Life, Liberty and The Pursuit Of Hoppyness

As I write this it is March 2023 and the first hints of spring are beginning to show themselves after a brutal few weeks of cold, arctic weather.

Yep - it's raining relentlessly.

This fact, while no doubt welcome for some, is perturbing for yours truly, because as much as I hated the outdoor temperature being within the food-safe range for a duration of time approximately the same as the shelf life of a packet of bacon, I even am less partial to precipitation. Rain, of whatever intensity, has the ability to keep me inside for days on end, although to be fair that's mostly so I can listen to it gently and rhythmically lapping at the window while one of my three cats purrs in sync somewhere near (or on) me.

Being stuck inside in an artificial, self-inflicted manner, especially after the still all-too-raw experiences of 2020, is disquieting and prompts much self-chastisement, as is hopefully evident in this stream of consciousness masquerading as a blog post; primarily because I am pathetically less inclined to walk to the pub. 

It is generally accepted amongst those of us who love beer culture that pubs have, since the easing of the last lockdown, taken on a new role. 

We loved them before of course for everything they had to offer, if only on an objective, rational level. Now however I feel the relationship is more personal, less tangible, more abstract. Pubs now represent more than the norm. To more and more folk they now represent a romantic utopia, an ideal, a paragon. Even the worst boozer is better open than shut. Even a crappy, unimaginative, macro-dominated, over-priced mediocre beer selection from the chainyest of chain shacks is nectar compared to dry, dusty unused pipes and pumps behind darkened doors.

Which is why I've made a conscious effort to visit them more, to get around more, and more importantly to have more regular haunts. Before lockdown hit I had never visited the Carpenters Arms, the Prince of Wales, the Old Bull Inn, the Bell, the Blue Bell, the Friendly Fox, the Ruperra, the Red Lion, the other Red Lion, the White Swan, the Friend in Hand, the Jack Horner or the Pride of Paddington; now they are in receipt of regular visits from myself (whether they like it or not). 

Add to that list the establishments which have brazenly and bravely opened up in this horrendously uncertain market - the Alexandra, the Weird Dad Taproom or the Bear - and you have a playground within which one should never get bored.

Which is all the more odd when you consider I actively stopped being a full-on beer enthusiast in May of last year. 

I have just booked accommodation for the annual trip to Cornwall where myself and my best mate ostensibly take a trip to watch the Cornwall national/county (delete as appropriate) team play a match at either Camborne or Redruth; a tradition we first dreamt up in 2016, appropriately, in a pub. 

Of course that also involves trying to drink Camborne, Truro and Falmouth dry.

It was after the trip last year when I decided to give up / call to a halt "Bring on the Beer", my unfocussed, inconsistent attempt at having a web presence for my hobby. It was a blog (which has been sneakily rebranded as the one you are currently reading), a YouTube channel (with all the videos now permanently set to "unlisted") and a Twitter feed (which had to be relaunched after I made a joke about the Royal Family which somehow upset Elon's predecessors).

I gave up for several reasons. Firstly, I was unhappy with the way my beer consumption was being driven - somehow - by my need for "content", whatever that is. It wasn't enough to drink a beer because I wanted to, but because for some reason I felt compared to share it with the world for the infamous toxic elixir of clicks and likes. I feel that I should point out here that I never drank anything directly because of specific external pressures, coercion or peer pressure, but more from a self-inflicted obligation that I realised all to late that no-one except myself was putting on me.

Secondly, the quality of my written long form work was never consistently up to scratch and my videos were godawful. The wonderful bloggers Boak & Bailey - who were my first exposure into this world when I contributed to an article on Doom Bar way back in 2018 when I was still trying to work out what to do - frequently featured my work on their weekly roundups which was a huge fillip. Padraig Fox got in touch after I published my Guinness love letter to say that it had done the rounds at St James' Gate and the adjacent Craft Brewery. Other writers such as ATJ, Melissa Cole and Pete Brown also gave me encouragement. But - as anyone with crippling self-doubt will know - that rush of positivity cannot be bottled up and cracked open on a cold, dark Tuesday night when you most need it; hence the huge disparities in both frequency and word count of my output.

Having said all that I am very proud of some of the bits and bobs I have done, however pointless it may ultimately have been to do them in the first place. The vast majority of my beer writing survives on this website for anyone to stumble upon. Go have a look after you've waded through this turgid tripe.

Thirdly, beer enthusiasm - like any hobby - can all-to-easily trap you into believing that it commands a certain level of commitment. A requirement that you be relatively invested in the subject, to have an understanding and background knowledge that can be both a help and a hindrance to your interaction with the subject matter, would seem to be useful and fruitful. Early on I made a conscious effort to err more on the side of wilful ignorance - not that I had much of a choice! - so that every new beer I encountered would still be a magical mystery to me regardless of its list of ingredients or brewers' notes. I didn't want to know too much about how it was made, what varieties of hops there were etc. I certainly didn't want to learn how to "taste" beer any more than my preexisting sense was telling me. There's a quote by E.B. White about humour: "Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process." I feel the same way about beer. There is no benefit to me, nor any enhancement of enjoyment, in knowing how, why, where and what. A mild, passing fascination with the processes involved, which in practice stretched to a couple of brewery tours, is more than adequate.

Of course for others it's more important, and more importantly it is accessible, and thus great discussions can be had amongst those echelons of the community. While I could read, absorb and admire what nuggets I could from these learned scholars, I could never actively join in with any degree of credibility, so I consciously chose to remain on the fringes, and thus it unfortunately meant that I was destined to be lost in amongst the almost embarrassingly high number of casual internet beer "experts", many of which, like me, also had reached the dizzying heights of owning a witty Twitter handle and an Untappd account. 

Lastly - and most importantly - I realised that I wasn't actually enjoying how I was drinking beer. Too much time, effort and phone battery was being taken up with photographing pump clips, bottles, cans, and then editing, formatting, Tweeting said pics with a customised tweet format, and then recording said beer in a list for posterity.... all for no benefit to anyone, least of all myself. Bring On The Beer's original mission statement was for me to be a beer evangelist, for me to spread the word of good beer and good venues. Somewhere along the line that got lost, and it eventually became not a hobby, but a chore. All the customised graphics, all the hours spent perfecting a logo design, all the time excusing yourself as you barge inbetween your fellow customers to get that one perfect shot of the pumps were, ultimately, for naught, and Bring On The Beer was nothing but a waste of pixels.

I think it was when I found it necessary to purchase a battery bank in order to supplement my phone's power so that I would have enough juice to sustain my "efforts" that I realised what a folly it had become and that the extent I had gone to at that point was far enough.

And it seems I'm not the only one to, for whatever reason, step back from the cut-and-thrust of it all as Jeff Alworth at Beervana touched on in his recent article :  

" I’ve been blogging since 2007, and using social media to discuss beer since 2008. At no time in that decade and a half have I seen less interest or enthusiasm in beer. We are social beings, and a big part of the reason we get into beer is because we drink together and discuss our experiences. Part of the mood of this moment is a sense of separation from other people, and I feel that in the way folks discuss beer online."

And so, for me at least, it ended.

Or rather, it evolved. Because once a beer wanker, always a beer wanker. 

My first conscious act was to relaunch my Newport pub guide "CaskNewydd" - up until that point just another page on the blog - to be a full site in its own right called Tafarn, expanding to include new pubs in the Newport suburbs and Cardiff. I hope eventually to include pubs in London and even Sweden. Tafarn's existence means that in a small way I can still give something back to the venues I love even though I've taken a less active role in the online community.

I have also developed a new hobby - walking to the pub (which evolved from my similarly themed activity of "cycling to the pub" but necessarily adapted for dark winter evenings). There are two small villages - Bassaleg and Caerleon - which necessitate a six-to-eight mile round trip to get to and from. Every Friday I go to one or the other. It's an activity which is good for both my mental and physical health and with the reward of a pizza and the best cask ale in the area at the half-way point.

Which is why I always now have one eye on the weather forecast. And which is why I don't want it to rain on a Friday evening from 3pm onwards, because as someone once sang, we've waited all week for this day to arrive and I'd rather be dry when I take my crystal clear glass from the wood panelled bar.

I may no longer take pictures of every beer I drink, nor do I fill my beer fridge with as much bizarre exotica as I used to. Granted my beer fridge has - rightly - been less of a necessity since pubs reopened, but it has never been completely bare. Similarly my tastes are no less adventurous, but I am now pursuing my love of beer in my own time with no need for approbation or reprobation. I do not feel the need to please the audience that it appears I only ever imagined I had. If I want a Madri, damnit I'll drink a Madri. My own personal senses of what's right and wrong remain however. I am still actively boycotting breweries and venues I have found to be wanting; even if some of the folks I have met and trusted in the hobby seem to be increasingly turning blind eyes to such trifling matters as sexual harrassment, market manipulation or other unsavoury, unethical practises. As long as the beer tastes good eh?

I've settled into a new routine which is less intensive, less demanding and more rewarding. My beer time is mine again, whether it's at home with a disappointing one-off novelty pale ale, or sitting next to a roaring fire trying to work out if the pint of Sea Fury I've been served is on the turn or not. I have time for more inane chatter with strangers, for more watching of sport or even just more staring gently into space having - as Buffy the Vampire Slayer once put it - a lot of happy non-thoughts.

There are no rules to beer enthusiasm. Or at least there shouldn't be. It's not a club you have to swear allegiance to. It's a vast lake in which you can either swim or merely dip your toe. For my part after splashing around in the shallow end for far too long, it's time for me to sit on the beach letting the waves lap at my feet.

Or even let the raindrops patter at my shoulder. Bugger it. Where did I put my waterproof jacket?

Review: Red Smith on Baseball

To a fan baseball has many faces, and many images. It is the quintessential all-American sport – from 10-year olds finding their feet in Little League to the stepping stone of the Triple-A level to the big-time of the Major American and National Leagues. 

It is a profitable business, with TV revenue, advertising and sponsorship deals – not to mention payrolls – which put both modern European football and the microcosmic world of Formula One into the shadow creeping across Oracle Park. 

Baseball also has its own culture, its own rituals – some would say it is a religion all of its own. The ghost of the Bambino, Babe Ruth, may have been exorcised from the creaking concrete of Fenway Park, but the Curse of the Goat – where a live goat was thrown from the stands onto the field – still haunts the Cubs, and the Giants franchise has never won a World Series on the west coast. Tradition still dictates in the face of commercialism – there are no shirt or team sponsors – and the game has not changed significantly in its lifetime.

So with such a multi-layered sport, how do you write about it? How do you put down in pen and ink the multiple and complex emotions, feelings and observations of a single game of baseball?

For a baseball journalist, like any sports journalist, there are a few approaches – the basic, emotionless game report; the descriptive and analytical game review; or the instinctive, emotional game reaction. Writing reports and reviews can be taught in night school. Writing like Red Smith’s cannot.

Walter Wellesley Smith was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He started out as a baseball writer in 1929 for the St. Louis Star-Times. In 1936 he moved to Philadelphia – home of the Phillies – and then in 1945 on to the New York Herald Tribune. It was there he wrote his baseball column for the next thirty-seven years. In that time he would cover predominantly the three East-coast teams – the New York Yankees, New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers – and then the NY Mets. His attitudes towards the game ranged from commenting that it was only “dull to dull minds” to his belief that the 90 feet between the bases on the diamond was “the nearest to perfection that man has ever achieved.” 

Such phrases and more are captured in this compilation of the best of his columns between 1945 and 1981. Some detail games to which the modern fan will pay little heed, as they would a pre-war game of football or a pre-F1 motor race. Others catalogue those moments baseball fans will talk about forever. But what of the casual, wrong-side-of-the-Atlantic fan?

I went through a somewhat unforeseen evolution from F1 fan to baseball fan after I stumbled upon it twenty three years ago, when bouts of insomnia forced me into watching what I thought was a quaint US version of rounders live on late-night Channel 5. I have had to learn baseball from TV. I’ve had to work out how runs are scored, what happens when a batter fouls a ball on a 3-2 count, what RBI and ERA and GB mean, who the hell Babe Ruth was... 

I could have done with Red by my bed. This is a multi-layered book with many faces and many images. Appropriately. It is an anthology first and foremost, celebrating the journalism of Red Smith. It is a history book, charting the story of baseball through “the game’s greatest years.” It is a reference book, citing the time when the Giants and Dodgers had a three-thousand mile road trip they never returned from, as well as the births and deaths of clubs, franchises, players and dreams. 

But above all, Red tells us a massive, continuous 36-year story. The individual chapters are vignettes – snapshots of life as lived by the inhabitants of Baseball Land – where the ghosts of Cooperstown and Wrigley Field play dice with the multi-millionaire glitzy primadonnas pinpricking their way onto the diamonds. The poetic, descriptive nature in which he illustrates the scenes being played out before his ever-enthusiastic bespectacled eyes is reminiscent of bible verses or song lyrics or passages of the Mabinogion.

However the poetry isn’t always serene and celebratory. One such episode stands out above all else. In 1957 the National League president described the removal to the West coast of not only New York’s oldest club – the Giants – but also their arch-rivals, the Dodgers from over the river in Brooklyn, as demonstrating that his league was “a progressive organisation…” At which point Red “asked permission to leave the room”. In a post-season column he scathingly labelled it a “despoliation of two…valuable franchises” and an “abject surrender of the world’s greatest market”, the “boldest step backward”. He didn’t stop there, in the very next paragraph describing the move in such choice terms as “unrelieved calamity”, “grievous loss to the city”, a “shattering blow to the prestige of the National League” and “an indictment of the men operating the clubs and … governing the city”. 

Red’s writing was not only that of a baseball commentator, but that of a baseball fan. He openly deplored the uprooting of the Giants and the Dodgers – as modern writers deplored the cold-blooded execution that has put an end to Major League baseball in Montreal this year. Fifteen days earlier, at the end of the regular season, his final New York Giants match column was headed with the title “A Wake for the Giants”. He wrote it as he would an obituary, poring over details such as how the Giants were the oldest club in New York, how they had come to be named and reminiscing – with copious quotes – about their ballpark on 110th Street and one of their more “exuberant” managers James Mutrie. 

This mourning column and its snarling, indignant partner were examples of the passion Red had for the game, and how he wasn’t afraid to let the world – and the club owners – know how these monumental decisions were being received. Red’s writing was quintessential, word-on-the-street, voice of the fan journalism. They were the thoughts of the man in the stands, the child with the mitt, the girlfriend of the ball fan, the mother of the relieving pitcher, the father of the third baseman.

The book is packed with World Series reports; each year’s as lovingly crafted a portrait of the deciding game as the next. The natural ability of Red’s writing is never forced. Pennants, divisional series and championships are painted like a Manet masterpiece, with enough subtlety for the casual reader, enough detail for reference, and some exquisite splashes of colour. Red seems to allow the intense emotion of big postseason games to spur him to new heights in idiom and simile – to push the boundaries of textual construction and embellishment. 

One such example – perhaps his stand-out moment, perhaps his most famous phrase – came in 1951. Bobby Thomson hits a home run in the final inning to help Red’s beloved New York Giants overhaul the Brooklyn Dodgers – their bitter rivals – 5-4 in the final game of the three-match series which decided the National League pennant. Red leads his column, headed “Last Chapter”, with the following words:

"Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

He then went on to describe, in his storytelling mode, how the Giants had fought back from 4-1 down in the bottom of the ninth inning. And how they had then gone on to win. Finally, how the emotional fraughtness of tying the outright championship with Brooklyn, the see-saw of the three-match playoff, was lost in the euphoria of victory, and how it tasted as sweet off the field as on. Fifty years later, I found myself seeing that episode in baseball history as clear as the satellite feed from ESPN.

Sportswriters of the quality of Red Smith’s ilk are not prevalent in today’s media. If you want to know how to bring your favourite (or favorite if it’s American) sport to life, then read someone like Red. And I’ll leave it up to you how you choose to read this book. Use it as reference, use it as a historical archive.

Or you could curl up with a hotdog and a soda and let a talented writer spin you off to the world of the diamond.