Somehow I never did feel at home quaffing pints of foaming euphoria
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 07 August 1999
I am not, of course, the child of a beer-drinking people. Why one drink should be more culturally inimical than any other - we have no difficulty with Ribena, for example, or Rose's Lime Juice, or Lucozade laced with syrup of figs - I have never fully understood. Presumably it's a manual thing. Everyone in my family has palely fragile hands, suitable only for playing the violin, writing scriptural exegesis, or pointing the finger of doom. None of us has a hand strong enough to hold a glass of beer, let alone to tilt it.
Nor are we at our most natural standing in circles. How do you expostulate if you're standing in a circle with a beer glass clutched to your heart? Every time you voice a disagreement on a point of principle it's crash! - not just beer on the floor but fine splinters of glass in your chest. And that's you flat on your back in a tweezering ward for a month, sipping Rose's Lime Juice.
The blame is not all ours. Yes, we may be unfit for beer, but beer was never brewed with us in mind. I went looking, at the Great British Beer Festival, for an ale that wasn't hostile; forget the taste, forget the alcohol content, just something whose name didn't put the fear of God into me. And what did I find? Parson's Porter. Curate's Choice. Rector's Light Relief. Bishopswood Bitter. Bishop's Tipple. Bishop's Finger. White Bishop. Bishop's Farewell. Bellringer. Choir Porter. Augustinian Ale. Great Crusader. Pig's Ear. Notice anything missing? Exactly! Where was Rabbi's Renunciation? Shammes's Snifter? Yente's Wallop? Barmitzvah Boy? Salt Beef Sandwich? Tocheslecker's Quencher?
Cain's Dark Mild - that was the nearest I came to finding a beer suitable for me. You take my point: beer is not only generically gentile, it is root-and-branch ecclesiastical. They might not have been aware of it, those tubby troglodytic quaffers with beer badges on their caps, but they are in a direct line of descent from Friar Tuck. Go to Munich for the Oktoberfest and you think you're at a Dionysia. Pure paganism. At Olympia they celebrate that rollicksome never-never period in the history of the English church - when drunken abbots roamed the countryside tupping prioresses and sportive piss-pot prelates dispensed alms. Now whatever else you might want to say about paganism, from a Jewish perspective it has the advantage of not being a contradictory faith. Pagans thought differently, that was all. They weren't quarrelling specifically with us. And at least we were in the vicinity when paganism was happening. Which is more than can be said for that idealised Friar Tuck phase of pre-Cromwellian English Christianity. There is a theory that the Sheriff of Nottingham was Jewish, but otherwise you could count the number of us in residence on the fingers of one hand. We're friends again now, but the fact remains that in its very nomenclature beer willy-nilly commemorates the historical absence of my people.
Can you wonder that we made a beeline for lager when bar refrigeration finally made it possible? It sounded so much more inclusive for one thing. No more Prebendary's Noggin or Torquemada's Night-cap. At last, names we felt at home with. Tuborg. Grolsch. Schofferhofer. Carlsberg. Why, my best friend was a Carlsberg. It's impossible to over-emphasise the cultural significance of this. If Stuart Carlsberg could have a lager named after him there was a chance for Saul Seigleman as well. And Menachem Casofsky. Funny the brewers never twigged it. Had there been a feather- light pilsener called Casofsky on sale in Manchester in1959 the drinking habits of an entire people might have changed forever.
Lager was less forbidding to look at too, and you could disguise the taste of it with Rose's Lime Juice, which was the true reason most of us drank it. "Make that a lager and feel free with the lime," we called across the bar. But really what we wanted to say was "Make that a Rose's Lime Juice and go easy with the lager."
We didn't aspire to drunkenness. Another curious cultural difference. At Olympia I watched circles of Womble-like real-alers throwing beer into one another's faces in order to attain the condition of leglessness all together and all at once. Single drinkers simply did it to themselves. A carefully selected pint of Merlin's Magic (4.3 per cent, 1044) brewed by Moor of Somerset, and slosh! - pissed on the instant. This is a species of satisfaction foreign to my people. You know your Proverbs. "Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts." Alcohol is for the dying, in other words, and for those that remain only that they might be comforted in their loss.
This applies with equal justice to the ceremony of circumcision. You all need a drink then, the boychild no less than the spectators. But whisky's the thing. You certainly don't shove a pint of Betty Stog's Bitter (4.0 per cent, 1040) into the hand of an eight-day-old baby who's just lost his foreskin. Not in a civilised faith, you don't.
Howard Jacobson's new novel `The Mighty Walzer' is published by Jonathan Cape on 26 August
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