succeeded by a hangover. The headache. The parched mouth. Tiredness. Nausea, even – especially nasty on the Tube. The motiveless sense of dread and not unreasonable conviction that you made an arse of yourself at some point.
Given how fond we Britons are of sinking a few, you’d think that hangovers would feature more heavily in our written works. (Although it is with a misplaced sense of pride that I note the first Google result for ‘hangovers in literature’ brings up this article from the Huffington Post, in which two of the eight best literary ‘drinking benders and hangovers’ are Faber’s.) One man makes up for this relative paucity, in both volume and descriptive inventiveness. The universally acknowledged laureate of drinkers, Kingsley Amis has done more than any other writer to chronicle the pleasure and attendant pain of having one over the eight.
In words as in measures, Amis was prolific, writing twenty novels, six volumes of poetry, and various volumes of non-fiction including the alarmingly titled Everyday Drinking, a book that could not be more of its time if it were to drive home, leathered.
In what many regard as his two best novels, drink plays a central character: Lucky Jim (1954) and The Old Devils (1986). The former, Amis’s debut, describes the hapless Jim Dixon, a junior academic navigating the torrid personal and political rapids of a provincial university though a combination of gurning, drunkenness and rationed cigarettes. Throughout, Dixon’s preposterous head of department, Professor Welch, has his bag set off in quote marks – his ‘bag’. Why? We’re never told, but I am laughing as I type this.
The Old Devils is a much more bittersweet affair. Minor poet and ‘professional Welshman’ Alun (né Alan) Weaver and his wife Rhiannon return to Wales and their old circle of friends. A stringent routine of drinking, peppered with infidelity, ensues until Alun unexpectedly but perhaps not unsurprisingly drops dead, shocking the group into reflection. It is a hilarious novel and a tender novel. Unless you happen to be Welsh. And it is possibly Amis’s best, going on to win the Booker.
So, on the bitter morning of the 30th, what would Kingsley Amis do? Fortunately, we’ve no need to speculate, since he prescribed how to deal with a hangover, physical and metaphysical, in some detail here. Cheers!
‘This room smells of fuffs!’ my dad would say. ‘Fuffs’ was the family word we had for ‘farts’. Of a Saturday morning, he strode across the room I had when I spent a year at home – retaking my A levels after failing them at boarding school – more or less holding his breath. He threw the curtains open with a slashing noise and wrestled the casement window catch as if warding off a snake with a stick. ‘And the fuffs smell of Boddingtons!’ he said. ‘Noxious with fumes, your brother’s room!’
At the weekends, my brother and I went down to the pub – the Bridgewater was the closest, after that the Egerton Arms, or up to the Cock on the East Lancs, or along Worsley Road to the White Horse, occasionally to the White Swan in Swinton, or down the old railway line to the Blue Bell in Monton.
The Bridgewater Hotel had been renovated more than a few times since 1965, when I had been corralled on my way home from primary school to go in there to get a packet of Park Drive for a labourer. It was just a flagged hall with a staircase coming down into it, a counter where they sold cigarettes and doors off to the saloon and the vault. In the seventies it went through the last days of the Raj. For a number of years, it was carpeted – due to the Bridgewater Canal across the road – with a motif of narrow boats against a blue background, though the canal itself left a livid orange tidemark on the ducks that swam in it. Manchester United footballers started going in there and at the weekends it was rammed. The Egerton Arms was plain, with beams and a horse brass or two. The Cock was a bit of a hike, through the woods or all the way up Walkden Road. It was spacious inside, with a jungly carpet, square recessed wooden columns, a fireplace, beaten copper pitchers and plates and lurid pottery ranged across the pelmets. The White Horse near Moorside was a narrow, white-painted place, shrinking away from the road. There was a bar at one end and, from March to August, a guy called Nick Hodgson could reliably be found in there. For half the year, by foot, he sprayed weed killer on the pavements. He wintered abroad. The White Swan at the foot of Partington Lane was a massive, brick-fronted building with a tiled floor and panelled rooms. The Blue Bell was the Eccles Sixth Form College students’ local. There was a sticky green patterned carpet and a fireplace and a view across Monton Green. It was base camp for parties and after-hours drinking the year I spent at home, retaking my A levels.
There was lager, pilsner, bitter, mild and mixed. There was Bass, Burton, Boddingtons, Robinsons, Kronenbourg, Heineken, Mackeson, Carlsberg, Holts, Holsten, Watneys, Guinness and Hydes. After hours there was even home-brew – evil, fuming stuff which more than once forced my head into the nearest toilet bowl to eject.
Conversations in the pub were conducted at shouting level. People stood at oblique angles to one another. Men stood in circles and treadled and checked out what was beyond – newcomers, women with frosted curls, guys in cheesecloth shirts and girls in tight dresses. They pitched their jokes in and shifted their weight from one foot to another, and clutched their pints to their stomachs, or, if they had one of those heavy dimpled glasses, put their fingers through the handle and supported it by a thumb hooked into the belt, which they thought looked cool.
At the bar, you had to bump shoulders with people you didn’t know or didn’t know you knew, or didn’t know if you might know or thought you knew but didn’t. You had to hold money up. You had to lean in, with your elbow in the wet, and shout things out like ‘When you’re ready!’ and then bellow your order and have no regard the people walling you in, then you’d have to guard your pints backwards, elbows out, and reverse through the mob behind.
After, there was the walk home, through the woods which in the summer were dusky and heavy-scented, but with a chill damp note now and again from the canal, or along the old railway under the trees, the branches kept back once by the trains but which now crowded overhead and cupped you in the dark. Once you got used to the ever-present rush of the motorway beyond the trees, you could pretend it was quiet.
My brother and I would talk the whole way – about stuff: A-level retakes; his day-release from Salford Tech; our dad. We’d stop to piss into the bushes for minutes on end, and then resume the conversation, talking into the dark, the dead railway dim under the trees, the ends of our cigarettes arcing up to our mouths.
‘I can’t understand the need!’ my dad said, when we’d gone through the stages of getting ourselves out of bed and were hunched at the kitchen table, coping with breakfast. ‘I can’t understand the constant need! To go to a public house’, he said, ‘when we have all the beer you might want to drink here!’
He conjured a picture of the family, my mum and dad in the living room, sitting on the sofa and armchairs re-covered in the seventies, they with their gin and tonics, us with a highball glass each with lager in it, the television not on.
Dad’s tipple when he wanted to tell you stories you’d heard before was Famous Grouse. I sat up with him one night hoping for a new one, into the small hours. In the morning I heard him groaning while he put his shoes on, late for Quaker Meeting, where he enjoyed being the one to greet those attending. Last in that morning, the room already quiet with bowed heads, my dad with throbbing temples, the only place to sit was the row at the front, where the table with flowers was. He lowered himself onto the chair, crossed one leg over the other and caught sight of a dog turd which had somehow attached itself to the toe of his shoe.
The first Faber Social of 2013 – RE-TOX on 29th January (now sold out) – will be a celebration of all things beer. We haven’t worked it out, but we’re pretty sure that a good proportion of those attending will be women, and that a good number of those women will be holding in their hand a serious pint of ale. Because women drink beer too! Representing the new real ale sisterhood is Naomi McAuliffe, who drinks beer, tweets here, blogs here and writes for the Guardian, and below is her feature which ran originally last August.
Naomi McAuliffe writes…
Many years ago while we were at university, a female friend told me a story about going out for a drink with a man who, when she asked for a pint, brought her back two halves. Another woman chimed in: “Well a pint isn’t very ladylike, is it?” This was the late 90s – 1990s not 1890s – and I had never before considered that my womanhood was dependent on the size of the drinking vessel I was holding.
While the stereotype of “a pint of your best bitter barman, and a white wine for the lady” has been persistent, it is very much changing. Major brewers have been after the dainty-wristed, lady-pound for a long time, but generally try to target lager at women. Others have suggested that women might favour fruit beers, although they would have to admit that they are unlikely to count as one of your five-a-day.
However – incredibly – they are finding that women’s tastes tend to vary as much as men’s. I’m not a great fan of fruit beers, but they’re not in fact a new-fangled wheeze dreamed up for the fruit-salad-craving womenfolk, as using fruit to spice beer predates the use of hops by millennia.
No, what is really stopping many women from drinking beer is culture. And possibly the fact that you need to go to the toilet more often, which means queuing, because there are never enough women’s toilets in a pub. Yes, I’m looking at you, every landlord in the country.
The mannish reputation of beer-drinking culture is not always helped by beers called Top Totty being sold in the Strangers’ Bar of the House of Commons. It’s hardly as if the place needs to feel more like an Eton tuck shop. However, I would certainly never be tempted to curtail the naming creativity of the brewing industry. I don’t want to live in a world without a Whiter Shade of Pale ale, Malty Towers and Milk Street Funky Monkey. Although the blonde-beer jokes could do with being put of out their misery.
Last week I went to the Great British beer festival at Olympia, it having been kicked out of Earl’s Court by the Olympic volleyball. And while those at the Olympic park could only buy Heineken for the equivalent of £7.20 a pint, across the town another diverse crowd gathered to cheer and attempt Herculean tasks: sampling the best ales in the country for an average £3.50. An antidote to uniform, mundane corporate sponsorship but certainly with the same quality of volunteer and far better facial hair. This is where the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) celebrates the diversity and quality of British brewing industry, which is in rude health. There are now more breweries in Britain than at any time since the second world war – a return to form after dipping to an all-time low in 1970.
When something you love experiences a rise in popularity, it is always a double-edged sword. While it’s fantastic that the industry is doing well, this comes with the excruciating realisation that cask ale is becoming “cool”, which increases the potential for ironic theme nights with people in rolled-up skinny jeans playing darts and bar billiards and screeching that everything is “random”.
The Great British beer festival is still immune to this. There you can enjoy the unironic and unutterable joy of skittles and roll the barrel. Witness mountains of pork scratchings and rows upon rows of pies. Buy a T-shirt with “Campaign for Surreal Ale” on it next to a picture of melting pint glasses. No ironic veneration of the late great Sid Waddell here, because it’s a place for sincere admiration (nearly everyone in attendance could tell you his and Fred Trueman’s contribution to Yorkshire television in the 70s). There are pub quizzes and auctions and I made sure that I went on Hat Day – Ladies’ Day at Ascot this ain’t. The winner of last year’s Hat Day was a woman with a huge papier-mache wasps’ nest on her head. She was representing waspwatch.co.uk. Now that was not a marketing idea cooked up by an agency where everyone sits on beanbags.
There is an authenticity here that is both knowledgeable and welcoming and you get a real sense of this as a craft industry. Not one that is stale and outdated but vibrant and innovative. Plus reading out the names of breweries makes you feel like you’re in Game of Thrones.
While at times the Great British beer festival can feel like a dad convention, more and more women are going along, they are brewing, they are putting on beer festivals and blogging about beer. People such as Marverine Cole, AKA Beer Beauty, show that you don’t need to be white, male and bearded to enjoy the national drink. That said, if you are a fan of the beard, which I am, there is no better place on earth to see so many fuzzy faces, apart from possibly a Seasick Steve concert.
Gender inequality leads to economic disadvantage for women, gendered violence, exclusion from the higher echelons of power but also from enjoying a good pint. Arbitrary and anachronistic feminine stereotypes are internalised by women; making them conform and subjecting them unnecessarily to bottled lager.
I really do encourage women to take the plunge and try a real ale when next in the pub. Look past the lineup of generic lagers that are your oppressors to the brassy sparkling liberation of the real ale pumps. Marvel as the bartender has to put their biceps into the job of getting your drink and feel your forearm strengthen as you lift it for every sip, while shouting “We can do it!” for the sisterhood.
From the first moment I saw the long, unedited rushes of The Can House, the idea intrigued me – a Hansel & Gretel-style gingerbread cottage that sprouted on a Hartlepool estate, only one constructed out of Fosters’ beer cans by a family of chronic alcoholics – a truly heroic/tragic/comic hymn to alcohol, and proper outsider art from the Russian winter that is the age of austerity Up North.
The can house is on the worst estate in one of the worst towns in England (according to government stats). In a time when the social fabric of old communities is disintegrating, every pub in the area has closed down, and the streets themselves have lost their names, a group of locals have spontaneously created this Can House, which has sprouted like a wildflower in the dereliction, a strange kind of hymn to the inviolate human urge to create, and the sanctity of the inviolable human imagination.
The Can House is art from somewhere that’s fallen off the edge of the map, from a place as far from the centre of English society and culture as it’s possible to go, economically, socially and spiritually – as close to the edges and ends of England as it gets.
The creators of the Can House don’t really think of it as art – ideas of “art” or “culture” come higher up the food chain – they just know instinctively that what they are doing brings meaning and beauty into the harsh and brutal world that surrounds them – in this sense the Can House is art in its purest, most untampered and transparent form. It’s art as an instinctual urge rather that art as a cultured concept, an unfiltered expression of the realities of the local life.
Maxy’s an old friend of mine who’d never studied film, never picked up a camera, and certainly wouldn’t have considered himself a filmmaker before this project. Like the creators of the house itself, he’s had no artistic education, permission or sense of entitlement to make this film. Maxy’s “Can House” film is folk art about folk art, outsider art about outsider art, which for me only makes it all the more urgent and remarkable an achievement.