Friday, November 16, 2012

A Celebration of Prevarication

I know some who plan their vacations down to the last detail. All the major tourist highlights and media-flogged points of interest must be taken in in the most efficient manner as possible; a jamb-packed orgy of stress-inducing sights and sounds and diesel tour busses. Not fun, really. I prefer a richer experience that can be experienced by sailing the gentle, wayward breeze of organic encounter in the pubs and footpaths of England.

Last night this errant breeze had unexpectedly washed me ashore at the Bridge Inn in Santon Bridge, Holmrook, for the World's Biggest Liar Competition. This is an event that originated in the 19th century, and still runs strong on an annual basis. I had first read about it while staying for a couple of nights in Wasdale Head back in September of 2004 on a random walking jaunt across Cumbria. I never expected that I'd see the day I might witness this noble and solemn spectacle.

Be it known that I'm not trained in journalism, and I somewhat reluctantly blog. However, uncertainty reigned supreme as I found myself charged by the Hardknott Brewery in Millom to be their blogger representative at the pub. The choices were to (A) tell a five minute equivocation under the bright lights of the stage before a crowd of over a hundred crammed into the function room of a rural public house, or (B) write about the event over t'Interweb.

On the five mile walk over to the inn from the train station I thought up a handful of less-than-true figments of my holiday-corrupted imagination. The illusion of a large, hirsute American taking the stage was taking on a cloudy, misshapen and ambitious form. To my ultimate benefit, over my first pint at the bar, the barkeep formed me that tall tales that don't connect well with the Cumbrian locals, their folklore, their history and their local color might not be well-received. Good enough for me. Plan B goes into effect, and I'm merely left with enjoying the show stress-free and scratching together some sentences for the 7 people who actually read my blog. Perfect.

Through connections that I don't completely understand I was put at the press table at the side of the stage, notebook in hand, pondering the sense that I didn't really deserve this. That didn't stop me from attempting to take notes and liberating an assortment of Cumbrian ales. The Jennings Brewery, who sponsored the event, had on a special Biggest Liar ale that was brown and biscuity and reminded me of my own "Quid Hoc Sibi Vult" Special Bitter which I hope is still on the pumps back at the home office. I felt at home, as I most often do in this part of the globe.

There were 12 contestants this year. Having been to Cumbria many times in the past, indeed spending a splendid tour learning English brewing techniques and pub operations over the years, I had not a whit of trouble sorting through the regional accents and local references. Around the third contestant I began to see the structure of the storytelling, for that's what it came to be in my mind. This is the weaving of tall tales; a celebration of prevarication. Part of me wanted to compare the act and delivery with stand-up comedy, but, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, there was something special going on here. You can't bottle this and stick it on a shelf at the local tricky-tacky shop. Selfishly, I wanted all the cameras and media and promotion to just go away and bring me back to a lost era when tales would be spun at a local around a coal fire with a pint of the usual.

Ah, the stories. It is not my intention to write reviews here. I'll leave that to the local media. But, ah, the stories. I was particularly amused by the true account of a journey to Whitehaven trying to sell a box of four kittens. There were stories about badger ancestry, web-footed cats, the origins of the word haggis, the rhyming meter of the tale of Ruby Tuesday's sister. This is an art that sadly persists in its absence. There were three winners, but they all won.

Altogether it was a splendid and unique evening, and I am thankful to all who made it possible.

Speaking of unique, it quickly became well-known that an American publican and brewer was on the premises, observing and writing. I was asked more than once whether I would consider putting on an event of a similar nature at my own pub. No, I replied. Not going to happen. Full stop. I understood the event to be unique; it belongs here and only here, and only gets lost in translation. To commercialize it and exploit it would be tragic. This is not something that should be interfered with by a large American, or anyone for that matter, and that is not a lie.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Notes From Cornwall

Cornwall was fantastic. However, I have had to leave it a bit earlier than I expected. There are rumblings and goings-on up north, of the beery variety, that have put me on a train back to familiar Oxford. Then tomorrow I head up to the Lake District. I don't totally know what awaits me up there, but that's the way I like it. I do know that there is an event planned in Leeds on my last night, and I would also like to spend a couple of days pottering about the pubs and fells of Coniston.

Sadly, I'm seeing more pubs going corporate. By this I'm not talking about design, layout and atmosphere (that's a different matter), but rather staffing and management. It is harder to run across the publican-led pub, especially in urban areas. And the smiling, friendly staff that engages you in a conversation is the exception rather than the norm. Kudos to the Tinner's Arms in Zennor near St. Ives. The barkeep warned me that the 5.2% ABV pint that I was in the process of acquiring was " a bit strong", and the landlady gave me advice for the walk over the neck of Cornwall to Penzance. I give high ratings there to the Admiral Benbow and the Turks Head.

Cornwall is definitely dominated by the St. Austell's brewery. A large percentage of the pubs I visited were tied. Last night I was in Fowey on the southern coast, a beautiful little harbor town. Out of the five pubs, four were tied, and the fifth sported Sharps Doom Bar, Wadworth 6X and, you guessed it, St Austell's Tribute. While there, staring out over the harbor, I got to witness a young, cocky Diageo boy replace a shiny ice-cold Guinness font with a newer and shinier ice-cold Guinness font. Yuck.

I'm supposed to be in the land of the unsparkled pint, but an Austell's pub in St. Ives was dispensing "northern". Nothing wrong with that in my book, unless the sparkler was used to prop up a fading cask, which was the case on more than one occasion. I ran across another in Fowey.

The business plan for the satellite pub is coming along slowly. Thoughts and images need time to soak in. I finish this entry from my new favorite pub in Oxford, the Rose and Crown off Woodstock Road, which I discovered off the Good Pub Guide. A free house with a well-kept cellar, lots of little rooms, and a covered patio overgrown with vines. It's also bereft of students. Cheers!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Don't Look For Me at Work - I'm Not There

[Bloggers note: I couldn't figure out how to upload pictures from an iPad, so edited accordingly. Any insights out there?]

It's Saturday already. It was Wednesday morning when I landed in Manchester. After a lovely two nights in Oxford revisiting some of my favorite pubs like the Bear, the Old Bookbinders and the Turf, I'm now enjoying my first full day in St. Ives way down the tippy end of Cornwall.

I had hoped to make a blog entry earlier, but finding reliable WiFi has been a chore. It is showing up more in the pubs than I recall in years past, but there seems to be something odd and persistently unreliable about it. It reminds me of a rotating lighthouse beacon that smiles on you for 10 seconds once every four minutes. Many things are opposite of the way they are back in the States, such as light switch positions, traffic lanes, and the inability of hot water taps to decide whether they are on the right or the left, so perhaps zeros are ones and ones are zeros and my portable American electronic device is caught in a state of bewilderment.

Ah, the pubs. Pubs to the left of me. Pubs to the right. Good pubs. City pubs. Rural pubs. Locals pubs. Tourist pubs. Student pubs. Cozy pubs. Wetherspoons pubs (yes, for the sake of research I need to go in then and have a look around, and to have a £1.49 pint to stay in budget). I'm here to research pubs, to study them (in a purely academic fashion, of course), to scrutinize their design and atmosphere and architecture. There is a business plan in the works and I'm sorting that out.

Another reason to be here is to have a cracking good time off, and to ensure that any work I perform whilst on this Island is something that I do in my spare time and when I'm in the proper mood. So, as such, I'm off for a pint.